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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Smell of Home

Air Date: Week of

Essayist Robert Leo Heilman tells us of a favorite summer swimming hole, a place where spring Chinook salmon pause in their long journey home. Robert Leo Heilman's latest book is "Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country."


CURWOOD: Two hundred miles up the South Umpqua River, the water pours through a narrow channel between gray basalt rock faces into a deep, still pool. It's a favorite summer swimming home for essayist Robert Leo Heilman, and it's a place where spring chinook salmon pause in their long journey home.

HEILMAN: The salmon know the smell of home, the scent of jasper, basalt, porphyry, quartz, agate, and tufa, carried by the waters from the gravel beds they were hatched in. Patiently, they work their way against the current, returning home from the Aleutian Islands. Here, they wait out the long summer months when the river slows and the water grows warmer, never eating, living on the fats stored in their huge bodies.

On summer mornings you can see them from the cliffs above, silvery ghost shapes in the sun-dappled waters below, moving in a slow, solemn circle dance. They are a bruised and battered lot, bearing the marks of their passage. Old wounds from seal bites, fish hooks, nets, and the scraping of rocks encountered in the riffles of the home stretch. Their flesh, once firm from the Arctic feeding grounds, grows soft in the warm river water. Fuzzy white patches appear on their scaly sides. The mark of infection and a sign of approaching death.

They are prisoners here for a white, holding in a handful of deeper pools along the upper reaches of the river, rising in the cool quite morning hours, and hiding in the depths when the afternoon brings heat and the campers and bathers who splash about on the surface. Evening comes and the humans leave. Black-tailed deer come down to drink. The firs and cedars cast long shadows across the pool. Silence returns to their watery world with the night.

There's a quite joyfulness to their languid circling: not the exuberance of their leaping struggle through whitewater on their way up here, but a deeper joy made of patience, survival, and expectation. Their long journey is nearly over, the uncounted thousands of miles behind them.. Soon, the rains will come and they'll swim upriver on the rising waters, as their ancestors have always done, to dig their nests on gravel bars and lay their eggs in the waters of home.

CURWOOD: Writer Robert Leo Heilman's latest book is Over Story Zero: Real Life in Timber Country.



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