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Fraser River
The Fraser River carves a deep path through the Lillooet Valley, creating a challenging route for migrating salmon and road builders.

I would give anything to go and photograph the First Nations fishermen when they catch the spawning salmon and hang them to dry!” I said to an archaeologist who knew the area. This traditional practice is something I’ve always been interested in.

“They wouldn’t let you, Dennis. You’re not native.” She saw my disappointment. “But they do offer guided tours.”

I was working as a photographer with a team of archaeologists from Simon Fraser University just north of Lillooet, BC.   When my work there was done, I followed the Fraser River south to Lillooet. Tours were indeed possible but not until the next day so I decided to explore the beautiful canyon on the Bridge River not far away. An hour later, after taking several photos of the river flowing through the canyon, I returned to my van and saw a man taking a picture of my licence plate. I approached him and asked if there was a problem.

“Do you know where you are?” demanded the aboriginal man, heatedly. He repeated his rhetorical question several times and began to express his outrage that I was in the area, taking pictures. Rather than trying to argue with him, I listened, expressed support for his culture and listened some more. His anger deflated fairly quickly and thanked me for my respect. Then came the surprise.

“Would you like to come and see my fish rack?”

“Can I bring my camera?” I replied, incredulously.

“Sure,” he said. And in moments Steve and I shook hands and were walking together along the path to the banks of the Fraser. Along the way, there were several fish racks, which looked like small cabins that had rows of brilliant red salmon hanging from the ceilings. Families were busy in many of the racks, working with the bounty of the river. Steve took me to his rack and introduced me to Sharon, a woman who was cleaning and preparing the fresh sockeye for drying. They laughed and joked together as Sharon continued to deftly filet the fish.

“Come on,” said Steve. “We need some more. Come and see how we get them.” He grabbed his long handled dip net and we followed the path down to the rocky shore of the Fraser. Standing on the edge of the river, it’s immense power was breathtaking as tons of water thundered over the rocks in front of us. “Be careful!” Steve warned me and it was obvious that one slip on the wet rocks would be disastrous.

Into the water went his dip net and up came a shining salmon, quivering out of the water. I was busy with my camera, trying to capture the scene with the minimal amount of equipment I had with me. Before long, five salmon were loaded into his backpack as the night fell upon us.

Back at the rack, Sharon seemed pleased to have more fish to cut and hang. Steve climbed a step ladder and hung the fish over the racks as she handed them to him, in the light cast by the work light just turned on. We visited for a while and talked about the risks of fishing along the river, the process of drying the fish, and of Steve’s own growing up in the area. After saying good night and expressing my deep appreciation for this brief visit into their world, I walked back in the darkness to my van, amazed at this encounter that began with anger and turned into friendship.

I didn’t want to be the type of photographer who grabs a photo op and runs, so later that week I returned to the area with a gift for Steve, an album of the photos I made that night. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there but I found someone who knew him and promised to get it to him.

One of the things I love about photography as a lifestyle is how it opens doors. I’m thankful for the opening I had with Steve.

The picture that initially got me into trouble with Steve. I climbed down the river bank to capture this scene.
Helping each other. As Steve caught the fish, this woman, a member of the community, cheerfully cleaned them.
“Would you like to see how we catch the fish?” Steve asked. Without waiting for an answer, he led me down a rocky path to the spot designated for his family on the rock bank of the Fraser.
As we got closer to the river bank, the might and roar of the Fraser grew stronger. One false step …
Working the dip net, Steve knew just where to place it to capture a prized salmon.
He seemed proud and excited to show me the beautiful fish that would be appreciated over the winter. Before long, five like this were in the backpack and off we went back to the drying hut.
Steve hung the salmon filets from a ceiling rack for drying.

Of Interest to Photographers

The cover photo, of the Fraser River with the highway beside it at dusk, was taken just north of Fountain, a small First Nations settlement near Lillooet. Much waiting was involved in getting this one as the traffic along the highway at the right time of day was very light and I really needed the streaks from the cars to make it work. Especially, the cars needed to be going away from me to get the red streaks. Patience paid off though as the light of the evening sky combined with the traffic to make the image work. The image was processed as a single HDR to bring out the detail in the deep shadows.

With regard to the images taken with Steve at the rack and the river bank, the light had fallen so low that all of those images were taken at 12800 ISO on my Nikon D3s. I opted for an aperture of f/3.2 just to get a little depth of field. When Steve was fishing with the dipnet, I added flash as the light was too low for a fast shutter even at such a high ISO.

When Steve first offered to take me on a tour, I grabbed my camera and tripod. When he saw the tripod, he asked me to put it back as he seemed to be concerned what the others would think. I really wished I had it when the light became so low, especially for the image of the water flowing on the river bank. That was a hand held image at 1/13 of a second. My favourite image of the visit is the last one. The man in the lower left appeared while we were fishing. He was holding a light for Sharon to clean the fish. When Steve hung the fish to dry, the back light from his lamp was just perfect to highlight the fish. I had no equipment to get my flash off the camera so was very glad for that light. Again, 1/13 second at ISO 12800.

One of the stories told that night was how the brother of the man with the flashlight had been fishing along this spot and disappeared into the water, never to be found again. Normally, Steve said, a safety line is worn while fishing but it wasn’t in use on this occasion.

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