The Columbia Valley wetlands stretch 180 kilometers from Canal Flats to Golden and include the source of the Columbia River, the largest river flowing into the Pacific in North America. For thousands of years Chinook salmon were born in the upper Columbia, swam to sea to grow up and made the arduous journey back to the valley to spawn. Reaching a size of 18 kilograms the fish were important food for the valley’s first people.
With the 1942 construction of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam the way to the ocean was blocked but you can still see freshwater salmon in the Columbia Valley. Kokanee salmon have replaced Chinook; smaller – weighing in at 4.5 kilograms – these landlocked salmon are born in spots once used by the Chinook, swim to lakes to grow up and return to areas near Fairmont Hot Springs to spawn each fall.
Watching a crimson-red salmon struggling against the current, its body bruised from rock collisions but bravely responding to the call of an ancient ritual is to see true grit. Reaching her destination a female deposits eggs as her mate releases sperm. A sweep of her tail covers the fertilized eggs with gravel before life ebbs from her and her mate.
To watch this life and death drama look for the cardinal-red fish from the shores of the Columbia River as it snakes under Highway 95 south of Fairmont Hot Springs or at Dutch Creek or through Riverside Golf Course (if you’re not a golfer, make sure you’re not in the path of play).
Learn more about the role salmon played in the life of the valley’s first residents at the Columbia Salmon Festival. You can celebrate salmon –past and future – with Ktunaxa storytelling and dancing. Bring your appetite for the salmon feast!