If you notice in passing this Saturday, May 5, a few people walking the creeks and tributaries of the Russian River basin carrying whole, stiff salmon in their arms, do not be alarmed. Hold your nose and watch. If some of these carriers are children who seem hardly able to bear the weight, don't offer to carry it for them—since the next generation bears the burden of an ecosystem in crises, they can certainly hoist a heavy, lifeless fish.
Yes, the fish they carry are dead, but the odd ritual is not a funeral. Rather, the volunteer scattering of fish carcasses in carefully chosen waterways is an act of hope (and ecosystem replenishment) best understood by viewing the film Salmon: Running the Gauntlet.
Jim Norton, the heart and brains behind the film, is an eloquent advocate for these animals, whose life cycle begins in a stream, moves to the ocean for years, then returns to the home stream for spawning and subsequent death. Survival is nothing short of miraculous, in large part because of what we have done to block their cycle. The most obvious is river-damming, which steals and stills the waters, then hatchery-building, which steals and stills natural acts of reproduction.
You'd think after such an arduous journey that returning salmon would at least get the chance to have a little treat before death—say, a natural mating experience. One hatchery film I've seen claimed that hatcheries are necessary as a "sign of the times." Not so, says Norton, who claims that 150 years of evidence proves dams and hatcheries have not been good for the fish, nor for the ecosystem in which humans blunder about, failing to improve on nature's systems.
In breathtaking scenes above and below water, Norton's film lures us into this mysterious fish's world. Poetic terms such as "fire in cold stone" replace clinical terms, which distance us from nature, as we are submerged in the beauty and pathos of the salmonid life cycle on the Columbia River basin where the movie was filmed. It is not just about that particular system; it is the story of every waterway and how things can still change, how part of the human soul, stilled and stolen by dams and hatcheries, can be restored along with the salmon. Watch this PBS film online. You will be glad, and you'll know why those volunteers will be placing salmon carcasses this weekend.