Months before I arrive at Campbell River Canada– while surfing the internet with my feet tucked safely beneath my desk – the idea of swimming with salmon on their voyage to their birthplace seems inspiring.
Campbell River is a salmon spawning stream that flows from Vancouver Island’s rugged interior mountains to the Discovery Passage.
Each year hundreds of thousands of bright silver coho, steelhead, hooked-nosed chum, chinook and white-bellied pink salmon swim upstream along the Campbell River, fighting the currents to return to their place of birth on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Weeks later, on a cold September morning, my moment of inspiration has turned into anxiety, as I sit on the sandy banks of the Campbell River near a logging bridge pulling on my flippers, mask and snorkel.
I’ve squeezed myself into a neoprene bodysuit. There’s a rubber hood over my head and soft rubber boots on my feet. Gloves cover my hands. The only skin exposed is my face.
The wetsuits are essential to keep us warm and buoyant. But I’m sure I look like a seal dressed as ninja.
There are nine of us swimming in two groups, with one river guide keeping an eye on each team.
“You don’t have to be a strong swimmer but it’s important to stay calm,” says my guide.
My teeth chatter as the guides describe the 2.5-kilometre swim ahead of us.
Some sections of the river are deep, while other sections are rocky and shallow. We’re told to keep our arms out in front of us like Superman.
I enter the river shallows and put my face into the water, testing my mask and snorkel.
With my arms stretched out in front of me, I drift gently towards the middle of the river, where our guide has pointed out a favourite deep pool for large fish.
This section of the river is so calm that I feel like I’m floating in space.
I glide past people fishing on the river banks and forest clearings ideal for bears.
Swimming with salmon
The visibility in the water is not good and at first there’s nothing to see. Then all of a sudden, I’m surrounded by salmon. Some swim past me upstream while others hover around me in the gentle current, gaining strength for their final journey ahead.
I spin around and kick against the current. It’s a futile exercise as the current is strong and I begin to lose ground.
As I watch a few salmon drift downriver with me, the enormity of their journey sinks in. Their resolve to return to their birth place to mate and reproduce means they have to fight the currents all the way. It’s a long and arduous journey that can take days, weeks or months swimming a few lengths forward then drifting back.
The rendezvous point on the river is a rocky section on the river bank. To reach it we have to swim through a mini rapid.
“Don’t get too far ahead of me,” yells our guide.
One member of our group is clinging to the side of our guide’s small rescue board.
As I swim towards the rocks, the gentle river becomes a fast-flowing current. It slingshots me forward in the water. My heart thumps as I’m dragged across a shallow section over rocks. I can hear the guide shouting behind me but his words are drowned out by the gushing river and muted by the rubber hood covering my ears.
I turn my head to look around and quickly realise I’ve made a mistake.
A grave mistake
My entire body flips over and I find myself bumping along the shallow river bed on my backside.
“Help! Help!” I scream and thrash around in a panic as I’m dragged over the rocky river bed, thinking of the liability waiver I have signed. It seems like ages before someone grabs my arm and a voice tells me to calm down. I grab hold of the board and we kick away from the current.
We cling to rocks by the riverside, hearts thumping.
After a short breather, my confidence slightly restored, we continue floating downstream.
The second half of the run is a blur of salmon, rocks and fishermen.
This time, current is a little too fast to allow us to enjoy looking at the salmon.
I wear myself out trying to swim out of the path of an eight-person rowing skiff paddling upstream.
At the exit site, which is a deep-water tidal pool often visited by harbour seals, our mini bus is waiting to take us back to the start of the river for a second run.
Of all the madcap water activities I’ve participated in over the years (they include swimming with whale sharks and diving into a crocodile pen in an acrylic cage), I’d have to say that snorkelling in a fast-flowing river is the most nerve-racking.
To really enjoy it, you have to surrender to the current.
“You just have to let go and trust the river,” says my guide.
“When you can do that, it’s a remarkably tranquil experience.”
Well, it wasn’t tranquil for me but it certainly was an experience I’ll remember for years to come.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism British Columbia.
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