Adams River Salmon Run
The winds have turned the sunburned leaves
vanilla hills grow brittle coats
a last strong cry to face the winter
rise up from their crimson throats
their breaths like songs dancing on water
Adams River drums in time,
the current draws them fiercely under
the season of innocence flies
A flash of red
the waters churn
against the flow a steady burn
life has come: death’s on its turn
salmon run, sockeye salmon run
— Amie Hepher, Salmon Hymn, 2010
Over the past five years, I have tried to explore the Okanagan as much as possible. Part of this was for exercise, the other part was focusing on relaxation, mindfulness, and finding my inner quiet. Last month, I found myself exploring the Shuswap area, specifically Adams River, to catch the end of the Pacific sockeye salmon run.
Adams River is about two hours north of Kelowna, east of Kamloops, and empties into the Shuswap lakes surrounding Salmon Arm, Sicamous, and other little communities. From there, the water flows into the Thompson River and then Fraser River, ending up in the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver. Each way is roughly 2,000 kilometres for the salmon making the journey. Every four years is a dominant year when the numbers of salmon reaching the Adams River explodes. During the last count in 2010, 34 million fish started the journey at the mouth of the Fraser, nearly 4 million reached Adams River. It’s one of the largest runs in North America.
The history of the Shuswap region is quite interesting and worth looking into in the future. The Sxste’lln people have lived in the region for millennia. The Adams River Lumber Company was one of the first and largest European ventures in the British Columbia Interior, established at the beginning of the 20th century. Tsútswecw Provincial Park, formerly Roderick Haig-Brown Park , was established in 1989 and surrounds Adams River to protect the spawning grounds of the salmon.
During the peak of the salmon run, between the end of September and mid-October, there is a salmon festival held each weekend at the provincial park. I happened to go on the final Saturday the festival was being held. I thought it would be quieter given it was towards the end of the salmon run, but I was wrong. The parking lot was full of vehicles, plenty of people milling around the concession stands, and still more people found on the trails. The festival is quite organized with volunteers to greet you at the main gate and on the grounds. I was quite impressed.
I walked down the path into the old growth forest and was simply amazed. The cedar trees rose high into the sky, the foliage was dense around the forest floor, and sunlight still managed to seep through the canopy leaves to light up the floor. The golden leaves still clung to the trees, causing the forest to be even brighter than normal. It was simply amazing.
It was also quiet. Very quiet.
No planes overhead, no noises from cars travelling quickly on the nearby Highway 1, nothing. Every now and then, I could hear the footsteps and chatter of people, but otherwise it was quiet. The kind of quiet I enjoy most.
The trail opened up to the smaller tributaries and marshland. Quite the contrast from the covered and lush forest. The more I walked, the more I could hear a hint of the rushing river nearby. Finally, it opened up, and I could see for the first time the white caps of the river as it thrashed against the rocks flowing into the lake just around the bend. A pocket of the river stretched inland, creating a calm pond. Looking closely, I caught a glimpse of red shimmering under the water. When the sunshine hid behind the clouds, I could see the salmon swimming around quietly while they regained the energy required to take on the next step of their journey.
I followed the trail down to the beach on the lakeshore, again, an incredible sight to see. Okanagan Lake, while incredibly long, is not very wide, nor does it have a lot of arms going off. Shuswap Lake is different. It’s a sprawling lake, arms jutting off in every direction, making it seem much larger than Okanagan Lake even though they are both very similar in size.
The sunshine was bright, pulling a decent crowd to the shores. People were kayaking, practicing their white water rafting skills, and kids learning how to swim in wetsuits while wearing snorkels. The shores were also filling up with the salmon in different stages of decay. It was a lesson in biology for anyone that was curious enough to lean in more closely.
Retracing my steps, I walked close to the river with the dense forest on my other side. When I could get closer to the water’s edge, peering over I could see a few salmon swimming against the current. Looking out past them, however, allowed me to see a pool of red moving together under the water. It was dark enough to look like it was the bottom of the river, but the green dorsal fins told me that they were indeed salmon clumping together. It was too difficult to take a photograph of them with the light hitting the top of the water. Instead, the image of hundreds of salmon swimming together will be imprinted into my mind for years to come.
As the sun started to dip down further, it was time to make the journey home. The parking lot was now nearly empty, vendors packed up, and volunteers gone. Only a handful of people remained walking around plus a few security guards. With it being so quiet now, I was able to drive a little slower down the road to take in the scenery. As I drove over the Adams River bridge and along some old farmland, I could see the clouds starting to change colours. The gas pedal went down to the floor a little further and I rushed to get to the next bridge crossing over the river connecting the Shuswap Lakes.
I pulled over to take it all in: a golden sky, calm waters, and colour everywhere my eyes looked. It was a fitting end to my journey to see the salmon run. I can’t wait to return there again next fall.