Flowing Upstream


We stash the bike on the side of the trail and continue on foot following the river upstream as we go. The sky is overcast but no threat of rain. Drops fall from redwood, Sitka spruce, Douglas-fir, red alder and willow, holdovers from a storm earlier in the week. We wind our way as the trail winds, which winds as the river meanders. We stop and look, watching it flow over silt and pebble, past old redwood logs and over alder jams. And we listen – to its rushing sound, the warbling and rambling song of the dipper, and for the telltale sound of salmon returning from the ocean.

Winter rains have returned bringing with them a fresh run of fish. Coho salmon are at the tail-end of their spawning season while steelhead are just starting to come back in to our coastal streams. We stop at a point on the trail where we can see the river. It has dropped and cleared in recent days after rising and muddying with the last rain.  We scan the river, watching its flow, being still and alert and then we see them. Two bright red, hump-backed males with hooked jaws. One moves from a run to a pool and then through a riffle where they burst through the shallow water as if dancing on its surface. The other remains where we found it.  We watch is as it constantly moves its tales back and forth in seeming syncopation with the river’s flow.

In reality, however, its movements oppose the river’s movement; otherwise it would be pushed downstream toward the estuary. One would think that this counter movement  requires a lot of effort but it appears effortless. Salmon are driven by their innate desire to return to their natal streams and to carry on their lineage so to speak. Really this is not so much a desire as it is their very nature – to flow upstream, against the current. Swimming upstream seems counterproductive in our minds, it’s actually in synch with “things-as-it-is” (as Shunryu Suzuki said).


While we think that it is easier to flow downstream, salmon teach us an important lesson in the naturalness of going against the current. Our lives are like this also. There are times when it is wise to go with the flow and to not resist. To remain steady and upright and to see what happens. This is the story of young salmon smolts who heed the urge to move out of their natal streams and into the estuary and ultimately their salty home for the next few years.

Too often though we are being pushed along unconsciously on a path and a way of living that isn’t what we want and isn’t right for us. Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael, My Ishmael, and The Story of B) called this Mother Culture and warned us against blindly following what she says. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of what she is saying or where the flow is taking us. Like salmon this can be the right path for us as we move on downstream towards the estuary wide and the ocean blue. But also like the salmon there is a time when this is counter to our life’s flow. This is when we must heed that innate call to return home no matter how arduous the journey. This kind of journey, the salmon teach, isn’t about resistance or fighting against something; rather the key is to find that counter-flow where resistance isn’t necessary and one’s effort is right (neither too much nor too little). Subtle and minute adjustments of fins and body can counter the strongest flow. And when we do that we find that our life flows effortlessly like the salmon I watch in the flowing Elk River.


As we continue to watch and learn from the salmon we notice two females whose subtler colors blend in perfectly with the opaque water and cobbled stream bottom. One moment they can be seen and the next they disappear so quickly and completely that I doubt my memory of them ever having been there. Forms flowing like shadows in the murky water following their life’s flow to this very pool where they will continue on as young salmon, black bear or osprey, alder or redwood. We watch as minute adjustments of fins and flesh cause them to appear and disappear before our very eyes.


4 Comments on “Flowing Upstream”

  1. Julie says:

    I like the analogy of the struggle..we seem to healthily go on upstream however daunting it may seem…thanks for giving perspective through this journey of all of us!

    • dhlafever says:

      Hey Julie,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I knew you would enjoy the place where this story took place and the juxtaposition of holding on and letting go. Sometimes we need to let go and flow ala Richard Bach and sometimes we need to swim upstream ala Pacific salmon.

  2. David says:

    Good, David,Good.

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