It is nearly 9 a.m. now, and the sky is finally starting to lighten a bit, though not really clearing. I notice a flurry of movement on the left, through the trees, and over the river. I can’t really make out what it is, but as I turn a corner I see there is a bunch of vehicles parked just off the road, and I decide to slow down and check out what’s happening. As I get closer, I see that the movement is a tornado of gulls, circling and diving and shrieking.
As I turn into the parking area I can see people milling about, carrying nets, coolers, tubs and various accoutrements for fishing. As I kill my engine and get out the calls of the gulls are deafening. Grabbing my camera, I head for the riverbank and the scene which unfolds before me is cacophonous: hundreds of gulls, with a few bald eagles and crows mixed in, swirling about. There are thirty or so people hanging about on the shore, and on the river, wearing hip-waders, are 10 or so First Nations men holding nets, and dipping them into the river. The shore is littered with various bins, tubs, and buckets full of small, silvery fish, and I realize some of the folks on the shore are protecting them from the scavenging birds. Others, like me, are just standing slack-jawed watching the spectacle.
I approach an otherwise unoccupied man and ask him what the heck is going on.
“Oolichan run”, he tells me.
The word is unfamiliar to me, so I ask him to repeat himself. I try my best to hold the name in my head as I start taking photos and otherwise enjoy the show, but it’s soon gone from my mind.
Hours later, from my room in Prince Rupert, I struggle to remember the name of the fish the gentleman had told me. I have no idea how to spell it and start second-guessing what the heretofore unfamiliar name even was. Somehow, trying various forms of what I thought the name was, spelled phonetically, and paired with brilliant keywords such as ‘fish’ and ‘Skeena’, Google finally comes through for me.
The fish have long been important to the First Nations of the Pacific Coast, as an invaluable food source which arrived shortly after the end of winter. The preoccupied fish could be easily netted straight out of the river, as I saw, and are cooked and consumed fresh, immediately, and also smoked or sun-dried for preservation to consume later. Mostly though, the fish are processed for their oil content, which keeps for a long time without spoiling. It is a valuable direct food source and was prized for its medicinal qualities, used to treat dry skin and everything from a common cold to psoriasis.
The oil was also a valuable currency for trading with people who did not have access to spawning rivers. It was such a prized commodity that these trade routes were known as the grease trails.
I learn we are at Selma Island. The Skeena River is largely channelled and braided from Terrace to the point some 100 kilometres or so west, where it widens out and becomes fully tidal. Here there is a relatively narrow and shallow arm, which the fishermen use to their advantage.
In the moment, I was ignorant of all this. But witnessing the spectacle still stands out as one of the most powerful natural phenomena I witnessed during the trip.