BY NANCIE DOHAN
A flash of crimson red along the rippled beige and burnt orange gravel catches my eye as I wander along the spawning channel that parallels Kokanee Creek within Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, 19 km west of Nelson. The kokanee salmon have begun the final chapter of their life’s journey to spawn and die in the creek they were born in a mere three years ago.
I’m spellbound as I watch each land-locked salmon giving up their strength to achieve their greatest journey on the banks of the creeks and tributaries flowing into Kootenay Lake.
The story begins, not from the dams built in the 1960’s with the Columbia River Treaty but 12,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated leaving the ocean-going sockeye salmon with limited options — adapt or die. And so they did — adapt — to living in freshwater, foregoing the “smolt” stage of adapting to saltwater in the estuaries of the Pacific Ocean.
Zoom forward in time to the present-day spawning channel built in 1985. The effects of channelizing the creek in the 1970s to prevent flooding of the provincial campground effectively washed away the good gravel substrate that the kokanee depended on to lay their eggs, and hence fewer and fewer fish returned to the creek to spawn.
This and other reasons prompted the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and the Ministry of Environment to build the spawning channel with the goal of enhancing the kokanee fisheries. A portion of hunting and angling license fees continues to maintain and support the spawning channel and much in-kind support is also provided by provincial fisheries management.
As sure as the kokanee gather to spawn, youth from the Columbia Basin congregate in large numbers at the Kokanee Salmon School Program to a field trip that involves a dissection of a spawned-out kokanee, an introduction to the lifecycle and natural history of the kokanee salmon and the fisheries management of the channel and its redfish. Sponsored by the West Arm Outdoors Club, Gord Grunerud, President of the Club says, “The Kokanee Salmon School Program allows the students to experience the kokanee salmon life cycle and observe the importance of a healthy watershed ecosystem.
“This whole process takes place annually in our back yard and most people are unaware of this natural event. I would encourage all residents to visit Kokanee Creek and witness the kokanee return to spawn.“
Generous funding support for the school program is provided by the Columbia Basin Trust, the Nelson Police and Friends Fishing Derby held every October, BC Hydro and the Nelson Legion (Branch #51). On average 2,000 students from the Basin have participated in the KSSP each year for the past 25 years. That adds up to roughly 50,000 young people that have grown up learning about the importance of healthy ecosystems and waterways for fish and beyond to the communities in which they live. All here in their own backyards.
The kokanee salmon not only receive the admiration and support of the young people of the Columbia Basin. The dedicated volunteers of the Ecosociety and the Friends of West Kootenay Parks keep the doors of the Kokanee Creek Park Visitor Centre open throughout the summer season when the kokanee salmon first begin to swim upstream in mid-August. Lacking any funding from the provincial government since all interpretive funding was cut in the province in 2001, the Kokanee Creek Visitor Centre is currently operated by the Ecosociety, however with a shadow of its former provincially–supported level of interpretive programming.
This year in particular is an exceptional one. A fantastic opportunity to visit the spawning channel in Kokanee Creek Park awaits you in the next couple of weeks. The total number of kokanee in the channel is estimated to be over 8,000.
And so the tribe needed to raise the kokanee salmon and to raise awareness of this precious resource expands to include many, near and far, that have the health and continued welfare of the kokanee salmon at the heart of their decision-making as the kokanee salmon continue to thrive and survive in years to come.
Bring your family and friends to view the kokanee salmon at Kokanee Creek, and please leave your pets at home. If you decide to bring your dog, please have it on a leash as the fish scare easily, and need to conserve all the depleted energy they have, and in addition, freshly-laid eggs could be crushed under the gravel.