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Wading in the Cascapedia River

It was then that the Cascapedia was somewhat democratized. The Parti Québécois (which was also pushing for the secession of the province from Canada) managed to secure public access to some pools, and the Micmacs lobbied for the restoration of their aboriginal fishing rights and gained permission to trap the equivalent of 250 large fish a year at the river's mouth. A member of the Micmac tribe acquired a camp and started Micmacs of Grand Cascapedia Outfitters, whose guides now take fishermen on the river. (Most of the old camps remain in private hands, but several lodges have opened nearby.) The 1970's also saw the beginning of a steep decline in the number of large Atlantic salmon, from an estimated 800,000 then to 200,000 today.

i have journeyed by car to the interior of the Gaspé Peninsula to the headwaters of the river, in the Chic Chocs, a range of tabular mountains more than 4,000 feet high: volcanoes sheared off by glaciers. The two branches of the Cascapedia come down from them in ever deepening crevices, plunging over a series of tilted terraces, sliding sideways in glossy metallic sheets of water with such tremendous force that a few years ago a couple fishing one of the forks was swept away and drowned. It's as wild as Alaska back up in there, more moose and caribou and bears than people. The spawning fish travel 56 miles up from Chaleur Bay to Seventeen Mile Falls, where I found a game warden named Joshua Philbrick sitting in a little cabin overlooking the river gorge and carving a thunderbird mask. Philbrick, a 26-year-old Micmac, is in training as a healer. "Salmon travel all the way across the Atlantic just to spawn here," he said. "But people are losing touch with the earth. Five companies are cutting the trees. They think they can take it away and it will come back, but once it's gone, it's over. That's it."

The erosion from the logging is the most serious immediate environmental threat to the survival of the Cascapedia's salmon. The soil washes down into the river and silts over the gravel bottom that the salmon need to spawn. With the trees gone, the spongy, mossy floor of the forest is drying up. Less rain is falling, and what rain there is runs off more quickly. The river is much lower than it has ever been, and its temperature and biology are changing. Its rushing waters carry most of the sediment all the way down to the bay, which is filling up with mud, leaving only a few channels wide enough for spawning salmon to navigate.

In 1982, management of the river was assumed by the Cascapedia Society, an organization of camp owners, Micmacs, and the residents of Cascapedia–St. Jules, villages three miles up on opposite banks, inhabited by English-speaking descendants of Scots, Irishmen, and "empire loyalists"—American colonists who refused to join the revolution and fled north—and Francophones whose fugitive Acadian ancestors managed to avoid being deported to Louisiana, France, or England. The society is trying to get the logging companies to cut only 35 percent, rather than 50 percent, of the sub-basins in the headwaters, to observe the law about not cutting within 60 yards of any watercourse—a law they had been flagrantly violating—and to put in more culverts where their roads cross streams, which is where most of the erosion is taking place.

The group also tried to get the Cascapedia declared a catch-and-release-only river, but many Gaspesians, as locals are known, opposed the proposal because they want to keep their fish. At this point, releasing all fish is strongly encouraged, but voluntary: you may keep one fish per day, up to a total of seven for the season. In 2003, 2,800 large fish were counted in a diving census—twice as many as the year before, so progress is being made. About 1,500 were caught, and 291 of these were kept. Some were given to the society's hatchery, where 250,000 fry were raised from their eggs and milt and released into the river. Of course, not all of these will make it to adulthood. The alevins, as first-year fry are known, must survive predation by kingfishers, otters, brook trout (which are also sea-running), ospreys, and, above all, mergansers. The third-year fry leave for the sea to return first as two- to six-pound grilse and later as full-grown adults (most salmon will spawn once or possibly twice if they make it to the end of their life span, usually seven to eight years). In the ocean, they are subject to commercial harvest (the last on this side of the Atlantic) in the French province of St.-Pierre and Miquelon, and the quasi-commercial and unpoliceable harvest by residents of Labrador. There is also the problem of global warming, which is affecting the movement of shrimp, krill, and capelin—the salmon's natural food. Only 100,000 salmon return each year to spawn in Canada's rivers—a 75 percent decline from 15 years ago. And 9,000 of these are taken by fishermen.

Under the circumstances, it seems ecologically irresponsible not only to keep the fish but even to be fishing for them in the first place, except that much of the money that the society makes from the anglers goes to the conservation effort. Nevertheless, here I am, guiltily enjoying myself casting streamers into Little Camp Pool. This afternoon the fish aren't hitting anything. Why they ever do at all is a mystery, because they don't eat while they are spawning. Perhaps the flies remind them of when they were parr and grilse (of which I have caught two) and they snapped at anything that moved.

But no luck today. Still, I'm not complaining. The experience doesn't need to be crowned with the ultimate, vulnerable prize to be complete. I don't mind being skunked one bit.

ALEX SHOUMATOFF is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.

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