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Amy Choate-Nielsen
Many salmon return to the Russian River in Alaska every year to swim upstream and spawn.

I feel conflicted this time of year.

I don’t decorate much, except at Christmas time. I love shades of silver and red, I love the smell of a freshly cut tree, and I love all of the little touches that remind me of the reason I celebrate the season. But sometimes, as I walk around my house, the decorations remind me that in a few days, I’ll have to put it all away again.

The bowl of ornaments on my counter starts to look like clutter, and the tree drops pine needles all over my floor.

This year, two days after Christmas I was debating if it was time to take it all down. I walked into our living room and found the Christmas tree on its side — someone had knocked it over and fled the scene, afraid to admit their doing.

I immediately knew who the culprit was, but I wasn’t mad. The tree sent a message, loud and clear, that it was time. I scrubbed the black stain from a month’s-worth of dirty pine tree water spilled on the pale blue carpet in the room, and whisked through every room erasing Christmas.

We’re ready to begin a new year.

Except, I feel conflicted about new years.

On the one hand, Jan. 1 is exciting and new, fresh and full of promise. The frost in the air feels sharp and clean, and I am full of motivation and ready to make resolutions. On the other hand, it is just another Monday, and I shudder to think of the headlines that will erupt in 2018.

On our family trip to Alaska this fall, I had a list of things I had always wanted to see. One of the things on my list was a salmon run. Every year, mature salmon travel from the sea to the river in which they were born to lay their eggs. They swim up the stream until they find a suitable gravel bed to leave their offspring, and then their life cycle is complete. The new generation of salmon are born, living in the river for some time until they journey to the sea to grow to maturity when they too will return.

Several days into our trip, we decided to hike along the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula to see what we could see. The hike meandered through a temperate rainforest, past leaves as big as my head, moss as thick as a carpet and mushrooms as pretty as a picture to an overlook of the river rushing underneath. As you might imagine in a rainforest, it was raining. The kids didn’t mind, they loved splashing in the puddles, and I accepted the fact that everything in my backpack was becoming soaked as the droplets streamed down my face.

Bears leave remains of the old fish on the riverbanks; they prefer to eat younger fish. | Amy Choate-Nielsen

In Alaska, the salmon run usually peaks in July, when thousands of fish fight their way upstream to lay their eggs. There are king salmon, coho salmon and sockeye salmon — also known as red salmon. The redder the salmon, the older it is and closer to death. Fishermen and bears know a really red salmon won’t taste very good, and on the banks of the river below the overlook there were piles of deep red flesh that had been scavenged by a bear and left behind. By this time, the bear was only looking to eat the fish’s brains. Fisherman don’t even bother trying to catch these deep red fish, as enormous as they are, because no one wants them.

And yet, the fish is still driven by a will to survive. As I looked down into the river, I saw hundreds of flaming red fish circling below a turbulent section of water cascading down a course of boulders and trees. All of a sudden, a fish would burst out of the water and fling itself upstream, crashing headfirst into a rock and sliding back down to where it started. Some hit the boulders with a force so hard they died instantly, others made that step, but not the next, and they ended back right where they began, waiting for their turn to try again. Again and again, the same huge, old salmon jumped into the gauntlet, against the force of nature, upstream, uphill, up rocks, and I cried a little at the sight. It was raining hard enough no one could tell, but I was inspired.

Sometimes, life really feels like a river pummeling you downstream, where even the effort to take a breath above water feels like an impossibility, but life pushes on. Even if the odds are against you, and you are your only champion, it is possible to face the unknown and do your best when you crash into hard things.

Even if it is just another Monday, and the boulders of a year ahead can seem big and scary, let’s take a leap.