Soichi Okano couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he went to the sockeye salmon run at the Adams River 24 years ago.
Walking beside the turbulent water, the aspiring photographer from Japan tingled with excitement as he watched thousands of crimson-red salmon return home to spawn. That moment has prompted the 51-year-old to return to Canada every four years to photograph one of the biggest salmon runs in North America. It’s a spectacle that leaves him speechless every time.
“I didn’t know the sockeye were so red. It was really surprising and so beautiful. It’s like art,” said Okano, about the first time he saw the sockeye salmon run. “Nature gets me excited in my heart, but I am just a photographer. The hero is the salmon and how they contribute to nature. They are really precious creatures.”
Okano is among thousands of people who flock to Tsútswecw Provincial Park (formerly Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park) in early October to watch the annual salmon run in the 12-kilometre Adams River. Every four years a dominant run occurs, which is celebrated with the Salute to the Sockeye festival from Sept. 28 to Oct. 21.
In an average dominant run year, an estimated 2.2 million sockeye return to the Shuswap Lake. A significant portion of these sockeye spawns in the Adams River between Adams Lake and Shuswap Lake. Fisheries and Oceans Canada expects 750,000 to one million sockeye will make the 485-kilometre journey from the Pacific Ocean this year, but the fish are not always consistent.
In 2010, the sockeye caught everybody off guard when nearly four million arrived in the Adams River. Four years earlier, the salmon held at the mouth of the river. Nobody knew why, recalled area resident Blair Acton.
“They were packed in so tight, like sardines. The top ones were pushed out of the water and birds were sitting on them. I’ve never seen that,” said Acton, who has volunteered with the festival since 1998. “I’m still really amazed at the different things that happen from run to run. It’s just not something that’s predictable, but that’s what makes it exciting.”
Organized by the Adams River Salmon Society, the festival attracts more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world. Local Indigenous residents have celebrated the return of the salmon for thousands of years and are part of the festivities. A key component, noted Natalya Melnychuk, festival manager, is the public education offered throughout the event.
“This is an opportunity for people to come out and learn about the lifecycle of the salmon, different species and actually have an idea what’s going on. People walk away from here with education and they’re excited,” said Melnychuk, adding the festival brings the Shuswap communities together. “It’s pretty quiet on the north Shuswap at this time of year, so this really brings things back to life and that’s really beautiful to see for this area.”
- When the salmon begin their journey up the Fraser and Thompson rivers from the Pacific Ocean, they are bright and silvery, but soon turn crimson red with pea-green heads.
- The salmon eggs will lie in the Adams River spawning beds through the winter and hatch around April. The fry then swim to Shuswap Lake, where they’ll spend another winter in freshwater before heading to the ocean to mature for three years.
- Several thousand chinook, as well as several hundred coho and pink salmon, are also seen with the sockeye in the Adams River and its tributaries.
To learn more about the Adams River Salmon Society and the festival, visit: www.salmonsociety.com/
More information can also be found at Fisheries and Oceans Canada: www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/events-evenements/riviere-adams-river/index-eng.html
To learn more about Tsútswecw (pronounced choo-chwek) Provincial Park, visit: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/roderick/