My friend David and I are navigating a dirt trail alongside the Adams River in British Columbia on the lookout for salmon. “Just around the corner there are a bunch on a different path. I think we can get your wheelchair there,” says David. “Should be no problem.”
“No problem” is a possible over-statement.
David and I have been known to be a tad overly-optimistic when it comes to what is considered wheelchair-accessible — the snickers and comments from the peanut gallery are duly noted and filed away for future reference.
“Sounds like a challenge to me,” I say, assessing the narrow path. It looks passable, and we’ve forced this poor chair through worse.
David leads the way and I follow. Our wives are along as backup to make sure Murphy — of Murphy’s Law — doesn’t blindside us. I’m a quadriplegic strapped to a 400-pound wheelchair … what could possibly go wrong? Barely-audible chattering and giggling can be heard. I head down the path, choosing which wheels are to follow the ruts, as of course, it’s too narrow for all four. David climbs a steep hill, surveys around and comes down to help.
“OK, we’ll help you up the hill, then you STOP at the top.”
Noting the emphasis on stop, I head up. “So, what’s on the other side?” I ask, half-knowing.
“An undercut-bank and drop-off into deep water.”
With some pushing and pulling I am up on the bank overlooking the river. I immediately turn my chair off to lock the brakes. A quick accidental tap of the joystick and I’d be in the river!
Below us is a pool of crystal-clear water with several large sockeye and chinook salmon. The sockeye are obvious, easily spotted by their bright-red color. Some are chasing each other, others are resting in the calm water by the banks for their next burst up the river.
“Watch that one,” says Dave, pointing at a salmon scooting upstream. The fish looks like it is zooming almost on the shore, water spraying as it flies up the rapids. The scarlet beast has most of its humped body out of the inch-deep water, seemingly able to swim on rocks.
Why We Are Here
Every four years, millions of salmon make a fall pilgrimage hundreds of miles up the British Columbia river system to reach the Adams River spawning grounds. To celebrate North America’s largest sockeye salmon run, the Adams River Salmon Society holds a three-week-long celebration — the Salute to the Sockeye Festival.
The salmon return to the same spawning grounds they were born in, laying eggs in the fall that hatch over the winter. The fry swim to the freshwater Shuswap Lake and stay there, growing and gaining strength for a year. Then they venture to the ocean to feed on krill for three years. The krill are plentiful, and the carotene in them turns the salmon’s flesh that familiar red color. Sockeye are the reddest of all salmon. When they get the urge to spawn at age 4, their bodies are full of fats and proteins to fuel their long journey upstream to the spawning grounds. Once at the grounds, they compete for the best sites. The eggs need gravel and fresh water running over them to supply oxygen.
They make a “redd” or a dished-out area to lay their eggs, then a male fish will fertilize them. A female will lay between 2,000 and 4,000 eggs. On average, only two will hatch and survive the arduous journey to the ocean and back. After spawning, the salmon stay and protect their nest until they die, about 10 days later. Their bodies decompose and add nutrients to the stream, which feed insects, bears, birds and their fry when they hatch.
We carry on down the trail toward the lake. It is not paved but is easily travelled in my power chair. The trail opens to where the river enters the lake with a series of rapids. Out in the fast-moving water, there are hundreds of large salmon jumping. We see several fly-fishermen casting their lines. One of them approaches us with his fishing rod.
“Are you allowed to fish here?” I ask.
“Yes, you can fish. You can’t keep any salmon though,” he replies.
“Do they bite your hook?”
“The salmon won’t feed after entering the fresh water, but the trout will,” he says. “The trout like to eat the salmon eggs so we use a fly that looks like them, and you can keep trout if you want.”
We continue down the trail to the parking area. There are tents set up with items for sale inside. There is salmon jerky, souvenirs, clothing, hats, native foods such as bannock and interpretive shows. What an amazing natural wonder to see, and it’s all wheelchair-accessible.
Frequently Asked Questions
How old are the salmon?
They are 4 years old when they return to where they hatched.
How big are they?
The Sockeye salmon can weigh up to 15 pounds or so, and the Chinook salmon can hit 75 pounds.
How far do they swim?
They swim upstream about 25 miles per day, taking 10–14 days to travel from the ocean to the spawning grounds.
Is the viewing area wheelchair accessible?
The Adams River facility is great for wheelchair access. There is a paved trail from the parking lot to a large viewing platform overlooking the river, with salmon right below! There are also a couple of miles of packed dirt trails that were easy to travel in my power chair.
Are there accessible accommodations nearby?
Yes. We stayed at the Quaaout Lodge, owned by the Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band. Our room was wheelchair accessible, and the patio doors opened right up to a spectacular view of the lake and mountains. The staff at the lodge treated us like royalty, and the dining room served fantastic food. It was friendly, spacious and pet-friendly.