Salmon Run at Adams River, British Columbia

Sockeye Salmon at Adams River, British Columbia

The sockeye salmon are migrating back to the waters to spawn where they were born 4 years ago. Legend has it that First Nations people used to be able to cross the river on the backs of spawning salmon, because there were so many. This year is estimated to be the biggest migration back to the Shuswap waters and Adams River (75 kms east of Kamloops, British Columbia) in recorded history. As reported in the Kamloops Daily News, on August 25, 2010:

“…. More than 25 million fish are on the move into the river, headed for spawning grounds throughout the Interior. More than 16 million of the Fraser River fish are bound for runs in the Shuswap, including the Adams River. … native and sport anglers will likely harvest 40 per cent or so of those fish. The rest, however, are expected to arrive on the spawning grounds, meaning more than eight million fish could be in the Adams River this October. This is the largest return in the sockeye’s four-year spawning cycle, but this year’s estimates are much larger than past peaks. In 2006, 2.5 million fish returned. In 2002, 5.5 million came back. … Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to head for the park to take in the natural spectacle, billed as the largest run of spawning fish in the world.

Wow. And I live so close! And I’m a digital photographer! When I heard this news, I promised myself that I would go view this event for myself. After all, I may never have a chance to see such a sight again. So, on Thanksgiving Day, I went. I forced myself out of bed when it was still dark outside. And I was on the road for the one hour drive when it was still dark. I wanted to be there early, because I’d heard that many tourists were coming to Roderick Haig Brown Provincial Park, from as far as Japan, England, and other countries too. Parking would not be allowed on the road leading into the park. The parking lots would probably be full, in spite of the fee being charged. I wanted to be there early – before the crowds, to make sure I would get good parking. I planned to be there the full day, so I could hike the trails in search of the best photography spots.

I arrived shortly after 7 am, just as the sun was rising over the mountains and the mist was slowly evaporating off Shuswap Lake. A bright sunny day – a real treat after the days of rain we’d had before. But a bright sunny day is not necessarily the best condition in which to photograph fish under water, even shallow water. Light reflection on the water surface obscures the scene below. A circular polarizing filter is required on the lens to cut through the glare. Bright sun in front of you blinds you, making it difficult to see through the viewfinder, and fools the digital sensor into bad exposure.  So…  get the sun behind you. But not easy, as it requires crossing the water, not desirable when you’re not wearing tall waterproof boots. Yeah – so I got my feet wet a couple of times.

What an amazing experience. The sound of rushing water, and the slap slap of salmon tails as they struggled their way upstream, to get to their destination, who knows where. I stood and watched these amazing fish… as they made a “run for it” over boulders and the bodies of other dead fish in shallow water, as they struggled against the current. Many succeeded. And I watched as a few failed to get past the boulders, as they flopped over on their sides, gasping, as they drifted backstream with the current, too weak to resist. And I watched with surprise, as a few seemed to have no trouble getting over and past the boulders but promptly let the current carry them back to where they came from, as if they thought “that was fun… AGAIN!” And I watched as more than one salmon floated on its side for long periods of time, almost motionless, in water so shallow, and so still I thought it would die right in front of me. I felt tears rise, and I resisted the strong urge to gently nudge the fish back into deeper water. This is what is supposed to happen. Don’t interfere. But no, it was not time yet. A few minutes later, the salmon would give a big flop, and swim back downstream in order to make “another run for it”.

I spent 7 hours there. I had planned on hiking the trails, but found that there was plenty for me to see in less than a 5 minute walk. When I arrived, it was quite peaceful and quiet. When I left at 2 in the afternoon, I had to fight for space on the trail back to my vehicle. And negotiate my way past the cop directing traffic in and out of the busy parking lot. It was a day well spent. As I view the photos I captured that day, I still feel the emotion I experienced. I may go back …

Learn more about the salmon run from the Adams River Salmon Society.
Note: This web site was not available when I acquired the link for this article. When I visited the site 1.5 weeks ago, the photo galleries were disabled due to heavy traffic on the site.

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