When the River Runs Red

I have always loved September.

The shift in the air, the first scent of wood smoke, the misty mornings… In many ways, it has always been my time of new beginnings. The start of a new school year has always had more impact on me than a party in the not-quite-solstice of winter. Last September, I received my letter of acceptance into SFU’s teaching program, overcame my struggle with depression, and witnessed my favourite season in my favourite region for the first time in years.

I grew up in the village of Likely, nestled in the Cariboo foothills where the Quesnel Lake (the deepest fjord lake in the world) narrows into Quesnel River. Septembers there were not the iconic autumn landscape pictured in the calendars we picked up at dental and insurance offices. The hills around me remained verdant year round, though in September a few clusters of amber and gold could be seen among the emeralds.

Our rubies were not to be seen on the hills, not like the Maples in eastern Canada. No, to see ours you had to lean over the railing of the bridge spanning the river, and look down into the glacial current beneath. There they would be, oblong gems gleaming in the clear water. The sockeye salmon had returned, and with them their cousins: the great white and red Chinook, and the silver-backed coho.

When I was ten, I walked along the road next to the river. Things were peaceful. The rush of the current was softened by the screen of trees. An occasional squirrel chattered at me, protesting my proximity to their larder. Chickadees singsonged. The sun reached down to the road with the last warm touch of summer, but a playful breeze kept me bundled up in an old fleece sweater. I walked along, wondering about what the next grade would bring, and deliberating about how much further the house I was going to was… it had never felt very far by car.

A new sound broke me from my reverie. I glanced up to see there was a gap in the trees, a window to the river. What a sight! There was not a branch, not a log, not an exposed rock that was not occupied by Bald Eagles. Even having visited Haida Gwaii, the land of Eagles and Ravens, I have never seen so many in one place. At least forty Eagles feasted at that stretch of river that afternoon.

I look back on this memory now, and while it is still clear with childhood wonder, its edges have begun to grey with sorrow. Each year we hear reports of fewer salmon returns. This year, the Horsefly Salmon Festival is being canceled due to “a shortage of the main attraction”. For a salmon to reach Horsefly River, it must travel up Quesnel Lake, Quesnel River, and the Fraser River, all within two weeks of leaving the Pacific Ocean. So where is their journey coming to a premature end?

There are many factors that can, and should, be considered, from the pollution of Quesnel Lake due to the spill of a neighboring Mount Polley tailings pond two years ago, to a more recent discovery shared by biologist Alexandra Morton during her visit to one of the Norwegian salmon farms just off our coast. If you have not seen the video already, please take 5 minutes to see what is going on just off BC’s shores.

I don’t know about you, but I found that rather disturbing.

Please consider signing this petition for safer and more sustainable salmon farming on the west coast!

I was very upset about the news of Horsefly’s lack of a festival this year. I miss my rubies, and I cannot imagine a future where I won’t be able to share them with my students and own children. So, I commemorated them the best way I know. I drew one.



He is a pretty kind of ugly, but I love him all the same.


One thought on “When the River Runs Red

  1. Very well written and great to read. Yes, it is sad about the festival. I once swam in the Bella Coola river, or rather jumped in off a tree branch over the river right into a river full of salmon, never have had that feeling or experience since, I guess now a days one would call that swimming with salmon.

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