Have you ever had a close encounter with a wild animal?
Fortunately, because of my parents’ enthusiasm for camping and hiking, I was raised with a strong desire to spend time out of doors which has not abated with age. So understandably the number of interactions between myself and wild animals has accumulated over the years. But there is one experience which stands out more sharply than the rest, bringing a smile to my face and a renewed sense of wonder each time I think back on it.
I have been within a few metres of bears and elk, found myself jogging with a coyote, hiking with foxes, kayaking with orcas, swimming with dolphins, had my hair brushed by air stirred by the beat of an owl’s wings, watched eagles fish, been startled as moose crossed through my back yard more than once in more than one country. I consider myself blessed to have been in the right spot at the right time to record these moments for my own future recollection. Still, it is not one of these experiences shared with what many consider to be the more majestic wild animals on the North American continent which holds the top prize in my memories.
When I was in my mid teens a school friend invited me to spend a couple of days at her family’s cabin on a small island in Howe Sound, an arm of ocean reaching inland along the Sea to Sky highway leading to Whistler. British Columbia was still relatively new to me, my family having moved there only a couple of years earlier. The mountains held me in awe, the forests filled my fantasies, and I came to learn that I would never be truly happy living out of visual range of the ocean ever again. A bit of a change for a child who was the last in swim class to put her head under water and who once feared even the idea of going for a short boat ride.
While the details of the cabin itself have faded over time the location remains hyper focused in my mind. Specifically the small river whose mouth widened and cut through a pebbly beach spilling fresh water into the ocean. We decided to go for a swim. After dipping toes into the edge of the clear river and determining that yes, it was indeed cold, I walked to the middle, bent my knees, and quickly dropped below the surface before I lost my resolve. I opened my eyes underwater and screeched in shock. Not from the icy temperature, but from the unexpected school of salmon swimming within a hand’s width from my face.
I came up sputtering, my friend laughing at me from the safety of the riverbank, and shouted, ‘Fish!’ before diving back under.
The second take was a bit less dramatic as the fish had moved upstream and no longer surrounded me. My first impression of their size was tempered by the new distance; surely they had not really been the length of my arm, their mouths large enough to swallow my hand? Their colours now a bit more dull, tinted blue by the increasing volume of river water between us, not quite as flashy though there was still the occasional shimmer as a couple scaly bodies angled against a ray of sunlight. I watched until they disappeared from view, and wished they would come back and give me another chance to sit more quietly amongst their tribe this time and soak in their presence.
Since this encounter I have learned the importance of salmon to the ecological and economic health of the west coast of Canada. An importance predating European settlement. The salmon population is an essential ingredient to life reaching beyond that of humans, touching birds, bears, wolves, even the very trees lining the rivers and streams. My whole childhood I had heard adults discussing the global decline in fisheries, wild pacific salmon was no exception. The north shore of Vancouver is dotted with fish hatcheries built to bolster the salmon population. Many a high school biology class trouped through those damp rooms and watched as dark orange eggs were squeezed from fish, hatched, and later released when deemed big enough to have a better than average chance at survival. The volunteers and scientists all seemed to be working hard, but the numbers were not encouraging.
This pall of human mismanagement over the world’s oceans has been with me my whole life. As soon as anyone around me mentions the word ‘fish’ my mind begins to fill with a spreading sense of doom, anger, and despair. Except for that one beautiful, bright, shiny moment when I floated under the river’s surface and felt the counter current of hundreds of fishy bodies swimming upstream. I cling to that moment.
I started following a couple of photographers on Instagram this year: @paulnicklen and @cristinamittermeier, founders of Sea Legacy. Their images fill my feed with motivation to continue to find ways to reduce my environmental footprint. Then one day a few months ago this image shared by @sea_legacy pops up in my feed:
Almost instantly I came full circle with my chilly dip in a river full of salmon. Before I knew it I was pulling out paper and pencil and sketching in the outlines of fishy bodies.
Just being an artist is not enough, I am not one of those who lives to paint and draw. To see a larger project through to completion I need to be thoroughly engaged, there needs to be an underlying cause pulling me back to the same sheet of paper and palette of colours.
The story behind these wild Pacific salmon keeps me coming back.
I understand it is unlikely that you have found yourself in the middle of a school of salmon, but I hope this painting gives you a sense of what it feels like. And I hope it also serves as a reminder that, even though fish are not the sexiest or even cutest poster child for environmental conservation, they are incredibly important and in need of our help. Consume moderately and responsibly, and definitely boycott farmed fish – cheap food is cheap for a reason. My cat, Lili, turns her nose up at cheap fish refusing to go beyond sniffing at it. Be like Lili and insist on quality food and a quality environment above …
and below the waterline.