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Home Run

Oct 25 2010

I had always thought that people exaggerate when they say that every four years in the fall, the Adams River turns red when millions of bright red sockeye salmon return to their home river to spawn and die. I have lived in British Columbia for 12 years but never managed to be at the Adams River at the right time. This year, I finally made it for the peak run year of the sockeye salmon in October. And I saw red! Fish were packed so tight on top of each other in the river that they could not move. They looked like underwater painted rail tracks, green heads pushing forward, tails slapping on the water and catching sun rays.


They say it is the run of the century, and while the salmon was running in the water to spawn, people were running with the fish too, above water, rushing to see the most poignant act of nature. People from all ages, nationalities, and walks of life came to experience, like myself, the salmon first-hand and witness the completion of the salmon's miraculous and improbable journey to their home spawning grounds. I saw a little girl draw pictures of salmon, an elderly couple hold hands and quietly watch the river, and a shuswap grandmother teach her grandsons how to gently touch the salmon. In this moment we became all united, in awe.


I spent many hours walking the trails of Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, and one of my favourite spots was the river mouth where I watched the salmon enter the Adams River from Shuswap Lake. We often think of the extreme determination and fighting energy of the salmon when they swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds. No matter what obstacles they find on their way, they just keep going until they reach their final destination. Yet at the river mouth, I saw something else in the salmon's journey. There, the salmon meet their fate, as they have to go through extremely shallow water to get into the river. It is a difficult and scary step for the salmon to take because they have to swim quite a distance with their bodies literally out of the water. I saw them advance with caution, getting ready like athletes for the hurdle ahead. I could almost feel their heart flutter as they were circling around, hesitating to go. And then suddenly they took off, launching themselves out of the water like a transient orca whale stranding itself on the beach to capture a sea lion pup in Argentina. And once the salmon started running, they were unstoppable sprinters, running extremely fast like a high-speed train.


Unstoppable sprinters and yet so easily stopped by us, humans. It was a sunny day, and as I was coming closer to the river to photograph the salmon on its finish line, my shadow reflected on the water, spooking one of the fish who became disoriented and turned back, hopelessly floating on the surface of the water. I was heartbroken, feeling the huge impact I just had on this fish. I immediately took a few steps back, put the camera down, and stared at the fish, barely moving in the shallow water. It was almost as if the fish had lost all hope after this tremendous effort, all for nothing. A few people congregated around the river and watched that fish with me, holding their breaths and wondering if the fish was actually going to make it. In that moment, I could feel the tension and the deep connection between the people and the salmon. We could not stand to see that fish NOT make it. After minutes that seemed like hours, the fish finally managed to regain some strength, swam towards deeper water to rest for a short while, and went for it again, successfully this time, with us cheering for the salmon's survival.


Among the thousands of salmon I saw at Adams River, this one fish made me deeply understand how fragile the balance of nature is and how easily we can disrupt it. That fish made it, but it is our responsibility to ensure that the salmon as a species makes it, as well as all the species and ecosystems that depend on salmon.


We can all make a difference now. Stand up for BC's endangered wildlife and tell our political leaders that our province needs a law to protect species at risk.


-- Isabelle Groc for the Wilderness Committee

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