Stewards and Leapers
By Patricia Vigderman

Ballard Locks, in northwest Seattle, were built in 1917. They were constructed to make boatable the passage from Lake Washington into Puget Sound. From the point of view of the salmon that used the passage as a way to get back to where they once belonged--and thence to spawn--this route was already perfectly navigable. The engineers who built the locks were aware of this and not unacquainted with the idea of stewardship, so they built a salmon ladder beside the huge wooden gateways.

The salmon, though, didn't catch on to being stewarded. Instead of using the ladder, they waited with the boats until the gates opened. Then they milled around in a crush of fish flesh while the locks filled, and continued upstream. In 1976 the ladder was rebuilt and this time the fish got the point. Signs saying No Fishing were then posted to warn off the less stewardly who came to watch the salmon make their now cooperative (and tempting) way home.

Salmon are born in fresh water and make their way after a year or so to the ocean. At around six years of age, they abandon their aimless pottering around the Pacific and, against current and common sense, turn back to the place they were born. (This madness is associated with mating, so perhaps it is not entirely unmatched elsewhere in the universe.) They are undaunted by the cubic tonnage of water they must confront. They are role models, suggested the friend who sent me to see them, for the weary of heart. "If they can face that," she said, "I can get through another day."

The day I went to see then, I was indeed a little weary of heart. The sky was overcast, my life seemed likewise. As I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the locks, however, there was a sudden movement in the water below me. My heart jumped; the water was full of fish doing the same . I hurried to the fish ladders where salmon by the thousands were streaming against the cascading waters of Lake Washington.

Not all of them were big leapers. Some slipped beneath the waterfalls that lead from pool to pool up the ladder. But many threw themelves, arching and flipping into the air, often clearing not only the waterfall but the stone railing of the next level. One salmon leapt so high she rested for an instant on a concrete ledge before falling back a dozen feet into the pool. She left behind on that parapet one orange egg, knocked out of her body by the force of her flight.

The railings along the pools were lined with people as transfixed as I. They leaned over, staring into the water. A child cried out in surprise; a teenager stood silent, holding his skateboard by the front wheels. When the salmon who left the egg did her twelve-foot dive, she also left behind a woman with her mouth hanging open in the classic pose of astonishment, the lines of her sixty-year-old face recast in awe.

Below water level the fish stewards have build a viewing room. Big glass windows reveal the heavy, graceful bodies, scales glinting, mouths opening and closing, gathering strength for the next jump. If you push a button located below the windows, the disembodied voice of the park service explains the history of the salmon ladder in the thrilling tones appropriate to the mysteries of Science. The part that deals with why exactly the salmon are using the ladder at all, however, begins to lean heavily on words like "awesome," and finally bottoms out as the voice explains that the fish we see before us are impelled by "something deep Within."

My friend was wrong. So much blind purpose does not teach us to persevere, to keep on keeping on. The leap of the salmon is so wild it can only offer us poor stewards one of those sudden shifts in perception that turn effort into a corollary of delight. moving behind the glass, the salmon appear to be in a tank that holds so many cubic feet of Lake Washington. They are not; they are free beasts, shaped to swim and leap. Their streamlined, powerful bodies are not barometers of weariness or lightness; their strange three-chambered hearts pump only to keep them in the leap, this moment of their lives. As mine, in its symmetry of four, does me.

[copyright Patricia Vigderman, 1984; presented here with permission]

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