The fish, she is small

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Sonny_OrrOne of the most memorable times of my childhood, in the late 1960s, was fishing at the first rapids, the present site of La Grande 1. This special annual harvest was a day-long event that netted thousands of fish. The rapids, rushing magnificently and wonderfully swift, were full of fish hidden below the swirling eddies of Chisasibi, the Big River.

We arrived by canoe, powered by a loud 20-horsepower Johnson outboard, deftly creeping upriver to the nearest shore landing. It seemed that we were moving fast because of the current and spray, but as the steep rocky shore neared with the bow pointing into the current, we landed and disembarked. Luckily, no one slipped off the steep sides and the effects of vertigo and the odd sense that you were still moving, quickly changed when the fish were hauled in by dozens of people already fishing there.

Trout and whitefish and suckers are the fish of Chisasibi, with the occasional sturgeon and pickerel, or barracudas of the North, as I like to call them. At the first rapids, it was trout day and the nets hauled in from being set moments before were already full to the gills, literally speaking. Everyone had the responsibility of picking up the fish to be tended to immediately. You get used to running around a steep incline catching a wriggling fish pretty quickly. It was a fun event, with the fish guts and eggs and roe collected by the pound, filling large bowls with the healthy foods we ate, now called omega oils. The fish were so fat and healthy.

A smorgasbord of fish followed the continuous harvesting of trout, smoked and dried fish, fried fish, boiled fish, slow-cooked fish guts, crispy fire cooked on a stick, fish pancakes, and on and on for the next few days. If Forrest Gump was there and was into fish, he could go on and on, until the fish run settled down to its normal pace, and the people went home, sated with fish and happy.

One year, large barges the size of offshore drilling rigs appeared on the horizon at the mouth of the river. They immediately became grounded in the soft sandbars and settled for the winter. That winter, a road was carved out and massive machines made their way upriver, to start the construction phase of the project of the century, the James Bay project. The following year, when the actual work commenced, there was a change in the waters of Chisasibi.

The river was dammed a few years after, including the first rapids at Chisasibi. At that moment, the salty waters of James Bay made their way inland and changed the river overnight. The fish disappeared, along with the rapids. Green algae, slick and slippery, crept over the granite and remained for quite a number of years, coating the rock. Seals, taking advantage of the instant salinity of the waters, moved up to the first rapids and ate what was once a people’s feast.

Today, the “fresh” waters have washed away the algae and the fish have come back to grow in increasing numbers, size and age. The seals are still around, getting incredibly huge, fat and virtually untouched by predators. The fish are back and bigger than ever, feeding off the artificial warmth of the dam and chewed up biomass from upriver. But the river remains too dangerous to fish.

I look at the can of sardines in my hand, with the everlasting slogan “fish, she is small.” The fish isn’t so small no more.

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