The air is electric with excitement as the students of Marion Schilling Elementary pour off the buses at Tsu’tswecw Provincial Park. Like so many young people before them, they’re here to experience the Adams River salmon run.
There’s also building anticipation among the parent volunteers, many of whom have vivid memories of visiting the salmon run as kids.
The Sockeye —known in Secwepemctsin as sqlelten7úw̓i— are by far the most famous of the four species of salmon that spawn here. Their run has a four-year dominance cycle, where every fourth year returning fish outnumber other annual cohorts by a factor of hundreds.
2022 is a dominant year for the species, and there were high hopes that this run could rival the numbers seen in 2010. However, overfishing by the US in the Salish Sea and poor migration conditions due to low water levels — paired with high water temperatures — dashed those hopes.
While the opening ceremony for Salute to the Sockeye is meant to coincide with the spawning sockeye’s arrival, the fish have started arriving later. In 2022, as well as in 2018, opening ceremonies were conducted before a single fish arrived. Organizers are considering delaying the start of the next festival in 2026 until mid-October, adjusting to align with the changing climate.
Parents and teachers shared their fears about the climate crisis and dwindling salmon stocks with me. “Will there be any sockeye for the next generation to enjoy?” they wondered.
But the youth don’t have this context. From their perspective, this is the largest number of salmon they have ever seen at one time. Their joyful squeals, equal parts thrilled and disgusted, tell us that despite our adult concerns the magic of this event isn’t lost quite yet.
A graveyard and a nursery
The characteristic smell of decaying fish greets us as we head deeper into the park. From the viewing platform, students jostle for the best vantage point, especially the older kids, who have a scavenger hunt to complete by taking photos and videos.
“Why do they die instead of swimming back to the ocean?” a student asks, after watching several spawners swim to a standstill and reach the end of their lives in the shallow water.
Mrs. Chernoff, Marion Shilling’s vice principal, explains that after they spawn the salmon don’t have enough energy left to make the return journey because they stop eating when they transition from the ocean to the freshwater rivers. Their over-400km journey from the ocean is made using only the energy they stored in their bodies during their time at sea.
“So then, where do their bodies go [after they die]?” asks another, pointing at the carcasses piling up in the shallow spots.
“Their bodies become food for all the other living things here,” says Chernoff, explaining that animals like birds and insects eat them, while fungi and microbes break them down until nothing resembling a salmon is left. By feeding the ecosystem with their bodies, salmon assure there will be food for their offspring— like insect larvae and other creepy-crawlies.
Getting a closer look
On the pebbly shore, the students get a much closer look, both at the salmon spawning in the river and the decaying corpses along the shore.
“Why are their eyes missing?” a first-grade student asks me with a look of horror, after realizing only the freshest fish carcasses still have their eyeballs intact.
I explain, as delicately as possible, that the birds start their feast with the easiest parts to grab and that eyes are at the top of that list. Fascinated, the pair ran off to find some gulls to watch, chasing them all off in the process.
As everyone sits on the beach to eat our lunches we adults reminisce, sharing memories from childhood adventures along the Adams River.
A lot of parents told me they were shocked at how little salmon were in this year’s run, looking back on their own school-age field trip. Although sockeye stocks are rebounding up and down the Pacific coast, the Fraser River tributaries are being left out of the upwards trend.
Salmon with a side of culture
Adams River has more to offer beyond salmon watching, including opportunities to explore Secwépemc culture.
The younger students were enthralled by an impressive pair of teepees — sts̓elcwéllcw in Secwépemctsin — erected by the Little Shuswap Lake Band (Skwlāx).
Some of the older classes took the opportunity to explore the Tsutswecw Story Trail. This trail features 15 signposts with QR codes, when scanned visitors are treated to stories of important plants, animals, and technologies. These stories — recorded by students and teachers of the Secwépemctsin language class from Chase Secondary — include many Secwépemctsin words and phrases.
“What was the best part?” I ask the students at the end of the trip as they regroup and prepare for the bus ride home.
“The teepees are so cool!” says one.
“I love the fish guts,” shouts another.
“Lunch!” declares one student, sending his class into a frenzy of giggles.
“What did you learn?” I ask one of the older classes.
“That the males are the ones with the big hooked noses,” one answers.
“Not to throw rocks in the stream,” says another, adding, “it hurts the eggs.”
“That salmon are awesome!” says a voice in the back.
And on that, we can all agree.
The Salute to the Sockeye celebrations have ended and the interpretive cabin is closed for the season, but there are still salmon spawning in the Adams River. Tsutswecw Provincial park is open daily.
To learn more about Pacific Salmon and how to protect them, visit the Wild Salmon Center and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.