Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Salmon connections

Photos Isabelle Groc, Tidelife Photography.

It was, we were told, the run of the century. So we decided to give ourselves adequate time at the Adams River. We settled for three full days with nothing else to do but sit with the sockeye and watch them undergo their magnificent transformation.

We walked off the parking lot and onto the river trail and realized right away that this year was of a different order of magnitude. We were stunned. The river was filled with thousands upon thousands of sockeye grouped in gigantic schools every two to three hundred meters, which were so dense that they looked like herring balls. I had been to the Adams four times already, but for the first time I was seeing the red river that elders sometimes talk about and which I had, until now, dismissed as a legend.

The other striking anomaly was the number of people massed on the river banks. I was habituated from previous years to walk the Adams in virtual solitude. This time, my family and I had to struggle to make our way through the crowd. There were many bodies in the water for sure, but also many bodies standing out of it. All these people staring and pointing and smiling at the salmon: if there ever existed tangible connections between humans and salmon, I was surely looking at one.

Kids were pulling their parents by the sleeve crying 'This way!' with their strident high-pitched voices. An old man who was hooked up to a respiration system was wheeling his bulky oxygen bottle along the bumpy trail towards the river bank. High-end urban people dressed in designer fashion clothes were rubbing shoulders with local folks dressed like you and me. Thomson River University students were exchanging amused comments with a congregation of nuns. Canada was standing on the banks of that river, and so too was the rest of the world if one believed the world map at the main entrance where people were invited to pin their place of origin and which was, literally, overflowing with pins.

The salmon, for their part, were oblivious of this human run taking place above their heads. Or were they? A badly diseased female – her decaying skin literally peeling off her head – was stubbornly guarding her nest in spite of a group of onlookers standing no more than four feet away from her. When a little girl came running down towards the bank, however, the fish took off like an arrow. The girl screeched to a standstill having realized the commotion she had caused in the water, and the fish came back. They were definitely watching our every move and we were no doubt impacting them.

The powerful stench of decaying dead fish was actually pleasant to my nose, probably because of its distinctive oceanic character which I was surprised and stimulated to find here, some five hundred kilometers away from the shoreline. One of the sockeye's many great powers is its ability to bend the laws of geography by turning a remote BC Interior area such as the Shuswap into a coastal region for an entire month every year.

At lunch, I sat down with a retired couple who had traveled from Penticton to salute the salmon. I wonder, I asked them, if people come here because they are just curious or because they are truly impacted by the salmon. I think it's a bit of both, the man replied. And if they arrived just curious they will leave impacted, he added.

People who visit the Adams for longer than an afternoon soon realize that the place is smaller than it appears and can easily be covered on foot. So they relax and usually settle for one or two personal favorite spots where they linger, come back, identify specific individuals among the masses of salmon, and start noticing the subtle and stunningly beautiful details of a sockeye's final hours.

In one of my own favorite spots, I focused on a salmon couple guarding their nest. I had known for some time that sockeye could be pretty aggressive animals. What I noticed this time around was the other side of that reality –  companionship. There was a strict division of labor between that male and that female as they fought off intruders. The female chased other females, the male other males. They almost never attacked the opposite sex, except in one instance when the male appeared to be in trouble, to which the female immediately responded by bravely stepping into the fight. Another observation drew me closer to those two fish than I could expect. Every time one of the two partners chased off an intruder, it would then perform a full circle to come back to the nest from behind and, upon arrival, it would give a quick rub to the other, as if to say ‘I'm back’.

It is not all just happy and nice at the Adams River. One group of people who could definitely use a little more relaxation and observation time in their own personal favorite spots are the so-called underwater “wildlife photographers”. I use quotes here because, frankly, those particular photographers which I got to observe at the Adams didn't appear to care much about their subject. I saw many of them walk or stand in spawned sections of the river, destroying nests, chasing salmon away, and producing plumes of silt in their wake.

I confronted one of those individuals who brushed me off as an ignorant moron. Some “wildlife photographers” clearly believe that the basic rules of conservation do not apply to them, perhaps because they feel that what they are doing is far too important to have to worry about such petty details as not stepping on eggs, or perhaps because they take comfort in carrying around some pretty expensive phallic-shaped objects. I don't know and frankly I don't care, but I do know that their mindset is that of trophy hunters, not “wildlife photographers”. Those who act in such ways are parasites to the wildlife that they claim to photograph. I wish that the profession would crack down more forcefully on these rogue individuals through peer pressure and ostracism if needed.

My wife told me of another physical encounter between human and salmon that she witnessed, and which took on a whole different meaning. A Shuswap elder woman came down to the river with her grandson to salute the sockeye. She showed him how to touch a fish without startling it. It was, according to my wife, a very delicate, technical, and gradual process which the little boy carried out successfully. The salmon did not move as it was being gently stroked. Shushwap elder woman and her grandson on the one hand, Canon-bearing trophy hunters on the other. Two colliding and incompatible worldviews, one respectful and the other one not, yet both involving a physical interaction with the animal.

Another favorite spot of my wife and myself is the river mouth where the salmon enter into the Adams River from Shuswap Lake. There is an extremely shallow stretch of water there, about 10 meters long and perhaps two inches deep, which the salmon must cross in order to reach the river. They are forced to get literally out of the water and dash their way to safety. A sockeye sprinting above the surface of the water is more exhilarating to watch than the Olympic 100 meters final.

Because that river mouth is so treacherously shallow, the sockeye were particularly careful when entering it. They would gather at its entrance and wait, sometimes for hours, conflicted between their instinct of reproduction which told them Go! and that of survival which told them Don't! As new salmon kept arriving from the lake behind (the run was not yet finished), the waiting party would gradually grow until it would reach a critical mass. At that point one fish bolder than the others would venture into the river mouth, immediately followed by a bunch of others. And so, following the principle of force in numbers, the sockeye would almost always enter the Adams River as a group.

In a sense this is where we activists are today – at the mouth of the river, frightened by invisible corporate predators and ill-defined legal threats, waiting for one if us to make the first move. That one, historically, has been Alexandra Morton in the battle for wild salmon. Rather than a “leader”, she is better described as an individual who is bolder and more determined than most of us. She has made that first move, and now we are all seizing the opportunity to make a run with her. That was the meaning of Alex's march to the Victoria legislature last May. It is the meaning of this week's paddle down the Fraser River, and the ensuing walk to the Cohen Commission in downtown Vancouver next Monday. If only we were able to show up in great numbers in one location, as the Adams sockeye did this year, we would be an irresistible force indeed.

For the next few nights after this, I dream of the sockeye. You are home, I tell them. Do what you have to do, and come back. We are lost without you.

This weekend's calendar of events

What: Celebration at Jericho Beach to Welcome the Paddle
When: Sunday, October 24, 2010 - 12:00 - 16:00
WhereJericho Beach, Vancouver

What: Stand up for Justice for Wild Salmon (Cohen Commission)
When: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 10:00 - 15:00
Where: Vanier Park, then 701 W. Georgia, then Vancouver Art Gallery



  1. Thanks so much, Ivan. I won't make it to the Adams to see this, but your account has helped me feel it in my bones. Blessings and gratitude for this incredible abundance.

  2. Bravo, Ivan, another amazingly written and poignant account. See you on Sunday! Linda D.

  3. Thanks for telling the story of your time up there Ivan. My wife Michele and I went up this weekend just for an afternoon. I'd never seen it before-- beautiful, smelly, inspiring. Glad you got to spend a few days up there. And sorry we didn't see that Shuswap Lake stretch with the salmon sprinting the shallows... great image.

  4. Ivan, I really enjoyed your article.

    As a travel blogger, I've seen more than my share of “wildlife photographers” who seem totally disconnected from what they're trying to capture. I personally think that it's all part of the Disneyfication (for lack of a better word) of the natural world by the media, theme parks, etc. People are so used to seeing wildlife as a venue for amusement or entertainment that it's difficult for them to step back and see the broader picture; that nature and the wild exists not just for mankind's amusement.

    I especially loved your description of the Shuswap elder and her grandson, and their approach to the wild salmon.