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Imagine you’re a little salmon smolt living your little salmon life in a hatchery with thousand of other salmon. Obviously, you don’t know that your home is a hatchery. But you do know that early one morning you get scooped up and pumped into a big dark tank. Then the tank begins to rumble as it drives down the road. Just when you get used to that the entire thing crashes, flips over, and dumps you out. Sounds like the end of the world, right?

For tens of thousands of salmon in Oregon, this tanker truck crash was just the beginning. By an incredible stroke of luck they got tossed out of the rolling truck and into a creek. These miracle salmon lived to fight another day.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working hard to restock many of its streams with fish. Thirty-three state run hatcheries are raising salmon which are then trucked to rivers to reinforce the wild population. The Lookingglass Hatchery in Northwest Oregon had raised up a population of 102,000 fish for 18 months. And they are finally ready for release this spring. (That’s just 20% of the salmon the state plans to release this year).

So on a cold spring morning, a tanker truck driver left the fishery loaded “to the gills.” Filled with the 102,000 smolts and water, the 53-foot tanker was at its 80,000 pound limit. Leaving the hatchery it completed a sharp corner, then skidded on the dew-covered pavement, rolled onto the passenger side, skidded down a steep bank, and flipped on to its roof.

A school of salmon swimming under water in an Oregon river
Salmon underwater | Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Luckily, the driver only sustained minor injuries. But the truck’s tank broke open and the fish spilled out. The clincher is that the steep bank the truck had tumbled down was the bank above Lookingglass Creek.

Sadly, about 25,525 of these baby salmon landed in the woods, too far from the stream to survive. But thousands landed in the water or on the rocks nearby. Instinct kicked in and they flopped and flipped and worked their way to the water.

Andrew Gibbs is the fish hatchery coordinator for eastern Oregon. So obviously, this was one of the more exciting days of his career. He said, “The silver lining for me is 77,000 did make it into the creek and did not perish…They hit the water running.”

But there’s another silver lining here. These salmon will follow the winter’s meltwater floods down stream, actually tucking in their fins and rocketing toward the ocean backwards to conserve energy. Then they will spend two or three years foraging the Pacific ocean. When they are ready, they will use an amazingly tuned sense of smell to find their way back up the river network, to the stream where they began their journey, to mate and start the next generation. So in a few years, the employees at the Lookingglass Hatchery will get to watch the class of 2024 come home.

See the salmon truck crash for yourself in the video below: