The Salmon Forest
by Colin Rombough, Tofino
Growing up on the prairies, it was hard to imagine anything towering much higher than a couple of hay bales loaded on a tractor. So, you can imagine how completely awestruck I was the first time I stepped into a 'Wet Coast' temperate rainforest. The trees were more gigantic than anything I had ever encountered. Life seemed to ooze from every nook and cranny; even the wet heavy air seemed alive. The forest sparked an innate awareness that even the most inconspicuous packages of life played an important role in the creation of the forest. That first experience initiated a lasting connection and instilled in me a desire to learn as much as I possibly could about this amazing place. Along my path of discovery I have learned many amazing things about our Pacific temperate rainforest, but I think by far the most fascinating story is that of how the salmon feed the forest.
While we play in the surf and sun, a mass of nutrients and energy is quietly and inconspicuously being gathered far offshore. Thousands of salmon are scouring the waters for morsels of food to help fuel their impending journey to the rivers. Slowly and methodically the salmon return to the land. They gather in huge numbers at the river mouths waiting for the fall rains. The rivers swell, and the salmon head inland, marking the beginning of a smorgasbord for all the creatures of the forest. Some of the salmon are prematurely plucked from the streams and rivers, while others successfully make it to the spawning grounds to sow the seeds of the next generation. Regardless of their success or failure, they are all ultimately fated to be consumed by the forest. The salmon carcass feast brings food and nutrients for as many as 20 vertebrate species, countless insects and worms, and of course the young salmon in the streams. Even animals that we think of as strictly herbivores, like elk and deer, partake in the feast! It is not hard to imagine how animals profit from the huge influx of salmon; after all who doesn't enjoy a scrumptious salmon dinner? However, the benefits to plants can be a little less obvious.
The return of the salmon to the forest marks the largest input of fertilizer that plants receive all year. Just like the tomato plant in your garden, forest plants need nutrients to grow and flourish. In the rainforest, nitrogen (an extremely important nutrient for growth) is sparse. In contrast, nitrogen is fairly ubiquitous in the ocean. The salmon act as one of the few bridges to the flow of essential nutrients such as nitrogen between the marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Salmon are dragged into the forest by many different animals, where much of their bodies are left to rot. As the carcasses slowly decompose all of the precious nutrients, so meticulously gathered far offshore, are released into the soil. Trees and plants take up these nutrients, allowing periods of rapid growth. Not only have biologists observed that trees growing near salmon streams are larger than those lacking salmon inputs, but through examination of tree rings, they are also able to calculate with surprising precision the size of salmon runs many centuries past. Imagine, countless generations of salmon feeding the forest and creating the lush beauty that surrounds us!
During my short tenure here I, like so many Tofitians, have eagerly adopted the mantra of this place and have become absolutely resolute in my devotion to operating and appreciating this place on "Tofino time". This mantra, or at least the way I understand it, is the concept of living at a pace and in a place where the natural and cultural beauty can be fully understood and appreciated. It is, after all, this beauty that inspired us all to be here.
Even so, come July, life can begin to approach frantic. The beach is packed with surfers and optimistic sunbathers. The town is bustling with "whale'd", "hotspring-ed", well fed, happy people. The mind and senses can overload amidst the flurry of activity and it is often easy to overlook the subtle processes that maintain this magnificent place. Although sometimes enigmatic, the forces that shape and sustain the forest are often as amazing as the trees that make it up. So next time you stand next to an ancient cedar staring with awe up at its towering spires take a moment to appreciate and subtle beauty and connectivity of all that which built the forest.
If you would like to learn more about the temperate rainforest, the Raincoast Interpretive Centre will be running rainforest walks at 2pm on Fridays and 10am on Sundays. The Centre, located in downtown Tofino in the Yellow building, is open 12-5pm Tuesday to Sunday and our staff will be on hand to answer any and all questions you have about the forest or ocean.
For more information visit our website www.tofinomudflats.com or call (250) 725-2560.
Salmon bring food and nutrients for as many as 20 vertebrate species, and countless insects and worms. This also marks the largest input of fertilizer that the plants of the forest receive all year.