Landscape: Headwater Heaven

By Mike Lunde

Headwater Heaven 5-2

A river is an aquatic interstate, interconnected by multiple boulevards of gin-clear, crystalline water. The river’s birthplace is centered around groundwater located underground in the permafrost in between snow-capped mountains that cascade below low altitude cumulus clouds. Other rivers emerge in headwater lakes characterized by jade-blue glacial water. Around the shoreline, snow-capped mountains tower into
the heavens above, where anadromous spirits overlook their predecessors’ journey. The wind diverts the lake’s flow towards the outlet. At higher altitudes, the wind picks up fresh snow and sends it into the air. Downstream from the outlet, the current flows at multiple speeds, uninterrupted from those environmental structures of destruction called dams. Through its winding journey downstream past evergreens the size of small skyscrapers, there are no noise disturbances, almost complete silence. The only sound is the current. Mile by mile, the channel widens giving forth to new physical features. Sporadic clusters of ferns and grass-lined banks transcend to craggy ledges of shale. The inside shoreline contains limestone of endless shapes and sizes, some light grey and others dark charcoal. Small regions of sand border the limestone. A remaining brown bear print is reflected in the sand. Around table-sized boulders, the groundwater below spirals bubbles into a tornado-like funnel until it strikes the surface, producing the headwater rapid. Upon current initiating contact, a louder noise, nature’s rocket engine is produced. The true reflection of a headwater system is represented by the seasons.

The main channel diverts into two separate highways. One flows in a semi-straight direction with an occasional meandering downstream through a meadow of moss and sub-Arctic tundra. A periodic change in depth subsides on the tailout section of low gradient riffles. The other channel contains multiple bends. As it weaves through a dense forest of Sitka spruce and cottonwood, the channel twists and braids back upon themselves in the watery labyrinths of life. The bottom transitions from coarse substrate to bedrock. The current suddenly intensifies. A series of highly turbulent waterfalls are encountered. Above the falls, it seems like barren sadness as if a woman in all her beauty is hollow and incapable of love. Clouds of vapor rise into the air. A plunge pool is formed below the falls entrapped with foam. Eventually, the two channels converge, forming a deep, clear confluence pool. It is deeper than other pool types. At 15 feet in depth, it concentrates all forms of aquatic life. Other young- of-the-year salmon speciesPinks Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, Chums O. keta, Sockeye O. nerka, and the occasional steelhead O. mykiss—gather in mutual coexistence to forage on suspended communities of zooplankton and phytoplankton.


Summer in the headwaters is a story about nature rewritten through a chronological series of biological events. As high altitude showers conclude, the cumulus clouds fade away. The sun peaks through, erasing any remains of surface darkness. Where the light touches, new life is portrayed. On the outside bend downstream of old black spruce tree trunks wedged into the bottom, a large bowling-ball like splash eclipses the surface. A large female Chinook Salmon O. tshawytscha, or King Salmon, surges forward like a red fire engine determined to hurdle the next obstacle. Her body remains in the same position as she slithers in a zigzag-like motion to remain stationary against the current. Her metabolism seems infinite. A close distance nearby, a small waterfall appears. Her long awaited journey is abruptly interrupted. She is not fazed. A running start is engaged. Using her fins like a sail against the wind, she contracts her pectoral fins in unison and leaps. Airborne for a brief moment in time, she lands. She rests momentarily in a miniature pool scoured by decades of mountain runoff water rushing under half-hollow Sitka spruce. At last, the arrival to her golden throne composed of coffee table-sized boulders and an underlayer of granite rock is established. Her mouth contracts. Perhaps this is a message, her sense of biological communication to the outside world. “I’m coming home, I’m coming hometell the world I’m coming home.”

Her tail excavates the bottom, acting like an oversized windshield wiper. The repeated movements send coarse substrate upwards into the current until swept downstream never to be seen again. She waits patiently for her king. Among the thousands, only one, an individual who once terrorized the pelagic forage for four years is merely within feet of completing his reproductive quest. His counterparts attempt to swim in parallel formation beside him. He is not amused. A sudden abandonment of his position ensues. Two smaller males are located a foot from his adipose fin. The blood pressure inside his body skyrockets, fueling his inner aggression even more. He darts with fire. Bang!  At contact, the dominant male’s hooked-shape kype crashed into the side of the smaller male. That male vanished. Other males nearby retreat in the blink of an eye downstream for protection. Alongside his queen, their reproductive quest is finalized. Eggs are riffled spasmodically into the gravel redd coupled with a cloud of milt. Some fall into the miniaturized crevasses of granite. A large majority swept suspended in the current towards hungry Rainbow Trout. Some lay covered in layers of sand never to be exposed. The ones that emerge in the coming months are a spiritual rebirth for the world of anadromy. Their parents, tired from a thousand-mile upstream journey prepare for their permanent retirement in the headwater nursery. A task so rare is complete.

We are often reminded that death is not the final end. Although she has retired her riverine throne, her final seconds of fame are not a distant memory, yet a passing of the anadramous torch. She spins helplessly in the current. A few operculum contractions and that is it. Once when she roamed the haunts of the open ocean, the accumulation of marine-derived nutrients in the forms of nitrogen and phosphorous embedded in her flesh are geared for a new phase. Isotopes in the chemical forms of N13 and C15 act as nature’s terrestrial fertilizer, transported alongside the streambanks and deeper into forests where new forms of life evolve. Newly eclipsed ferns under white spruce, fireweed alongside expired logs, and young-of-the-year tamaracks are created from these marine nutrients transported from wildlife that consumed the anadromous warriors of yesteryear. After the spawned-out remains are consumed, the terrestrial wildlife act as key ecosystem engineers, spreading the nutrients around like a seed exiting the outer petals of a wild flower. In similar fashion, each hair that sheds the outer epidermis enters the air at the mercy of the wind and blown on a path to god knows where. Somehow, someway, the natural world works its mysterious wonders, in which new life emerges. The soil darkens and the air smells different. After a late-afternoon summer shower, the remaining water vapor gives off a new wintergreen scent.

Autumn in the headwaters is reminiscent of a nature painting. Shades of green leaves morph into a mixed composition of red, orange, and yellow. Temperatures drop, causing hues of brown to appear. As daytime temperatures decline, the amber light dims to satin gray. The original insignificant blob of transparent orange plasma rises from the underwater palace of cobble and marble substrate. The creature looks oddly shaped and absurd. For the first time, its eyes perceive the underwater world. With its yolk-sac still attached to its body, it attempts to explore outside the realms of its restricted home. He swims two feet at most. He feels frightened. He gravitates away from the fast current, escaping to the gravel with his underbelly pinned against the gravel. When ready, he awaits another opportunity. Days later, overcast gives way to blue-bird skies. In the streaming sunlight, may fly nymphs and adult caddisflies emerge in the burbling riffle. The outsized September caddisflies with their reddish-orange bodies dance on the surface of the bowl-shaped mid-channel pool. At three-inches long, he is a warrior amongst his smoltmates. The sudden surface disturbances triggers curiosity. His beady, little eyes focus upward. He swims upwards inches at a time, then pauses, and repeats again. His next episodic burst of propulsion is immediate and targeted at the water-air interface. Plop! Plop! A complete disappearing act and the other caddisflies contract their wings into overdrive to escape the foraging grounds. At last, our once reddmate that inherited his majesties’ senses used them wisely. To avoid being someone else’s dinner, he seeks shelter in a moss-covered log jam adjacent to large boulders.

While the Chinook Salmon smolts seek preparation for the cold temperatures of late autumn into the transition of winter, others were unfortunate. Dive-bombing king fishers dart through the white spruce branches overhanging above the riparian vegetation. Their enriched blue-colored eyes stare at the surface like a laser beam. Left to right, then right to left, they scan for young-of-the-year salmon hovering just below the surface. Other avian predatorsravens, seagulls, and merganserspartake in the clean up crew. Remaining salmon carcasses drift downstream into white spruce branches suspended below through the surface. Pieces of tan colored flesh, a physiological blueprint, hang from the branches like glittering ornamental tinsel from streamside alder and tamarack. It dries under direct sunlight. Terrestrial insects slowly inch their way down the bark towards the flesh. The first group appears followed by hundreds and then thousands. The salmon carcasses provide much needed malnourishment to the localized epifauna.

Winter is another wonderland in headwater heaven. Like the clouds above, the ground is a white canvas. All coloration erased with the sounds of an autumn breeze. At first glance, the river appears lifeless. The water is clear. The surface acts like a crystal-clear glass mirror that reflects images back to the naked eye. Deep lateral scour and debris-dammed pools are frozen with a hard layer of black ice. Multiple branches are embedded half-way through the ice. Located on the bottom in between the spaces of granite rocks below, another world exists. Stoneflies emerge from the porous space. They use their claws to attach to moss on the underside of rocks while others lay hidden in the periphyton. Their antennae wiggle back-and-forth to sense new habitat and immediate danger. Jointed legs equipped with sparse hairs and an underbelly with evenly-spaced gills form their bodies. Through the eye of a microscope, they resemble alien life forms. A three-segmented antenna, beady little eyes, and six legs arranged in two rows of three form its body designed for bottom exploration. Each step is delicate and careful, or else the river’s power is unleashed. Underneath the darkness, the stronger and improved mini-kings abandon their deep debris-dammed pool searching for stoneflies embedded in the periphyton. His nose bumps the periphyton. A school of black stoneflies rise. They attempt to escape. Their small size serves a disadvantage. He opens his mouth and contracts quick, satisfaction achieved. As winter continues, he will continue foraging in this habitat while he continues building muscle and fat reserves.

Spring is the biological rebirth of life. Daylight lengthens. Temperatures warm triggering surface runoff to cascade towards the shorelines. Fresh leaves bud from their branches. The marine-derived nutrients embedded in the soil give rise to new populations of Douglas aster, lupine, and bunchberry wild flowers. The first bees of spring hover onto the owers. Their proboscis is inserted into the petal. They extract the nectar and return to their spiral-shaped hives. As a long winter subsides and spring approaches, our mini-king is about four inches in length. His original silvery body changes to a subset of pink- colored parallel parr marks. Their location begins just behind the operculum gill ap and runs along the top of the lateral line until it borders the narrow region of its caudal peduncle. The chemical composition inside his body slowly changes. Nitrogen and potassium reverse their physiological roles. He is preparing himself for the great downstream outmigration to the marine environment. Other mini-kings congregate to join our singled- out individual. They have made it this far. Other challenges awaitRainbow Trout, king fishers, ravens, seals, bear cubs, and waterfallsthat reduce their survivorship. Any small cascading creek serves as temporary shelter and foraging habitat. A plethora of adult stoneflies and mayflies with an established full- grown set of wings dance in the lower reaches of these cascade creeks. The mainstem channel soon widens more. As the river exits headwater heaven, we reach the middle river. Here, a new migratory journey begins.

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