Of bears and salmon

Trip Start Jul 08, 2008
Trip End Oct 31, 2010

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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Port Alberni
Back on Vancouver Island we decided to make one last effort to get a good look at the place, but our guidebook did not inspire us much - the scenery is meant to be nice and there are beautiful coastlines, but we have done all that many times and are now very hard to impress. The guidebooks do the central and west coast regions a great disservice. For instance, all ours says of Port Alberni is that it is a good spot to see some beautiful scenery.

Port Alberni was our first stop, a former logging town at the end of a deep inlet that cuts almost half the way into Vancouver Island. Along the way we stopped for an ice cream at Coombs, where the tourist market has a sod roof complete with a family of goats.

We spent the night near Cathedral Grove, an impressive stand of old growth Douglas fir and red cedar - both tall, straight trees but Douglas fir has incredibly thick, rough bark. Both are thickly covered in moss and branches thick with green lichen. Walking around this forest we were amused to hear a British accent complaining that 'they are not as big as the kauris in New Zealand'. He was right too.

Port Alberni is the perfect town for bear watching. The inlet is the outlet for the Somass River, up which hundreds of thousands of salmon must pass on their way to spawning grounds every autumn. At this time of the year bears parade up and down the banks of the river looking for easy fish at low tide. You can watch them practically from the centre of town, in perfect safety from across the river, yet still close enough to get a good view. This town could not have been better designed. But we didn't yet know how regular they would be.

After missing out in the Rockies, I was determined to find a bear this time. So on our first morning we took a walk in the rain to a place where bears are often seen. We saw none, and got quite wet. So we sat in the car eating popcorn and waited for the bears to show up, only half expecting them to. Our first show was a punctual 15 mins before low tide, and he strolled the length of the river bank for a good 15 minutes while we got wet again trying to take photos through the rain  We had another 15 min break after he disappeared around the bend before the next bear turned up and performed the same routine.  We decided to call that stretch of the riverbank the bear promenade. Neither was interested in fishing, or showed much interest in anything at all, and we were a little puzzled by the performance. But we now know that many dying fish are to be had on the banks of rivers, and our bears were looking for these energy rich and easy pickings. We thought that two was probably our quota and it was now raining so hard as to make visibility difficult. We went to the library to dry out.

The next day was sunny and we went to the other great local attraction, the fish ladder. The fish that survive the bear vigil are headed for Central Lake, which they get to by turning right out of the Somass River into the Stamp River. Their way is blocked by what seems to me to be a totally impassible set of rapids that drop nine metres in pretty short order, the Stamp Falls. Humans built a graduated series of levels in three switchbacks to help the fish out because otherwise 'only the strongest fish could pass the falls' according to the sign. I immediately worried about the wisdom of messing with such an obviously stringent engine of natural selection, but on seeing the falls I immediately started thinking that the ladder should be made a bit more obvious so that more salmon are able to take that route.

We were here at the end of September and the river was simply full of fish. According to signs, about 377,000 fish find their way up the river every year, and around 42 million hatch and survive to make the trip back out to sea (and I read elsewhere that only 15% of eggs even survive to become fry). (For those who like figures - coho 62,500 come up river for an "escapement" of 8m; sckeye 257,500 for 11.687m; chinook 54,500 for 22m; steelhead (trout) 2,500 for 522,000.) Obviously, of all those fish about 377,000 survive to make the one way trip to the spawning grounds. The mortality is incredible.

From a salmon's point of view the falls are atrocious. The river drops over three falls in a frothing mass of white water against which the fish must swim and build up enough speed to jump. They cannot clear the fall, so they must jump into the torrent, hitting it at the right angle and velocity to be able to fight against the current into the rapid above the fall. And then tackle the next climb. Fortunately there are some sheltered spots where they can rest, but I saw several fish who had made it to the second level be swept back down. It must be very dispiriting for them. And the poor things obviously cannot see where they are going - often times they jump into the wall of the gorge with a thunk that can be heard above the roar of the rapids. I saw some jumping 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Jump too high and they hit the water without any speed. Often they are badly angled and land on their side, or a wave can nip their tail and send them into a spin. Even the best aimed jumps rarely lead to success. I didn't see any pass the second level and I find it hard to imagine that any could. But the existence of the salmon run shows that they did, even before the days of the fish ladder.

It was a very interesting display, and only missing a bear to present a complete nature documentary.

More bears
We made up for the bear by heading back into town. But the bears were late. The first did not show until a full 90 mins after low tide. It stomped around in a puddle for a few minutes and wandered off. A very big fellow gave us the full parade and found a fish, and disappeared into the trees. While he was at one end, a juvenile showed up at the other, but did not hang around for long. Then the big fellow (or one very like him) returned to sit in the sun, yawning and having the occasional scratch.

And repeat ...
The next day we headed to Ucluelet, but we had to pass through Port Alberni again, and that meant we had to look out for the bears and check on the salmon again. And now I start to lose track of it all. I started out with the salmon because low tide was not until early evening. I was dismayed to find the falls even more
vicious than before, and the quiet patches that seemed to offer respite were now surging and foaming. The fish continued to jump valiantly, but I now saw many being swept back down the river, and very few successfully climbing over the first fall. It was surprisingly gripping drama though.

I found a little track down to the opening of the gorge, where the salmon can wait peacefully before entering the bottleneck. The number of fish was quite extraordinary and it was interesting to watch fishermen fail to catch a single one - I believe the salmon give up feeding, but it is surprising that they don't simply swim into the hook.

Back in town the bears did their bit for Alberni tourism by promenading until dark. A couple of bald eagles showed up too. There was a low tide early the next morning so we stayed for that too. And, sure enough, two showed up again, but only putting in brief appearances which I could not photograph despite the much superior early morning light. Instead, I had to content myself with footprints under the main bridge into town.

I credit Port Alberni with really kindling my bear mania, but it was in Ucluelet that it became truly established to a clinically recognisable degree ...

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