Tag Archives: coho salmon

Where the Salmon Led Me

Art by Danny Cheng. Used with permission.

“Returning Home” by Danny Cheng. Used with permission of the artist.

For a decade or so, I have been a homebody. A body who wishes to stay at home.

My wandering has been limited to annual visits from my chosen home, in Saskatchewan, to my birth home in the Ottawa Valley, and back again. (Not unlike the salmon, except they don’t  get  repeat visits.)

As our grown daughters leave and explore the world, we want to see them in the places that have called to them. And so it was that Shane and I found ourselves traveling to Prince Rupert in Northern B.C., the place that has called our daughter Laurel’s name. For both of us, this was new territory.  Strange.  Unknown.  Unfamiliar.

As we travelled, I wondered ….

How do we come to a new place? How do we begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to us? What opens us up to a new place?  Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places? 

When I arrived in Saskatchewan 35 years ago, it was certainly strange to me.  I could not immediately see its beauty. I saw its bleakness, and how utilitarian many of the buildings were. I missed the familiar aesthetic  of rural Ontario’s cozy patchwork quilt. One late spring day,  I was driving in the Assiniboia area. It was one of those fickle prairie days, sun out full, then purple storm clouds moving like a ship across the land casting light and shadow on fresh green growth. At that moment, I fell in love with the prairies. I remember how that beauty moved right into me, stirred me up inside, and changed my way of seeing.

I revisit this early sense of strangeness when coming to a new place. I admire the mountains, for example, but feel as though I am living in a beautiful calendar, as if they are not quite real. They feel remote, even after I have spent days hiking here. As we move towards to Northwest Coast, I feel more of a kinship with the land and sky, as well as a strangeness. I am drawn by the fluidity of the sky and low hanging mists, so different from what I know in my prairie home. It stirs something in me.

low lying clouds, shifting on the Skeena River

low lying clouds on the move on the Skeena River

shifting sky at Prince Rupert

shifting sky at Prince Rupert

In the coastal rainforest, I am silenced. The stillness, the gloom, the green, the impossible hugeness of the trees. These giant trees seem barely related to the trees I know at home. I have a sense of ancient spirits.  These forests are as strange and unknowable to me as the Tsimshian art found throughout Prince Rupert.

Image 27How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

It was a stroke of luck that our daughter invited us on an adventure up a salmon stream. Reflecting afterwards, it seemed as if this salmon immersion day was the best possible way to get to know this new place. We travelled to a remote salmon stream, hiked up it, and across its waters. We worked with the salmon who were on their way home. Soaked to the bone. Rainforest. Moss dripping off trees. Slick logs. Low lying mist. The amazing feel of a fish against your calf as you struggle across a stream. The strength and sheen of this powerful fish. The beauty. The brilliant shining salmon red of the eggs. The salmon who leave their birth home for the ocean, only to return to the exact river or stream where they were born – spawning grounds for the next generation.

For millennia, salmon have been both sacred and central to the peoples who call this area home. Anything I knew about salmon was secondhand – from a can or a plastic bag, from a documentary, from a government report or newspaper headline, from Shane’s uncle bringing fresh and precious salmon to a family reunion. Our salmon immersion day  was like a portal providing the opening I needed to this new place, whetting my curiosity in the most wonderful way. I wanted to learn more about salmon.

Judith Roche - First Fish First People I found a marvelous second hand source, a book entitled First Fish, First People : Tales of Salmon from the Pacific Rim  (edited by Judith Roche  and Meg McHutchison)  which brings together writers and storytellers  whose traditional cultures are based on Pacific wild salmon: Ainu from Japan; Ulchi and Nyvkh from Siberia; Okanagan and Coast Salish from Canada; and Makah, Warm Springs, and Spokane from the United States. The stories are both sad and hopeful – the same story, repeated with local variations, a story we know in too many versions. The story is this: the salmon were central to the indigenous people, who honoured the sacred fish with ceremonies and whose lives depended largely on the salmon runs. When the various invading peoples came, canneries were opened, forests were logged, the land was mined, and hydro-electric damning and diversions combined to  decimate fish populations. When dams were built, governments  considered only fisheries of “commercial value” (not indigenous fisheries) and these dams ended the flow of many salmon rivers which whole cultures had depended upon for millennia.

In one of my favourite pieces in First Fish, First People, Lee Maracle, the well known author, critic, weaver and member of the Stó:lō Nation writes from the point of view of a salmon as it begins its journey as a tiny minnow. While environmentalists lament the diminishing salmon populations, Maracle (as a salmon) writes,  “It is not death that is the problem here. It is the absence of permission to engage us which continues to threaten you. Without our permission, you will sicken. Without our permission, you are violating the spirit of another being (my italics).” She asks how we can secure Salmon’s agreement to engage with them, and how we can express our gratitude for Salmon’s gifts if such permission is granted.


First Fish Ceremony, Puyallup Tribe, 2012. The first fish caught in the season is displayed, cleaned in full view, cooked and shared. The skeleton is returned to the water to show respect to the salmon family; so that the salmon can return  to his family to say how well respected he has been.

Image 9Reading about the salmon provided a way in, a foothold, a possible lens. I was amazed at the many dimensions and layers in these stories and ceremonies for and about the salmon. The salmon’s life story is remarkable in itself, but the richness of the salmon’s homes, the creatures they depend on and those who depend on them, the stories, legends and ceremonies they inspire are legion. From this initial reading, it became clear that learning about salmon could take a lifetime, maybe several lifetimes. Learning about the salmon certainly changed my experience of the Pacific Northwest.  I began to notice salmon everywhere – on murals, on cans in stores, in museums, in menus, in public art, on anti-Enbridge signs I had noticed from Terrace to Haida Gwaii.


A school and community art project in Prince Rupert

A school and community art project in Prince Rupert

Image 11 Image 8

Then I happened upon Robert Bringhurst’s three volume Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers. Bringhurst believes these Haida stories and poems to be outstanding literature which should be read alongside Shakespeare. In an interview with Bringhurst tucked in the end papers of one of the volumes, he says that these stories are like the “old growth forest” of our cultural history. In order to really “know” this place, it is important to know its oldest stories.  I have not yet read these tales,  and I hope to some day.

How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

In Saskatchewan, it was a particular day, a cast of light and shadow, that opened my heart. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the salmon and their stories provide a place to begin.

"transformation" by Joe Becker (Musqueam) at the entry of the BC's Museum of Anthropology at UBC

“Transformation” by Joe Becker (Musqueam) at the entry of the BC’s Museum of Anthropology at UBC

Not surprisingly, the salmon led me home, both to my birth home and my chosen home. Some say we travel to see home more clearly.  I thought in a fresh way about my home in Saskatchewan and my home in the Ottawa Valley. How much have I explored the creatures or plants and rocks that were once central to the people who live there? Are they still central? If not, what happened to them? Who were the first people who lived here?  What are their stories? What were their ceremonies or agreements with the land, the fish, plants, rocks, trees and other creatures they depended on for life?

In both my homes, I have been exploring some of these questions, almost by accident.

IMG_0886Take my birth home in Eastern Ontario, for example. Sometimes, in those places most familiar to us, we cease seeing things. Really seeing things.  One fall morning a few years back, I went and sat amidst the cedars, resting on the spongey earth, my back supported by the straight trunk of an old tree. I stayed for the entire morning, held by the healing power of these trees which I had walked by without really seeing hundreds of times.

I have a long history with cedars, but I had forgotten. My morning in the grove of cedars took me back to childhood when I played with its bark, stripping bits off, feeling its roughness. Removing one green scale at a time from the cedar branches.  I was reminded that cedar was one of the four sacred medicines used by my Cree and Saulteaux neighbours in Treaty Four territory but also much further afield. In the same way that the salmon immersion day made me notice how salmon were woven into daily life, my morning with the cedars made me notice cedars everywhere I went.  Cedar was in use all around me; in cedar strip canoes, in homes and cottages, rail fences, shingles, furnitures, baskets. My time with the cedars  tickled my curiousity and made me want to learn about their use over time, about the ceremonies and stories the people who depended on cedar told.

IMG_2209Here in Saskatchewan, I have been drawn for many years  to the plants that grow on the coulee hills among big and little bluestem and other prairie grasses. Spending time with them fills me with pleasure and provides a way for me to come to know my chosen home more deeply. Painting them gives me a way to be with them, to befriend them, to see them more deeply. I am interested in all their stages of life: emerging, before blossom, flowering, creating seed, dying. I like their attitudes, their stances, the way they hold themselves under this vast sky.  I am curious about their medicinal, food and sacred uses. Visiting the same places season after season matters. Not far from where I paint, my daughter  found a large buffalo skull in an eroded creek bank. I had always imagined buffalo in the long reaches of the Qu’Appelle Valley but not so much in this more intimate coulee. Knowing that the buffalo were once here, too, amidst the plants and grasses I am coming to know, shifted my understanding of my home place.

Like the salmon and the cedar, the prairie plants and the buffalo have much to teach me. Especially if I approach them with reverence; if I take time to simply be with them, if I express  my gratitude for their presence and their gifts in some way, if I remember that relationships are always reciprocal.

When I first came to the prairies, I learned many stories. I studied Plains history.  Many of these stories, though, left out the beginning because they were so focussed on a Eurocentric version of history.  The stories I learned are important, but they are only a part of the picture. These stories often have their roots in another place, a very different place across the ocean. But the stories and practices of the people who who were here long before spring forth from this particular place and are vital to my understanding of here. The stories of the first people who lived in these territories open up realms I may never have considered. 

How do I come to a new place? How do I begin to take in, to apprehend that which is strange to me? What opens us up to a new place? Why do we feel at home in some places and never at home in other places?

Where did the salmon lead me? They led me home. They took the scales off my eyes, they opened my eyes and my heart. They reminded me that coming to know a place always begins in  being there, whether it is feeling the salmon against my legs as I cross a stream, or taking in the pungent scent of sage on a coulee hillside. The salmon directed me back in time, to listen and learn from the first people whose stories and ceremonies were born in this very place. The salmon opened up rich possibilities for a deeper way of coming to know those places that I call “home”.


This is the third of a series of 3 blog posts about our recent travels to Northern B.C. and the Coast. All Aboard! describes our train trip and Salmon is about our “salmon immersion day.”






Detail of Salmon Mural, Massett, Haida Gwaii

Detail of  Mural, Masset, Haida Gwaii (Artist Unknown)

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.

Laurel and Shane ready to go in their waders

Laurel and Shane ready to go in their waders

"The Metlatka Spirit"

“The Metlatka Spirit”

Brittany, our leader, enjoys her dark roast

Brittany, our leader, enjoys her dark roast

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.

Where Silver Creek meets the Pacific

Where Silver Creek meets the Pacific

Silver Creek - where we waded across

Silver Creek – where we waded across

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.

Removing the salmon from the cages to check them

Dave and Brittany removing the salmon from the cages to check them

Checking the salmon for readiness

Laurel and Brittany checking the salmon 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.

Laurel with a female salmon

Laurel with a female salmon

Wiping down the female salmon

Wiping down the female salmon

Removing the eggs

Removing the eggs, Laurel cleaning out an egg sac

Sperm was collected from the male salmon, also stored in zip loc bags and put into coolers for the return trip.

Shane collecting the sperm

Shane collecting the sperm

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.


Laurel and I, and one of the coolers

Laurel and I, and one of the coolers

Heading back to Prince Rupertc

Heading back to Prince Rupert

At the end of a great day (almost the end)

At the end of a great day (almost the end)

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.

the exquisite salmon eggs

the exquisite salmon eggs

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.