Earth Matters: A salmon’s journey, Part 1: The year 1600

  • Atlantic salmon — parr and smolt stages. McCormick Lab, UMass

  • Atlantic Salmon Federation Atlantic Salmon Federation

  • Young Atlantic salmon are seen in April 2012 at the National fish Hatchery in Nashua, N.H., part of the state’s former program of releasing millions of the baby fish into the Merrimack River watershed in hopes of restoring the state’s Atlantic salmon population. AP PHOTO

  • Young Atlantic salmon are seen in April 2012 at the National fish Hatchery in Nashua, N.H., part of the state’s former program of releasing millions of the baby fish into the Merrimack River watershed in hopes of restoring the state’s Atlantic salmon population. AP PHOTO

  • A visitor watches as a spawning salmon jumps up a fish ladder in October 2019 during the fall spawning season at the Issaquah Fish Hatchery in Issaquah, Wash. AP PHOTO


  • With their dorsal fins tagged for later identification, salmon swim in a pool at the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery at Monterey on July 22, 1981. Sufficiently developed fish were placed in the Connecticut River where they would will hopefully return to spawn after their migration to the Atlantic Ocean. AP FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Monday, August 09, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts exploring the migration of Atlantic salmon. Part 2 will run in next week’s Bulletin on Aug. 13.

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

Meskouamegou spent three years in her home stream, growing from a tiny alevin to a two-inch banded parr to a six-inch smolt. In the late 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, over the great falls at Ktsipontekw (Bellows Falls), then another 50 miles to the falls at Peskeompskut (Turners Falls).

She swam another 60 miles through the Pocumtuck, Nonotuck and Agawam homelands and over the last of the great cascades at what we call South Hadley, into the less turbulent waters of the broad valleys of the Mohegan and Pequot peoples. Simultaneously, through the very same waters, her 3-foot-long, 15-pound relatives were battling the currents upstream on their return from the ocean to spawn in their own home streams throughout the watershed.

On her way downstream, Meskouamegou ate whatever came her way, from aquatic insects to small vertebrates. She was 6 inches long by then and, as she reached the estuary of the Kwinitekw, 400 miles from Beecher Falls, she was turning from her dark river camouflage to a silvery ocean sheen.

She slowed her journey as she swam south of Saukiog (Hartford), home of the Podunk people. There, her kidneys and gills began to acclimate her in anticipation of Long Island Sound’s salty water, letting the miraculous molecular pumps in the cells of her gills shift into reverse. By the time she reached the Sound, her gills were able to pump salts out of her system into the seawater instead of storing saline solution inside her body, which is what they did when she lived in freshwater streams.

Good fortune had helped Meskouamegou avoid the terns, herons and striped bass that had eaten many of her fellow travelers. In Long Island Sound, she found a much richer diet of small fish and invertebrates that allowed her to grow quickly as she headed east, having joined a school of salmon. Out past the homelands of the Nehantic and Narragansett peoples she traveled, then off the shores of the Wampanoag, turning northeast along Cape Cod’s Nauset homeland and out into Sobkw, the Atlantic Ocean.

Heading up the Maine Coast, she joined millions of other salmon flooding out of the rivers in the homelands of the Eastern Abenaki people — the Penacook, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Mik’maq. Out into the Labrador Sea they swam, off to their feeding grounds in West Greenland where Meskouamegou would spend two years, foraging for capelin, sand lance, herring, squid, krill — whatever the salmon school came upon.

In the two years during which she had gorged on marine life, Meskouamegou had avoided the jaws of Greenland sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, 400-pound halibut and dagger-beaked 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.

In the late summer, she began the 3,400-mile swim back to Hall’s Stream. She was joining the hundreds of thousands of other salmon on their great migration, which would penetrate into the deepest interior of New England’s steep mountain valleys. Meskouamegou had the longest distance to cover of any migrant, since the Kwinitekw was the most southerly of the Atlantic salmon’s home waters, except for the Housatonic, just to the west.

Most of the North American schools of salmon peeled off for their Canadian and Maine home streams. Meskouamegou’s school was composed of her birth cohort and much larger 40-pound repeat spawners. Returning along the coast of Southern New England, her group joined uncountable millions of other migrant fishes of all sorts, from lamprey and American eel to herring and Atlantic sturgeon.

Meskouamegou reached the Kwinitekw estuary in late winter, resting at the river’s mouth as her metabolism shifted to accommodate the change from seawater to freshwater. None of the migrants, save the eels, would be feeding in the river.

The spring floods, called freshets, came with an enormous surge, and the migrants waited until they abated in April. Their single intent was to battle upstream to spawn.

Their estuarine arrival presaged enormous gatherings of Native people throughout the Northeast, from the Haudenosaunee in the west to all the Algonkian-speaking peoples of New England. Fishing baskets, weirs, spears, even bare hands all began to gather the bounty of fish that broke the lean season of winter.

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

For Meskouamegou, it would be her last trip. Having ascended the river, her body was too spent to recuperate in a pool over the winter. She gave her fertilized eggs and her flesh and bones back to her home stream.

In less than 200 years, the great migrations would disappear, and that is the subject for 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 is grateful to Steve Gephard and Boyd Kynard for their corrections. Visit hitchcockcenter.org/category/earth-matters and click on this article to see more information about Atlantic salmon. All the Native 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 provided a small window into the Abenaki language. Part 2 of this story is scheduled for publication on 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 a new sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. Consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.