Every October, salmon return to these waters, where they were born four years earlier. Adams River, halfway between Vancouver and Calgary, is home to the world’s largest return of sockeye salmon to a single river.
Every four years there is a “dominant run” which sees millions of fish travel 500 kilometres from the mouth of the Fraser River on the coast of BC, turning from grey to red over their 21 day swim. In non-dominant years, only hundreds or thousands of fish come back. But the big salmon run attracts big crowds to the rocky shores of the river to watch the sockeye in their last remarkable days of life.
At first glance, the salmon just seem to be hanging out—the red streaks in the river are as still and plentiful as the yellow leaves littering the shoreline. But watch closely and you’ll see a lot of flipping, digging and fighting. On shore, you’ll hear a play-by-play commentary as knowledgeable onlookers describe the action in the river: males moving to females, females laying eggs and others spending their last few days guarding eggs.
“They have seven to 11 days to ‘get ’er done,’ ” says Jeremy Heighton of the Adams River Salmon Society. The females will release a pheromone to attract a male to fertilize the eggs. But there are limited spots in the river’s shallow gravel to lay eggs. “There are only so many seats on the bus,” Heighton explains with a grin. “The rest have to wait at the bus stop.”
We see more than a few holding pools, or Greyhound Stations, where near-exhausted salmon wait for others to die, so they can move in and spawn.
But there’s a happy ending. “It’s a time of plenty, says Barb Callihoe of the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band. “Bears are happy. Eagles are happy. Everybody is happy.”
The bears and eagles and other animals feast on the salmon and help distribute nutrients in the forest that the fish brought all the way from the Pacific Ocean.
The salmon attract a few other critters, too. As many as 250,000 people came to Adams River to see the fish during the 2014 dominant run. The Salute to the Sockeye festival throughout October has parking lot attendants waving salmon-shaped signs to direct traffic.
The locals avoid the crowds and head to the Adams River Canyon Trail. It’s an easy, short hike with spectacular sights: water rushing through a gorge, red salmon waiting and eerie columns of dead grey fish swaying below the surface.
“It’s the beginning or the end, depending on your perspective,” says Heighton.
Indigenous peoples have depended on the salmon’s cycle of life for millennia. You can learn more canoeing from the spawning grounds into Little Shuswap Lake with a First Nations guide from Quaaout Lodge (rhymes with “way out”). As he shouts “Paddles up!” and you drift downstream while fish head the other way, you float above the salmon run First Nations people have been celebrating for thousands of years.
“It’s like getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise again,” says Callihoe.
“We know that the creator still loves us, because we’re getting the salmon back.”