Field Notes: The end of a year brings many new beginnings

I figured that since many people don’t know my story and how my relationship with salmon has grown, I would share it. I have written how my view of salmon has changed and how it has impacted my own life. Showing people how salmon can impact everything around us is what I do, so I thought it would be nice to let everyone in to my personal reflection. So here it is…

My whole life I had heard of this amazing fish called salmon. Growing up just north of Spokane, I had never seen a salmon, except in the grocery store or on my dinner plate. I didn’t even like “seafood” so it was even rare to see it as my dinner. Salmon have so much history and offer so much to everything that they come in contact with, yet I was oblivious to the species. When I started attending Western Washington University (WWU), I hate to admit it but my oblivious and naïve mind-set remained, and I neglected to learn or appreciate anything to do with this fish. I didn’t want to eat it, I didn’t think they were cute, and I didn’t see the appeal of even fishing for them. So why would I even try to pay attention to salmon? What did salmon give to me?

When I tell people that I saw my first wild salmon when I was 24 years old they always display this shocked expression and are “in-awe” of the fact that I had no experiences with this seemingly miraculous fish. The first time I saw a salmon in the wild was at Chuckanut Creek in Arroyo Park in Whatcom County. I went there on a school field trip fall 2014, not expecting to see any fish on that cold day, especially not a huge (well huge from my perspective) chum salmon. I remember seeing that first fish splash and toss its way up the relatively small creek for such a large fish. It seemed like the chum were far too large to make it up the shallow creek, let alone live in it. I will never forget that moment and didn’t think that salmon would become such a large part of my life.

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Picture taken of the first wild salmon I ever saw

I went through all of my college curriculum in the Environmental Education program at Huxley College in WWU learning bits and pieces about these fish. I learned how they feed everything in the Pacific Northwest and how they are such an essential part of the place I call home. But again, I was still rejecting salmon from my life. I was still brushing them off of my shoulder as if they were a mild inconvenience. By the time I graduated I still couldn’t name the five species of pacific salmon. My knowledge of the fish was still little to none. It wasn’t until I started serving with Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group that I really started to understand this unique and significant species.

When I had my interview at Skagit Fisheries I was asked the question, “So, what do you know about salmon?” “Well”, I replied, “to be honest, I don’t know very much. That being said, it is something that I would like to know more about. I know a lot about land species, both plants and animals, but when it comes to species that live in the rivers, I know almost nothing. They are an indispensable part of the ecosystem here and I would love to learn more about them to enhance my understanding of the local environment”. Because I lacked knowledge about the fish that was most important to the place I was trying to be a part of, I had doubts that I would receive the position. However, to my surprise, I was offered the position as Outreach Associate with this respected non-profit organization. I STILL didn’t know it, even then, that salmon would become such a big part of my life.

Now, a little over two months into my service with Skagit Fisheries, I have learned not only the five species of Pacific salmon and tons of information about them, but I have seen them all in their natural habitat. How lucky I was to start this job during a pink year!? I have extensively hunted for the creeks that each individual species call home, so that I can view all of them in their natural world. I have now snorkeled with sockeye salmon, becoming one with the fish. I’ll never forget the feeling of my suspended body floating in the water as I look to my left and see a huge male sockeye, whose fiery red body and bright green head follow behind his huge hooked nose. Then, when I look to my right and see a smaller, duller, colored salmon, a female, looking for the perfect spot to make her redd. By being within inches of this sunset of fish, watching them interact with each other, my whole perspective on them was changed. While in the water, I was not just an observer of their lives, I had become part of their world (Ariel would be so proud). They were swimming with me and not away from me.

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Me snorkeling with sockeye

I have also now dissected a Chinook and coho salmon in front of public school students for education purposes, and it’s given me a better understanding of how they function. Having to educate people has forced me to gather a greater knowledge of the fish, creating a bond that I never thought would happen. I have learned so much about salmon, but more than that I have learned what they give not only to the environment all around them but also what they give to me. The place that I call home, the forests, mountains, and the land in the Pacific Northwest relies on the salmon that live here. My home wouldn’t exist if they didn’t exist.

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My first dissection

The experiences these fish have given me have expanded my mind and the way that I view not only my environment but the world around me. Salmon fight their entire lives, dodging fisherman’s hooks, bears, eagles, whales, and even other salmon just to live and return home to die. I now respect the salmon here, I don’t reject them. I pull every piece of knowledge I can about them to better understand their being. Humans are still learning more and more about them every day just as I am learning more about them every minute. I can watch them for hours and enjoy every minute of it.

I don’t want my experiences with salmon to stop and I know that they won’t. After my snorkeling adventure with sockeye, I hope to try to snorkel with all five species of salmon in a way that is not encroaching on their space. I want to become one with the habitat, so they feel like I have always been there with them and they feel comfortable enough to realize that I am not the slightest threat to them. I want to continue learning new things about them and teach others all the amazing things that I have learned. I want to give others an experience like mine, where they can create their own bond with this miraculous fish.

So it may seem silly that a fish can change someone’s life long perspective of the world, and maybe that is an overstatement, but these fish have definitely become a huge part of my life. I have transformed from a naïve college student to an educated, constantly evolving adult, and part of that is thanks to the salmon. The memories that I’ve gained from this experience in just four months of my year long term with Skagit Fisheries have shaped my future. I am so excited to see what the salmon have in store for me in the next few months!

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Me with a huge chum carcass we found during a spawner survey I helped with

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