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Salmon hater takes closer look - in Redmond stream

Lisa Schnellinger
Special to The Seattle Times

(reprinted here with permission)

Call me a salmon crank. I hate salmon. The taste is way overrated; I'd rather eat halibut. As a journalist and a citizen, salmon stories bore me - all that bureaucratic wrangling and those endless public meetings. I'm sick of hearing about them.

But I have this friend who's really into salmon. Adrienne is a nature writer, and she writes beautiful essays about all kinds of dull topics, including fish. I told her what a colleague said about why he avoided salmon stories: "Swim spawn swim spawn. Salmon do the same damn thing every year." Adrienne got a pained look on her face.

That's how I end up spending a gorgeous autumn Saturday - a perfect day for a remote hike in the mountains - driving with Adrienne to the parking lot of a business along a busy four-lane road in Redmond.

Avondale Road is a gross suburban stretch, with asphalt, trailer parks and gas stations. But tucked along it are blue signs with a picture of a fish and the words, "This stream is in your care."

Classic Nursery and Landscape Co. has a trail with signs identifying plants and trees and several viewing spots along Bear Creek.

I can't believe what I see and feel.

Red. The fish are red. A muted autumn red, moving in dreaming shadows. So much more strangely lovely than the plain silver skin of a healthy ocean fish. In their death throes the sockeye blossom into poisonous pink and fungal gray and green. Their bodies refract into rubies under water.

And they're big - two feet long or more, thicker than my arm. They seem so much bigger here, each one framed by the narrow stream as they thrust and shimmy their way past rocks and fallen branches. The males bulge with a hump, the females are filled with thousands of eggs. Where the water is shallowest, the roughness of their skin and corrosion of their fins stand out in the air.

And they're vicious, raw with aggression. They thrash and snap their jaws, exposing a white mouthful of fangs. Not just the males, who fight off other males, but the females, who ward off other females from their nesting sites.

Sixteen years in Seattle, and this is the first time I've seen wild salmon. I've watched lions eating a giraffe in Africa, but these ordinary salmon thrill me. Their primitive beauty is so abrupt and stark that I get tears in my eyes.

The splashing of their urgent bodies makes a sharp, clear sound against the backdrop of passing engines. Bear Creek is not exactly National Geographic, but sockeye are very real wildlife. All the more real because they're in an ugly, developed area.

I understand now what Adrienne told me about why she finds these fish interesting enough to write about:

"Most nature writing has been about going far out from the city . . . and protecting the last great places. But it's important to understand nature is with us at all times. It thrives even in places like this."

Imagine you're sick - dying, in fact. And very hungry. You haven't eaten in days, maybe weeks. Your liver and kidneys have shut down, and your body is slowly poisoning itself, and parasites are taking over your skin.

But you are also full of hormones.

You are so driven that you will dodge big nets and maneuver through the Ballard Locks, swim across Lake Washington and battle up a stream that's sometimes too swift and too warm, where dogs and raccoons wait to attack. When you find your partner, you will deck anyone who even flirts with her.

Like you, all your children will be orphans.

I'm mesmerized by a salmon pair as they undulate side by side, dancing in their bonding ritual. We love the wild places because they are in all of us. Says Adrienne, who drives out here twice a week during the three or four months of spawning season to count sockeye and Chinook for the county: "These fish have been around for 10,000 years, in one form or another . . . They're filled with a very fierce and very primal wildness.

"I want to protect them not just for environmental or biological reasons, but to protect the human imagination."

Lisa Schnellinger is a free-lance writer and editor in Seattle. Her e-mail address is Lisa@EditingInternational.com.

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