A drumming ceremony welcomes salmon returning to spawn in a West Seattle stream, and tours and interpretive sites can be found all over Puget Sound in coming weeks.

While humans depend on clocks and calendars to keep appointments, nature provides built-in alarms to ensure wild creatures reach their destinations on time. Sewn into salmon sinew is the scent of their hatch stream, and when it’s time to spawn, they leave ocean life behind and return to where they hatched. For many salmon species, fall is spawning time, and there are a number of ways to witness the final days of their epic journey home.

Sunday evening, Oct. 23, in West Seattle, a public drumming ceremony will call coho back to Fauntleroy Creek. Adopted from Native American tradition, the drum beats represent the slap of the female coho’s tail as she scrapes out a shallow gravel nest called a redd. The welcome-home event is open to the public (bring your own drum, or pot and spoon, organizers urge).

As traffic hustles by along Fauntleroy Way, it’s hard to picture an ancient ritual of return taking place beneath the asphalt. But every fall, that’s just what happens here as tired coho swish out of Puget Sound and pass under the roadway to enter this milelong urban creek. It began more than 20 years ago when a few concerned neighbors rallied to keep their local waterway from disappearing inside a series of culverts.

“The creek has been resurrected, and that says something about the people who live here — we care what happens to our environment, we care that our children get educated about the natural world — the creek has become the focal point for something much bigger than ourselves,” said Judy Pickens, a creek educator who lives next to Fauntleroy Creek and helped instigate restoration efforts.

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20-year effort

To save the stream, citizens first needed to prove that it was healthy enough to support fish. After securing a Metro grant to test water quality in 1991, Pickens and neighborhood volunteers began an education campaign about the creek and salmon, and eventually embarked on a long-term restoration to make the creek bed and banks suitable for salmon. After the inaugural release of fry in 1991, the first pair of spawning coho was recorded in 1994. Thousands of schoolchildren have raised salmon from eggs and released them here over the past 20 years.

Even though Fauntleroy Creek salmon counts have been less than spectacular in recent years, Pickens is hopeful that the drummers will be successful this year. When fish are present, she hoists a salmon flag that’s visible from Fauntleroy Way so passers-by know it’s time to head up to the creek overlook. Depending on rain levels and tides, coho can be seen there from late October through late November.

Spy the sockeye

Across the city at the Renton Library, another salmon species is putting on a colorful show for onlookers. A bridge that spans the Cedar River provides the ideal vantage point for spotting gleaming red and green sockeye as they throng together in a reproductive frenzy. Sockeye are mass spawners, meaning after the female lays her eggs, many males will fertilize them. This increases genetic diversity and improves the reproductive capacity of the river.

The Cedar River Salmon Journey program staffs five locations along the river, from Renton to Ravensdale, with docents providing details about the natural and human history of the river, and the life cycle and habitat needs of salmon.

“It’s amazing — I can’t think of any other big urban area that has this annual migration right through its downtown area,” said Charlotte Spang, program coordinator. “By visiting the different sites, people have the opportunity to join the Cedar River salmon on their migration upriver. And it sounds corny, but there’s something about seeing a salmon that’s a magical experience. It makes you excited and thankful and grateful that we live in this amazing place with this incredible animal.”

Thousands of chum

In one of the healthiest chum runs on Puget Sound, anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 fish swim into Kennedy Creek near Olympia each November.

Bordered by a half-mile interpretive trail in a forest-primeval setting, a new overlook offers “box seat” views. Docents interpret the drama playing out just a few feet below as fish engage in territorial fights, displays and redd preparation. The imposing 15-pound males sport maroon-and-black vertical markings, humped backs and hooked noses (kypes) used to defend the females, which are smaller with lighter markings and one dark horizontal stripe.

“What makes this place special is seeing salmon in their native environment — along this quiet little trail with leaves falling and mature big-leaf maples overhanging the creek,” said Stephanie Bishop, Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail coordinator. “It’s an excellent opportunity for environmental education, and for families to come out and share the experience together.”

Kathryn True is a freelance writer based on Vashon Island.