Fish Fish Fish

by jkatejohnston

7 October 2013

Dear Max,

We went to Tahoe to see the kokanee salmon run. I read online that the weather would be clear and that the salmon festival was cancelled because of the government shutdown. Perfect. We have no use for the festival, just the salmon.

The evening we arrived Enzo was playing with the dinosaurs Teresa had packed for him. Then he took a bath and it was time to read books and he announced, “My allosaurus and diplodocus are gone.” He gave a detailed description of each, and we began to search room by room. I found them under his bed and reached down between the wall and mattress to get them. “Wait! I’ll do it. I’m the one with the nimble fingers.” Only he said it more like “nibble.”

“Nimble,” I said. He didn’t answer. He was hauling up his allosaurus.

The next morning Enzo and I woke up early in the dark. I picked him up in his pajamas and stepped outside into the freezing pure dry air. I was hoping to show him a sky full of stars. In summer it’s light when he goes to bed and light when he gets up. But the sky was dark blue already, black jagged pines at the edges and one bright planet straight overhead. We shivered together and when we went back inside he told me to feel his pajamas. They were cold to the touch.

TV. Cereal. The sun came up and poured through the big south windows. Enzo: “You must say this. Repeat after me. Fruit Loops Are The Best!” I repeated it.

Later that morning we were all walking along the trail toward Taylor’s Creek. On one side the marsh stretched toward the lake, and the grasses were every color of green and gold. Aspens were yellow on the hillsides but for some reason down near the marsh the leaves were more spotted and brown. The willows were turning color. As we got close to the creek, but before we saw it, Enzo said, “I can’t see any salmon. I can’t smell them. But I can sense them.”

And then we were at the water and there they were in the clear stream, orange-red with grey-green heads and a few speckles showing through, the big ones about a foot long, thousands and thousands of them close together swimming upstream, hardly seeming to move forward most of the time, and then one would spurt ahead and then swim in its new place for a while.

We walked along the trail that roughly paralleled the creek. At one spot several big trees were down across the creek and you could walk over the water and look straight down at the salmon. Enzo said, “Large, gigantic, tiny—I’ll take them all.”

Around noon we went back to the car and Teresa and I loaded ourselves with an astonishing amount of stuff for our picnic afternoon at the lake. The forest service bathrooms were locked because of the shutdown. I stopped to pee in the bushes while Enzo and Teresa walked ahead. Then I hurried to catch up, eager to tell them how a small stick had actually gone up my butt as I squatted to pee. (It occurs to me now that a good joke at the time would have been—I hope those Republicans are happy. But nothing like that came to me. I was too full of the news of the penetration itself.) I was carrying a big backpack and a Trader Joe’s bag full of sand toys and another bag full of food. My hip was sore and I limped slightly. Teresa called back to me, “Enzo says you’re lumbering along.” A spurt of pride went through me. How accurate.

Down at the lake the wide beach was empty. Enzo shucked off shoes and socks and handed them to me then ran ahead in the soft sand, fast and abandoned. We stopped where the creek empties into Lake Tahoe. Only a few salmon in the lagoon this time. Last year they were thick in there. Teresa and I spread out the picnic blanket and started getting out food. Enzo walked along the edge of the lake. He came back and flopped down on the sand. “I’m bored.”

“You know what I do when I’m bored?” I said. “Eat.”

We had leftover pizza, pistachio nuts and sodas. Then Enzo and I walked the edges of the lagoon. Last year there were dead salmon everywhere. I could tell he was disappointed that there weren’t any dead ones this year. Then we saw a dead one in the water, half-hidden in some weeds. I stepped in, reached up the shoulder and managed to grip its slippery shape. Got it. We put it in a bucket and headed for the lake. Enzo used the shovel to put the dead salmon into a shallow pool beside the lake. He moved it a few times, inspected it, chased seagulls away from it.

Teresa came over and we buried Enzo in the warm sand. Then they made a stack of small rocks on my butt. Teresa put a stick in the rocks to illustrate the stick that had gone up my butt when I peed. Then they propped the shovel between my legs so that it looked like it was sticking out of my butt. Great merriment. Soon it was time to go.

The second day I hounded them out of the house early so that we could see bears pulling salmon out of the river around dawn. It was cold, twenty-four degrees according to the sign outside the bank, but so dry that you didn’t see frost on the roofs or grass. As we walked along the trail Enzo said, “Salmon, salmon, salmon, fish, fish, fish. I am not made for this kind of terrain.”

We didn’t see bears along the wilder part of the creek. The sun came up. Teresa got stung by a wasp and had to hold her hand in the air. No need for an icepack. Our hands were freezing.

We crossed the road back toward the ranger station and parking lot. Some people told us there was a mother bear and two cubs ahead. We kept going. And we did finally glimpse them through the trees. It didn’t seem that real to me after all the build up. But Teresa got a picture.

A woman who worked for the Forest Service was there scolding everybody and nearly in tears because people were standing and walking where they weren’t supposed to, blocking the bear family’s escape routes. The Forest Service  must have been on a skeleton crew because of the shutdown, so there weren’t enough workers to tell people where not to go. The mother bear didn’t look too perturbed. She was lying at the bottom of a tree and the cubs were in the branches.

Now we’re back in Sacramento. Monday morning. Teresa just looked at the paper and told me that it’s going to be eighty-five degrees today and the government is still shut down.