Born Orphans, Died Childless

Mating Pair of Sockeye Salmon, Adams River, BC, October 2010

Sockeye salmon have a four-year life cycle. The hatchlings spend their first year in the streams and connected lake systems of their birth and three years roaming far-and-wide in the northern regions of the Pacific Ocean. In the late autumn of their fourth year, they return to the streams of their birth – by imprinted sense of smell for the terroir of the natal drainage, perhaps along with some combination of sensitivity to magnetism and light polarization, or other Hogwartsian capabilities – to spawn and die.

In British Columbia, approximately half of the annual sockeye run occurs in the Adams River, 12 kms of class II water in the heart of the Shuswap, 450 km upstream of the sea. The fish make this arduous journey in five or six days. By the time they reach their spawning grounds they are exhausted, having taken no nourishment since leaving the ocean. They have also turned color, from silver to brilliant crimson.

Because the return of the sockeye is cyclical, the runs are not of equal proportions each year. One year in four is an enormous run, followed by a lesser run, and then two small runs. This year was a big year in the cycle. How big? Perhaps the biggest run of sockeye in 100 years.

Typically, the major sockeye run up the Fraser River involves approximately 4 million fish, roughly 2 million of which wind up in the Adams. The count isn’t yet complete for 2010 – and it is, in any case, an estimate based on an elaborate tagging and counting system – but the figure will fall somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 million fish.

Spawning Sockeye Salmon, Adams River, BC, October 2010

Just as the sockeye had a long-ass way to swim to get to the Adams River, the trip from our house in Vancouver was no small undertaking – although we managed to do it, terrestrially and under motorized power, in about 1/24th the time. Yoo-Mi and I were out-the-door at 3:00 am sharp, and arrived at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park, on the banks of the Adams River a little after 8:00 am. We started the back-track a little before 4:00 pm, having spent the whole day walking the banks of the river.

The river was chock-a-block with mating pairs, and the riverbanks littered with the carcasses of expired fish. I have spent much of my adult life on whitewater rivers; and this is certainly among the most dramatic things I’ve ever seen in moving water.

From The New Yorker

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