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The River Makes the Rules 


December 07, 2017

By Will Atlas

Water and gravity, two immutable forces that have shaped our coast over hundreds of millions of years. Often, in a moment of placid summer tranquility, we dip our toes into the gentle, lapping current of a river and forget, for just a moment, that this river has moved stadium loads of gravel and sediment, shattered old growth spruce, and carved a canyon into bedrock over millennia. Rivers live a long time.

As a salmon biologist, rivers are my home, my office, and in many ways the spiritual center of my life. I spend the better part of six months a year living along the banks of the Koeye River on the central coast of British Columbia, where over the past six years I've worked with the Heiltsuk Nation, QQs Projects Society and the Hakai Institute to develop a life-cycle monitoring program for sockeye salmon. The goal of our project is to count juvenile salmon as they head to sea and adult salmon upon their return to freshwater. While the aims of the project are relatively straightforward, we've discovered over the years that the river doesn't always cooperate.

Each year we build a traditional-style cedar weir to capture and tag adult sockeye salmon as they migrate upriver. We do this to estimate the size of the population. A weir is like a picket fence built across a river, forcing salmon to take a detour on their upstream journey through our trapbox. In the process we capture and tag a subset of the run (usually around 300-600 fish, out of a total 5,000-15,000 in a typical run). In the best of times, building a wooden fence across a 200 foot wide rainforest river is an ambitious task. We build it when the river level is (somewhat) low, a tiring task, but our stubborn commitment sees us through. Yet, it does not always work as planned; a few times we’ve woken at dawn after an overnight rainfall to the heartbreaking sound of cracking cedar and churning gravel and watched, coffee mug in hand, as our weir is broken and dragged downstream by the angry river. We always rebuild, a backbreaking reminder of the power of the river. Fortunately, we are stubborn and strong from years of building and rebuilding.

This fall has been yet another powerful reminder of the speed with which a river can go from warm mid-fall tranquility to a raging torrent. We enjoyed perfect weather on the central coast through September and early-October: periodic rain fall, spelled by several consecutive days of sunshine. This meant there was enough water in the creeks for the fish to enter and spawn, but not so much that we were unable to count them. Basing our field work out of Bella Bella, it was a joy to be outside, the fall sun shining on us as we wandered the Koeye and other nearby watersheds counting sockeye. Then came mid-October. Every year, there is a time when the weather suddenly switches from generally favorable to ungodly miserable. And so it came.

After five days of heavy rains which kept us indoors nursing a case of cabin fever, we had a brief window of decent weather, enough time to get back to our field sites. Unfortunately, once we were back in Koeye, it proceeded to rain for 8 more consecutive days. But with equipment still spread throughout Koeye and in need of removal for the winter season, we had lots of work to do. In particular, we had to make the 10km trip upriver to the lake, where we could access our sites in the tributaries of Koeye Lake.

With a temporary break in the weather – affectionately referred to as a “sucker hole” by Karl, our salty Alaska-trained MSc student – we headed up the Koeye to our weir camp. When we arrived, the signs of high water were everywhere. A foot above the river’s surface was a thin layer of hemlock needles and foam marking the high-water line, the first time I’d seen the river breach its banks in 6 years. Despite the ominous signs, we needed to get to the lake to wrap up our season. The next morning, we set off with a packable raft, paddle and 60 feet of line to help us cross challenging sections. The hike went quickly, and in the chilly drizzle we walked vigorously to keep warm. The river had dropped below its peak flow, but it remained precariously close to the top of its banks. All around us was evidence of the mayhem of the previous days. New trees down in and along the river, debris and silt piled in the low areas of our trail, and a depressing number of our trap cameras soaked and destroyed by the flood waters that had risen several feet above the top of the low floodplain.

At the end of a long field season, there is always a sense of urgency to finish the last of the work. However, this urgency is tempered by the deep physical and mental exhaustion from constant hiking and the continual consideration of weather, tides, and field plans. As late-afternoon drifted into evening, the sky turned ominously dark. By the time we’d arrived at the cabin it was raining full force, and we took shelter and started a fire to dry off while we cooked dinner. That night it came down with unrelenting intensity. Unable to sleep I sat and listened to the sheets of rain lashing our tin roof, and was overwhelmed by anxiety at the thought of trying to get all our work done with the river above flood height the following day.

By dawn the rain has finally subsided, and blessedly the lake level held steady. We spent the day slogging around areas of the upper watershed, bushwhacking hundreds of meters through salmonberry and devil’s club into places where normally we could simply wade up the river. In the end though, we were able to get all our equipment, and most importantly all of us safely back downriver. As we departed the cabin on our final day I felt like a weight had been removed from the center of my chest. I was able to breathe deeply and appreciate the river for all its different moods. When you live along the rivers of our Northwest Coast, you must take the good with the wild and unruly. To love a river is to know a river, and we’d all well served to remember, the river makes the rules.

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