The closest I usually get to a salmon is on my dinner plate, so the opportunity to see an actual run up close and personal intrigued me enough to take a little road trip.
About 14 kilometers outside Port Alberni, I turn into Stamp River Provincial Park and stop in the day use lot just a few hundreds meters from the park’s main draw – the Stamp River fishway. Every year, approximately 350 000 salmon travel from the Pacific Ocean up Alberni Inlet to the Stamp River. The luckiest will make their way to the gravel spawning grounds in and around the mouth of Great Central Lake. The unlucky will end up an easy lunch for some resourceful black bear or bald eagle.
A gravel trail leads me past shallow waters towards the raging mouth of the falls and the fishway installed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The zigzagging ladders (featured image) are covered with grates so you can look inside and watch the salmon jostle for position against the rushing river on their way to upstream.
A video screen is set up at the top of the falls. Cameras have been installed in the fishway that show the salmon coming through individual channels, pausing before rushing forward with a sweep of a tail fin. Four different species travel upstream from mid-July through to December, beginning with the sockeye, then coho and finishing the annual migration with the chinook. Steelhead salmon are found in the river year round.
The cameras also assist researchers to monitor the escapement of almost 40 million smolt (young salmon) making the dangerous migration to the sea each spring.
The trail continues downstream to the foot of the falls. In the shadow of the steep cliffs, fish gather in this pool to rest before facing the uphill challenge of the rapids and the ladders. The salmon jump, their wet bodies glistening in the sunlight before slapping back into the water. Even with the assistance of the ladders, the whitewater thrums with a steady roar and I imagine the daunting task these fish face to ensure their survival, often swept back into the pool in their first attempts.
Upstream of the falls, the river calms around the shallows and those that have made it rest before continuing their way upstream. Among the rocks, they’re dark shadows, barely visible at a passing glance. It is here they’re most vulnerable to a hungry bear and one’s been seen in the area the last few days.
Stamp River is only one area on Vancouver Island where you can watch the salmon run and the government provides a list of places and the best time to view the runs throughout British Columbia. If you’re headed to Tofino, though, Stamp River is the perfect quick side trip for a unique Canadian experience.
From Nanaimo or Victoria
- Take Highway 19 North
- Take the Exit for Highway 4 Port Alberni and Tofino
- Through Port Alberni, the highway takes a right at the river
- Less than 1 km from the turn, take another right onto Beaver Creek Road following the signs for Stamp River Provincial Park
- The park entrance is on the left approximately 14 kilometers off Highway 4