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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

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The creek looked just as I remembered. Water chuckling over grey stones as it rounded the bend. The sugar maples just starting to show hints of autumn’s colours.

When I was a child, my father, brother and me carried our bikes across this gravelly curve in Highland Creek. We were explorers on a quest downstream to find Lake Ontario. Back then, the paved trail did not reach the lake and – like true explorers – we would have to hike the last bit, pushing through forest undergrowth and clamouring up root stairs to the place where the creek opened into the lake. When we got there, our faces would be red with exertion and glowing with pride as we gazed out over the glittering waters of the great lake, triumphant.

It has been a long time since I’ve made that trip.

I hadn’t thought of the creek in ages, my memories of the area buried beneath years of research and travel. The Highland is an urban creek in Scarborough – a suburb of Toronto – and parts of it are buried, too, especially since its watershed drains an area more than 100 kilometres squared. Due to the pressures of urbanization, only a small percentage of it is still above ground, but remnants remain, such as the ones I explored as a child.

Now, I’ve returned with my own kids. We’ve come to see creatures that are making my childhood journey in reverse – moving away from the lake, against the flow of the water. They are salmon; and they, too, are reversing their childhood journey, moving upstream from the lake to reproduce.

Their presence is a secret that I discovered only recently. As a child, I didn’t look for creatures swimming upstream against the flow. My goals were downstream and away from home. Now a trained biologist, I searched the internet to plan routes and read tips about viewing the salmon. In the end, the best advice came from my own personal expert – my father.

When I mentioned the salmon to my dad, he knew all about them. He’d been frequenting Scarborough’s ravines for more than 30 years and knew them inside out.

“The salmon aren’t easy to see,” he told me. He was in the hospital by this point, but his eyes still shone as he gave me advice on how best to see the fish. “You’ll need patience. You’ll need to wait and watch silently.”

Easier said than done with a family in tow. Still, it was worth a try. My family and I drove to Morningside Park. We exuded neither silence nor patience as we made our way toward the creek.

Yet noisy as we were, we saw wildlife as soon as the water came into view. A great blue heron flew within metres of us. The kids stared in awe as the bird cruised by with its spear-like beak, neck pulled in, slow powerful wingbeats across a wingspan stretching wider than the kids were tall. Watching the prehistoric-looking bird made me wonder why scientists hadn’t made the connection between dinosaurs and birds earlier.

We hunkered down at the creek’s edge and found a spot where the water swirled through rounded stones forming a small rapid. We were hoping to see the salmon leaping upward.

Within a few minutes, my husband was grinning and pointing, “I saw a huge fin! How big are these things?”

They’re big. The salmon in Ontario’s creeks and rivers can grow up to a metre long. In the open ocean, they can get even bigger. This is not the kind of fish that comes to mind when one thinks of a creek that flows within minutes of Scarborough’s strip malls.

The kids and I watched the water with rapt attention hoping for another glimpse. There! We all saw it. A dark fin emerged from the churning water, followed by the flash of a tail and flurry of splashes. A Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon are not native to the rivers that flow into Lake Ontario. Up until the late 1800s, Atlantic salmon were the top predator here, but they were no match for the habitat degradation and unsustainable fishing practices of the time. Their loss left a gap and Chinook salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes to fill it. Thinking about this, I note that my father wasn’t native to Toronto’s ravines either. His love of nature was born through life on a farm in the foothills of Switzerland and solidified by skiing and hiking the Swiss Alps. But he adapted, settled and had children. Just as this salmon was trying to do.

We watched as the gigantic fish struggled to propel itself upstream. It did not leap from the water as we had hoped, but rather seemed to slither up the rapids. We could just make out a silvery body, tinged with the reddish purple of a breeding adult, moving up amongst the rocks. And then it was gone, past the rapids and beneath the waters of a deeper pool upstream.

Chinook salmon are anadromous (from the Greek anadromos, meaning “running upward”). Anadromous fish are born in the upper reaches of freshwater streams where males and females meet to mate. They guard their nests as long as they can, but the adults die shortly after spawning, having used the last of their resources for reproduction.

Was this fish swimming to its death? Would its children make it? Sadly, in urban streams, not many salmon nests survive. Runoff from autumn storms often wash out the eggs or bury the nests in sediment. Still, this salmon was returning, following an ancient instinct to find its natal stream and produce the next generation after years spent at sea.

Sometimes, returning is a struggle. For us humans, it can be difficult to see how much has changed, how much has been lost. Yet, watching that fish propel itself against the current, I respected its determination. Dad was like that. After he got sick, he decided to build the greenhouse he’d intended as a retirement project. He was out in his garden each day – even as he received treatment for cancer – building. When the greenhouse was finished, he cultivated the most spectacular tomato and cucumber plants. Plants that grew to the roof of the six-foot greenhouse and then reached out beyond like Jack’s famous beanstalk. My father was a man who could coax life from the earth almost miraculously, perhaps because he was so alive and connected to the earth himself.

Although I never watched the salmon run with my father, it was he who instilled in me a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature. He passed away soon after we watched the salmon returning. Now, we watch in his stead. We watch an ancient process of death and birth – of children that return to start another generation – just as I return to pass lessons from my father onto my children.

Deborah M. Buehler lives in Toronto.