Monday, September 21, 2009

Sex and the Country

I am back from my weekend in the woods.  We had a wonderful time - lots of walking, even more talking, good food, good friends.  I am already looking forward to next fall's trip.  Alayna and Mary are both good photographers, so many of our memories are captured. 

The first leg of our vacation was the journey to the cabin, packed in a van with coolers, sleeping bags and overnight cases.  No matter that it was a tight fit; the drive was lovely.  Last year it rained the whole time.  This year was pay back.  It was beautiful, sunny, just warm enough, nice breeze, and the trip included lunch on a Lake Michigan beach. 

On Saturday, we took a long walk to a small river where the salmon were running upstream.  Last year we saw a few big salmon floating in the small pools that line the shore.  This year, the salmon are coming upstream earlier due to the cooler weather so there was plenty of action.  While we were hanging over the bridge rail hoping to spot one, suddenly there were three!  And then three more!!  We following them to the other side of the bridge where we noticed another three or four.  They were hard to count - they move fast - but there must have been at least ten of them.

I expected them to be on their way shortly, but they had found THE place.  We got a running commentary from our host Glenda, who has learned much about the mating habits of salmon in her many years of visiting the cabin and fishing the stream.  While her account differs a bit from my search for more information on the internet, what she told us was perfectly in sync with what we saw, so I'm betting on Glenda.

We were fortunate to be there at the magic moment.  The females (and there appeared to be only two in the whole group) quit swimming upstream and each began looking for a place to lay her eggs.  One went to the edge of a shallow pool that was heavily shaded by overhanging branches.  She was hard to see, so our attention turned to the other.  She focused on a shallow, sunny area with lots of small rocks in the sand.  Can you see her in the picture?  Maybe the rocks hold the eggs in place?  Don't know.  But that is the spot she chose and our view was spectacular!  We were all mesmerized, hanging over the rail to watch as she swished her tail around to make her nest. 

The males were vying with one another to be the one to spread his sperm on the eggs.  The desire to reproduce is extremely strong, and it was quite evident as we watched them fighting for the privilege.  There was one in particular on whom I was putting my money.  He repeatedly chased away the other males, then quickly swam back to the female's nest.  He was young, as evidenced by his solid dark gray color.  Glenda says that as the fish get older, they develop white spots, until eventually, if they live long enough, they are completely silver.

To have some idea of just how important reproduction is to them, this is a dance of death for all except the resulting babies (called fry), and only about two percent of the fry will survive to adulthood.  The female lays her eggs; the male fertilizes them; they both die.  That is it.  But before they die, they assure the continuity of their species by making their last act that of procreation.  I read that Atlantic salmon will cycle back to the ocean and come back a second time on rare occasion.  But almost always, it is one trip and that is it.  They are two to four years old when they make what is most likely their one and only journey upstream.

After their reproductive cycle, a  few of them will be caught by salmon fishermen and become food for humans.  Those that are not caught will die and become fodder for other fish, wildlife that forage along the shores of these north woods streams, and the soil.  We often forget, or do not know, that the soil too is a living thing, and it must be fed or it will die.  And so the flesh and bones of dead salmon sink into the soil, feeding the microbes and becoming part of the rich black humus that supports life.

So that is sex in the country - wild, beautiful, awe-inspiring and often deadly.

On another note, count is still 15 chickens and 3 calves.  The cat, Holly Berry, was nowhere to be found when I got home, but she showed up at bedtime.

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