National Geographic : 1990 Jul
VEN PEOPLE who have no interest in catching salmon for fun, profit, or food will gather by the hundreds just to watch their spawning runs. The fish announce the coming of fall and, more than that, the comforting resil iency of nature. Although the wild salmon's numbers have been greatly diminished by dam construction, logging, pollution, and irriga tion schemes, millions of the salmon still arrive with the seasons, pushing up the Columbia and the Skeena, the Sacramento and the Bella Coola, the Yukon and the Amur. When I arrived on Sakhalin, there were so many fish at the mouth of Ochepukha River it looked as if you could walk across on their backs. People splashed after them with little nets, old wooden crates, even their bare hands. An elderly man in a blue sweater, standing knee-deep in the swift stream, held his hands under the water waiting for the fish to come. He turned to the boy wading next to him and offered a bit of fatherly advice: "Relax, be patient," he said. I thought of home and the time 33 years ago when my father took our family to watch the Indians catch salmon for the last time at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, before it was flooded by The Dalles Dam. The men strained to net huge shiny salmon out of the river. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had smoked a peace pipe here with the Indians and admired their catch 150 years before; then, as on Sakhalin, the fish came so fast and thick the people could harvest only a fraction of them. My guide, Valery Efanov of the Pacific Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanog raphy, told me this salmon run was the biggest in 115 years. "We can't harvest them all." As he spoke, I watched the salmon pushing upstream to a point where a net blocked the river, too warm for the fish due to a drought. Thwarted, they turned back, milled about, and tried again and again. A few rolled up onto the sand with their mouths open, gills heaving, exhausted, pointing home. "We'll open the river tonight, when it is cooler," said Dr. Efanov. His daughter Nastij leaned over and gently pushed a few back into the water. JERE VAN DYK, a native of Washington State, has written about the Brahmaputra River and East Harlem for the magazine. Seattle photographer NATALIE FOBES studied salmon while on a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is her second NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC assignment. Before the first people are supposed to have crossed over the Bering land bridge, the huge salmon runs sustained ancient tribes all along the Pacific coast of Siberia. At Ushki, a dig located on the Kamchatka Peninsula, archae ologists have unearthed salmon bones among the remains of communal living sites 11,000 years old. What led the scientists to look for salmon bones at Ushki? "There was a spawning ground there then," said Nikolai N. Dikov, an archaeolo gist with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, "and there is a spawning ground there now." The ancients may have gathered at the Ushki site to ask the gods for a plentiful run. "Early people crossed the land bridge," Dr.