Beneath us, a flash of crimson. Then another, and another. Soon it's a constant stream; thousands upon thousands of red bodies flow past, nose-to-tail, an undulating linear mass so coherent it resembles an underwater current. Like blood cells flowing in a vein. Life itself.
We all stare, mesmerized, over the side of the freight canoe where it casts a shadowy window onto otherwise sun-spackled Little River. Paddles out of the water, the current pulling us downstream fast between Shuswap and Little Shuswap Lakes, there is only silence as the determined mass of life beneath us surges past in the opposite direction.
"You have to realize I grew up in semi-desert, and water was never my thing," says Frank Antoine, a First Nations guide from nearby Quaaout Lodge and Spa; he sits lodged high in the stern, feet braced in front, eyes riveted on the water. "Now I can't get enough."
This genuine reverence cuts easily through the sportif guide look of a white toque, polarized sunglasses, and river shoes, but we've already long since bought into it. In a dominant year of its four-year cycle such as 2014, the Adams River sockeye run is the largest return of that species to a single river on the planet — a de facto wonder of the natural world.
Like Frank and numerous other folks, we can't get enough, either.
The previous evening, Barb Callihoe, Cultural Coordinator for the Little Shuswap Indian Band toured us through the waypoints of their history with the salmon. Beneath tall ponderosa pines on the grounds of the 30-year-old, band-owned lodge, we stopped by smokehouse drying racks that saw hundreds of salmon preserved a year per family; a pit house in which the stored bounty was consumed over the long, cold winter months; and a sweat lodge where band members would seek purity to talk to spirits. All of this edging the life-giving lake whose steely waters greeted each morning (Quaaout means "when the sun first hits the land") and annually delivered sustenance on an October west wind — "the breath of the salmon," according to elders.
"Salmon runs were a time of plenty in a place where food gathering was hard," she'd noted. "Even when fires wrecked a plant harvest, or there weren't many animals around, you could always count on the salmon."
And it was more than just food. Salmon runs and the weir-building, netting, and spearing that accompanied them offered coming-of-age opportunities for young men and a chance to affirm connections between seasonal and annual food abundance. "We saw the life cycle of a salmon as a reflection of our life cycle as well."
And while sockeye had plenty of the usual hubristic industrial and government folly to contend with — overfishing, the flash dams of early logging, and a massive rockslide due to blasting at the already perilous Hell's Gate on the Fraser River that almost put an end to the Adams River runs — they've rebounded enough that the dominant years of 2010 and 2014 in their four-year cycle (subsequent years are termed "sub-dominant," "shadow one," and "shadow two," respectively) have been cause for celebration — the kind of spectacle the long-running Salute to the Sockeye planners at the Adams River Salmon Society and BC Parks hope for.
At first impression, Salute to the Sockeye offers a carnival atmosphere (hard to avoid when close to a quarter million people make the pilgrimage to view anything over the course of only a few weeks), but the concessions set up in the main parking area of Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park to entertain and feed the many school groups and crowds that peak when the fish do, recede quickly as you head to the river down leaf-paved trails under towering cottonwoods. Whether you catch the end drama of a sockeye's 500 km, 18-to-20-day journey from the Pacific on the main viewing platform, or from one of several water's edge vistas, affinity to people things is instantly replaced by awareness of the connection between how we live and its effect on the natural world. The circularity of the salmon's story of struggle, survival, perseverance and destiny can't help but resonate with us — the very cycle to which Barb also referred.
The park — land originally acquired by the Nature Trust of British Columbia — centres on an area with significant numbers of sockeye and easy access. Given the crowds, potential environmental impact is mitigated by the presence of BC Parks, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, First Nations, and Adams River Salmon Society members. Executive Event Coordinator for the latter, Jeremy Heighton, now heads the festival and personally delivers its interpretive science. He leads and lectures groups on everything from the complexities of morphology (the rhyme and reason behind colour, jaw and other body transformations), to mating (male-male and other fights involved in pairing off) and nesting (how eggs and sperm are released and forced by current into the cobble of a nest finned out by the female, who then heads upstream to fin out another nest whose cobble will cover the previously fertilized eggs), to the disposition of what's left behind (he opens rotting salmon carcasses to offer kids an impromptu anatomy lesson).
We'd visited the main viewing sites early on a Tuesday morning mid-run (the Salute runs October 3 to 26 this year), avoiding the crowds that grow later in the day. Then we'd hiked a couple kilometres through pleasant bottomland forest to Shuswap Lake, the beach punctuated by ghostly forms of spent salmon and the myriad birds feeding on them. There, we'd hopped in the canoe with Frank, skirting the mouth of the Adams where gulping salmon schooled before their final upstream run, and paddled into Little River.
What we witnessed there was stunning enough, but the trip highlight came next morning when we hiked to the Adams River Canyon with Phil of the Shuswap Trail Alliance. From numerous trailside overlooks, we saw salmon both spawning along curving gravel beds, and resting in rock-hemmed teal pools as they prepared to fight up through the gorge. There were no other people but we weren't the only ones watching: ospreys and eagles wheeled in the crisp morning air awaiting their chance, and later bears, marten, and other animals would appear to reap the harvest. Carcasses dragged away and the resultant feces and urine would all serve to fertilize the forest and nearby lakes: ocean-specific isotopes carried upstream by the salmon have been found incorporated in trees up to 500 metres from the river.
And that is the most amazing take-away from a firsthand experience here, a chance to understand the prescient but often forgotten B.C. adage: As go the salmon, so go the forests. What the salmon do in the river is life and death; what they leave for the terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems we all depend on is an echo of everything in between.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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