MARGAREE — Statistical certainty doesn’t breed miracles.
But the Margaree River does.
And as you read this, some of those miracles are swimming down from the Cape Breton Highlands to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Those black salmon — the ones who against all odds survived river and sea to lay eggs last fall — are going to try and make it happen again.
“You could use the word miracle,” Sean Neary said of the odds against any one Atlantic salmon surviving to breed twice.
“It’s incredibly rare, but they’ve been documented to breed more than twice.”
It is Neary’s job to give those miracles a little help.
He is the supervisor at the Margaree Fish Hatchery.
In giant above-ground ponds near the headwaters of the Inverness County river system, the hatchery has been nurturing along the metamorphosis of salmon eggs into fry, parr and smolt since 1902.
This year, the team will pour 150,000 juvenile salmon, both parr and smolt, back into the Margaree River. A further 20,000 to 30,000 each will be brought to the Middle and Baddeck rivers.
“The hatchery program is just one of the tools in the tool box,” said Neary.
Because it is not just the odds stacked against a salmon in its journey that qualify its return to a home river as a miracle, it also is all that goes into making the river a suitable habitat in the first place.
The unfathomable gallons of water tearing down the flooded Margaree River on Thursday fell one snowflake at a time onto the Cape Breton Highlands last winter. The merciful warmth of spring melted it, and it drained drop by drop into the nutrient-rich soil of the hardwood forests of the highlands to be filtered.
Unlike the granite-clad rivers of the eastern and southern shores, whose salmon runs have been all but extirpated by acid rain, the thick soils of the Margaree Valley retain their ability to moderate the pH levels of rainwater before it reaches the river that over eons has created the valley itself.
But the valley can’t do all the work alone, not anymore.
So the Margaree’s most recently arriving residents, the human ones, are helping it along.
John Hart was standing by the flooding river on Thursday and thinking about rocks.
“I think there’s some apathy among people who think the river has always been there and the fish have always been there,” said the longtime member of the Margaree Salmon Association.
But the river faces new challenges.
The clearcutting that followed a spruce budworm infestation during the 1970s removed some of the buffer that slows the water’s course into the river during spring melt. The increased water flow can stir up the sensitive river bottom where salmon lay their eggs and, at some places, even redirect the waters.
Since its founding in 1982, the association has placed stones along banks, installed digger logs to create pools where the fish can rest and lobbied government to protect the entire course of the watershed that creates the river.
“We work with government when the occasion warrants it, and give them hell when it warrants it, too,” said Hart.
They run an adopt-a-stream program with the help of Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. and the Nova Scotia Salmon Association, and do education in schools. They have also worked with First Nations groups to develop a plan whereby everyone can share the Margaree River.
“Our salmon runs are doing OK; they’re sustainable here,” said Mary Jander, another member of the Margaree Salmon Association.
“That’s important because you just won’t find a river that’s still wild and so enmeshed in the local culture and history outside of Nova Scotia.”
Jander loved the river so much, she moved to the Margaree Valley in 2000 from the United States to be nearer to it.
It is a love she is trying to share with other women through an upcoming Go with the Flow event — a weekend of training for women anglers.
It is three days of tying on leaders, learning to cast and advice from local guides.
Those wishing to register can contact her at [email protected].
“This river is a place both breathtaking and unique,” said Jander.