Posted by Vivien Bowers
In late September, I’m off to the salmon spawning creeks along the west coast of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). For the third year in a row, I get to tag along with a fish biologist who is walking the streams to count the returning fish.
Fishy. Fecund. Fetid. The first time I walked these salmon spawning creeks I dredged up vocabulary I’d never used before. The moist air stinks of rotting fish, bear musk, bird droppings and compost. Hundreds of eviscerated salmon carcasses (which must also be counted) litter the banks. The bears sometimes just tear out the rich fish brains, leaving the rest to scavengers. Crows peck out the eyes, before the eagles chase them off. I’ve seen seagulls so glutted on fish they can hardly take off.
One little, two little, three little salmon...
I scramble after my biologist friend as he makes his way up the creek, eyes alert to shifting underwater shapes and shadows. He tosses a leaf onto the surface of a deep pool, and fish boil to the surface. In amongst the bigger chum there are fleeting dark silhouettes of coho. He uses his little hand-held clicker to record the count.
The rocks in the creek are slippery and scummy. Some of these watersheds have never been logged and we clamber over an obstacle course of moss-covered giant spruce deadfalls. Wading from one bank to another through tannin-brown water, I feel salmon bumping up against my legs.
Do-si-do with Bear
Bears and salmon go together. A researcher on Haida Gwaii found that a single bear will take about 1600 kilograms of salmon from a creek in one season. It will eat only about one half of what it catches; much of the rest decomposes on the forest floor. That’s how bears transfer massive amounts of nutrients from the ocean to the land. They are handy that way.
I appreciate the bears’ important niche in this ecosystem, but it’s a bit unnerving how many of them we meet. Haida Gwaii bears are particularly big. Last year I was on my own, counting fish in a tributary stream, when I came across a large bear scooping fish out of the water. I stomped on a dead branch, hoping to sound like a REALLY BIG bear and scare him off. Instead, the bear was curious and headed towards my noise. Quickly changing strategies, I stood up with a loud, “Hey bear!” He looked startled and fled. I continued upstream, following the salmon's journey deep into the primeval forest.
Vivien Bowers is the author of Wow Canada!, Crime Scene and other books for children. The cartoon panels are from "Swimming Upstream," an episode of the 'WebVoyagers' comic strip, written by Bowers and illustrated by Mike Cope, that appears in each issue of The Canadian Reader, published by LesPlan Educational Services Ltd. Vivien Bowers lives in Nelson, BC.