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Golden river turns red with kokanee



Largest run of fish in years return to spawn

A brisk breeze pushes its way down the Whistler Valley as the Indian summer sun arcs across the sky.

There's a dusting of snow on the high peaks and the leaves are starting to change colour, signalling that autumn is near.

There is also a splash of bright crimson red – kokanee salmon making their way upstream to spawn – in the River of Golden Dreams.

"It's beautiful to watch," says Lisa Helmer, a project co-ordinator with the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group. "And it's something to feel good about."

Kokanee are the land-locked cousins of sockeye salmon that spend their entire lives in freshwater lakes before returning to the streams of their birth.

The kokanee swim up the river from Green Lake and hold in Alta Lake until a combination of ancient urges, cool, clear water and clean gravel lure them into tributaries such as Scotia Creek.

But Whistler's kokanee have fought an uphill battle to get here.

According to Ian Fairweather of the Whistler Angling Club, the large run of kokanee is the first one in recent memory.

"The last time there was a run of this size was 15-20 years ago," he says.

Fairweather estimates there are about 400 fish making their way to the spawning grounds this year.

For years, a weir at the confluence of Alta Lake and the River of Golden Dreams stopped kokanee and other fish species from making their way home.

"It wiped out an entire spawning run," says Fairweather.

But the fisheries stewardship group and the angling club installed a fish ladder and built a side channel to try and remedy the situation.

Habitat restoration and a catch-and-release fishery have also helped to bring back fish populations to historic levels.

The WFSG is asking that boats, floats, tubes, pedestrians and dogs stay out of the River of Golden Dreams until the kokanee have finished spawning.

"We're trying to minimize the impacts and we'll be checking in the next couple of days to see how it's working out," says Helmer.

The run is supposed to continue into October.

Timing is everything and the golden river turned red is living proof.

"It's actually a perfect time (for a voluntary closure)," Helmer says, noting that most of Whistler's tour companies have already shut down their operations on the river.

The Vancouver-based Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. announces its list of the provinces' most endangered waterways each year. Urban streams regularly appear on the list.

According to ORCBC, urban development, road construction, industrial waste, siltation and the removal of streamside vegetation damages fish-spawning habitat.

But despite previous damage to the kokanee's home, they still return.

"They're coming back in a big way," says Fairweather.

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