by Ned Rozell
July 29, 2003
Fred begins life as one of thousands of eggs resting in the gravel bed of a stream that flows from Paxson Lake. Sometime between April and June, Fred hatches into an alevin;
In about one month, Fred has absorbed all the nutrients from his yolk sac and he emerges as a fry, growing to a few inches long and developing dark bars along his sides. As a fry, he migrates upstream into Paxson Lake, where he hunts water fleas, insects, and insect larvae in the shallows. He spends the first and second years of his life in Paxson Lake.
By the end of his second summer, Fred feels a mysterious pull toward the ocean and leaves Paxson Lake via the exit ramp of the Gulkana River. He is now a five-ounce smolt, a salmon bound for salt water. After a few days of slicing downstream, Fred enters the Copper River, which drains the glaciers of the Wrangell Mountains. While zipping downstream through the Copper, Fred's gills and kidneys undergo subtle changes as he adapts for life in salt water.
Fin-to-gill with hundreds of other red salmon, Fred reaches the Copper River delta in early summer. Fred's world turns from cloudy to clear as he reaches the deep, cold water of the Gulf of Alaska.
His organs modified for salt water, Fred thrives in the gulf, one of the richest feeding grounds on Earth. He eats crustaceans, small fish, and the occasional squid while staying within about 30 miles of the Alaska coast. He sometimes dives to depths greater than 250 feet to feed, but normally stays within 45 feet of the surface.
The ocean Fred is metallic greenish-blue on top with silver sidewalls and a white belly. His flesh is a brilliant orange. In just two months of ocean life, Fred is sexually mature, but he remains in the ocean with millions of other red salmon. His cohorts to the west, in Bristol Bay, make up the largest red salmon fishery in the world.
After three years in the ocean, Fred has grown to the length of a man's arm and bulked up to eight pounds. Now in his fifth year of life, Fred noses his way back to the Copper River delta. As he passes through brackish water into the fresh water of the Copper River, he stops eating. Fred is now a fish on a mission, guided back to the vicinity of Paxson Lake by chemical markers in the water, Earth's magnetic field, or perhaps a combination of the two.
Swimming upstream in the Copper River, Fred avoids dipnets held in eddies by fishermen and the fishwheels upstream. He is digesting himself, fueled by the oils and proteins of his own flesh, skeletal structures, and his scales. As he nears Paxson Lake, his body turns a vivid red, his head green, his back develops a hump and his jaws curve into a snarl.
Near where he first wriggled from an egg sac, after clicking off 3,500 miles on his lifetime odometer, Fred sidles up next to a female that is dropping eggs. As the eggs fall to the gravel, he covers them with a stream of milt.
One week later, Fred dies as a five-year old, but he has beaten the odds: Of the 2,500 eggs his mother dropped, Fred is one of only two that has returned to the spawning grounds.
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