The glory of autumn now includes the return of the salmon. Our walk along Oshawa Creek was slow as we stopped often to watch the fish, swimming upland, against the current. The salmon were on their way home. To spawn. And to die.
The grey-brown fish were as long as the length of my forearm. Each weighed enough to make about ten dinners. I did not expect to see such large creatures swimming in waters that was mostly just about knee-deep. Still the fish pushed on upstream, their powerful tails swishing this way and then that as they fought the current. And the current was strong, engorged by a fat storm two-days prior.
A week earlier, when I had scouted a possible route for the walk, there were no fish in the river. An angler told me then that the waters were still too warm. Salmon liked the cold. They hung out in the lake, waiting for the stream to lose its summer heat.
I was not sure about the route on the pre-hike. On the map it looked like a stroll along a green and pleasant valley. The reality was heavy on concrete and the whiff of mothballs in a town that once gleamed from making cars. Rust had replaced the sheen.
Seven days later, the creek pulsed with life. I knew then the hike was going to be alright. We had started from Oshawa train station, turned north and followed the creek upstream. Many men fished along the banks, usually alone or in pairs. A duo told us that the fish were originally from a hatchery and were a combination of Atlantic and Pacific salmons. They told us how to tell them apart – and that information went straight over my head.
Where were the fisherwomen, I wondered. I think I have only ever seen three women fishing for fun in my life. Recreational fishing is a gendered activity – men do it, women don’t. It is not so much of a racialised hobby as I have seen the full range of multicultural Toronto fishing in the city’s rivers, streams and lakes. That day on the Oshawa Creek all the anglers were Indigenous or white.
Salmon are loyal creatures, returning to the stream where they were born to lay their own eggs. Once hatched, the young fish live in the stream for up to four years before swimming down to the lake, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Deep in the ocean, they mess about in the salt water for a year or more, until they hear the call to return home. Perhaps they miss the taste of fresh water.
The walk was mostly along the paved banks of the creek. At one spot the path went under a bridge and water lapped up to the middle of the path. The high water mark was almost the same height as the bridge.
We smelled it before we saw it – a bunch of dead salmons rotting on the land, near the water’s edge. The carcasses were part of nature, their decomposition returning nutrients to the land and the water. The swans, mallards and Canada geese did not seem to mind the fish cadavers.
We strolled along until we reached Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens. There, we lunched on picnic benches, under the weeping willows, watching the salmons playing in the pools in the river.
Portage on Oshawa Creek
Salmon have spawned, swam and died in the creek for millennia. Indigenous people fished the creek in spring and autumn. The creek was another waterway that connected their communities from Georgian Bay in the north to Lake Ontario in the south. On the hike, we followed the footfalls of the Wendats and later the Mississauga nations as they travelled up and down their territory.
Oshawa is derived from an Indigenous word and roughly translates as the place ‘where we must leave our canoes.’ In other words it was a portage point, where people had to get out and walk. In the days of the colonial fur trade, voyageurs carried enormous bales of fur in their canoes, and then carried these on their backs on the portage trails that linked discrete bodies of water. Oshawa was an important transport hub of the trade.
The creek runs through downtown Oshawa. We were never far from cars and cafes, but were screened from their distractions by the arms of trees on both banks of the creek. Most of the trees were still dressed in their summer clothes, yet a few had the tint of autumn colours around their edges.
Millions of salmon once swam in the waters and rivers of Lake Ontario. There was a commercial fishing industry in the province until the start of this century. Then the fish were gone in 1898. Their vanishing act was not magic.
It was one of the consequences of European colonization. First the white settlers cut down the forest to clear the land for farming. Without trees to provide shade, the creek waters became too warm, thus uncomfortable, for the salmon to spawn. Next came the dams and weirs along the length of the creek to slow the flow of the water, first to power mills in pioneer days, and today to prevent flooding in the city. This was followed by strangling of the waterways, by channeling them underground, to make room for manicured grass and bucolic concrete. Salmon could not swim through them. All of these white made obstacles, along with over-fishing, pushed the salmon close to extinction.
Back from the Brink of Extinction
The native salmon are slowly returning to Lake Ontario and its rivers and creeks. The restoration of the environment – planting trees, cleaning up the waters and recreating spawning ground for the fish – are having an effect. The population is close to being self-sustaining. The ‘Bring Back the Salmon’ programme is a conservation success story.
It was nearing the end of the hike. We walked through the town centre, pass the formal public square at Memorial Park, with its huge murals commemorating Ottawa’s contribution to various wars. There were lots of men, guns, and tanks. I did not see any murals or memorial to the Indigenous people of Ottawa. The park was busy with people chillin’, skateboarding and smoking. Like the park, most had seen better days, or were hoping that the lean times would end soon.
We walked along Simcoe Street, which sits on top of an original Indigenous trail that lead down to the lake. It was time to head for the train and home. Watching the salmon swim upstream lingered in my memory. The return of the fish filled me with hope.
And with pangs for jerk salmon, rice and peas, and fresh carrot juice, for dinner.