Returning Home: Sockeye Salmon Fight Their Way Upstream

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
The fabled struggle upstream to their spawning grounds is both the end and the beginning of the sockeye salmon life cycle.

Throughout my wandering years Shuswap Lake was the
geographical center around which my life orbited. With
stunning regularity I heard it call and with a deep
yearning I returned to touch down in the place where I
had been born. I returned home.

In 1974, dressed in a massive muskrat coat, high red
boots, and a brimmed hat pinned up at the front with a
serpent brooch, I flew home from Paris. I was 22 years old.
I came home with the smell of roasted chestnuts and Vincent
Van Gogh’s self-portrait still lingering in my mind. I came
home with a treasure chest of stories and an empty purse. I
intended to refill it once I got a job planting trees.

Seeking solitude, I retreated to the beach where I
breathed in deeply the rich and healing air. Sitting on a
rock, I nestled up to the waves and let the swirl of
water wash my mind and restore my peace. This was the
same shore where as a toddler I had tripped, tasted
rocks, and experienced the ecstasy of the blue and green
embrace of the natural world.

Sitting still, I listened to the snow melt. Yet how well
I knew the perils of lingering too long. If spring began
to sway forth, as hypnotic as the flute to a cobra, I
knew that I would get stuck at Shuswap Lake. I wouldn’t
be able to move again. But I was still infatuated with
the faraway and possessed by a restlessness that, if
harnessed, could have moved mountains. But once I set
foot on the shore of Shuswap Lake, I felt myself melt
into the land. I had been deprived of this place for much
of my childhood. After my father died, my mother had
found work in a nearby city and we moved. My sister and
brother had also suffered a lifelong denial of their
birthright-to live and grow beneath the Shuswap sun and
moon. We could only experience it in brief and dazzling
summer displays.

Neither brother nor sister fought the urge to settle
here. They each took a token trip abroad, then promptly
returned and began to build homes and raise families.

The Sockeye Salmon Return Home

Our community recently celebrated a slightly more
significant homecoming–one which has been recurring
for thousands of years-ever since the glaciers of the Ice
Age carved out the land as we now know it. North
Shuswap’s Adams River is home to the world’s largest
return of sockeye salmon to a single river. As many as
300,000 people from dozens of countries come each season
to witness this ritual of return, which peaks every four
years.

On October 17, I caught a ride 18 miles to the Adams
River run. I had chosen what I thought would be a quiet
Monday. Emerging from my friend’s car, I stood baffled by
what is normally a near-empty parking lot. Every inch of
the lot was crammed with cars, while the western edge was
lined with a total of 23 school buses. Before reaching
the river, I passed by a row of five food booths run by
local nonprofit groups; an audio-visual display tent; a
souvenir booth selling books, buttons, T-shirts, posters,
and postcards; and a long row of portable toilets.
Throngs of people milled about and filed down the
footpaths where it was nearly impossible to wander alone.

The sky was pewter and held the promise of later rain. My
first stop was a footbridge, which spanned a side
channel, but through the mesh of people it was a struggle
to even see the water. A parade of people in wheelchairs
filed across the bridge, while nearby mothers who had
volunteered their time fought to bring order to unruly
gangs of students. Choruses of, “Oh, look at the dead
ones!” resounded from the school children, while one boy
with purple braces and a too-loud voice proclaimed, “I
wanna see a fish die!”

Escaping upstream, I paused in front of a sturdy stone
bearing a plaque in honor of Roderick Haig-Brown
(1908-1978), for whom the park was named. Author,
magistrate, and conservationist, Haig-Brown fought long
and hard to preserve this vital birthplace of the sockeye
salmon. It wasn’t until 1989 that the park was granted a
class A status, which gives it the highest level of
protection possible. His passionate poem, “Pacific
Salmon,” is carved in its entirety beneath a relief
carving of Haig-Brown’s shining profile. Somehow I could
sense his presence still, watching the return of the fish
that he loved.

There seemed to be more people than fish as I fought my
way to a quieter spot, passing a freckled boy who was
busy poking at a salmon carcass with a stick. Retreating
from the main route, I scrambled through a stand of
cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir, and arrived in a
surprisingly secluded spot beside the river. Scores of
sockeye salmon flickered through the water, while on the
far shore throngs of fish watchers flowed through the
burnt orange foliage.

The Salmon Struggle Upstream

Vibrating vigorously, sockeye salmon fought their way
upstream. The miracle is that they make it back at all
from an ocean vast and wavering to the very place where
they emerged from the jewel eggs deposited by their
parents. Their sense of territory is made clear by the
spacing of pairs and the furious fights for river bottom.
Bursting through the antique luster of the autumn river,
crimson bodies followed bottle-green snouts. The will to
protect ricocheted through a sleek male, ending with a
saucy whip of the tail. Bloated and decaying bodies
blended with the bottom and washed up on shore. Most
pathetic were the ones still waiting to die, their sides
mottled a sick white, their fins ragged from the terrors
of distant battles for ground. The stench of rotting
flesh permeated the cool air.

My eyes latched on to a battle between two males, and I
realized how much damage their hooked jaws could do. They
dig their nests, engage in combat, mate, lay their eggs,
and die all in one remarkable rush of Chi. What appeared
to be merely a mass of struggling red muscle and fin, of
bulging eyes intent upon their mission, was really the
end of an epic journey.

After leaving the Pacific Ocean, the sockeye salmon had
braved a trip of over 300 miles up the Fraser, Thompson, and
South Thompson rivers. The Adams River is but one small
branch of the Fraser River system. Some scientists
believe that it is their sense of smell that leads them
home to these very waters which serve not only as a
cradle but also as a grave. Dissolved soil and plant
material may give rivers different smells. Yet this
journey is minuscule compared to the one the salmon
engage in at sea, through a wavering wilderness of kelp.
Millions of salmon ancestors have traveled the 2,000-mile
migration route, but no path is ever left behind. Do they
navigate by the stars? By the sun? By the earth’s
magnetic field? Theories abound, but the mystery remains
intact.

Once they have left the ocean, the salmon stop eating and
go through a dramatic physical transformation. The males
mutate into humpbacked monsters. Their teeth protrude and
their snouts become hooked so that it is no longer
possible for them to close their mouths. Devouring their
own stores of body fat, the skin of both sexes turn from
silver to the scarlet red of the carotenoids they fed on
at sea. Swimming an average of 18 miles a day, it takes
the fish about 18 days to swim from the mouth of the
Fraser to their spawning grounds.

When the adult sockeye at last reach home, every movement
is made in the spirit of procreation. Even as they use up
the last of their fat reserves, enzymes have already
begun to rot their flesh. As the females battle for
spawning space and the males fight to protect them, they
have already begun to die.

I watched from the bank as a female searched for a
suitable site to lay her eggs. The site must be
silt-free coarse gravel in moving water so that the
eggs will receive necessary oxygen. Finally ready to
spawn, the female turned on her side, and violently
fanning her tail, she lifted gravel from the bottom,
creating a small depression called a “redd” As the
female settled to the bottom of the nest, her partner
moved in. Shivering, they simultaneously released their
offerings for procreation-a chain of orange pink eggs
from the female while the male released a shower of
milt. Promptly the female darted upstream and dug
another redd. The unearthed gravel drifted downstream
and covered the depression dug prior. Moving steadily
upstream this process was repeated until the female had
laid 3,000 to 4,000 eggs. The female may spawn with
other males as well, but once they have passed their
essence on, they die within days.

The Odds are Against the Salmon

Throughout the entire cycle, the salmon are battling
against considerable odds. Even after the eggs are
deposited they run the risk of being disturbed by
another female digging her redd. They must also be
protected from light and predators. Throughout the
hushed winter months, the river mothers the eggs,
washing waste away from them and nourishing them with
oxygen. Finally, in February, the most curious
creatures emerge. With translucent bodies, the only
solid-looking parts of the alevin are the steel-gray
eye and the poppy-colored yolk-sac. In keeping with the
wisdom of nature, by the time the alevins have absorbed
the nutrients from the yolk-sac, the river has warmed,
luring the silvery fry from their gravel cradles.

Beneath the mantle of night to protect them from
predators, the fry slip downstream to Shuswap Lake.
There they spend one year feeding on plankton and
minute crustaceans. What is tragic is the progressive
toll taken on their numbers. Out of four thousand eggs
laid by each female, only 800 hatch and survive to fry
stage. After one year in the lake, at the mercy of
predatory jaws and other perils, only 200 fry remain.

The next spring, the surviving fish–now graduated
to the status of smolts–migrate to the Pacific
Ocean. Before entering the ocean, however, they linger
in estuaries or cling to the coast, adjusting to the
salinity. A mere seven to 10 survive the hazards at
sea, and once the fishermen and other predators have
struck, a stunning two sockeye salmon return home to
spawn.

Throughout the peak season, provincial papers and
radios buzzed with speculation about the “missing
salmon.” Some termed them paper salmon and attributed
the low numbers to miscalculations. Others blamed
overfishing, warmer water temperatures, and a host of
other factors.

The decline in numbers contrasts sharply with early
accounts from the 1800s, which spoke of multiple runs
every year. The sockeye salmon would fill the rivers
from shore to shore, with the passing of thousands in
an hour accompanied by a fierce noise like the roar of
a storm, and succeeded by a series of vigorous waves.
According to Shuswap Indian lore, the arrival of the
sockeye run was heralded by the singing of crickets and
a west wind that began to blow steadily around the
first week of October. This wind was known by the
elders as “the breath of the salmon” and it helped to
dry the salmon on the racks.

Unfortunately, from 1908 until 1922 a logging company
tampered with nature in a way that caused permanent
damage to the sockeye runs. At the head of the Adams
River, at the outlet of Adams Lake, a splash dam was
built. With it the company created flash floods to move
the logs down to the Shuswap Lake market. Each time a
massive wall of wood and water hurled downstream, the
salmon in its path were either killed outright or swept
away. Even the eggs left by those that managed to spawn
were either scoured from the river bottom or were left
as exposed offerings to the elements and predators.

To complicate matters, in 1913 a landslide caused by
railroad construction at Hell’s Gate constricted the
salmon’s passage up the Fraser River. Finally, in 1922,
the brutal creation of the flash floods came to an end,
but for the Upper Adams River run it was too late.
Exhausted from battling the barrier, the salmon finally
succumbed and came no more. Historically, it was
thought to be a larger run than the lower Adams run,
which people flock to view today.

In our modern world, every inch of the way wild salmon
are under siege, be it by logging, pollution, urban
development, the controversial practice of aquaculture,
dams, water diversion and overfishing. All of these
threats are caused and can be controlled only by the
human race.

For many of the local people, the Adams River salmon
run means little besides traffic congestion and delays
crossing the Adams River bridge. I’ve heard it
described as “boring,” “too commercial,” and
“overblown:” Many don’t even venture forth to view this
world-class attraction. Some of the old-timers simply
shake their heads and laugh at the fools that come to
gawk at a bunch of fish. The booths within the park are
nonprofit, a policy which prevents residents from
benefiting economically from the influx of tourists
into an area just regaining its peace after the summer
invasion, but I know of one enterprising young woman
who sold T-shirts in nearby Chase bearing the slogans
“Sex to Die For” and “Spawn ’til You’re Gone.”
Throughout the season the ceiling of my son Ben’s grade
3-4 classroom was encircled by the life cycle of the
salmon. Besides a trip to the run, the students made
and painted the paper salmon dangling above them and
also wrote stories about them. What young Christopher
Adams found most interesting about the run was “I
couldn’t believe how few fish there were. Four years
ago you couldn’t even see the bottom.” Words of a
future environmentalist, I hope.

Late in the afternoon before leaving the run, I saw an
elderly woman with pearl earrings viewing the fish with
a Kleenex held over her nose. Staring into the wrinkled
water, she read death in the hieroglyphics of salmon
bodies going through their final earth turnings. I
think we both felt fresh appreciation for the life
breath that flowed through us still. Returning home was
an end for me, but also a beginning.

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