Last weekend I was at the North Vancouver Outdoor School where I am an adviser on their very adventurous and visionary expansion program.
I had arrived early with Milton McLaren and since we had some time to spend we were joined by school principal Victor Elderton for a short guided walk to see if any chum salmon were entering the spawning channels of the hatchery and enhancement facility, which is an important teaching facility on the site. The outdoor school is situated on 148-acre parcel of land adjacent to the Cheakamus River near the city of Squamish.
As we stood on a small bridge that crossed a fair-sized spawning channel I could not help but wonder at the mysteries of nature and how everything is connected. Below us about 20 feet away was a small pool with some logs jutting into the water, in the process creating a refuge for salmon. In the pool we estimated there were about 20 fresh-run chum salmon that had been late in arriving.
As we watched, a pair broke the sanctuary of the pool and moved up the riffle into what looked like a possible redd site. The logs and rocks along the stream channel were covered with the white bones of dead pink salmon that had completed their life-renewing spawning rituals.
Immediately below us, a little grey dipper was busy eating exposed pink salmon eggs and insects from the smooth-running waters on the stream bed. They are amazing little birds to observe, and to witness one walk under the swift moving currents among the small rocks and gather its daily food was an unexpected treat.
Pictured with this article is a wheelbarrow load of salmon carcasses about to be returned to the Puntledge River from the Puntledge Hatchery where their life-renewing eggs and sperms were collected for a new generation. They serve as graphic examples of the message in the title.
Our salmon-bearing rivers and streams from Alaska to California and thousands in between are pulsing with this mysterious ritual of life renewal – spawning and dying, laying down the parents’ lives to ensure there will be food for the new generation when they emerge form their gravel birthing beds. The parents never get to see their children – how different it is from mammal reproduction where we nurture and protect our offspring – in some cases it is a process of several years – before the offspring are independent.
In the Comox Valley we have several small salmon-bearing streams that enter Baynes Sound and the Strait of Georgia waters. As soon as the rains fill their gravel beds the salmon enter with gusto. The pink are all done; the chum are just starting, along with the coho, and the fall chinook are almost finished.
Walking the banks of a small river and watching these sacred, life-renewing rituals of creatures making the supreme sacrifice is a soul-changing adventure. Simply hike or creep along the banks so that you can observe the rituals in the shallow waters. As a precaution, let any feeding bears know you are in the area by having bells or making noise frequently.
Nature is not a welfare state where the necessities of a comfortable life are supplied from birth to death. Rather, it is a finely balanced system of checks and balances favouring one species over another for only so long until it tips in favour of another species on the edge of adaptting to the changing system.
The welfare state aspects of the our natural spawning systems on local rivers and streams comes into play when we gather returning adult salmon and give them an assisted birthing place where their offspring get a leg up in their journey of life as they spend one or more seasons in an enhancement facility before entering the real world.
We do this as a form of compensation to the natural systems we have messed up by a variety of human activities such as mining, logging, water removal and our general domination of natural systems at the expense of other life forms.
Take a walk along a stream and witness nature without welfare. You will find it humbling and exciting.
Ralph Shaw is a master fly fisherman who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts. In 20 years of writing a column in the Comox Valley Record it has won several awards.