Every November through December there is a salmon run in Piper’s Creek in Seattle’s Carkeek Park and yesterday afternoon I went with my students to see if we could spot any of the 100-600 salmon that return to that creek where they began their lives. The opportunity to see a salmon run in such an urban setting is rich with learning opportunities and any chance to get the kids outside and engaged I’m going to jump on. Urban sustainability, salmon biology, and habitat preservation are all on display at Carkeek and the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife have done a wonderful job of re-invigorating and preserving what was once a “lost” salmon run. Lost to early-20th century urban development, deforestation, and the building of a railroad that blocked the salmon’s ability to return to Piper’s Creek. Now they have a stock supplementation program at Carkeek that introduces fingerling salmon that are raised from eggs in a hatchery pond on-site, and are then released into Piper’s Creek each spring. What’s there today is a moderately successful program that sees a fairly impressive return every year. The odds are stacked against the fish (and all salmon, really) in a multitude of ways. The creek is in the middle of the city and at the receiving end of the surface runoff water of some 17,000 people who live near and above the creek. Regardless, salmon are fighters from the beginning to the end and any return at all is considered a success. Here’s a short video I took of some of the fish we saw.
When I looked at the weather report on my phone I had a hard time believing that the little sun next to Thursday was really going to happen but the day was perfect and shirt sleeve weather, as they say. I wish that I had an app that would tell me how I was going to feel on Thursday, because on Wednesday I’d been hit with an end-of-days cold that was peaking miserably on Thursday. I had a student ask me on Wednesday, “Mr. Evans are you sick?”. Why yes, yes I am sick. How can you tell? “Because you’re in such a good mood.” It’s true. The cold medicine cocktail had me a bit upbeat but as we know about all band-aid treatments, my underlying problem was not being treated by the masking of symptoms provided by the decongestants/couch suppressant speedball I was on. By Thursday my tolerance for such meds had dwindled and I thought I may have to go home sick. I pushed through though and I’m glad as the trip to Carkeek was absolutely worth it. And being outside on such an amazing day was exactly what I needed to forget about the gripping vice secured around my head and throat.
My expectations for actually seeing any fish were low. I had visited Carkeek last year with my then 6th grade students and we had seen maybe 3-4 salmon carcasses on the shore of the creek, but nothing alive. We started at the western end of the creek trail near the train tracks that run parallel to Puget Sound, and made our way east upstream, stopping at each of the dozen viewing platforms set up along the creek. At the first one we saw a big salmon. Then we walked to the next platform and saw two more. Then we moved to a small bridge that crossed over the creek and saw 4-5 more. The salmon were lazily waving in the shallow stream with some of their dorsal and tail/caudal fins sticking out of the water. Every so often they would make splashing attempts to move farther upstream with limited success. The reality that these salmon were at the end of their lives seemed obvious and bittersweet to all of us. It is worth celebrating that these fish have even made it back to this creek where they were born, and alternately sad that they return to spawn and die, with many of them already looking zombie-like and very near death. They were big fish though, maybe 6-15 pounders, but these are not the pretty silver salmon you see at Pikes Place Market or that I was pulling out of British Columbia waters last summer. They were red and brown, white, black, and beat up. Regardless, the kids were pumped and hollering and pointing every time they spotted a fish.
The students that had accompanied me last year were with me again on this visit, and I believe our low-expectations for this trip were shared. To actually see salmon spawning was a nice victory and I’m glad to have been able to show my students what I believe is one of the most amazing biological phenomena in the world. It can be compared to the migratory patterns of birds and whales. But to begin and end your life in the same place after many years and thousands of miles in open ocean is truly unique to salmon. I really think that anyone who calls themselves a true Northwest native needs to see it in person.