by Dave Barrett
My late great Uncle John always said, “There are three things you don’t talk about in a bar. Religion. Politics. And Salmon. . .”
Even as far inland as North Idaho, I’d been raised upon stories of the great salmon runs before the dams. “Before the Dams” was a catch-phrase created when the banks of Couer d’ Alene burned Day-Glo red and green in the fall. “Before Grand Coulee came along. . .” Uncle John used to say. “The hearts and veins of these lakes and rivers burned red with the blood and fury of spawning salmon. I’m told it was truly a sight to behold: like Monday Night football, 4th of July and an electric light show all rolled into one. . .”
I was ten years old when I witnessed one of these shows for myself.
I’d been shipped out to spend the summer with some cousins, who lived along the Clearwater River near Lewiston. The Clearwater is a tributary of the Snake and, in those days, it still hosted one of the largest sockeye runs east of the Cascade Range. For years I’d been hearing stories of how my Uncle Albert harvested the fish with a pitchfork; how my cousins Bill and Ted “clobbered the critters” with boulders and baseball bats; of the “infernal and unGodly stench of their spent and rotting carcasses.”
All that August I’d awoken at the crack of dawn and walked down to the river’s edge to see if the salmon had “moved in” during the night. (From Uncle Albert I’d learned that salmon mostly moved at night. . . and I remember lying there, in the coffin-like dark and quiet of the country night, thinking I could actually ‘feel’ the salmon moving into their spawning reds, the way you might feel an intruder entering your home.) All month this had been my morning ritual. And every morning . . . I’d grumbled my way back from the river to the chicken yard to gather eggs for breakfast. Aunt Mabel said she didn’t know what was up. Every year the salmon were showing up later and later in the season. Uncle Albert said it was the dams and the fish ladders on the Snake that was slowing them down. Bill and Ted—grinning and patting their baseball bats—said ‘the slimers’ had gotten wind of what was coming their way.
Then, on Labor Day weekend, the morning before I was to return home, it happened. I remember it was an overcast morning: clouds hanging so low I couldn’t see the mountains in the distance. Thunder and lightning had swept through my bedroom window all night. I remember tip-toeing through the house . . . carrying my boots . . . not putting them on until I was out of the back stoop, past the kitchen door. (The last thing I wanted -- if I should be so lucky as to see the salmon-- was Bill and Ted standing beside me, pelting the fish with rocks.) I had to climb down a mess of boulders to get a view of the river bottom. I remember the reflection of the red leaves from the sumac bushes along the opposite bank seeming more marked than usual. A dozen times I’d mistaken the shimmering of these leaves for schools of sockeye. Then, reaching the big granite boulder that I’d singled out as my observation deck, I saw it. Beneath the red of these Sumacs was another red. A deeper red. The red Uncle John had spoken of. The red of my dreams and stream-side visions. A red of 10,000 years.
Up and down.
One side to the other.
Far as the eye could see.
Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Gravel and Cowboy Jamboree. He teaches writing at the University of Montana and is at work on a new novel.