For most of us, lox and bagels are the closest we ever come to the humble salmon. We've consumed their smoked, pink flesh for years at Bar Mitzvahs and Sunday brunches, but to really know these tenacious fish, you have to get down onto their level and see just where they come from, and the odds of their survival.
Clad in a thick neoprene wet suit, I'm about to do precisely this as I prepare to enter the chilly waters of the Campbell River on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Here, I will lie face down in the water, arms outstretched Superman-style, and let the current carry me six miles downstream like a leaf in the breeze.
Armed with a mask and snorkel, I surrender myself to the cold and try to calm my fast-beating heart and focus on the scenery beneath me.
The first thing I learn is that the current moves fast, carrying me with it on a speedy journey over churning whitewater and calmer eddies that range from 3 to 15 feet in depth. Relax your body and the current does the work, but try to stand or swim in this brisk river and your limbs get bruised on the sharp rocks that line its floor. Some are tiny, and pose no harm. Others are the size of a vehicle, and can cause serious damage should you careen into them.
But it's not the rocks I've come to see, it's the salmon. The Campbell River is unique in that it shelters five different salmon species at various times of the year: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink. Unlike my effortless sojourn downstream, theirs is more serious.
Live Free or Die!
After spending anywhere from two to six years in the open sea, they're now swimming against the current of a freshwater stream with one thing on their minds: to spawn. Once they've laid their eggs, they will give up the fight and expire in the same eddies and crevices where they entered the world.
Between July and October, the river swarms with salmon, some weighing up to 60 pounds. In July alone, 165,000 salmon will thrash through the water, surrounding the few snorkelers who venture this way.
Used to the soft, pink texture of their meat, I'm amazed by their beauty in the water — the rainbow-like color of their scales reflected in the sunlight, the litheness with which they move, and their virtual oblivion to me and my group as we float above them.
It would be downright hazardous to venture into this water alone, which is why I've joined the only adventure outfitter that plies these waters. Campbell River Snorkel Tours leads two groups a day on its snorkeling excursions, ensuring that there is one guide for every four snorkelers, armed with a boogie board and swiftwater rescue skills.
My guide, Catherine Temple, the previous company owner, is ecotourism personified. She searched long and hard before she found Brad Brock to take over her growing business in January 2006. "I interviewed other possible buyers, but I had to find someone who actually cared about the health of the river and its salmon more than they cared about making a fast buck," confessed Temple.
Brock shares her convictions that the snorkeling groups be kept no larger than 15 and restricted to twice-a-day excursions to limit their impact on the salmon. "We don't want to scare the fish," insists Brock.
The trips are focused on salmon appreciation and guides show participants how to distinguish between the salmon species and relay the challenges they face as their numbers decline.
Brave the cold river as the salmon weave their way through the water beside you, you find yourself humbled by its timeless beauty. This journey to spawn that ends, inevitably, in death, is one these fish have taken since time immemorial.
All ready, the bald eagles are circling, waiting expectantly for their salmon-on-the-rocks, meals that will move down the food chain and keep the circle of life intact — for now, at least. Thrust yourself into the current and you catch a brief glimpse of that precious circle in motion.
For information, go to: www.campbellrivertourism.bc.ca.