The Season of Fire and Water

Image: Josh Ross

People loved the salmon the way fire loves grass
And the blaze loves the darkness of the sea.
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass”

By Annika Alexander-Ozinskas, SYRCL’s Education Coordinator

Fires have turned the sky above Nevada City into a sea of smoke in one week. Like sailors lost in fog, we wait in uncertainty, wondering how much longer and what we will find when it clears. We were so close to relief: perched on the edge of the end of summer dryness at its worst, and the beginning of the rainy season. Almost there, where fire meets water.

This is also the time of year when Fall-Run Chinook Salmon return to the Yuba River from the Pacific Ocean, making their way up through the Bay Delta and the Sacramento to their spawning grounds, and when SYRCL kicks off our Salmon Tour program, bringing local students down the river to learn about this miraculous native species. Pre-mining and pre-dams, the Yuba would “run red” when the salmon returned in numbers estimated in the hundreds of thousands, bringing much-needed nutrients to people, animals, and plants alike. At that time, anadromous fish had access to over 210 miles of rich spawning ground in all three forks of the Yuba. Now, salmon who make it to the Lower Yuba River have just 24 miles of degraded spawning habitat below the impediment of Englebright Dam. They number in the hundreds to low thousands, but at least they are surviving. Restoration projects planned by SYRCL and our partners, improved flows during spawning and rearing season, and gravel injection below Englebright will help sustain these dwindling populations. And so, as in years past, this week SRYCL prepared to observe, celebrate and educate about the return of the salmon.

This past weekend, a group of 20 Volunteer Naturalists gathered in excitement under the Highway 20 bridge and set off down the Lower Yuba to see the salmon. We passed 2 redds, or salmon nests, guarded by females. At one point, a large, sleek body of dark Chinook passed under my raft and I squealed in delight. I was later told that someone saw a carcass towards the bank. But… that’s it. We stopped for lunch above ‘Salmon Alley,’ where we usually stop with students to watch salmon spawn in the shallow pools. This year, there were just 2 abandoned redds in the calm and eerily empty water below us. Where was the action from years past?

There are a few possible explanations. Chinook have a life span of 3-5 years. This year’s adults have spent their entire lives in severe drought, from 2012-2015, so their rate of survival from egg to spawning adult has probably been much lower than even the meager natural rate of 0.05%. The Yuba River Management Team counts Chinook as they make their way over Daguerre Point Dam, but technical issues this year have delayed an accurate count. What we know is that rather than thousands of fish, there may have just been a few hundred so far. There is hope that the numbers will still rise this year. Because of winter flooding, salmon may have waited longer than usual in the Delta for water levels to recede before swimming upriver. Just like the rest of California, the salmon are perched on the edge of dry and wet, where drought meets flood.

After lunch, we loaded into our rafts and prepared to continue downriver. That’s when the wind kicked up. We suddenly found ourselves paddling just to stay in place, let alone make it to our takeout at Sycamore Ranch. In good spirits and good company, we paddled through small white caps on the Lower Yuba. Veteran volunteers commented that they had never seen anything like it. New volunteers laughed and imagined sailing up into the headwaters. As we gazed back at the foothills, we watched the air fill with dust; not knowing that this was only a prequel to the hazy days that followed.

Because of the fires, our first week of Salmon Tours were cancelled. The parks where we usually take boats out were closed. However, we are rescheduling some of the tours, and looking forward to yet another season of adventure and education on the Yuba. As I wait, I have been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s words about the native people of the west coast, and about their tradition of burning the headlands along the coast as one ceremony among many to call the salmon back from the sea. Kimmerer writes, “The burning prairie billows smoke, roiling white with undersides of salmon pink in the darkness. They mean for it to say, Come, come, flesh of my flesh. My brothers. Come back to the river where your lives began.” I can’t help but compare the ceremonial fires of the past with the wildfires of today. Then, some native groups would watch the river run red with salmon for four days as a way of welcoming them back and showing gratitude before they took the ceremonial “first fish.” Today, we stare into water that is clear, and skies that are full. Someday soon, inevitably, the skies will clear. But we must work, as individuals, organizations, and a society, to bring back the salmon.

The rains are late, the water low, the forest trails turned dusty and dry and covered in a steady rain of yellow spruce needles.
The prairies up on the headland are crisp and brown, without even fog to moisten them.

Far out, beyond the pounding surf, beyond the reach of canoes, in the inky darkness that swallows light,
they move as one body, a school, turning neither east nor west until they know.

– Robin Wall Kimmerer

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