If you want to get a glimpse of what it's like to be a salmon, try swimming against the current at Astoria's Aquatic Center.

The center has lots of bells and whistles - a big lap pool with six lanes, a giant hot tub, a water slide, plus a play pool that has a walled off section forming a channel, which they refer to as "the river." There's a strong current in "the river" created by water jets, so you can paddle lazily and be swept along its course.

One day when I arrived, the swim team was working out in the lap pool, so I figured I'd swim around in the play pool's somewhat warmer water.

I lolled about, paddling with the current, until I remembered some friends who had installed a small lap pool at their home. I say small, because it was only 15 feet long -but a lap pool all the same because it had powerful jets, adjustable so you could swim in place against a more or less powerful current. I figured I'd try swimming against "the river's" current at the Astoria pool.

Through my goggles I could see a large grate on the bottom of the pool right at the entrance to "the river," my Columbia Bar. If I made it over that, I'd know I was in the river proper. It was an exercise in futility. Swim as I might, I'd get close to the mouth, and then get pushed back again. I couldn't tell if the current had a variable pulse which allowed me to proceed for a while and then push me back or if my own energy and power would build and then flag.

"But not the salmon," I thought. "This would be a snap for them." Compared with my ungainly human body, they're built for the task, for endurance if not speed, and they have a mighty will.

Different runs of salmon enter the rivers at different times. Some runs, like the Nehalem on the Oregon coast, hang offshore in the fall, waiting for the first rains to freshen coastal rivers and undoubtedly increase the current's power. You'd think that would make conditions for travel tougher, but a higher order imperative rules their behavior. First fall rains are probably their signal that conditions are right for laying eggs upstream. Tiny creeks will be fresh with new rain, cooler and full to their banks.

As I paddled toward the grate, I also thought, "At least there is no dioxin, PCBs, or radioactivity in this water. My genetic coding isn't being scrambled by this workout. I don't have to swim past sewage outfalls, or cows dropping manure in my waterway. Pesticides and fertilizers aren't being leached into this pool. And there's no chance that my offspring will be sucked into turbines or pumped up into potato fields made fruitful with water from my river." I thought of all the dangers and threats that we humans have placed along the course of the salmon's return - while I could barely keep up with merely swimming against the current.

I admire the salmon's story because of their apparent courage, persistence, and mystery - the ability to roam the ocean for years and yet return to the same spot where they were born - an automatic task. Of course, I'm anthropomorphizing. A salmon is operating by instinct and is uniquely suited to its task through millennia of development.

To mix some metaphors, salmon are both the "canary in the mineshaft" and an indicator species. Like a canary in a mineshaft, their problems provide an early warning device about deteriorating conditions in a watershed. As an indicator species, their presence signifies the presence of habitat that suits the needs of many other species, including ours.

I've seen salmon spawning only once, chum wriggling and lashing their way up a shallow coastal stream. I've seen them banging their noses against the locks at the Bonneville hatchery, and I've seen them leaping the falls on the Wind River, a height of at least four feet. Except for hatchery returns, it could be only a short time until no one will see those things again. As individuals, many of us care about salmon's survival, but our institutional responses have gone the other way.

Too many people make money doing things everyone knows damage salmon runs, and society as a whole doesn't seem to care. All this I thought about as I paddled against "the river" at the aquatic center.

Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco where she has deep roots in our area's fishing tradition.

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