Salmon Run on the Harrison River*

Guest Writer George O Shields

“The fishing was good; it was the catching that was bad.” ~AK Best

We reached Victoria, that quaint, old, aristocratic, ultra-English town, just as the sun was sinking beneath the waves, that rolled restlessly on the surface of Juan de Fuca Strait. We were surprised to see so substantial and well-built a town as this, and one possessing so much of the air of age and independence, so far north and west. One might readily imagine, from the exterior appearance of the city and its surroundings, that he were in the province of Quebec instead of that of British Columbia. My wife felt that she must not remain longer away from home at present, and we were to part here; therefore, in the early morning she embarked for home, while I transferred my effects and self to the steamer Princess Louise, bound for Burrard Inlet.

AT daylight in the morning we entered English Bay, having crossed the strait during the night. The sun climbed up over the snow-mantled mountains into a cloudless sky, and his rays were reflected from the limpid, tranquil surface of the bay … as if from the face of a mirror. A few miles to the east, the triple-mouthed Frazer [Fraser] empties its great volume of fresh, cold, glacier-tinted fluid into the briny inland sea, and its delta, level as a floor, stretches back many miles on either side of the river to the foot-hills of the Cascades. Thousands of ducks sat idly and lazily in the water, sunning themselves, pruning their feathers, and eyeing us curiously but fearlessly, as we passed, sometimes within twenty-five or thirty yards of them. A few geese crossed hither and thither, in low, long, dark lines, uttering their familiar honk, honk; but they were more wary than their lesser cousins, and kept well out of range ….

Early in the day we entered Burrard Inlet, a narrow, crooked, and peculiarly shaped arm of the salt water, that winds and threads its way many miles back into the mountains, so narrow in places, that a boy may cast a stone across it, and yet so deep as to be navigable for the largest ocean steamship. inlet is so narrow and crooked that a stranger, sailing into it for the first time, would pronounce it a great river coming down from the mountains. Through this picturesque body of water our good boat cleft the shadows of the overhanging mountains until nearly noon, when we landed at Vancouver, the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In consequence of this important selection, the place is a busy mart of trade. The clang of saw and hammer, the rattle of wheels, the general din of a building boom, are such as to tire one’s nerves in a few hours. Later in the day we reached Port Moody. This town was originally designated as the tide-water terminus of the road, and had its brief era of prosperity and speculation in consequence; but now that the plan has been changed it has been reduced to a mere way station, and has relapsed into the dullest kind of dullness.

From here I staged across the divide to New Westminster, on the Frazer River ….

FOR many years I had read, heard, and dreamed of the Frazer, that mysterious stream which flows out from among the icy fastnesses of the Cascades, in the far-off confines of British Columbia. For many years had I longed to see with my own eyes some of the grand scenery of the region it drains, and now, at last, that mighty stream flowed at my feet. How eagerly I drank in the beauty of the scene! How my heart thrilled at the thought that I stood face to face with this land of my dreams and was about to explore a portion, at least, of the country in which this great river rises ….

I left New Westminster at seven o’clock Monday morning on the steamer Adelaide, for the mouth of Harrison River, sixty miles up the Frazer …. The Frazer is from a quarter to half a mile wide, and is navigable for large steamers for a hundred miles above its mouth. There are portions of the valley that are fertile, thickly settled, and well cultivated. valleys of some of its tributaries are also good farming districts, and grain, fruits, and vegetables of various kinds grow in abundance. At the mouth of the Chilukweyuk I saw fine peaches that had grown in the valley, within ten miles of perpetual snow. The river became very crooked as we neared the mountains, and finally we entered the gorge, or cañon [canyon], where the rocky-faced mountains rise, sheer from the water’s edge, to heights of many hundreds of feet, and just back of them tower great peaks, clad in eternal snows …. We saw several seals in the river on the way up, and the captain informed me that at certain seasons they were quite plentiful in the Frazer and all the larger streams in the neighborhood. They go up the Frazer to the head of navigation and he could not say how much farther ….

We arrived at the mouth of Harrison River at six o’clock in the evening. There is a little Indian village there called by the same name as the river, and Mr J Barker keeps a trading post on the reservation, he being the only white man living there. He made me welcome to the best accommodations his bachelor quarters afforded, but said the only sleeping-room he had was full, as two friends from down the river were stopping with him for the night, and that I would have to lodge with one of the Indian families. He said there was one kloochman (the Chinook word for squaw) who was a remarkably neat, cleanly housekeeper, who had a spare room, and who usually kept any strangers that wished to stop over night in the village ….

I remained at the store and talked with Mr Barker and his friends until ten o’clock, when he took a lantern and piloted me over to the Indian rancherie, where I was to lodge. I took my sleeping-bag with me …. When Mary and her husband, George, saw my roll of bedding, which they supposed to be simply blankets, they protested to Mr Barker that I would not need them, that there was “hy-iu mit-lite pa-se-se” (plenty of covering on the bed). I told them, however, that I could sleep better in my own blankets and preferred to use them. I took the bundle into my room, spread the sleeping-bag on the bed and crawled into it. The outer covering of the bag being of thick, hard canvas …. George and Mary live in a very well-built, comfortable, one-story frame cottage, divided into two rooms; the kitchen, dining-room, parlor and family sleeping-room all in one, and the spare room being the other. The house has four windows and one door, a shingle roof and a board floor. They have a cooking-stove, several chairs, a table, cupboard, etc. The bedstead on which I slept was homemade, but neat and substantial. It was furnished with a white cotton tick, filled with straw, feather pillows, several clean-looking blankets, and a pair of moderately clean cotton sheets. I have slept in much worse-looking beds in hotels kept by white people ….

I was not compelled to eat with George and Mary, for Mr Barker had kindly invited me to breakfast with him; and when I reached his store, at the breakfast hour in the morning, I found a neat inviting-looking table in the room back of the store, loaded with broiled ham, baked potatoes, good bread and butter, a pot of steaming coffee, etc, all of which we enjoyed intensely. Mr Barker informed me there was a cluster of hot springs ten miles up the river, at the foot of Harrison Lake, the source of Harrison River, near which a large hotel had lately been built. Upon inquiry as to a means of getting up there, I learned that he had employed a couple of Indians to take some freight up that morning in a canoe, and that I could probably secure a passage with them. As Harrison Lake, or rather the mountains surrounding it, were the hunting-grounds … and as we would have to pass these hot springs en route, I decided to go there and wait for him. I therefore arranged with Mr Barker to send him up to the springs, when he should call for me at the store, and took passage in the freight canoe.

The Harrison River is a large stream that cuts its way through high, rugged mountains, and the water has a pronounced milky tinge imparted by the glaciers from which its feeders come, away back in the Cascades. is a famous salmon stream, and thousands of these noble fishes, of mammoth size, that had lately gone up the river and into the small creeks to spawn, having died from disease, or having been killed in the terrible rapids they had to encounter, were lying dead on every sand bar, lodged against every stick of driftwood, or were slowly floating in the current. Their carcasses lined the shore all along the lower portion of the river, and the hogs, of which the Indians have large numbers, were feasting on the putrid masses as voraciously as if they had been ears of new, sweet corn. The stench emitted by these festering bodies was nauseating in the extreme; and the water, ordinarily so pure and palatable, was now totally unfit for use. I counted over one hundred of these dead fishes on a single sand bar of less than half an acre in extent. Cruising amid such surroundings was anything but pleasant, and I was glad the current was slow here so that, though going up stream, we were able to make good progress, and soon got away from this nauseating sight.

About a mile above the village we rounded a bend in the river, where it spread out to nearly a quarter of a mile in width, and on a sand bar in the middle of the stream, sat a flock of geese. I picked up my rifle and took a shot at them, but the ball cut a ditch in the water nearly fifty yards this side, and went singing over their heads into the woods beyond. They did not seem lo enjoy such music, and taking wing started for some safer feeding-ground, carrying on a lively conversation in goose Latin, probably about any fool who would try to kill geese at that distance …. There were plenty of ducks, coots, grebes, and gulls on the river, and I had fine sport with them whenever I cared to shoot.

[After another mile] we entered a long reach of shoal rapids, where all the brawn and skill of the Indians were required to stem the powerful current and the immense volume of water. The rapids are over a mile long, and it took us nearly two hours to reach their head. As soon as we were well into them we came among large numbers of live, healthy salmon. Many of them were running down the stream, some up, while others seemed not to be going anywhere in particular, but just loafing around, enjoying themselves. They were wild, but, owing to the water being so rough and rapid, we frequently got within two or three feet of them before they saw us, and the Indians killed two large ones with their canoe poles. Occasionally we would corner a whole school of them in some little pocket, where the water was so shallow that their dorsal fins would stick out, and where there was no exit but by passing close to the canoe. When alarmed they would cavort around like a herd of wild mustangs in a corral, until they would churn the water into a foam; then, emboldened by their peril, they would flash out past us with the velocity of an arrow. They were doing a great deal of jumping; frequently a large fish, two or three feet long, would start across the stream, and make four or five long, high leaps out of the water, in rapid succession, only remaining in the water long enough after each jump to gain momentum for the next. I asked Charlie why they were doing this, if they were sick, or if something was biting them.

“No,” he said. “Play. All same drunk—raise hell!”

These salmon run up the rivers and creeks to deposit their spawn, and seem possessed of an insane desire to get as far up into the small brooks as they possibly can. They frequently pursue their mad course up over boiling, foaming, roaring rapids, and abrupt, perpendicular falls, where it would seem impossible for any living creature to go—regardless of their own safety or comfort. They are often found in dense schools in little creeks away up near their sources, where there is not water enough to cover their bodies, and where they become an easy prey to man, or to wild beasts. In such cases, Indians kill them with spears and sharp sticks, or even catch and throw them out with their hands.

Or if their journeyings take them among farms or ranches, as is often the case, the people throw them out on the banks with pitch-forks, and after supplying their household necessities, they cart the noble fish away and feed them to their hogs, or even use them to fertilize their fields. I have seen salmon wedged into some of the small streams until you could almost walk on them. The banks of many creeks, far up in the foot-hills, are almost wholly composed of the bones of salmon. traveling through dense woods I have often heard, at some distance ahead, a loud splashing and general commotion in water, as if of a dozen small boys in bathing. This would, perhaps, be the first intimation I had that I was near water, and, on approaching the source of the noise, I have found it to have been made by a school of these lordly salmon, wedged into one of the little streams, thrashing the creek into suds in their efforts to get to its head.

After depositing their spawn the poor creatures, already half dead from bruises and exhaustion incurred in their perilous voyage up stream, begin to drift down. But how different, now, from the bright, silvery creatures that once darted like rays of living light through the sea. Unable to control their movements in the descent, even as well as in the ascent, they drift at the cruel mercy of the stream. They are driven against rough bowlders [boulders], submerged logs and snags, or through raging rapids by the fury of the torrent, until hundreds, yes thousands, of them are killed outright, and thousands more die from sheer exhaustion.

I have seen salmon with their noses broken and torn off; others with a lower jaw torn away; some with sides, backs, or bellies bruised and bleeding; others with their tails whipped and split into shreds, and still others with their entrails torn out by snags. In this sad plight they are beset at every turn in the river by their natural enemies. Bears, cougars, minks, wild cats, fishers, eagles, hawks, and worst and most destructive of all, men, await them everywhere, and it would be strange, indeed, if one in each thousand that left the salt water should live to return. The few that do so, are, of course, so weak that they fall an easy prey to the seals, sharks, and other enemies, that wait with open mouths to engulf them. So, all the leaping, rushing multitude that entered the river a few months ago, have, ere this, gone to their doom, but their seed is planted in the icy brook, far away in the mountains, and their young will soon come forth to take the place of the parents that have passed away. The instinct of reproduction must, indeed, be an absorbing passion in poor dumb creatures, when they will thus sacrifice life in the effort to deposit their ova where the offspring may best be brought into being.

“The poetry of the earth is never dead.” ~John Keats

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

* George O Shields, Cruisings in the Cascades / A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, Amateur Photography, / Hunting, and Fishing (Chicago, New York: Rand, McNally, 1889), Chapters 4-7. Photos, quotes added.


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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