October 15, 2001
When the salmon come back to Woodinville
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
All at once eight people lean over the railing of a wooden bridge built over Cottage Lake Creek. They appear transfixed with the events occurring in the water below. As I join them, no one looks up except for a man and woman decked out in caps, rubber boots and funny paper sunglasses. Looking around, I notice that everyone sports these fashionable eyewear. The glasses look like the type worn back in the 50s for special 3D effects in horror movies. But no one appears horror-stricken here and it isn't until later I learn the polarized glasses help cut down the water's glare.
I've just arrived at this peaceful creek setting surrounded by a forest of vine maples, hemlocks, alders and salmonberry bushes. A Woodinville neighborhood made up of homes with three-car garages, manicured lawns and circular driveways is just a short distance away.
Now, along with the others, I'm hanging over the railing too. I don't have special glasses, but I clearly see the salmon in all sizes and colors.
The sockeye are a deep red and range in size from 20 to 28 inches. A number of them tread water like stalled cars out of gas. There are also quite a few Chinook, which are much larger than the sockeye. One appears to be a whopping 3 1/2-feet long. They vary in color. Some are black and spotted and others are dark olive green with a lighter side. One silver fish sparkles gloriously.
I'm here to observe a field training session for the volunteers participating in King County's Salmon Watcher Program. They have already received training in a classroom setting. And now they've come to this beautiful natural environment to witness the returning salmon firsthand. Throughout this crisp October morning, more volunteers will stop at this site to view the salmon.
"They're getting the specifics of fish identification," explains Michael Murphy, volunteer coordinator for the program. "We're reaffirming the classroom training."
Volunteers will watch and count salmon twice a week at assigned streamside sites until the end of December once training is completed. At Cottage Lake Creek last year, volunteers reported seeing 50 live Chinook and 7 dead ones. They also counted 397 live sockeye.
According to Murphy, 220 people have signed up for the program. "Volunteers are at 160 sites right now," he says. "And more than 30 people are participating in the Woodinville area."
Murphy outlines the program's goals. "The first goal is to get people out there watching the streams. Basically, to tell us what's going on and to keep an eye on things." The second goal, he says, is for people to learn what's going on in their own backyard. "And how magical the process is," he adds. The third goal is to provide data on fish presence in various systems.
Data gathered will be disseminated among King County's agency partners. The information will assist with decisions, such as those made by the city of Woodinville to improve fish habitat. Though the data isn't guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate, it does indicate the presence of salmon populations.
"It's safe to say, on the whole, salmon are on the decline in the Pacific Northwest due in large part to various human factors," Murphy says. Those factors include habitat degradation, harvest, hatcheries and hydropower. "Not any one factor has contributed to the decline. It's really a combination of all of them. And others beyond our control."
During this training session, everyone speaks in hushed tones in a reverent sort of way. It doesn't seem right to talk boisterously in the presence of magnificent creatures that have come from so far and gone through so much. The fish have battled locks, Lake Washington boaters and the slow water of the Sammamish while evading predators. They haven't eaten since leaving the salt water and they look tired and tattered. Even now, while at this peaceful creek locality, several salmon continue to battle for territory. Others are on the defensive, guarding their fertilized nests known as redds.
Suddenly, I'm startled by a loud rushing swoosh. Like a train rolling down the track, a monster Chinook splashes toward us. His entrance grows louder and more noticeable as he gets closer. His huge body, maybe four feet in length, has outgrown the shallow creek. His dorsal fin sticks out of the water and he flails his tail to push forward. He stops for a moment when he reaches the bridge and then, as if he's aware that his mission can't wait any longer, he splashes ahead toward the location of his birth.
Among those of us who watch this drama unfold, there's no mention of America's new war or recession or layoffs. At this moment, there's only awe at the great mystery of nature and creation in the cycle of life. The rite of sockeye and Chinook, as well as kokanee and coho, finding their way from the ocean to their place of birth continues to intrigue and fascinate.
Feedback on the Salmon Watcher Web site offers a hint of the fascination that some of the volunteers have experienced. One volunteer states: "This has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this program and to have watched the behavior of these fish. It is truly a spiritual experience..."
Murphy suggests that anyone interested in being a part of the Salmon Watcher program next year, send an e-mail to the address on the Salmon Watcher Web site at dnr.metrokc.gov/wlr/waterres/salmon/index/htm.