Saturday, October 6, 2018

Prom Night In Alaska

It was like being a chaperone at the junior prom.

K.C. and Scott let us get our breath after Denali, served us some delicious chunks off her 286-pound halibut (what the hell, Alaska?), and then walked us a mile or so into the woods near their house. Where, instead of terminating at what would have been a perfectly acceptable mushroom or salamander, we stood on the banks of a wide, graveled, braided river and watched sockeye salmon churn upriver in ardent anticipation. Thousands. Thousands of cherry-colored fish on their way to a very important date.

Cherry-colored. Why? They start out blue and white like any sensible ocean-going fish, but then, as the urge strikes, they turn bright red and their heads turn green and the males get long in the nose and develop a hump; make of that what you will. Why green heads? Because nothing goes better with red. It is possible there is a more involved explanation than that but beauty has its purpose.

The involved explanations would also have you believe that redness indicates fitness and salmon choose each other on that basis, as though they're conducting a job interview, but what else is beauty? You might as well say they choose the beauty. After all, we do too. Sockeye salmon, like other salmon, get the pigments in their flesh from what they eat, primarily nice pink krill and the like. That's also why tomatoes, and your better flamingos, aren't white. Carotenoids. You spend a few years in the ocean eating what nature intended and you're going to look really appealing on the plate, not that that's much of an evolutionary driver.

So when things feel just right, and hormones start acting up, and you're a sockeye, you turn red and green and humpy. Trust me, there is nothing weird you can't blame on hormones. You turn red because those terrific pigments you hoisted from your dinner start to move toward the skin under your scales, and your scales are transparent.

I've wondered about the nature of the salmon's motivation to spawn before. Sure, we fling around phrases like "biological imperative" and we know that whatever scoots them along gets rewarded in progeny. But still. It's not like anyone sticks anything in anyone else. Or even, really, touches. It's hard to imagine the draw. Until you remember new love.

And no one has much of an explanation for that. Someone catches your notice and sparks your flesh, and there's a quake within you, and you are drawn inexorably to that person, pulled right across the room to that person, and nothing is more important than closing the physical gap between you, and who can reason that out? Is there any point in trying? You are in such thrall you will offer up the secrets of your heart. You will vibrate the silky web. You will show your reddest meat.

The biggest, reddest males have the most success at this business, and get to swim next to their beloved and shoot sperm over her dropped eggs, but sometimes the lesser males get a squirt in too, later, after everyone's gone. Just like at the prom.

We're standing by the punchbowl watching the feints and fumbles and surges and urges. Love and beauty, that's what we're watching.

36 comments:

  1. And isn't that really what love is all about? It's a vague memory, but it is still there.

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    1. I can only assume it feels exactly that way to a salmon. Must. Get. Closer.

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  2. For humans, the biggest, reddest males get to be in the Senate, Supreme Court or White House.

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    1. Sharp knife and a nice dill cream sauce, and...

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  3. I just finished listening to a Robert Sapolsky Book called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, about the effects of stress, etc. They were trying to figure out why salmon die after spawning. The actual mechanism that causes them to die. They removed the adrenal glands of some salmon right after they spawned, and the salmon lived for another year (perhaps unhappily), because their bodies were no longer flooded with stress hormones.

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    1. Well, that's discouraging, considering what Trump's doing to so many of us.

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    2. I know I'm better off without my female hormones. I may not sleep as well, and I may not be as "romantically inclined"... but I seem to think more rationally without them.

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    3. If I have hormones, I don't hear from them anymore. That's just fine with me. And I sleep just fine until I wake up and remember who's president.

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  4. "Braided river": what a lovely and calming visual.

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    1. It's a thing, braided rivers, and not one I made up. I imagine you get them where valleys are flat and wide and gravelly. I know there were a lot in New Zealand when I was there, and I'm guessing they're still there!

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    2. Product of glacier's receding, and the springtime flooding when the snow and ice melts upstream.

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  5. I don't know whether jealousy about the experience of Alaska or your prose moves me most this morning.

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    1. You know I'm most happy to find out I move someone in the morning. Oh wait.

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    2. There's no come-back for this...

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  6. What a gorgeous area. Is that river as shallow as it appears to be? Or did your camera catch the salmon jumping? I did not know they turned colour like that. Amazing.

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  7. I've said it before & I'll say it again, I love the way you write!!

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  8. Purple prose? Thank you.
    Maybe just mostly red with a touch of green.

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  9. I now know a lot more about sock-eye salmon than I ever did before. 286 pound Halibut? Really? That's a lot of fish.

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    1. That's a stupid amount of fish. And they'll eat it all, too, or the 144 pounds they got off of it.

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    2. Halibut harvesting is arduous. You have to troll for them from the bottom of the deeps and haul them up with a block and tackle. In icy, stormy seas, naturally. But you don’t have to do it by yourself and rather infrequently. So infrequently, in fact, that, by the time you need another one, you may have forgotten how much fun halibut fishing isn’t. I used to like a light beer batter for halibut.

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    3. Since Scott is a chef, he probably has 365 ways of preparing it, and they'll all be good. I remember pulling up a halibut or a flounder--some kind of flatfish--when I was ocean-fishing for salmon. I was all excited thinking I had a salmon and the captain rushed over and grabbed my line for a couple seconds (long enough to feel what was on the end of the line) and sighed. When I got it close to the boat he grabbed the line again, no net, and hauled it up and it went splat on the deck. I didn't know WHAT it was. I thought someone had stepped on it.

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  10. Thanks for all the photo's you've posted recently. Brought back many memories of my years up there. Sockeye (AKA Reds) have become the dominant fish we see from Alaska. Once Kings were, but the decline of that type of salmon has meant the price, when you can find them, are out of most people's reach.

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    1. Oh, also the largest Halibut I saw up there in the 70's was around 350 pounds, caught out of Homer at the end of the Kenai Peninsula.

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    2. That's a Big Bottom Fish! (Just wanted to work that in.)

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  11. I will leave just a very brief comment. WOW! Maybe on my bucket list.

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  12. You should go to Alaska a lot. Your writing about it just sings!!!

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    1. I've now visited in September and February. I know which one I'd recommend.

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  13. Thanks for the wonderful share. Now we are now educated with the sockeye salmon. Just amazing what they have to go through. Love the beautiful photos. Have a great rest of your week. Now we want to visit Alaska.
    World of Animals

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