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SNORKELING WITH SALMON

By Lauren Kramer

I've swum with belugas, played with the dolphins and dived close enough to stroke the backs of manta rays fifty feet below the water's surface. But the closest I've come to salmon has been consumption-until now.

Clad in a thick neoprene wetsuit, I'm about to enter the chilly waters of the Campbell River on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. Here, I will lie face down in the water, arms outstretched Superman-style, and let the current carry me six miles downstream like a leaf in the breeze. Armed with a mask and snorkel, I surrender myself to the cold, try to calm my fast-beating heart and focus on the scenery beneath me.

The first thing I learn is that the current moves fast, carrying me with it on a speedy journey over churning whitewater and calmer eddies that range from three to fifteen feet in depth. Relax your body and the current does the work, but try to stand or swim in this brisk river and your limbs get bruised on the sharp rocks that line its floor. Some are tiny, and pose no harm. Others are the size of a vehicle, and can cause serious damage should you careen into them.

But it's not the rocks I've come to see-it's the salmon. The Campbell River is unique in that it shelters five different salmon species at various times of the year: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink. Unlike my effortless sojourn downstream, theirs is more serious. After spending anywhere from two to six years in the open sea, they're now swimming against the current of a freshwater stream with one thing on their minds: to spawn. Once they've laid their eggs, they will give up the fight and expire in the same eddies and crevices where they entered the world.

Between July and October, the river swarms with salmon, some weighing up to sixty pounds. In July alone, 165,000 salmon will thrash through the water, surrounding the few snorkelers who venture this way. Used to the soft, pink texture of their meat, I'm amazed by their beauty in the water-the rainbow-like color of their scales reflected in the sunlight, the litheness with which they move and their virtual oblivion to me and my group as we float above them.

It would be downright hazardous to venture into this water alone, which is why I've joined the only adventure outfitter that plies these waters. Campbell River Snorkel Tours leads two groups a day on its snorkeling excursions, ensuring that a guide, armed with a boogie board and swift water rescue skills, is present.

Owner Brad Brock believes that the snorkeling groups should be kept no larger than fifteen and restricted to twice-a-day excursions to limit their impact on the salmon. "We don't want to scare the fish," he insists. The trips are focused on salmon appreciation and guides show participants how to distinguish between the salmon species and relay the challenges they face as their numbers decline.

Brave the cold river as the salmon weave their way through the water beside you, and you find yourself humbled by its timeless beauty. This journey to spawn that ends, inevitably, in death, is one that these fish have taken since time immemorial. Already, the bald eagles are circling, waiting expectantly for their salmon-on-the-rocks, meals that will move down the food chain and keep the circle of life intact-for now at least. Thrust yourself into the current and you catch a brief glimpse of that precious circle in motion.

If You Go:

  • Campbell River Snorkel Tours (www.snorkelwiththesalmon.com) charges CAD $119 for adults and CAD$74 for kids 16 and under. For more information call (866) 704-4611
  • Getting There: The fastest way to get to Campbell River is by air. Pacific Coastal Airlines (www.pacific-coastal.com) flies from Vancouver to Campbell River several times daily, with roundtrip tickets costing approx. CAD$300. Ferry service (www.bcferries.com) from Vancouver to Vancouver Island is significantly less expensive, but involves a two-hour ferry ride followed by a three-hour drive, which amounts to a full day's travel.

All Photos: Campbell River Snorkel Tours

1. Even in the heat of summer, snorkelers don thick wet suits to protect themselves from the chilly temperature of the Campbell River.

2. Snorkelers prepare for a salmon-spotting trip down the Campbell River, wearing flippers to ease the commute through the current.

3. The Campbell River shelters five different salmon species at various times of the year: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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