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The schooner Margaret Todd skirts a fog bank in Frenchman Bay

Conservation meets adventure tourism in Fundy National Park

I’m looking at a watery world most of us never see. As I float, I gaze at the rocky riverbed through my mask. With my head underwater, the loudest sound is my breath through the snorkel. I peer behind a large rock and spot a small speckled fish. I drift on, letting the gentle current carry me downstream.

The beauty of travelling is being able to see a new place or experience something new. Fundy National Park’s “Swim with Salmon” program allows me to see a place I know well in a whole new light. When I lived in Alma, NB, my house overlooked the Upper Salmon River. I’ve hiked its shores, kayaked its water and waded through it during dry summers. But one spectacular day gives me a different view and insight into the river.

The day begins with a talk about Atlantic salmon in the inner Bay of Fundy. This would be dry if not for three things: the bizarre yet effective way salmon numbers are being restored, the project’s remarkable success, and biologist Corey Clarke. Corey has been working with salmon for years. To say he is highly passionate about the project is an understatement. His intense enthusiasm and excitement is contagious as he describes the thrill of bringing an endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

Following the talk, the six participants (including me) and two interpreters get into park vehicles and drive on backroads to Black Hole Trail.

We have a beautiful hour-long stroll through the woods. “Swim with Salmon” is held in September. This is a perfect time of year for a hike. The weather is just right—neither too hot nor too cold—biting bugs aren’t around; and trees are just starting to change colour. Walking in a small group with interpreters means I can ask questions—not only about salmon but about plants, mushrooms, birds and anything else we see along the way.

Swim with Salmon participant and guides from Fundy National Park and Fort Folly get geared up for their adventure.

It’s not all about science. An interpreter from Fort Folly First Nation talks about the significance of salmon to Mi’kmaq culture. We also learn about the history of the salmon fishery.

We’re going towards the headwaters of the Upper Salmon River. For millennia, people have fished here. At one point, 40,000 adult salmon spawned in the rivers of the inner Bay of Fundy; now the population is endangered. Numbers dropped due to overfishing and habitat destruction.

We reach Black Hole. An old cabin wearing a skirt of moss is a sign of the past—it was built to house the park wardens who patrolled the fishing hole—at first enforcing catch limits and later, after the fishery closed, catching poachers.

For most of its length, the Upper Salmon River is wide and shallow with white water coursing over a rocky bottom. However, at Black Hole, the river is squeezed by a cliff on one side and high banks of rocks and boulders on the other. This creates a deep channel where salmon can find safety. In dry summers, salmon wait here until the fall rains let the water rise enough for them to travel downstream to the Bay of Fundy. This is where we search for fish.

At a picnic table shaded by tall spruce, we replace hiking boots with neoprene booties and squirm into dry suits. I have the strange experience of walking along a path covered with pine needles while wearing a dry suit with snorkel and goggles around my neck. I feel like an astronaut—all suited up and out of my element.

We slip into the water at the top of the bend. I’ve never snorkelled or worn a dry suit; it takes a moment to find my comfort zone. I look for fish but also just enjoy the peaceful sensation. Because we’re floating, barely disturbing the water, we’re not perceived as a serious threat. Small fish just stay in place below us. A silvery thread flashes by—a glass eel. Named because they’re mostly translucent, glass eels mature into elvers before growing into adult eels.

We simulate the monitoring work done by scientists (although they have longer workdays and no catered lunch). At first, I feel like an explorer, seeing a whole new world. Later, I feel like a fish—getting a fish-eye’s view of the river with the feeling of being moved along by the current.

Full disclosure: I had a great day and I saw fish, but no salmon. Every other group that has gone out in the last three years saw salmon. These fish are testament to years of hard work and creative partnerships. Before reaching maturity, most adult salmon have travelled to and from the river a few times by air or road.

As late as 1965, 1,000 adults were recorded spawning in the Upper Salmon River. By the early 2000s, scientists found hardly any mature fish returning to the river to spawn. By 2006, they found few salmon of any age.

For years, however, researchers have collected young salmon to bring to the Mactaquac fish hatchery. The fish grow, are bred and their offspring are returned to the river in Fundy Park. After a few years, these fish are caught and move to a “conservation marine farm” off Grand Manan where they grow into adults. They are then moved by helicopter back to the rivers in and around Fundy Park. Without these elaborate measures, the inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon would likely be extinct.

As each year passes, more fish are living in the wild, and these fish are spending more of their lives in the river. Soon, it is hoped, there will no longer be the need to collect and move fish—instead there will be a viable wild population.

Corey explains the thrill of seeing an endangered species in its own habitat.

“I butcher it when I try to describe it in words,” he says, “but whenever a biologist… or a lawyer or a farmer sees a salmon in the river, it doesn’t take a whole lot of interpretation. It has a great impact.”

“We give you a really cool search-and-rescue diving suit so you can get as close to these fish as the fishermen used to get. And you can sneak into a really special place: a spot where only biologists go,” he adds. “We want to give you everything the anglers had except the fly rod.”

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