Nothing could have pleased us more than the expedition our daughter Laurel planned for us shortly after our arrival in Prince Rupert, B.C. “Meet me at 7:30 a.m. at the docks and I will have a pair of waders for each of you”, she said. As a volunteer at the Oldfield Creek Fish Hatchery, Laurel and a team of others were headed by boat to Silver Creek, and by foot along Silver Creek to a location where the coho salmon they had caught in nets and transferred to underwater cages a week ago were hopefully waiting. “Its an easy hike,” she told us. “You’ll have no problem”. The Oldfield Fish Hatchery partners with the Metlakatla First Nation ( Tsimshian) who supplies the boat and staff. Dave, who drove the boat, also brought along a gun – just in case. Salmon = bears, and some had been spotted up Silver Creek in recent weeks. Brittany, the competent Operations Manager of the hatchery led the expedition.
Shane and I like to think of ourselves as relatively fit , and let me tell you, we were humbled!! The “easy hike” turned out to be about 40 rigorous minutes up an overgrown and muddy logging road, branches thwacking us in the face, and across various log bridges (which were wet and slippery due to falling rain), some of which were broken. At the very end, we waded across Silver Creek and could feel fish against our legs as well as the strong current. It took every bit of strength I had to cross that stream. I have no pictures of this hike because we struggled mightily to keep up with our rugged leaders. With Brittany at the lead, the pace was something to behold. Even more so because everyone else in our group was lugging wet packs and coolers.
Once there, and able to stop a moment and look around, it was magical…the sound of the creek rushing by, it’s clear and sparkling beauty, the rainforest all around us. But there was little time for looking around – rain was falling, the tide was rising and the hatchery crew wanted to get their job done in a timely fashion. They began by checking the cages where the salmon were being kept. Each fish was checked for readiness.
We erected a tarp to keep the salmon roe (eggs) free from rain drops. We learned that anything that is not salmon eggs or sperm can stop the successful hatching of eggs. The female salmon were killed, and then hung to bleed. They were then cleaned off before Laurel expertly slit their bellies with a knife and pulled out the eggs sacs. The eggs were stored in a zip loc bag – one for each salmon.
These salmon were heading up the stream they were born in to spawn, after which they would die. The female salmon being killed here, are being sacrificed in a way, so that the salmon numbers on Silver Creek which have fallen due to logging can be replenished. The Oldfield Creek Fish Hatchery has a 90% success rate in hatching salmon eggs, much higher than current rates in the wild.
Sperm was collected from the male salmon, also stored in zip loc bags and put into coolers for the return trip.
Even the young people leading us were tired by the return journey. The empty coolers they had carried into the forest were now full. The route was slipperier because of the falling rain.
Heading back to Prince Rupert, the rain stopped falling and glimmers of the sun could be seen. We headed to the hatchery, washed our hands and mixed batches of eggs and sperm together in pans, rinsed them in cold creek water. This might seem very clinical and cold after our day in the rainforest, but I marvelled at the beauty, colour and feel of those salmon eggs, full of promise.
What a wonderful day! I greatly admired the dedication, sheer competence and toughness of the young people who led us.
This immersion into the world of salmon informed the rest of our trip. My curiosity was fuelled, and led me to a wonderful book entitled First People, First Fish: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim. With the help of that book, and other experiences, I began to see the Northwest Coast, new and unknown territory to me, through an entirely different set of lenses. You could say that our day on Silver Creek took the scales off my eyes (ha!)
More on that in my next post.
Oldfield Creek Fish Hatchery follows a set of ecologically and community oriented objectives:
• Increase salmon populations in local streams through science-based enhancement efforts
• Increase community awareness of enhancement and stream stewardship
• Educate the community on salmon and their roles within ecosystems and the environment, as well as salmon stewardship through community involvement programs
• Increase tourism in Prince Rupert by offering tours of the facility
This is the second of a series of blog posts about our recent travels to Northern B.C. and the Coast. The first post was about our train trip.