As summer comes to an end here in the Pacific Northwest, fall brings on new and exciting changes - mushrooms are bursting out of the ground, big leaf maple leaves are turning to a vibrant orange, and perhaps most astonishing, salmon are returning to their natal freshwater streams to spawn after a life lived out at sea.
Before last year I had an opportunity in Alaska, on the Kenai River, to witness the incredible event of salmon migration and spawning. With Outdoor Project in mind, last summer I called up my good friend, Michael Knapp, the most die-hard angler and salmon conservationist I know, to get some insight into when, where, and how to experience the salmon in action here in the lower 48. Here is what ensued…
It turns out my timing was serendipitous. Later that week Michael was heading out with the World Salmon Council to Oregon's Salmon River to teach about salmon migration, and to my delight, I was invited to tag along. World Salmon Council is an inspiring Portland, Oregon, based non-profit that takes middle and high school students out into the wilderness and teaches them about the importance of salmon, a healthy riparian habitat, and a balanced relationship between humans and nature. I was honored to join and I was amazed how much I learned on a single day's outing!
The Salmon River (aptly named), which springs from the glaciers of Mount Hood, is a shining example of a rich and ideal riparian zone. It also happens to be a tributary of the Sandy River, which in turn is a tributary of the Columbia River, which completes the path to the Pacific Ocean. The Salmon River is one of the few remaining watersheds completely unobstructed by dams.* Almost immediately upon starting our hike from the trailhead, we could see the wild Chinook salmon** teaming in numbers, with great exertions of strength wrestling their way upstream through the shallow waters.
Chinook salmon (also known as king salmon) are the largest of the Pacific Ocean varieties of salmon. In order to lay their eggs, salmon need clean, cool and well-oxygenated waters, and Chinook salmon in particular need larger sediment or gravel in the stream than other salmon species. The old-growth-laden rich canyon of the Salmon River provides all of the necessary ingredients to make for a successful Chinook salmon spawning site. Salmon spawn in the final stages of their life cycle, completing the circle of life by laying eggs for the next generation. The typical salmon will spend 3-4 years out at sea before returning to fresh water to spawn, but interestingly, some salmon will actually spend as many as 7 or 8 years in the ocean. Once females lay their eggs in stream bed hollows called redds, they will guard them for nearly a month before dying. Once the eggs hatch (90-150 days later) the fry will wait as long as 3-5 months before making their way, via the Salmon, Sandy and Columbia Rivers, into the Pacific Ocean, where they'll spend the vast majority of their life.
World Salmon Council’s outdoor education program, Salmon Watch, engages the student participants (many of whom I was to learn had never been into the woods before) by setting up four distinct hands-on learning stations: one that focuses on the salmon themselves, one on riparian zones, one on macroinvertebrates (their diet) and one on water chemistry (e.g., water temperature, oxygen content, etc.). Watching the salmon myself, seeing the scales literally erode off of the females, seeing salmon carcasses, and seeing redds sprinkled along the banks of the Salmon River, I was awed and reminded of the cyclical nature of life and just how delicate it all is. And watching the kids, I was struck by how powerful the educational experience was for them, how it empowered some of them with a new sense of context and provided them with a deeper grasp of cause and effect.
Watching the salmon spawn, you can't help but realize, as I did, why they are such an iconic and important indicator species. For those of us who live in Portland or anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest, it's an experience so close to home, and so connected to our cultural heritage, I couldn't recommend it more.
Best Viewing Locations + Times:
Outdoor Project's Rivers of the Pacific Northwest features video clips from the Salmon Watch trip out on the Salmon River.
* Even though many dams (a clean source of renewable energy) are equipped with fish ladders, they are still a major hindrance to salmon. As adult salmon make their way upstream, dams and fish ladders create a bottleneck, making it easier to be caught by predators. As fry head downstream through the turbines, severe water pressure differentials can be deadly for many of them, similar to the bends for deep sea divers. Dams also create slow moving deep pools (reservoirs) with higher water temperatures, impacting the cool, oxygenated waters necessary for spawning.
** Wild salmon have their adipose fin and hatchery-raised salmon do not. The hatchery raised salmon have their adipose fin clipped at 5-7 months of age prior to release to distinguish them from wild salmon.