Northword Magazine: Breathing Life Back into Empty Spaces from Beneath the Icy Floes

Saak (eulachon), the Nisg̱a’a Nation’s saviour fish, hang to dry at a camp along the Nass River. Photograph by Brodie Guy.

Northword Magazine - Last Word by Brodie Guy

This past March, I experienced for the first time the awakening of the vast K’alii-Aksim Lisims (the Nass River). Early in the Nisga’a new year, these are often the coldest days in a landscape lying dormant since its previous great salmon run. A tiny fish, the Saak eulachon, kicks off each year by arriving in the millions, and single-handedly breathes life back into this empty space from beneath the icy floes.

The runs of eulachon, a cultural keystone species, have collapsed in watersheds along the coast. But here, I was grateful to witness the vibrant return of these little beings at a scale that transformed the landscape. Rafts of sea lions, cacophonies of gulls and eagles, and plumes of smoke rising from stink houses along the frozen riverbanks blended into a preternatural experience.

Along BC’s coastline, the life eulachon give rise to has been fading into memory. In many river systems, the rivers run clear of these small fish; children no longer catch eulachon with their bare hands and families no longer work together along the riverbanks. Old fishing camps are deserted and stink houses are receding into the forest. Visiting quiet rivers this time of year, I’m aware of a great loss of wealth. But there is new hope that these places will come alive again. In April, several schools of eulachon returned to the Bella Coola River for the first time in over twenty years; their magic and the life they give will follow, just as it endures along the K’alii-Aksim Lisims.

— Brodie Guy

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