Each is the size of a finger, as slippery as a spark of moonlight on roiled water or an individual note of a Miles Davis riff. There's no moon tonight but the silvery mass of them turns starlight into an effervescent wash like tropical bioluminescence on the beach. The smelt are running.
Thousands of them muster at the mouth of the Amnicon, where the sand shifts from the force of four feet of newly melted snow: it still melts in stubborn pockets, grim reminders of last month's cold and hunger. But the flood's silt has settled, the worst of the runoff has drained into the basin of the big lake. The dead float belly-up in backwaters or sprawl, mud-covered, beneath naked ash trees among the freshly-greened wild leeks on the floodplains. Beavers, robins, woodcock, fawns: a democracy of starvation. In the soft, unsteady snow of April, only wolves and scavengers thrived.
The birds, carelessly returning from their southern vacationlands, brought false hope: the first robins hopped on our lawn only hours before the worst blizzard hit, the one that packed gale force winds off the lake and a thick two feet of snow. We spread out raisins, dried fruit, berries. Still the robins starved. A sad woodcock hunkered beneath our bird feeder where the constant scratching of seed eaters kept the ground relatively free of snow. The small patch of bare soil proved too hard to accommodate the needle-like probe of his bill and yielded no worms: the next morning we found him frozen, stiff and dead.
We scattered hundreds of pounds of corn at the edge of the swamp and the deer came: ten, twelve at a time, ribs washboarding through ragged gray fur. We became acquainted with them as individuals and mourned as one by one they ceased to visit our feeder. The dogs would wander off and return carrying leg bones with fur and hoof still intact. Like a forensic detective, I'd identify the remains of the big doe that birthed twin fawns last year, the button buck with the limp. The DNR estimates that half of last year's fawns didn't survive to May this year, and almost a quarter of the adult deer. The Amnicon wolves howled nightly this spring.
But the season of death is over: that is the message the shimmering starlit lake proclaims. The smelt have gathered to spawn. That means that Lake Superior -- at least this little section of Lake Superior -- has attained the magic temperature of 40 degrees. Gulls, terns, and even a few eagles circle in the sky: poised, ready. Their bleating brings life to the darkness. The waves break in endless succession, in summer, the sound quickly vanishes into white noise until it was lost when the lake became encased in ice. Now every breathing wave represents life. At the mouth of the river, I detect a distinct fishy scent and its presence emphasizes the sterility of winter: frozen death is so stingy that it admits no odor.
I see the distant flicker of bonfires from the smelters in town: wading into the icy water off Park Point, they'll drag seine nets against the waves. When the nets are drawn in, the captured fish shimmer and flop in their final indulgence: even as they die they celebrate life. It's an all night party on the city's beaches, but here the smelt run a gauntlet composed only of birds. Most escape to muscle through the current of the Amnicon, up the river, always swimming southward, through the foam churned by the crashing waterfalls, past basalt stones smoothed by millennia and stunted muskies slow and sullen from cold and surfeit. The smelt will prepare for another generation in the slow, silted backwaters where, the last time the water ran free of ice, my poor dog swam for the final time among the sharply serrated yellow leaves of the silver maples that overhang the otter-tracked banks.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources