Squeezed into full-body wetsuits replete with rubber hoods and padded feet, our tour group looks like a colony of portly sea lions feeding at the head of British Columbia's Campbell River.
"Check out at all those salmon!" someone barks.
What salmon? Without my glasses, all I can see is a silver wall shimmering under the surface. Slipping on my mask and snorkel, I dunk my face in the water. Arms stretched out in front of me – "like Superman," as instructed – I float through the gentle current until the blurry glimmer sharpens into an aquatic bas-relief of whitish-pink bellies and scaly tails.
Whoa! I really am snorkelling with salmon – thousands of them.
Living on the Canadian West Coast, I have inevitably eaten wild salmon in every possible way – hot smoked, cold smoked, pan fried, deep fried, baked, curried and raw. As an avid sports fisher, I have fought this ancient species through thrashing waves, caught my fair share on hooks and hootchies and felt the sweet sorrow of losing the ones that got away. I have watched their beady eyes go black as I bonked them dead on the nose and have fretted over the perilous state of their ecosystem.
Now I have swum among them. Cross another item off the bucket list.
From late July to early October, the chilly waters of the Campbell River flowing down the east coast of central Vancouver Island teems with five salmon species, wrestling their way through the rugged interior as they migrate home to spawn in the Discovery Passage. It's an epic voyage for hundreds of thousands of coho, steelhead, chum, Chinook and pink that return, spawn and die in the same eddies where they entered the world.
There are other rivers where one can snorkel with salmon, but the Campbell River is ideal because of its consistent flow, perfect depth, ease of access and crystal-clear visibility. Destiny River Adventures is the only outfit offering fully equipped guided tours.
"Is anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol right now?" our gregariously menacing ferryman Jamie Turko asks before we head into the water. Having arrived by seaplane from Sonora Resort, a luxury resort on nearby Sonora Island that offers the snorkelling tour as one of its many wilderness adventures, I can't guarantee that the effects of last night's extravagant wine dinner are completely worn off. But I daren't say a peep.
At the edge of the river, Turko lists off the potential hazards:
--Wood. It acts like a "spaghetti strainer," allowing water to flow through, but not bodies. If we see branches overhead, we're too close to the shoreline and should turn around and swim upstream on an angle – hard.
--Rocks. They've been stuck on the river bottom for millenniums and are not going anywhere. If we stand up, our feet could get trapped. Nine times out of 10, the current will push us over and break or dislocate a vital appendage. "If I see you trying to stand up, you're going to hear a voice like you haven't heard since your mother yelled at you as a kid."
--The Campbell River Charon himself. "Please do not fight the river and please do not fight me. You will never win."
Thusly warned, I heed Turko's advice when he tells me to jump off a cliff. It's actually a kind gesture. We could slip over the side of the raft and slowly acclimatize to the icicle stabs seeping under our wet suits. Or we could scramble up a rock face and take a fast plunge. We all opt for the latter.
With Turko paddling alongside us, we drift into the first pool where we are suddenly surrounded by salmon. Last summer was a record year for pink salmon, with more than a million fish returning to the Campbell and Quinsam Rivers. This year's run is shaping up to be even more epic.
There are at least 50,000 pink salmon – "humpies" – in the first pool, Turko estimates. They glide by so close we can see the variations in their degeneration. Some have developed big lumpy humps in front of their dorsal fins; on others, the humps are already rotting and falling apart. With elongated jaws hooked at the tip and sharp teeth growing ever larger, they look like swimming zombies.
We rendezvous in a shallow section of the river bank – all high-fiving and giggling – then awkwardly crawl out on our knees and walk back on shore to take another pass through the first pool. We don't encounter the resident mama black bear and her cubs on the path. But we almost step into a hot-pink mound of raspberry-churned scat.
The second section is deeper and faster. You really must surrender to the current, which whips down the river at a rapid click. Now I understand why we have to keep our arms outstretched. It helps you leapfrog over the protruding rocks. Miraculously, nobody is hurt.
"Where are the fish?" shout dozens of fishermen casting from the river's edge. Sorry – we're flying so fast, it's mostly all a blur. But what a high! I'm laughing so hard I gag through my snorkel.
Near the river mouth, the current slows. The water is much colder and saltier. The salmon here are mostly Chinook (also known as spring or king salmon). Just beginning to migrate up the river, they're bigger and much healthier.
Turko tells us to climb aboard whenever we're ready. I hold out until my fingertips go numb. He offers us gloves and fuzzy stuffed-animal hats to warm up before depositing us at the edge of a deep-water tidal pool.
Exhilarated, shivering and ravenous, I can't wait to get back to the resort, devour some salmon for dinner and swallow this cycle full circle.
IF YOU GO
Campbell River, B.C., is on the east coast of Vancouver Island, about a 90-minute drive north of the Nanaimo ferry terminal.
What to do
Destiny River Adventures offers half-day snorkelling-with-salmon tours, all equipment included ($125 for adults, $115 for youth). destinyriver.com
Where to stay
Sonora Resort is a luxury wilderness and fishing resort offering spa facilities, five-star dining and retreats. sonoraresort.com
The writer was a guest of Sonora Resort, which neither reviewed nor approved this article.