Southern Salmon

You stand on the bridge, the rough wood warm underfoot. You lean over the green metal railing, staring into the river water. Sometimes a line of men, all strangers, sit in plastic woven lawn chairs, holding fishing rods.It’s salmon season; this means different things to different people.To me, it means going to the bridge down by the rope swing; it means staring in the river, waiting for the flash of the salmon’s red belly.This time of year, the river runs low and clear. Where the water’s deep all you get is a reflection; in the shallows the bottom is visible. In typical summers —hot and dry — the river is warm and a dip is a necessary end to every working day. You stare at the river, knowing there are salmon swimming upstream, or, in some cases, not moving at all — our section of the river is the end of the line.And the beginning. Once you spot one red belly, you see fish everywhere. Big fish. They look like shadows at first. They’re tired, dying salmon. They start in the Pacific Ocean, and swim up the mighty Fraser River. From there, some veer into the Thompson River. Some salmon leave the Thompson for the Shuswap River, which turns into Shuswap Lake, then Mara Lake, then Shuswap River again, then Mabel Lake. Out of Mabel Lake again flows the Shuswap River, and after all that water, still swim the salmon. Some years there are so many salmon the river runs red with their flashy bellies — you can’t spot a single salmon because the water is a mass of them. Rotting salmon bodies wash up to shore, salmon season’s particular smell. Shallow-bottomed fisheries boats patrol the twisted, log-jammed river, looking for the ubiquitous poacher.Closer to the ocean, fishing for salmon is a logical pursuit. In our part of the river — which is close to the Monashee Mountains, close to the beginning of the river — fishing for salmon doesn’t make sense. You could reach out and grab a tired fish, hold it in your arms and snuggle it until it inevitably dies.There’s a lot I don’t know about salmon — I don’t know all the varieties; I don’t know what the big deal is with farmed salmon; I don’t know what it’s like to have an identity and history built around fishing salmon; I don’t know if they’re in the Columbia watershed like they are in the Thompson-Shuswap system. I don’t know why they swim so far to lay eggs and die.Every time I’m in my homeland during the tail end of summer, we pilgrimage to the river. We walk up one bank on cow trails to a good place for jumping into the water. We drift with the current until we come to the bridge. We do it a few more times. Before we pile into the pickup truck, we walk onto the bridge to stare at the salmon. We’re quiet as the shadows at the river bottom transform into bodies of fish, swimming still in the current, maybe laying eggs. Every salmon season I’m transfixed by the notion of their journey, the mystery of it. 

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