Every year, Pacific sockeye salmon swim from the ocean up into the very rivers and tributaries in which they were hatched. Then they find a mate, spawn, and die. Millions of them, especially during the dominant run, which takes place every four years. Each female salmon will lay about 4000 eggs, of which only two will survive to close the circle of this incredible migration. Channel Elton John here: “The Circle of Life.” Once the breeding is complete, the salmon’s bright red spawning colour will fade to grey, and with their strength exhausted, they’ll float downriver, feeding all manner of wildlife along the way. I wrote about this natural phenomenon in my “Snorkel with Salmon” chapter, but this weekend I went to see the migration at the most famous spot to see it. It’s called the Adams River, and it’s located about an hour outside of the city of Kamloops, BC. I wasn’t alone either. Each Thanksgiving weekend, up to 250,000 people visit the Salute the Sockeye Festival.
Highway 5, aka the Coquihalla aka the Yellowhead Highway, is one of those drives you don’t forget in a hurry. The scenery is staggering (especially in the mountains of Coquihalla Pass, especially in Fall), and then gets even better when you enter the Okanagan. With good weather and multiple lanes, it took us less than four hours to reach Kamloops, population 80,000, a city I’ll be talking about more in my upcoming book, The Great Western Canada Bucket List. We checked out bags into the friendly Ramada, and headed off to Sun Rivers Golf Course, just across the mighty Thompson River, for a pastime called Foot Golf. Occasionally interrupted by muscular free-roaming big-horned sheep, the goal (ahem) is to kick a soccer ball into a hole with as few kicks as possible, just like golf. That it takes place on an actual golf course, with balls landing in bunkers and with the aid of a golf cart, is all the more fun. It is way easier than golf, and I even managed to birdie a few holes. My brother won by one stroke. The big horned sheep were very impressed.
We headed off to see Kamloops Blazer Junior League hockey game, feasted on chicken wings at the new Shark Club opposite (with the largest sports screen I’ve ever seen) and before the weekend was out, frequented my favourite spot in Kamloops, the Noble Pig Brewhouse, twice. Crispy fried pickles, burgers, bison curry, and several taster flights of their beer. My favourite: the Chocolate Porter. But we came for the salmon and the salmon is where we shall go, driving on the Trans-Canada towards Jasper, turning off towards Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. We continued driving past the carpark towards Shuswap Lake Provincial Park, where we met the lovely Barb of Shuswap Unique Adventure Tours. Barb leads off-road Segway tours into both provincial parks, and if you’ve never zipped about on a Segway, doing it among fall foliage, alongside a sparkling lake, and through leafy tree tunnels is certainly the way to do it. Barb also provided some invaluable local information for viewing the salmon on Adams River, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy schools of blood-red salmon in their mating death throes.
To see the fish clearly, polarized sunglasses are a must. And don’t worry, everyone is struggling to take good photos, unless you have a polarized lens, or you’re the keener with a wetsuit and underwater camera. We bumped into travel writer/photographer Darryl Lenuik, who wrote a cover story about the Adams River Sockeye Run for Westworld Magazine, which inspired our trip. He was leading a group of German photographers, some of whom were visiting Canada just for the salmon viewing. The experience reminded me of fishing in fall on a turquoise river in Alaska, and watching bears gorge on salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest. All in, a lovely way to spend a sunny Sunday morning.
80% of the nitrogen in the soil of BC’s coastal rainforest can be traced back to the salmon migration. Their spent bodies feed up to 200 animal, plant, and insect species in the forest. Locked into a life cycle beyond our understanding, salmon are vital for the health of our environment. It’s why oil spills, building developments, overfishing and farmed salmon diseases wreck havoc beyond their fishy scales. As our First Nations friends will tell us, everything is connected. Next fall, you might consider connecting with the multitudes of sockeye salmon, and the people who travel from around the world to see them.