Short Salmon Story

Robbin Whachell’s Rivershed Story

I moved back to my homeland, Canada, from the Bahamas in 2011 and settled in the west coast city of Coquitlam, in British Columbia. The City’s name comes from the Coast Salish First Nation word, “Kwikwetlem” which means, “red fish up the river.” Coquitlam is a beautiful city nestled on the edge of mountains. At the top of the mountains are glacier lakes that run down into creeks, streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Pacific Ocean.

At the time, I was living above the clouds in a high rise, and one October day I headed out for a walk exploring, trying to find a hiking trail I’d heard of. I had a lot on my mind that day, and remember feeling overwhelmed with my life and current struggles. I walked down the busy city street, and it wasn’t long before I heard splashing sounds. I had not even realised there was a creek situated in that area. There was a small bridge along the sidewalk and I walked up to see what was causing the splashing.

In the pool below the bridge, I saw 3-4 large salmon. I was shocked at their size! I had heard about the salmon returns, but had never seen a living salmon before. I must have imagined that salmon lived in some far off place, and not right here, below my feet, as cars zoomed past behind me.

I stood at the spot for a long while watching the salmon. I was in total awe of what I saw. Their size was incredible, but it was their struggle that really moved me. Within the pool which was only about a foot deep, the toughest salmon were vying to make their way further upstream. I watched as each would poise themselves, then a dominant one would stand out, and once it had mustered enough energy, it would push off the others, and bolt forward over the rocks. They flipped their tails with such strength that it propelled them across shallows that appeared to be only a few inches deep at best, literally moving over dry rocky patches up to 6 feet in distance.

Their struggle was apparent, as their bodies were scratched and scarred, visibly carrying their journey upon them. Sometimes the burst of energy was not enough to get them to the next pool of safety, and they would retreat, rest, and try again. I realized what I was witnessing was a ‘play on life.’  The thoughts and emotions that I had been feeling that day about my own life, now gave way to the struggle of the salmon. It gave me comfort to know that I was not alone.

I wanted to get closer, so I left the sidewalk and went into the trees to get to the water’s edge. A saw so much more there, as further down there were dead and decaying salmon, some laying across rocks or twisted around fallen branches. I could smell them and see their eggs among the smaller rocks in the stream. The watershed is definitely the birth canal of the salmon.

To see the salmon’s demise was a moving experience. All that struggle, just to end up dead. But even in their death, they support life around them, as their decaying flesh feeds insects, birds, things living within the water itself, while enriching the soil for the plant life.

After death is the promise of new life, as their offspring, large salmon eggs lay among the gravel.

I returned home, excited as a child who had just come from a school field trip that day and told all my family and friends. I returned to view the salmon again and again.

Winter came…and the next year I moved from an apartment into a house in the same city. I had no idea that just a block away and into the woods, there was another waterway, called Hoy Creek. That May I heard about the “Salmon Leave Home” event on social media. It was pouring rain that day, but I geared up, grabbed my camera and headed to the Hoy Creek hatchery, a building I had walked past many times, but had no real concept of what it was used for.

There I met some of the volunteers of the Hoy-Scott Watershed Society and I witnessed a few local children going to and fro carrying buckets full of 6-inch coho salmon smolts to the creek. I told one of the volunteers I was a writer and asked many questions. Another member asked if I was interested in volunteering with them and before I knew it my name was down.

The rest is history as they say, as today, I’ve been working with the society close for four years. I’ve gone through every process of the year-round salmon enhancement work we do from catching fish, the egg-take, incubation of eggs, feeding and rearing, fin-clipping, and our release and return events. Today I am the president of the society, and I’ve learned much about the salmon, but I am still learning.

Salmonids are anadromous, which means born in freshwater, even though they spend most of their life in the sea, they return to freshwater to spawn. One of their most amazing traits is that they return to the same creek they were spawned or born in.

Hoy-Scott Watershed Society operates a salmon ‘enhancement’ program on Hoy and Scott Creeks. Similar programs run on every creek in our region. It is our mandate to help increase or prevent reduction of the number of returning salmon. In winter we harvest eggs and milt and incubate the eggs, We raise the salmon until they are old enough to be released to the stream – approximately 17 months old.

From the stream, it takes about a year until they make their way out to the ocean. A lot of people think, that since I work with raising salmon, that I don’t like to eat them. Like we are some sort of animal rights group. That’s not the case. While we do work to protect them, our main focus is enhancing their populations and raising awareness about their now ”urban” ecosystem that supports them. We are really invading their space.

The salmon is not unlike the human, in that we must have a healthy environment to remain healthy. Unfortunately the salmon must depend on us to keep its habitat healthy (the sea and the inland waterways). This is a great challenge.

The watershed is a vital habitat not only to the salmon, but for other animals, insect and birdlife. On top of pollutants placed within the watershed by man, (by hand or via storm drains), there are invasive or ‘non-native’ plants (also introduced by man) that threaten healthy creek life. Much of our Society’s work is involved in planting non-invasives, while safely removing the invasives. It seems to be a never ending battle with the strength of the Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, morning glory, and the dreaded Japanese knotweed. These invasives can take over vast areas as they reproduce and grow rapidly. Native plants help create the all-important canopy along the watershed, helping maintain lower water temperatures to sustain the life of the salmon and other organisms living there. Invasives choke out these good plants and can even block salmon from swimming upstream.

Our work at the society and the salmon hatchery is year-round, and aside from hands on talks, we also do much in the way of public education through events, social media, website, and newsletter. We are always looking at ways to engage the public, including recruiting volunteers. We are a non-profit so we face many challenges on the extent of the progress we can make based on manpower and funding.  

October-November  starts the rainy season on the west coast… The rains help the creeks, streams and rivers rise, which helps the return of the salmon to their spawning grounds. Some years they return in greater numbers than others. This year I read article after article that returns in many of our salmon returns were low. On their way home they will struggle against the current and elevation, and if they survive that, then they will mate and die. We can only look to ourselves if they stop coming home. What have we done to our oceans, our now-urban streams.

Every year I eagerly await their return…they need our protection. I sigh in relief when I see them.  May the salmon always come home.

Read more Rivershed Stories.

Do you have a Rivershed Story to share? Upload it here.