Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Jenny Willmot

It’s a bit unnerving to meet your potential supper face to face in its own territory.
But there I was, shivering with cold in wet suit, snorkel and mask, about to go salmon snorkelling. It was one of those “never heard of it before, but now I’ve heard of it I’ve got to do it” travel experiences.
I was in Campbell River on Vancouver Island, a large island off the west coast of Canada, which has an unreasonable share of natural beauty.  There are snow capped mountains, shimmering green and blue lakes, tree-clad hills and rocky islands.  It has spectacular wildlife: whales, bears, eagles, the salmon run, bird migrations and other natural wonders.  It is an outdoor activity Mecca: hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, scuba – you name it you can do it here.

And now some perverse person has had the idea of combining adventure activity with wildlife viewing.  The opportunity to truly immerse oneself in the magnificent spectacle of the annual salmon run by swimming downstream whilst the salmon swim upstream.  Mental.

Pacific salmon, born in the rivers of the North West Pacific, spend their adult lives in the ocean, then return in their millions to their birthplaces, where they spawn and die, starting the cycle over again.  Bears prepare for winter hibernation by gorging on the autumn salmon run.  Eagles flock in their hundreds to feed on the dead or dying salmon.  Aboriginal people’s lives revolved around the salmon run.  Non original people now come to fish for salmon from exclusive lodges at $1000 a night, or more cheaply, renting rods by the hour to fish off Campbell River pier.  Others come to watch the whales, eagles and bears attracted to the salmon feast.

Where I started my ‘salmon run’ Campbell River was wide, with clear water moving fast over rocky shallows, swirling into deep pools at the sides. I anticipated a river swarming with salmon desperate to get upstream, going eyeball to fishy eyeball, shoals parting like the Red Sea for Moses.

It was very cold and the river moved me swiftly downstream, scraping my body over rocks.   My mask kept filling with water, but each attempt to clear it left me gasping for breath and bruised from hitting more rocks.  There was no guidance forthcoming from the supposed snorkelling ‘guide.’  As I ended my run, bruised and shivering uncontrollably, the ‘guide’ asked me if I had seen many fish.  “None,” I said, “did I miss many?”
“I don’t know” he said, “I wasn’t looking.  I see fish all the time.  I wondered why you swam past all the pools where they hang out.”
“I was trying to stay alive “I said angrily, “I swallowed loads of water and my nose is blocked up.”
“I am not surprised” he said, “I noticed you didn’t put your mask on properly.”

I should have noted the warning signs: the psychedelic graffiti on the old school bus that acted as office, changing room and possibly crash-pad to the guide; his languid “Oh, I am supposed to ask you if you can swim” as he took my money.  There’s much to be said for the laid-back hippy attitude to life, but it’s not the best approach for leading potentially dangerous activities.   So there he was, hippy salmon man, lazily floating down river on his foam boogie board, perhaps occasionally wondering why his client was going down the fishless part of the river, regularly tearing off her mask and making retching sounds, but not feeling any need to intervene.

Spluttering, with indignation and with river water, I put my energies into deciding whether to do a second run.  On the one hand I might die of hypothermia, on the other hand, I hadn’t seen any fish yet, and I had spent $120 dollars.  So, with my mask properly adjusted and now more used to the fast water, I set off down river again.

This time I saw fish.  Not vast shoals, but many large fish, some darting right in front of me and many more swimming around in side pools, gathering the strength to leap up stream. Before my first run hippy salmon man had dutifully shown me a chart with pictures and descriptions of the varied fish to be seen. Yeah right, like I was going to go “Oh look there’s a chinook/coho/chum….” as I scraped and gasped my way past them.  But on the second run I did appreciate the variety of sizes, shapes and colours, although mostly I was enjoying sharing their environment – however incompetently – and in awe of the phenomenon I was observing.  Day after day, week after week, thousands upon thousands of salmon make their way up this river, and this is repeated all over western Canada.  And it will happen next year, and the next.  Every year there is concern about reduced salmon runs, yet despite everything humans do to them, the salmon keep on running. 

Does salmon snorkelling harm the fish? It may be stressful for salmon to encounter strange seal-like creatures – especially ones going “aaaaah…glug!” – but this is probably insignificant compared to other perils encountered on their epic journey.  And it’s certainly less harmful than being caught for someone’s supper.

Does salmon snorkelling harm the humans? Every tourist area seems to invent new adventure activities, but this is more than random thrill-seeking adventure.  It is rooted in what is important in this place; the river, the fish, the life cycle, the amazing journey.  Salmon snorkelling gives one a feel for this important environment, rather than just an adrenalin feel, or in my case, a hypothermia feel.
I was almost defeated by the easy bit, swimming downstream.  I can’t imagine ever fishing for or eating one of the fish who make this amazing journey, and am happy that, in this activity at least, it is the humans who are most likely to end up battered.