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The Day the Salmon Died

Nobody foresaw it. That was the tragedy. And when it happened, everyone felt guilty. It should have been foreseen. It could have been prevented.

Forty years later the whole world watched on television as a handful of Alaskan aborigines, backed with the resources of the two most powerful countries on earth, carved a chain of breathing pens for three whales trapped in frozen Arctic seas. The native fishermen kept the whales alive until Russian icebreakers could clear a path to open waters. One whale died. Two escaped. The world applauded. Everyone felt good.

It wasn't like that the day the salmon died. Everybody felt sad. Some could express their feelings. Some just buried the sadness within themselves. The fight to free the whales brought it all back. The sense of sadness. And of shame.

The big dam had been abuilding for three years. Gantries, cranes, dump trucks, railway tracks. Men working with their muscles, following the orders of men working with their brains, had been sweating, swearing, drilling, blasting, hammering, rivetting, excavating, twenty-four hours around the clock.

Noise and lights turned night into day.

Month after month the monolith that was the face of the dam grew taller and stronger, towering over the town. There was cement everywhere. The smell of cement. The dust of cement. Caked, baked, blowing, depending on the weather. Wet cement. Dry cement. People had forgotten what it was like to live in a cement-free atmosphere.

Now it was all coming to a head. The tailrace that had been cut to carry the outflow of water from the turbines was ready to be tested. The river at last could be halted in its course.

Fourteen arches it took to bridge the river as it flowed through the centre of the town. Now one arch would bridge a deep, narrow, man-made sluice alongside the ancient river bed.

The order was given. The water diverted. The tailrace worked. And that night there was great drinking in the pubs. Engineers drank in celebration. Labourers drank, with the knowledge jobs would soon be scarce.

The Falls of Assaroe were silenced.

It was June. Came July and the pools of water left in the cutoff river bed began to dry up. More and more stretches of rocky river bottom were uncovered. Underwater vegetation, rushes, grasses, turned greyish white and, in the sunshine, began to smell.

In the stretch below the Fourteen Arches one last pool remained. A half mile long, it overhung the silenced Falls of Assaroe. Day by day it shrank.

Johnny McIntyre, the sexton, on his way to ring the church bell for early Mass, was the first to see the death struggle. Over the surface of the pool there was a rustle of movement. It was fish, salmon, trapped without hope of escape.

For six weeks they had remained hidden. Now, oxygen drained from the water, the last of their food chain destroyed and rotting, they broke the surface.

By ten o'clock the bridge was lined. People crowded the parapet above the pool. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.

A hawk hovered in the sky.

From time immemorial it had been a famous salmon river. A commercial fishery. A sports fishery. When times were tough and people hungry, even the bailiffs sometimes turned a blind eye to the odd bit of poaching. Now the last of the free-running salmon were dying before their eyes.

One dead salmon after another floated belly-up to the surface. The bailiffs moved in to collect the dead fish. It was then the true horror was discovered.

The fish were diseased. Bleeding. Blinded. Scabious.

The head bailiff handed out gaffs and clubs to his assistants. Mercifully they fanned out across the shallowing pool. Gaffing. Clubbing. Ending the torment of the thrashing fish.

The dead salmon were thrown into a pit, covered with kerosene, and burned.

High in the sky a hawk sheared away from the rising smoke.

The hydro-electric dam was a great success. Men said so. But the day the salmon died, part of the town died too.

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