Big, neon-red sockeye salmon with green heads and hooked jaws stream north along the Canadian bank, massed in slack water, shooting into the current upstream, swimming low among the boulders, then rising and resting in the shallows before they tackle the white water just ahead. Already, their carcasses, faded to gray, litter the rocks and gravel of an island toward the other side. The fish form a river within the river, a submerged current of red. They just keep coming. I recall the third stanza of Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli":
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword. . .
The return of the salmon to rivers large and small is, of course, a Northwestern commonplace. But can this seasonal appearance of big fish in small streams, of bright red males competing to fertilize the eggs pinkly visible in the gravel, their bodies half out of the shallow water, chasing each other across the rocks, ever be really commonplace? Certainly, there's nothing commonplace about seeing this many fish. They make you think this is the way it used to be. And this is the way it should be.
The Adams flows south through Shuswap Lake to the south fork of the Thompson River, then to the Fraser and ultimately to salt water, 250 miles away. In a good year, the Fraser River sockeye run dwarfs any other salmon run south of Alaska, and the Fraser's largest spawning population swarms into the Adams River. Every fourth year, when the sockeye run peaks, locals hold an October “Salute to the Sockeye” at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. (Haig-Brown was a writer, conservationist and fly fisherman who died in 1976.) Each morning, yellow school buses bounce into the grass parking area. Young kids ride their parents' shoulders to the river bank. People push wheelchairs along the dirt trails. Indians sell fry bread from trailers. It's an event.
Look at the fishie, says an excited grade-schooler on a field trip, spotting a red torpedo shape in the water. A teenager on a field trip of his own peers into the shallows and exclaims, they're feakin' big! They are indeed, although even the largest is a lot smaller than the dark bulk of the occasional chinook that lurks in the clear water beside them. (Now that Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook populations have been pushed to the list of threatened and endangered species, Fraser River chinook have become the Southern Resident Killer Whales' — i.e., Puget Sound orcas' — main nosh.)
These fish have followed clockwise gyres through the Pacific, swimming south past Southeast Alaska, then either east or west of Vancouver Island, passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the Johnstone Strait on their way to the Fraser.
An estimated 34.5 million sockeye returned to the big river this year. An estimated 24 million of them were destined for the Shuswap area, primarily to the Adams. The government won't yet take a stab at the number that made it all the way back there, but even if you take out a percentage for Indian and other fishing and for natural deaths along the way, you still have an awful lot of fish.
This is the largest Fraser River run since 1913, the year before a rockslide caused by blasting for railroad construction in Hell's Gate, near Hope, B.C., largely blocked the Fraser to upstream migration. (More sockeye return regularly to Alaska's Bristol Bay, but they're heading for nine different river systems.) Viewed another way, no one younger than about 100 can remember seeing so many sockeye in the Fraser or its tributaries.
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