Earth Matters: A Salmon’s Journey, Part 1: Year 1600

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Editor’s Note: This is the first of two parts exploring the Atlantic salmon migration. Part 2 will be published in next week’s Bulletin on August 13.

In the year 1600, high in the Kwinitekw River watershed (Connecticut) near what is now the village of Beecher Falls, Vermont, Meskouamegou (Abenaki for salmon) emerged from one of 7,000 salmon eggs laid by its mother in the gravel of a fast-flowing Kwinitekw tributary now called Hall’s Stream. She would become one of the few Atlantic salmon to survive five years to come back and lay eggs for the next generation.

Meskouamegou spent three years in his home stream, going from a small fry to a two-inch ringed parr to a six-inch smolt. At the end of the winter of her third year, she began swimming downstream, along with other surviving smolts, from her Abenaki homeland, letting the spring flood waters carry her 200 miles downstream, above from the great falls of Ktsipontekw (Bellows Falls), then another 50 miles from the falls of Peskeompskut (Turners Falls).

She swam another 60 miles through the homelands of Pocumtuck, Nonotuck and Agawam and over the last of the great waterfalls of what we call South Hadley, in the less turbulent waters of the broad valleys of the Mohegan and Pequot peoples. Simultaneously, in the same waters, his 3-foot-long, 15-pound parents battled upstream currents on their return from the ocean to spawn in their own streams across the watershed.

On the way down, Meskouamegou ate everything that happened to him, from aquatic insects to small vertebrates. It was then 6 inches long, and as it reached the Kwinitekw Estuary, 400 miles from Beecher Falls, it changed from its dark river camouflage to a silvery oceanic sheen.

She slowed down her trip as she swam south of Saukiog (Hartford), home of the Podunk people. There, his kidneys and gills began to acclimate in anticipation of the salty water of Long Island Sound, letting the miraculous molecular pumps in his gill cells reverse. By the time she reached the Strait, her gills were able to pump salts from her system into seawater instead of storing saline inside her body, which they did when she was alive. in freshwater streams.

Luck had helped Meskouamegou avoid the terns, herons and striped bass that had eaten up many of his fellow travelers. In Long Island Strait, she found a much richer diet of small fish and invertebrates that allowed her to grow quickly as she headed east, after joining a school of salmon. Beyond the homelands of the Nehantic and Narragansett peoples, it traveled, then off the shores of the Wampanoag, turning northeast along the Nauset homeland of Cape Cod and to Sobkw, the Atlantic Ocean.

Traveling up the coast of Maine, it joined millions of other salmon overflowing the rivers of the homeland of the Eastern Abenaki – the Penacook, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Mik’maq. In the Labrador Sea, they swam to their feeding grounds in West Greenland where Meskouamegou would spend two years, looking for capelin, sand lance, herring, squid, krill – whatever. the school of salmon found.

During the two years she had been gorging on marine life, Meskouamegou had avoided the jaws of Greenland sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, 400-pound halibut and northern gannets. By the end of her second spring in the ocean, she had grown from a 2-ounce, 6-inch smolt to a 12-pound adult.

At the end of the summer, she began the 3,400 mile swim to Hall’s Stream. She joined the hundreds of thousands of other salmon on their great migration, which would enter the deepest interior of New England’s rugged mountain valleys. Meskouamegou had the longest distance to cover of all the migrants, since the Kwinitekw was the most southerly of the receiving waters for Atlantic salmon, with the exception of the Housatonic, just to the west.

Most of the North American salmon schools broke away for their Canadian and Maine streams. The Meskouamegou school was made up of its birth cohort and repeat breeders much larger at 40 pounds. Returning along the southern New England coast, his group joined countless millions of other migratory fish of all kinds, from lamprey and American eel to herring and sturgeon. black.

Meskouamegou reached the Kwinitekw Estuary in late winter, resting at the mouth of the river as its metabolism changed to accommodate the shift from seawater to freshwater. None of the migrants, except the eels, would feed in the river.

The spring floods, known as floods, came with a huge surge and migrants waited until they abated in April. Their only intention was to fight upstream to spawn.

Their arrival in the estuaries presaged huge gatherings of Indigenous people throughout the northeast, from the Haudenosaunee in the west to all the Algonquin-speaking peoples of New England. Fishing baskets, dams, spears, even with bare hands, all began to collect the bounty of fish that shattered the lean season of winter.

Regardless of language or past enmities, thousands of people gathered at the mouths of rivers and falls to participate in celebrations of gratitude towards migrants.

For Meskouamegou, this would be his last trip. After going up the river, his body was too exhausted to recuperate in a swimming pool during the winter. She returned her fertilized eggs, flesh and bones to her original stream.

In less than 200 years, the great migrations would be gone, and that is the subject of the next part of our story.

John Sinton is co-moderator of the Mill River Greenway Initiative, Honorary Trustee of the Connecticut River Conservancy, author of “Devil’s Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History” and co-author of “The Connecticut River Boating Guide”. He thanked Steve Gephard and Boyd Kynard for their corrections. Visit hitchcockcenter.org/category/earth-matters and click on this article to see more information on Atlantic salmon. All the indigenous place names are in Abenaki. A simple Abenaki pronunciation guide can be found at native-languages.org/abna_guide.htm. Thanks also to Marge Bruchac, who offered a little window on the Abenaki language. The second part of this story is scheduled for July 31.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 12 years. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and launched new degressive pricing for families facing financial difficulties. Consider donating at hitchcockcenter.org.


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