Autumn reveals itself at each new turn of this winding river. Our paddles make easy maneuvering through the deep green water, keeping tempo with the rippling water. The river winds through towering old growth timber, massive trees roots anchoring the forest to the earth. There is a distinct smell in the air, but hardly the stuff of poetic writings of travel stories. The air reeks of rotting, dead fish. We are paddling down a river of death.
Hardly a surprise because we’re here to canoe alongside the thousands of spawning (and dying) Sockeye salmon that have migrated to Washington’s White River. This glacial fed ribbon of water is little known, visited only casually and closed to fishing. In other words, nobody’s here except the bears, ravens and of course, the salmon.
The White is one of 6 major tributary streams that make up the Wenatchee River system. Unlike the other five, this is the only destination for a major run of these brilliant red salmon. Smaller than their famous Alaskan brethren, the Sockeye that populate the White rarely weigh more than a couple pounds, but they are remarkably hearty for such a small salmon. Traveling hundreds of miles up the Columbia River, these Sockeye migrate all the way to the end of the line, spawning just miles from the Cascade crest.
Matt Hall, a fisheries biologist and photographer, is intimately familiar with this winding gem. His work with salmon takes him into close contact with rivers and the fish that populate them, so this trip down the White is old hat. We portage the canoe over several logjams that bar downstream travel. The river’s meandering pace gives us plenty of time to beach our canoe and walk around. There is nobody in sight, no sounds except the river and the wind. It’s a perfect day.
We’re not working on this brilliant fall day, but rather documenting these brave little salmon with cameras. How do you film a fish that doesn’t want to be anywhere near you? With a piece of wood, an old fishing reel and a tiny super HD underwater camera, that’s how.
The GoPro camera is mounted to the stick and tied to the fishing line. By controlling the camera’s drift, we’re able to film these skittish salmon up close and personal as they dig nests for eggs and endlessly fight for mating partners. Our humble contraption nets some quality footage without the fish even batting an eye. These fish are protected by federal law, so harassing them is strictly forbidden. The camera on a stick is about as low profile as you can go. Any professional film maker would blanch at the thought of not being able to control the shot, but this is not that kind of filming. Documenting these sockeye is more of a leave no trace method of documentation. You get what you get and that’s what you have. Leave the fish to their endless fighting and digging, sex and death, for they are close now and respect is due.
The miles drift past as a collection of new vistas. It’s a fine day, a rare moment in time. Paddling a canoe down a wild river full of salmon. I think this will be one to remember. Get out and explore your local river.
For more salmon videos go to: www.vimeo.com/riversnorkeling