Michener’s description of one of the most remarkable feats of the animal world

James Michener’s Alaska, essential reading for anybody interested in the 49th  state leaves the reader with an exciting and deep understanding of the geologic and human histories of the land whose name comes from the Aleutians’ word for the huge peninsula: Alakshak, which means great lands or peninsula.

In this excerpt, Michener describes one of the greatest stories in the animal kingdom:

East of Juneau, Taku Inlet, a splendid body of water which in Scandinavia would be called a fjord, wound and twisted its way far inland, passing bleak headlands at one time, low hills covered with trees at another. On all sides snow-covered peaks rose in the background, some soaring to more than seven and eight thousand feet.

A notable feature of Taku was the family of powerful glaciers that pushed their snouts right to the water’s edge, where from time to time they calved off huge icebergs which came thundering into the cold waters with echoes reverberating among the hills and mountains. It was a wild, lonely, majestic body of narrow water, and it drained a vast area reaching into Canada almost to the lakes which the Chilkoot miners traversed in 1897 and ’98. To travel upstream in the Taku was to probe into the heart of the continent, with the visible glaciers edging down from much more extensive inland, where the ice cover had existed for thousands upon thousands of years.

Taku Inlet ran mainly north and south, with the glaciers crawling down to the western shore, but on the eastern bank, directly opposite the snout of a beautiful emerald glacier, a small but lively river with many waterfalls debouched, and nine miles up its course a lake of heavenly grace opened up, not large in comparison with many of Alaska’s lakes, but incomparable with its ring of six or, from some vantage points, seven mountains which formed a near-circle to protect it.

This remote spot, which not many visitors, or natives either, ever saw, had been named by Arkadky Voronov, during one of his explorations, Lake Pleiades…

In September 1900 one hundred million extremely minute eggs of the sockeye salmon were deposited in little streams feeding into that lake. They were delivered by female salmon in lots of four thousand each, and we shall follow the adventures of one such lot, and one salmon within that lot.

The sockeye, one of five distinct types of salmon populating Alaskan waters, had been named by a German naturalist serving Vitus Bering. Using the proper Latin name for salmon plus a native word, he called it Oncorhynchus nerka, and the solitary egg of that hundred million whose progress we shall watch will bear that name.

The egg which, when fertilized by milt, or sperm, would become Nerka was placed by its mother in a carefully prepared red, or nest, in the gravelly bottom of a little stream near the lake and left there without further care for six months. It was abandoned not through the carelessness of its parents but because it was their inescapable nature to die soon after depositing and fertilizing the eggs which perpetuated their kind.

The site chosen for Nerka’s red had to fill several requirements. It had to be close to the lake in which the growing salmon would live for three years. The stream chosen must have a gravel bottom so that the minute eggs could be securely hidden; it must provide a good supply of other gravel which could be thrown over the red to hide the incubating eggs; and most curious of all, it had to have a constant supply of fresh water welling up from below at an unwavering temperature of about 47º Fahrenheit and with a supersupply of oxygen.

It so happened that the area surrounding Lake Pleiades had varied radically during the past hundred thousand years, for when the Bering land bridge was open, the ocean level had dropped, taking the lake’s level down with it, and as the different levels of the lake fluctuated, so did its shoreline. This meant that various benches had been established at various times, and Nerka’s mother had chosen a submerged bench which had through the generations accumulated much gravel of a size that salmon preferred.

The supply of constant upwelling water, like an ancient river, came from subterranean roots…

emerging from deep in the roots of the surrounding mountains, surged up through the gravels of that sunken bench, providing the rich supply of oxygen and constant temperature that kept both the lake and its salmon vital.

So for six months, his parents long dead, Nerka in his minute egg nestled beneath the gravel while from below flowed this life-giving water. It was one of the most precise operations of nature—perfect flow of water, perfect temperature, perfect hiding place, perfect beginning for one of the most extraordinary life histories in the animal kingdom. And one final attribute of Lake Pleiades could be considered the most remarkable of all, as we shall see six years later: the rocks which lined the lake and the waters which flowed into it from the submerged rivulets carried minute traces—perhaps one in a billion parts—of this mineral that, with the result that Lake Pleiades had a kind of lacustrine fingerprint which would differentiate it from any other lake or river in the entire world.

Any salmon born, as Nerka would soon be, in Lake Pleiades would bear with him always the unique imprint of his lake. Was this memory carried in his bloodstream, or in his brain, or in his olfactory system, or perhaps in a group of these attributes in conjunction with the phases of the moon or the turning of the earth? No one knew. One could only guess, but that Nerka and Lake Pleiades on the western shore of Alaska were indissolubly linked, no one could deny.

Michener goes on to describe all of the dangers that Nerka, our salmon, must go through—larger fish and birds like merganser ducks and kingfishers that made quick meals of small fish like Nerka; later on in his life, bears, seals and killer whales. The collapse of ecosystems as dams are built and trees are felled. 4 fish out of the 4000 eggs that Nerka’s mother laid would make it back to the river to spawn. At the end of their lives, these survivors end their lives in a climatic love-making scene, their tails quivering in a sort of aquatic ballet. They die. A new generation grows up and leaves the red to repeat the cycle. A wild journey more perilous than any other animal’s journey. With a 0.1% survival rate. But what a stunning climax with which to end. And what a wonderful setting within which to begin a life. Alaska is that wild country where lives like Nerka’s begin. To get a sense of just how huge Alaska is, read Michener’s book. Alaska’s inhabitants–a wide range of the animal kingdom–make splendid appearances.