As he does almost every day of the fall and winter, Ron Gruber heads from his house near UBC down to Spanish Bank Creek yet again this cold sunny Friday. He grabs his binoculars and he makes sure to be there just before the morning’s high tide.
Once he is down at the beach, the 71-year-old walks from where the stream runs into the ocean uphill towards the park. He crosses Marine Drive and he makes his way through branches and muddy terrain. He stays as close to the creek as possible, looking, but specially listening for a peculiar splashing sound.
He’s waiting for the salmon to return. It looks like he won’t have much luck this morning. Chum salmon aren’t very good at finding their way home, so only a fraction come back. But this year has been particularly heart-breaking, without a single returning chum.
Gruber is the streamkeeper of Spanish Bank Creek, a small stream located on the western tip of the Vancouver peninsula. The streams starts near Chancellor Boulevard, runs through Pacific Spirit Park for about 1,000 metres, flows under Marine Drive, and empties into the ocean on Spanish Banks beach.
He’s been doing this for 13 years, all without pay, ever since the stream was rehabilitated through a combination of effort and money from federal Fisheries and Oceans, Vancouver Parks Board and the B.C. Ministry of Environment.
As he stands on the little wooden bridge overlooking the stream with a city landscape silently standing in the background, a man walking by asks him if any salmon have come back. Gruber answers: “No, lots of chum everywhere else, but not ours. Well, you never know, they could come at high tide.”
A valued community member
An artist by profession, Gruber makes a living by selling his carvings of ducks and other wild animals. This line of work gives him time to head down to the creek an average of 300 days a year.
It’s clear this morning that he is well-known to local park users. Four different groups of people stop, some walking, some jogging along the path next to the creek, to ask Gruber about the salmon.
As he stood on the small wooden bridge over the stream, a child also asked him what was happening with the fish. Gruber responded with his own question: “See any salmon?”
Even when it’s not spawning season, Gruber checks on the fry that live in the stream and he makes sure it is clean. “I get my rewards out of teaching people,” he said.
Sometimes elementary school teachers even organize class trips to take the kids down to Gruber’s stream just to hear him explain what he does. Before being fully restored in 1999, Spanish Bank Creek had not seen a salmon for 50 years.
People like Gruber are hard to come across. Not enough of these projects are situated in Vancouver and it’s hard to recruit volunteers in urban areas, says Jim Shinkewski, the Salmon Recovery Programs coordinator at Pacific Salmon Foundation.
Even if finding volunteers is hard, Gruber feels community involvement in a stream like Spanish Bank Creek is huge. People come up to him and say: “How are our fish?”
The case of the missing chum
Chum were expected to return around mid-October, though they can arrive as late as the first week of November. Other streams like Still Creek in Burnaby have gotten chum back, but not here at Spanish Banks. And he knows time is running out. The first week of November has ended and this has Gruber saying they probably won’t show up at all.
“People say ‘I’m disappointed’, but no one is more disappointed than I am. We had fish last year. What happened? I don’t know,” he said.
Chum and coho salmon call this creek home before heading into open water. Each year Fisheries and Oceans, as well as local schools, release about 30,000 chum fry in total into the creek.
Chum may have a harder time returning because, unlike coho, they spend less time in their creeks before leaving, making it harder for them to imprint where home is. When it’s finally time to spawn some four years later, they have more trouble making their way back.
The Spanish Bank Creek is unusually tricky, says Gruber, especially when the tide is low. “They have to come at exactly the right time. It’s like the perfect storm, it has to rain, it has to be high tide and it has to be in the middle of October,” he said.
All is not lost
Even though the chum are still MIA this last Friday, there are juvenile coho living in the stream and adult coho are expected to return sometime around late November. In fact, he spotted his first one a couple of days ago.
Gruber still remembers the first time he saw a salmon swim up the creek: “Each year you look for hours and days and finally you see one and it’s like Christmas and Easter all over again.”
Gruber has not given up and it takes more than a bad year to discourage him. He says they could have 40 chum back next year, the ones that stayed longer in the creek before making their way into the vast open water. What will it feel like once they return?
“Pretty exciting, it’s like watching your kids come home from college.”
Listen: Gruber describes watching chum swim up the creek: