I swam with the salmon, they taught me about dignity and strength.

After hiking along the Campbell River in unseasonably warm September sunshine, wrestling with my middle-aged body to get into a wetsuit is no easy feat.

But I’m determined to get a new angle on the iconic West Coast keystone species I write about so often as a reporter. I’m going to swim with salmon.

By the time I’m fully kitted out with snorkeling gear and my underwater camera, I’m eager to get into the cold, rushing water. I frog-walk along the bank and am rewarded almost immediately after laying down with the open eagle in a relatively shallow section of the river.

A loose group of juvenile coho, with bodies the length of an index finger, float through the green water in the company of a single black-speckled cutthroat trout.

The biggest fish comes and goes to get out of my way. But the little fish with black bars and light-golden eyes draws closer, apparently curious about this gangly intruder.

Coho juveniles stay and grow in freshwater like the Campbell River longer than other salmon species and seem curious about visitors, says photographer Eiko Jones. Photo by Eiko Jones

I am so engrossed in the little coho that I fail to notice a rippling wall of adult pink salmon to my right.

I briefly choke on the water that enters my tube in surprise. There must be at least a thousand fish resting in a shallow pond before continuing their journey upstream to spawn.

pink salmonwhich can weigh up to 11 pounds and reach two feet in length, are silvery during their oceanic phase.

Campbell River can see more than a million pink salmon return in one exceptional year and is a great place to appreciate the critical role the iconic fish play in British Columbia’s marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. #biodiversity #SwimWithSalmon

But on their return home to their natal BC rivers at the end of a two-year life cycle, they develop greenish-gray backs and pale bellies. They are known as “humpbacks” because the male fish develops a characteristic humpbacked back and protruding jaw in its spawning phase.

Despite my lifelong respect and fascination with salmon, I am not prepared for the dignity and strength of fish in their element.

Most of my salmon sightings involve viewing them from shore in the later stages of their life. Declining and wriggling in shallow water to spawn. Or reeling on the deck of a boat after being pulled out of the ocean on a hook.

As live mass, salmon are somewhat intimidating. They part around me like quicksilver and effortlessly return to school together after I float past. Their spotted tails are a translucent yellow when backlit by changing rays of light in the water.

Pink salmon have a distinct spotted tail that appears translucent yellow when illuminated by sunlight. Photo by Eiko Jones

I’m not as handy with my fins as they are. I fight against the current to get back upstream and repeatedly pass by the school, kicking my legs and arms and using the available logs and rocks to push myself forward.

The pinks, however, point headlong into the current and make minimal movements. Maintaining your stationary position in the rushing river seems easy.

It lasts me as long as the battery of my camera lasts before going out to the river. Perusing my photos and videos later, I am disappointed in the results, which fail to illustrate the magic of my experience.

Renowned salmon photographer Y filmmaker Eiko Jones is not surprised. He spent years in freshwater to successfully document all stages of the Pacific salmon life cycle in a dynamic environment.

It often takes hours of waiting, submerged in the river, to secure the single shot you’re looking for, Jones says.

Capturing the moment a salmon spawns — a 10-second window at the end of a multi-year life cycle — has required a lot of learning about salmon behavior, he adds.

Campbell River, which can host more than a million pink salmon during banner runs, was an ideal space to ply his craft.

But it is the resilience of salmon and the critical role it plays in the West Coast’s marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems that continues to capture their attention.

“It’s a big part of the cycle of life, how it all happens, and I love witnessing that,” says Jones.

Rosés leave river systems as small fry, traveling thousands of kilometers to the Pacific to bulk up while evading a host of predators. They eventually make a timed return home to spawn and ultimately feed countless bears, wolves, eagles, birds, and forests.

“All of those nutrients are derived from the Pacific…and come back in the form of fish, sometimes thousands of miles inland,” he says.

“If we didn’t have salmon, we wouldn’t have the same kind of forests or animals.”

People generally understand the species’ importance to coastal environments, he adds. But actually seeing the fish in the river allows people to better appreciate the salmon’s relentless drive to survive.

“When people get in the water with them, I think they identify with that struggle and the effort it takes on a visceral level,” says Jones.

“And just her grace and movement and efficiency… that’s what amazes people.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canadian National Observer

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