The creek tumbles down misty canyons of the coast range, winding its way to the sea. It passes through mossy corridors of maple and cedar, roaring over boulders, sliding across down timber, then pouring into green pools that are smooth as glass. My wife and I were exploring the site of an old forest camp my brother and I had visited many years ago. The trees arched in a vaulted canopy over a campfire ring and a fishermen’s trail. It was good to see the creek was unchanged, still flowing clear and cold. I felt the moving reach of memories in this clearing next to the creek, and a subtle beckoning that bordered on instinct.
Look! My wife exclaimed, pointing to the creek. I drew up alongside and focused on a shadow holding steady under the rippling surface. It was a lone steelhead, a sleek form gliding easily into the current. Blending with the graveled bottom, it was perfectly at home. I could see its steely jaw set firmly against the sometimes cruel challenges of nature. Yet the telltale white flesh on the fins of the steelhead said the time had come for this noble creature. Like many fish that must return to the place of their birth, this solitary denizen had lived his final chapter. How romantic and dutiful its life had been, of countless adventures of survival in years spent out at sea. Only his mate would know this story, told in the dance of progeneration.
The muscular steelhead wavered slightly against the water’s flow. Within this pristine grotto in the forest, he would guard this gravel bed with his last energies, ensuring a future for a generation he would never see.
I wondered what manner of awareness had befallen him, even as the light of life slowly dimmed. Was there peace, a feeling of fulfillment, a sense of duty? Perhaps an echo of eternity. Soon this solitary steelhead in the coastal creek will drift away in the current, its unseeing eyes turned toward destiny. In the spring the cycle would begin again.
The spirit of the native Oregonian, and of all those who embrace the enduring wisdom of conservation, can be likened to the iconic salmon and steelhead that gracefully persevere through storm, drought, and flood. There is a strength tested by time, forged with discipline and sacrifice. Yet there is much that we can learn from these proud creatures, and more that we can do for Oregon’s waterways and the ecosystems that dwell therein.