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Adams River Sockeye

Adams River Sockeye. British Columbia.

In my last blog, True Magic, I wrote about the amazing lifecycle of salmon here in the Pacific Northwest. This article, and especially the images, continues that theme as I traveled north to British Columbia’s Adam’s River to experience the return of the sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) as they make their way from the Pacific Ocean, over 400 kilometers (just under 250 miles) up the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, and then up the Adams with its headwaters in the Monashee Mountains. It takes about eighteen days to return, and fortunately for these fish there are no dams to block the way.

Clouds on the Water! Lower Adams River.

The salmon return every year, but this year was the dominant fourth-year cycle when potentially millions of sockeye were forecast to return. That didn’t happen while I was there, but worth the trip to see thousands of salmon all along the Lower Adams River from Shuswap Lake all the way up to Adams Lake.

Salmon Arm Afternoon!

Earlier this fall I tried to gage the coho run perfectly on my trip to Bella Coola, but I was maybe a week or two early and so the salmon, and bears and eagles, were in short supply. The Adams River runs happen late September to late October, but the salmon were still coming in when I was there. Timing is so important to photography, and I feel pretty lucky about my excursions – my trip to Alaska last year to catch the fleeting autumn colors was perfect, and I hit Brooks Falls just in time to see brown bears eating and preparing for winter. On that trip, the weather shut down the season just two days after my flight in. So yes, lucky!

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Headed Upstream! Adams River, British Columbia.

But for photography, luck and timing are less critical than patience. Sitting in darkness just waiting for first light, watching a bear or fox disappear into the woods and waiting for him or her to reappear (hopefully near where your camera is pointed), or, as in my case on the Adams, sitting for hours beside the river hoping for that one perfect salmon shot.

Sockeye Migration! Adams River, British Columbia.

It is always a pure joy when your patience pays off, but sometimes nothing happens (for a long time). Fortunately for me, sitting along the river all day had its perks. In this busy life, it has been rare that I have time to just sit, watch salmon, listen to the tinkling of water over rock, and witness the explosion of energy and speed as sockeye determine that this is their moment to shoot the rapids. Patience, serenity, peace!

Sockeye Pool! Adams River, British Columbia.

Patience was also needed for this trip as the light and the reflection and glare off the water made most salmon photos impossible. Well, I took a ton of photos, so maybe not impossible, but less than a dozen were usable. I always use a polarizer, but in this case it wasn’t enough. I hiked into a beautiful pool of salmon with the intent to try some underwater photos, but while the new equipment worked at home, it failed after hiking it in (operator error I am sure - patience!). Finally finding the perfect pool, only to have two anglers walk across the redds and scatter the fish in every direction (patience and more!).

Adams River Sockeye 2!

But I really can’t think of more enjoyable days than those spent up on the Adams. Fall colors just starting, the salmon, the people and the school kids learning about the cycle of life, and finally, seeing those few shots that make the trip worthwhile.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Ansel Adams

Heading Home! Outside of Kamloops, British Columbia.


· Thanks to my friends Bert and Sue who told me about the salmon festival and their visits in past years. The event runs September 30th to October 23rd.

· Big shout out to the volunteers with the Adams River Salmon Society who were so helpful. Parking was $10 per day, but I was there four days, so the friendly women at the gate signed me up for a lifetime membership in the Society. Cost was $30 forever! A second volunteer told me about a hike into a pool at the base of the Adams River Box Canyon.

· The annual Salute to the Sockeye event is located at Tsútswecw Provincial Park near Salmon Arm, British Columbia. It is the home of the people of the Little Shuswap Lake Band, a member of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation. The land is known at Skwlax, which means black bear.

· A good friend and fisheries expert commented on my chinook photos in True Magic. The fish from Whatcom Creek are not wild, but hatchery fish, discernible as they have no adipose fin. This is located just behind the dorsal fin and is clipped off at the hatchery. Whatcom Creek has no returning wild fish, in part because there is little habitat in the stream, several larger waterfalls, and finally a high weir upstream at Lake Whatcom. While not wild, it is great to see these fish fighting their way upstream and over rapids and falls. So often, people (sometimes even fishery experts) claim that rapids spell the end of salmon spawning. Sometimes true, but it is amazing what fish can ascend. On the Middle Fork Nooksack, there was a decades long effort to remove the only dam on that fork of the river. Critics claimed removal was unnecessary since Chinook and steelhead could not get up the Middle Fork gorge -- until photos were shown of Chinook leaping over the roughly twenty-four foot dam! The dam was removed in 2020.

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