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   Chapter 12 THE HAUNT OF THE SALMON

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 12520

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


THE greatest industry in Alaska is unquestionably the salmon fishing. More than two hundred and fifty kinds of edible fish abound in Alaskan waters and this does not include trout and grayling in the streams where only the latter are to be found. Most of the halibut eaten in the United States comes from Alaska. These fish often weigh as high as two hundred pounds. Large numbers of whales are caught and prepared for market annually. The fish products of the country have already netted more than two hundred million dollars.

Nothing in the history of all Nature is more wonderful (or more tragic) than the story of the salmon. So wonderful is it that it is almost beyond the power of the human brain to comprehend it. Until the advent of the motion picture-one of the greatest educators of our day and generation-few knew that the salmon returns to the very spot where it was spawned to die. After thirty months at sea, during which time nothing is known of them, they are drawn by some mysterious instinct back to the very spot of their birth. Sometimes the return necessitates a journey of fifteen hundred miles and during that journey nothing is eaten. Fishermen, both white and native, have told me repeatedly that they have never yet found anything in the stomach of a salmon. They leave the ocean and enter the rivers early in the spring. As soon as they enter fresh water they cease eating. Their stomachs shrink as their appetites fail and they have therefore no desire to return to the salt-water feeding-grounds. When they reach their destination they reproduce, which is the object of the long journey. Shortly afterward they die. Life, seemingly, is complete for them when they have reached the waters which gave them birth and have transmitted life to others. This done, they drop down the river with the current and are seen no more. From three to four hundred eggs to each pound of the parent fish is the average spawn. And yet--. The artificial propagation of the salmon goes on ceaselessly. It is compared to the sowing of seed by the farmer. The culture of the eggs in a hatchery and the distribution of fingerlings lay the foundation for an increased harvest year by year.

To me the return of the salmon to the spawning grounds is the most marvelous thing in the world. From its source in the snow-capped mountains of the interior to the spot where it flows, bell-toned and majestic, into the sea, the Yukon with its various tributaries is more than twenty-five hundred miles long! And the water is muddy. The fish wheels, useless in clear water, are in constant motion. How, then, does the salmon determine the exact spot at which to leave the river and enter the particular tributary from which, originally, it came? Only once has it been in it before,-the time when as a fingerling of two or three inches it made its first swift journey out to sea! What man, even if he had all manner of landmarks to guide him, would undertake to return to the spot he left in childhood if in order to do so he had to leave the broad ocean and follow twenty-five hundred miles of water which is first river, then tributary, then creek, then brook and finally a lake? It is not worth while to try to reduce the thing to intelligible terms. It is incomprehensible. No human intelligence can explain the spawning migration of the salmon. Yet long-continued and careful investigation and observation in every stream of the Pacific coast have established these facts beyond question.

He who has never seen a "run" of salmon has something yet to live for! I know of no other event which equals it. The heaviest runs are in May, June, and July, the catch being largest in the latter month. The largest fish are caught in May. The "royal family" of salmon is the King. These are best in June. Often they weigh from fifty to eighty pounds. The king salmon never rises to the fly. The canneries take them by the wheel.

I shall never forget my first view of a fish wheel and a cannery. I thought the wheel the nearest approach to an infernal machine that I had ever seen-until I got into the cannery! The wheels are fashioned of wire-gauze compartments and are built in places near high-water mark where salmon are known to run in greatest numbers, usually at the head of natural or artificial channels in the river bed. "Like a cradle endless rocking" the wheel revolves, scooping up the unsuspecting and beautiful creatures literally by thousands. It is the blackest and bloodiest of murder. Nothing else! But--. In the "Outside" they insist on eating salmon and the canneries can not supply the demand without the wheel.

Kipling, in his American Notes, says that he saw a ton of salmon taken on the Columbia River as one night's catch from the revolving cups of a giant wheel. My own first sight of a fish wheel in operation beats the story of this renowned writer all to pieces. The proprietor announced that the catch of this night was five tons, an amount which taxes the credulity of any man in his right mind. With a fascination which no words can describe I watched those fish being unloaded. Huge fifty-pounders, hardly dead, scores weighing from twenty to thirty pounds and myriads of smaller ones! The warehouse, built on piles in the bend of the river, was not far away, and as I was there for the purpose of seeing the process from first to last, I went aboard the barge onto which the salmon had been tossed. Presently we drew up alongside the warehouse and unloaded the fish. Like a man hypnotized I followed my guide up the scale-strewn, fishy incline which led into the cannery.

None but natives worked in this particular cannery. The building shook and shivered with every chug of the machinery. I watched them cross and re-cross the slippery floor and I could think of nothing but the Devil and a blood-bespattered Devil at that!

My experience up to this moment, however, was not a circumstance to what happened next! When the boxes containing the fish were thrown down under a jet of water they broke of their own accord and the salmon burst into a stream of silver. A native jerked one up, a twenty-pounder, deftly beheaded and detailed it in two swift strokes of a knife. With equal deftness he relieved it of its inte

rnal arrangements by a third stroke. Then he tossed it into a bloody-dyed tank. The headless, tailless, insideless fish fairly leaped from his hands-just as though it were once more taking the rapids. But not so. The next man caught him up short. What the first man had left undone the second one polished off to a fine degree. He proceeded to commit additional murder of the most damnable sort. He thrust the fish under a machine resembling a chaff-cutter which hewed and hacked it into unseemly red pieces ready for the can and the poor mutilated remains were ready for the third man.

With long, bony, crooked fingers he jammed the pieces into cans which, sliding down a marvelous machine, forthwith proceeded to solder their own tops as they passed! The fourth man tested the can for flaws and then it was sunk (with hundreds of others) into a vat of boiling water to be cooked for a few minutes. The cans bulged slightly after this operation and were slidden along on trolleys to the fifth man who with a needle and soldering iron vented them and then soldered the little aperture. The process was finished-all except the label. This attached, the "finest salmon on the market" was ready for shipment.

In Alaska we get used to almost everything in time, but I confess that it took me some time to pull myself together after this experience. Never had I been so conscious of the grim contrasts of life as when I stepped outside that cannery! In that rude factory, the floor of which was but forty by ninety feet, I had seen the most civilized and the most murderous machinery! Outside, only a few feet away, before my eyes lay the most beautiful of God's country,-the immense solitude of the hills! I fairly fled down to the launch by which I was to journey back down the river, trying to get as far away as possible from the slippery, scale-spangled, oily floors and the blood-bespattered Eskimos. But it was like a doctor's first surgical operation. I got over it, and after several years' residence in the country became so accustomed to the sights of a cannery that they now make little or no impression. The canneries are Alaska's greatest asset.

To state how many cans of salmon go out yearly would be an impossible task. All we know is that the value of the Alaskan salmon fisheries can not be computed. It is true that Alaska derives much of her wealth from the copper, gold and silver mines and her practically untouched coal deposits. But her fisheries are the most important of her industries. Mines have a way of giving out suddenly, for no apparent reason. But the fish reproduce themselves each year. The fisheries of Alaska can not fail.

Next to the fisheries the fur business is perhaps the most important industry. Here again is a business opening for him who seeks it. As very warm clothing is necessary, tanners ought to find the land full of opportunities. The fur business is perhaps the easiest way to affluence which presents itself in Alaska. Native hunters and trappers follow the old rule and hunt their prey from Nature's supply. But many have already gone into the raising of fur-bearing animals as a business, just as the farmer raises sheep for the wool.

Fox farming is the most popular and a great industry is being developed. Many who began this business in Alaska have since transported it to the States. In the west are some twelve or fifteen such institutions and the eastern States also contain a few. The value of the fox fur is known to all and, as has been said, from four to seven hundred dollars is not an unusual price for the black and silver fox skins.

Judge Martin F. Moran, of the Kobuk district, is experimenting in angora goat-raising in which he thinks there is a great future. Judge Moran lives twenty miles north of the Arctic Circle. Since the breaking out of the war angora ranchers in the west have netted large fortunes by supplying mohair, and conditions for raising the goats are less favorable there than in Alaska. Judge Moran is planning (and has perhaps already carried out his plan) to import a herd of angoras which shall graze upon the rich reindeer moss which grows so abundantly in the tundra of western and northern Alaska.

The sea-otter, the most valuable fur-bearing animal, may not now be hunted, according to a law enacted by Congress, until November first, 1920. These were formerly numerous, but they are now threatened with extinction and are to be found only on some of the Aleutian Islands. It has been estimated that during the Russian occupation two hundred and sixty thousand sea-otter skins were taken, valued at twenty-six million dollars. Since the United States took over the country in 1867 about ninety thousand have been marketed. Now, however, the output is only about twenty skins a year. A good otter skin is very valuable, ranging in price from eight hundred to eighteen hundred dollars.

The seal-fur industry, although developed by the Russians, reached its height after the territory was acquired by the United States. From 1867 to 1902 seal skins to the value of thirty-five million dollars were exported. The fur seal, although widely distributed throughout the country, has but one breeding place,-the Pribilof Islands. Here most of the skins are taken. The seals were slaughtered in the most ruthless fashion and the government at last awoke to the knowledge that the seal was in a fair way to follow the sea-otter unless protected. In 1870 the capture of seals on these islands was prohibited by law. The United States took charge of the islands and the fisheries. Natives may kill annually only enough seals to provide themselves with food and clothing. The destruction of the herds was thus halted by the government and in 1912 the census revealed two hundred and fifteen thousand, nine hundred and forty seals.

From the sale of fox furs and seal skins the government has derived during the last twenty-five years a direct revenue almost covering the total purchase price of Alaska. There are approximately twenty thousand white people in the territory. In China there are four hundred million. Yet in 1915 the United States trade with Alaska was five million dollars in excess of the total United States trade with China!

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