Salmon and Red Cedar
Story and Photos by Pam Mandel

Crossing the Canadian border to British Columbia, Pam Mandel crosses from the new world to the old, seeing the local creatures through the eyes of First Nations people. The salmon are less cooperative.

Stanley Park Totem Poles

The fog is heavy in Vancouver and even though it's high afternoon, the Stanley Park Totem Poles have no shadows. Just behind us, a tanker is blowing his foghorn; it repeats every few minutes. The Lion's Gate Bridge is nearly invisible and it's not that far from where we stand. I wrap my scarf tighter around my neck and push my hands deeper into my pockets. It's very cold and the fog finds every possible shortcut to sneak up the sleeves of my coat or underneath my color.

A handful of Chinese tourists skitter out of a minivan, run around the site for a few minutes snapping photos and then, they're off. A tall bearded man in a navy blue jacket holds up a Flat Stanley for a few pictures, when I look back, he's gone too. It's not an easy day to be an observer, but the totem poles in the damp fog are what I am looking for.

One is unpainted—it tells the story of how the Beaver and Eagle clans came to work together. There's another with a huge raven at the base—it's a replica of one that used to stand at the entry to a chief's house—the door was through the raven's giant beak. I recognize the Orca and the beaver; I have trouble telling the birds from each other until I study the shapes of their beaks.

One of the poles is a Bill Reid pole—it's got a wide round face on top—the moon. Reid is Canada's best–known First Nation's artist—perhaps the best–known native artist in the world. Earlier that day we visited the Bill Reid Foundation, a gallery that promotes Northwest Coastal art. Reid's monumental shapes are recognizable in the totem pole if you're a tiny bit familiar with his work; his hand shows through the graphic style you see so often in the North Coast art of British Columbia.

raven carving

He Wanted to Be an Eagle
There are dropcloths on the floor of the main hall in the Bill Reid Foundation; wood chips are scattered all over the place. The raven is about my height, maybe a little taller, and he's a good four feet thick. He's emerging from a red cedar. Except for an attached block to give his beak the needed length, he's all one piece.

"He wanted to be an eagle at first," said James Hart, the carver. "And for a while there, it seemed like he was going to be a toucan." I laughed and asked him if he'd ever seen a toucan in the wild. When he said no, I told him about how we'd watched them for hours in Costa Rica, taking off and dropping slightly as they did, seemingly dragged down by their huge beaks. James' son, Carl a good looking young man who's helping with the carving stopped work and laughed a little across the top of the raven's head.

James told me about watching the ravens in the rivers back home in Skidegate—they're very smart birds—and how they sound different on the mainland. "It's like a dialect, you know?" "You mean they have an accent?" "Yeah, that's it." When he mentioned something about fishing, I asked how the salmon season was this year.

I followed the salmon to get here. If you pay even the slightest attention to the ecosystem that is the Pacific Northwest, you end up with salmon. They swim right through my home city of Seattle, they are on my plate for dinner, I wear a salmon shaped ring in a stylized North Coast design. The salmon lead you to the trees—their bodies, spent in the rivers where they go to spawn, feed the massive trees of our temperate rain forest. And the trees lead you to the people—especially the red cedar, used for carving, clothing, housing, and transportation by the First Nations people.

Waiting for Salmon, Spear in Hand
Harold Joe has one boot on the rail of the bridge and the other on the concrete sidewalk. He's smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee out of a paper cup. He's watching the Cowichan River for steelhead salmon. Every now and then he turns to look at me, when I ask him something, but I can't see his eyes, he's wearing dark sunglasses, the better to see the fish with. Between us, resting across the rails, is a long double tipped spear, maybe 12 feet long.

I squint into the water, but I can't make out the steelhead below. Harold tells us to move down a little, not too fast. Then he takes the spear and hurls it into the water. There's a big splash, but the fish—which I still can't see—is gone.

I climb down under the bridge; the rocks are a little slippery with ice because it's cold in the shadows. Along the edge of the river there's the perfect spine of a fish. There's no head left, but all the fine feathery ribs are intact, it's surprisingly delicate and pretty lying on the chocolate colored sand of the riverbank. There's some gold grass and the river smells like water, like wet dirt.

fish spine

Harold says the kids aren't patient enough these days to learn to fish the way he did. They want to go straight to hurling the big spear into the water, they don't want to do the exercises he had to do, throwing a stick through rolling bicycle wheel. They have to learn to be patient, to make their own spear and to watch the river for the fish—something I'm clearly no good at, I can't see them unless they're dead on the sand.

I want the excitement of seeing Harold spear a fish; I want to see him pull it up out of the water on the long line that he uses to bring the spear back up to the bridge. No one has said that this is what's going to happen, but I'm having this fantasy that Harold will gut the fish, we'll find some place to light a fire, and I'll get eat flame cooked salmon with my hands, washing them in the river.

Back up on the bridge, Kurt Schmidt, our guide for the day, says "What do you think about fish and chips?" Harold stows his spear. We climb into the car and head into the town of Cowichan Bay to eat lunch. In the car on the way to town, Harold tells us that one time, he caught 45 salmon in a single day. "45 salmon!" I think, trying to imagine what they look like all laid out on the riverbank.

I'm hungry and the afternoon is getting away from us. At the table, Harold fairly ignores his lunch and eventually, disappears. "He's thinking about the fish," his partner—she's joined us for lunch—says, "he can stand on that bridge all day when the fish are running."

Waiting for Salmon, Camera in Hand
The sun has dropped behind the hills and the chill is back in the air. We're walking in a tiny patch of old growth forest, a narrow canyon leads up to a waterfall. The steep walls are lined with tall trees, moss hangs in wisps off many of them. The waterfall drops, sharply, into the nearly flat bottom of the canyon and slides through a bridge to the other side of the road where we've parked the car. There's a family on the trail, mom, dad, two kids, the boy is wearing a full suit and tie. A couple of outdoor types have set up a tripod at the best viewing point for the waterfall; they're patiently fiddling with the camera. I scramble up to a flat spot at the base of a big tree and take a long deep breath. The air is full of the scent of red cedar.

Across the road there's another little parking lot and a trailhead along the river. The lot is full of cars. "They're here to see the salmon run," says Kurt. We stop again, jumping out of the car to look at a low stream, but there's not a fish in sight.


The ferry plunges into a thick white curtain, everything disappears. We get lunch from the onboard cafeteria, there's grilled northwest salmon on the menu. It's the closest I get to a salmon all weekend.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications. She's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, loves to eat dessert, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. She blogs about Hawaii for World Hum and keeps a personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

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Bloodvein: Redemption on the River in Manitoba by Amy Rosen
Western Canada Through the Eyes of a Child by Tim Leffel
How to Build an Igloo at 40 Below by Amy Rosen

Other United States, Canada and the Caribbean travel stories from the archives

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