Usually fish at the spawning grounds are active, darting in great lines, a hundred fish across, in formations so orderly they seem to have been drilled. Or they may race with what appears to be exuberance through the shallows, hundreds of them in a pack, sending up spray five feet in the air, and pushing before them a wall of water so high that they may be washed several feet up the bank. But these fish were torpid, turning and moving ceaselessly but languidly. Occasionally a female would begin halfheartedly to prepare a redd, then give it up.
In desperation, the fish now began to try to reach cold water above the normal spawning grounds by leaping the falls. Above the 20-foot falls was a 50-foot falls, and above that the Horsefly careened through a rocky flume in turbulent and chaotic disorder. But the salmon did not know that; they moved onto the falls and threw themselves into the air.
The canyon walls are steep at this point, rising straight up for 50 feet. The fish could be seen 100 feet downstream, moving slowly into the pool, and then they could be seen again, emerging with terrific velocity to pose for a flash against the falls before they vanished. Biologists say that these fish can leap only 5� to six feet. But at the scene the strongest impression was of the differences in the height of their jumps. Every few minutes some particularly gifted specimen took off in a great soaring lunge into the atmosphere, his body flailing powerfully as he left the water and settling into an upward glide twice as high as the majority of his leaping companions, seeming to watchers at the base of the pool to reach at least eight feet.
By the end of their first day at the falls, they were leaping into its waters at the rate of 65 a minute. They fell back stunned, drifted downstream, and came back to leap again. Early in the morning of the next day—these salmon do not travel at night—they were jumping at the rate of 150 a minute. There was no visible pattern in their movements. For several seconds there would be no fish in sight, then a dozen at once, crisscrossing each other, or even colliding in the air. A big gray boulder the size of a freight car divides the falls, and one salmon in 10 struck the boulder. Its top half was dry and hot in the sunlight, and the bottom half drenched with spray from the falls and the water left by the fish striking sideways against it. They hit with a sound like the crack of a .22 rifle, clearly audible above the throb and roar of the falls. Occasionally a salmon missed the falls entirely, sailing at right angles with it, hit the rock and remained partially lodged on a tiny bench high above the water for several seconds—plainly outlined, big, misplaced, eerie. And underneath, the fish were leaping tirelessly, a dozen at a time, all day long and day after day.
They were still arriving; some 303,000 were at the spawning grounds. So many fish create a hypnotic condition; it becomes as difficult to see them as it is to watch a fluid. They moved slowly up the rapids to the pool at the base of the falls, in clusters close to the banks, with 10 to 30 in each shallow pool as they entered and left. Their bright vermilion bodies, rose-colored under the rushing water, seemed to have the texture of rich, wrinkled Chinese silk. They poised lightly in the current, only a few inches below the surface. It was possible to stand in the scoured gravel within a foot of them. From time to time one swung out into the current, braced against it for a few moments, and returned or dropped back to a lower pool, or swam to one higher. Or a pair of salmon burst from a pool lower down, sending up a fine sheen of spray as they rocketed against the rapids.
Except for the sound of the falls the wilderness was quiet. The occasional riflelike sound of a salmon hitting the rock was loud. There were no birds. Tracks of bear were everywhere, but the bears were gorged and had vanished, and there were no eagles, though these birds are said to be fond of the eyes of dead salmon. The hot, late-summer sun fell heavily on the motionless air, into a world that seemed drained and emptied of all life except that of the salmon moving steadily against the current to the highest point they could reach.
The temperature of the water was 59�. There was still a margin of safety; if it continued to drop, enough time remained so that most of the run could spawn. But now another unexpected crisis was added to this wilderness melodrama: the immense forest at the headwaters of the Horsefly burst into flame. There had been fires burning elsewhere in British Columbia, supposedly started by lightning, but this one was the great showpiece of them all. Frank Jones, who was sitting on the porch of his farmhouse on the riverbank when it started, said he had seen nothing like it during his 48 years on the Horsefly. "At one o'clock I saw it start at the base of Haycock Mountain," Jones said, "and by 1:45 it was two-thirds of the way to the top." By 3 that afternoon the smoke was so thick that the trees across the river were barely visible in the dense brown haze.
The roads—or the road, for there was really only one—became a thick coil of standing dust from the trucks loaded with bulldozers headed toward the mountain. Soon 30,000 acres were burning. The flames enclosed the upper branches of the Horsefly, from which the colder water had been flowing. By the time the fire was a quarter of a mile from the falls, the salmon had reacted to the warming water; they stopped trying to jump. In the fisheries camp the atmosphere resembled that of an army that has suffered its final defeat. Because of smoke the planes could not come down on the nearby lakes. The distinguished visitors invited to watch this climactic phase of the experiment could not arrive. The bright-colored rubber boats drawn up on the banks looked grotesque A reporter tactlessly asked about the outlook for the next run, four years in the future. Loyd Royal winced visibly and said he could make no predictions of any kind. After a silence he seemed to feel that this answer was inadequate, and added stoically, "The 1965 run is impaired. It may be so badly impaired that there will be no fishing...." The elementary fact was that unless the temperature dropped in the next four days there would be no 1965 run and the salmon cycle on the river might be forever ended.
A story went around that the salmon were heading downstream. Fishermen and scientists walked down the river a mile or so where there was a deeper pool of quiet water in which the fish could be clearly seen. There was a grassy bank at a bend of the Horsefly, opposite a white-gravel stream bed where, in higher water, the river created another channel around a little island. A ribbon of dead fish, five feet to 10 feet across and 100 feet long, was piled up on the bar, and the men of the fisheries crew with long poles were still lifting the dead fish from the water and tossing them into piles, in a methodical and mechanical effort that seemed in the smoke and haze to have lost all purpose and meaning. There were about 110 salmon in the pool directly below the knoll, and most of these were headed downstream, a startling testimony of the increasing warmth of the water that was now coming through the burning woods, and startling too because they had been seen since they entered fresh water only swimming against the current. But they did not swim downstream far; they turned and swam back, ceaselessly, and headed downstream again in a dazed and confused manner.
Late that afternoon, as the watchers were driving back to camp, the first drops of rain fell. There was an odd, unfamiliar patter, and enough water to warrant starting up windshield wipers. The dust ceased to explode under the wheels. Then the rain stopped. But that night the watchers awoke with a reaction from a sensation so unexpected that for a time they did not know what it was: it was cold. Outside the sky was light with gray, luminous rain clouds. Touching the needles of a pine tree could send shivers up the spine: there were drops of water on them. The wind began to blow hard, driving the fire back over the land it had burned. Then the rains began in earnest. The salmon spawned in such numbers that the whole surface was riffled with them.