Whispers. Rumors. The creek is alive with them. “Have you seen any salmon?” “No, but earlier there were three near Leo Cronin, a female and two males.” “Where are the fish?” “I missed a jumping jack by one minute at Roy’s Pools.” We walk with eyes fixed on the milky water, “It’s shallower than you think. If they’re in there we’ll see them.”Folks passing by, back from Peter’s Dam, “Seen any?” “Nope. You?” Binoculars, polarized lenses, eyes, hearts, aimed the creek.
Shafter Bridge. “Somebody just saw a jack jumping.” We hurry. “Did you see one jump?” “No, but we heard that fifteen minutes ago somebody something.” “What? I don’t think I heard you there at the end.” “Some guy had a permit to be down at the creek. Saw a fish fifteen minutes ago.” “Oh?” Disappointment. Eager, though, the bridge crowded with people. “That’s something.” “Fish in the system.” “Must have been a water district guy.” “Fifteen fish.” “What? I heard fifteen minutes.”
The fish whisperer drives by. We all turn, quiet. His truck turns the corner, disappears; the rumors and whispers begin again.
Read that a jack jumped at Roy’s Pools this morning so I go there next. Tracking down the jumpers, the leapers, the fresh fish come to spawn. Standing near the road we get to talking, a biologist with his camera and his knowledge of water. But talking eyes down, glued to the plunges. “A photographer saw fifteen fish below Inkwells.” He sees one leap into the second pool but I miss it. I run, I skip to the bridge. I won’t miss the next leap. It’s a small jack. My first jumping fish, I hope. It’s what I came to see, need to see. And there it is. My heart pounds. He misses. Just misses the opening and hits the metal lip. Back down. Three minutes later he tries again, this time almost making it, his aim better this time but the force of the water doesn’t let him slip all the way over the spill. The next nine attempts don’t give us much hope. Agony. He flips himself up onto the sloped cobbled area to the north of the spill, as if the waters below propel him in the wrong direction. The biologist says, “I’ll watch one more attempt. If he doesn’t make it, I leave. I just can’t take it. If I leave I can tell myself he made it.”
I know I’ll stay. I have to see. We wait together. Everybody else has left. Were they heartsick at the thought of failure too, or was it the rain? Then the jack makes a perfect leap just over the lip and hits the water swimming, disappears into the dark water. We yell, high five. “Bravo! Keep swimming, Jack.” We introduce ourselves then, say goodbye.
Ecstatic, that’s me. In love with that coho jack, with his brethren. Why would a fish throw itself repeatedly into a torrent of water, or onto a berm or into a wall or a rock until it no longer has the strength to try again? What makes you drive up and down the creek on a cold rainy day? Is it survival? Love? Beauty? Something in the pit of your stomach telling you that an ancient race lives among us; that right now they’re in trouble? Right now, who would I be if I didn’t do something, at least go out and cheer them upstream? “Please keep coming back, salmon. Don’t die out on my watch.”
I see the horse whisperer in his old yellow truck. I don’t know him, but we know each other: we seekers of salmon. I stop, roll down my window. I tell him the story of the jack. He tells of another jack at the Inkwells, one who didn’t make it. He believes the fifteen below Inkwells will wait for an easier day to leap up. Smiling at the thought of more fish coming up, I drive off to see the merganser I heard was at the lake. Whispers. Rumors. Who says there aren’t people of the salmon anymore?