In his uncertain final summer, a king salmon fights his spawning instinct in a losing battle which leads him into shallow waters, increases his voracity and finally shatters his temper. Disturbed, he crosses the 50-fathom mark in the spring, lurks nearer and nearer to the mouth of the river where he was born, feeds constantly—a high-speed destroyer of everything smaller that swims in the ocean. His kill mounts daily, feeding his own muscles; and the herring wounded or shocked, the schools panicked by his savage strikes, provide easy provender for a retinue of scavengers, younger salmon, cod, crabs waiting to grab what the master drops.
In autumn, heavy with milt or eggs and no longer hungry, he—the masculine gender is used here for convenience but signifies no difference between the actions of the sexes—moves across a moaning bar toward fresh water and the spawning river which will be his deathbed. But anger has outlasted appetite, so he continues to strike furiously at whatever crosses his path, still killing after he has stopped eating, when his own flesh is darkening and near rot.
All of which is vastly important to the astonished village of Westport, Washington, which sits with a bay, fed by seven spawning rivers, at its back; miles of shallow ocean in front, and a wonderful, unbelievable, well-heeled, squirming and suicidal mass of salmon-seeking weekenders in its lap. Westport huddles on a thin peninsula between South Bay, a part of Grays Harbor, and the open ocean. In the chill and foggy dawn any Sunday morning sedans and trailers engulf the village, fighting for road room and parking space. Breakfast is something obtained on a restaurant assembly line, if at all. Five hundred to 2,000 bundled-up men, plus wives, children, dogs and sightseers, mill in a single street, buying rain gear from a clothing store open at 6 a.m., clamoring for herring, brushing rain off their hats and sand out of their teeth—and ignoring, almost to the last man, a bright red pennant flying from a lookout tower. Marine lifts groan on the shore, happy innocents struggle to carry motors from sedans to boats, and the funnel-shaped bay vibrates to the ill-tempered stuttering of reluctant engines.
All this activity proves, if anything, only that salmon sickness is a little worse than any other fishing disease—and that people suffering from it literally will do anything, up to and including drowning themselves. The open ocean won't stop them, deadly bars won't stop them, fog and wind and terrible stories won't stop them, and the forces of common sense and government can't.
Presently a marine parade begins. Out through the small end of the harbor funnel goes a charter boat, a 40-foot converted commercial troller with a weather-beaten Scandinavian at the wheel and half a dozen customers—already slightly starry-eyed at the prospect of salmon—lolling in the stern. Immediately behind it comes a kicker boat, followed by scores of others. These, too, round the end of a sandspit, where a Coast Guard patrol boat rolls gently.
From this a boatswain bellows, "Storm warnings are up [that red pennant from the tower]. The tide's still going out. Stay inside until it turns. Watch for fog. Stay off that shallow water on the Middle Grounds. Don't go over the bar until the tide turns!"
Whereupon, outboard skippers nod vigorously, shout "O.K.! Fine!" Then—about half of them take off with all 10 horsepower roaring, straight toward the dangerous Middle Grounds or the bar, where waves come in 30 feet high from a couple of odd directions and curl at the top every now and then. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't.
Grays Harbor includes 100 square miles of water, plus rivers, with an eight-foot average tide, and an entrance, between two three-mile-long jetties, which narrows to a mile and a quarter. Through this, 22,000,000,000 cubic feet of water must move every six hours—61,000,000 cubic feet a minute. The seaward 2,000 feet of the south jetty have sunk until only jagged pinnacles remain above water. The channel is only 47 feet deep. Beach currents set north at two miles an hour, and the normal summer wind blows southeast, at 10, or better.
Thus, the water situation on top of the bar is confused, at best, and at ebb tide becomes savage. Thirty-foot rollers follow the wind and on the bar meet the full force of the ebb, plus sneakers slipping over the broken jetty from the side. Something has to give—and in the process the water stands on end, shakes its tail, breaks, builds up monster whirlpools, escapes in vicious side currents, and then does it all over again.
A 40-foot patrol boat, slamming into this at 16 knots, climbs up and over, drops its bow 20 feet in a solid smash, takes white water bow to stern. A 35-foot troller, coming in, lays over until its racked trolling poles dip green from a wave alongside and the whole keel threatens to show. A tug takes a solid wave over the bow, water two feet deep in both scuppers. Once in a while a man on board one of these lives a long life in an instant when he looks straight down and sees sand between two waves.