Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail in Mason County provides close-up views of one of Puget Sound's healthier chum-salmon runs.
MASON COUNTY — We’re splashing through the first big rain of November, watching undeterred people in fishing vests jockey for casting position along crowded banks at the outlet of Kennedy Creek.
The water is rising fast, and thousands of chum salmon are following their noses to their home streambed here between Shelton and Olympia. Some 40,000 fish are expected to return this month, making this one of the healthiest chum runs in Puget Sound.
Upstream a mile or so, the Kennedy Creek Trail is busy with another sort of fish-folk — eager visitors vying for the best views of wild spawning chum.
Bright big-leaf maple leaves float to the ground, lending a yellow-brick-road aura to the half-mile forested trail. The air smells of moss and rain and red cedar, a stark contrast to the cloying aroma of dying fish that later this month will guide spectators to the banks of the creek more accurately than any signage.
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Thousands of salmon will throng this small waterway, making it one of the best places around to view these fish with a mission.
The fish are jumpin’
At the edge of an overlook cordoned off by a low camouflaged fence, a man bursts out, “Here comes another!” Jumping up on his toes, he’s as thrilled by the salmon’s appearance as his young daughter.
The first fish of the run are splashing upstream — their bursts of speed creating arcs of spray like dolphins breaking the surface of the sea. Volunteer docents pass out “salmon-watcher glasses” with polarized lenses that cut glare, making it easier to see the fish in their spawning colors.
The 15-pound males are like creek tigers with maroon-and-black vertical bars, humped backs, elongated jaws, no-nonsense teeth and imposing kypes (hooked noses), which they use as a defense mechanism. The females are smaller, with lighter barring and a dark horizontal stripe.
Kennedy Creek docents interpret spawning behaviors as they play out before us: A female thrashes on her side, digging her redd (rocky nest), while a male crosses back and forth over her back in a protective display. Downstream another male broadsides a foe in the “T display” fight for a female. Near the bank a male quivers next to a female, indicating that he’s ready when she is.
The fish are coming fast now, just 10 feet away, sending ripples of excitement through our small audience. In witnessing this totemic animal both complete and begin a cycle that has continued for thousands of years, there’s a sense of being linked to something outside human history.
Survival of the fewest
Along with sockeye and pink salmon, chum are mass spawners — meaning a female will lay her eggs and as many males as possible will fertilize them. This increases the genetic diversity of the species and improves the fecundity (reproductive capacity) of the creek.
Mass spawners typically spend very little time in their hatching grounds. By March or April, the chum fry from these eggs will move out into the estuarine nursery of Oyster Bay, where they’ll spend a few weeks adapting to saltwater and growing larger before making the long journey to the Pacific. Of the 3,000 eggs laid in each redd, only two or three salmon will make it back to Kennedy Creek in three to four years — a 1 percent survival rate.
“The statistical odds for salmon to survive are amazing — there’s a real sense of triumph when they return home,” said Lance Winecka, executive director of the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, which collaborated with many partners to make the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail a reality.
Opened in 2000, the trail features interpretive signs for a self-guided tour of the salmon’s life history, historical significance and modern-day challenges. The trail also serves as an outdoor classroom for 2,500 school kids from Thurston and Mason counties.
Jane Poole, a fifth-grade teacher at Lydia Hawk Elementary School in Lacey, has been bringing her students to Kennedy Creek for the past eight years.
“So many kids don’t realize salmon are living in creeks right around us, and through this program they get a sense of this invaluable resource,” she said. Students study water quality, learn about the 137 species that feed on salmon carcasses and plant trees to improve habitat.
“There’s still hope”
This area has long been a place of learning. It was known as the “Place of Singing Fish” to the native Sawamish/T’Peeksin people who taught their children that salmon and other wildlife are great teachers, drawing life lessons from the stream and forest.
“We can’t really change what we don’t know,” said Poole, who is impressed by how quickly students pick up on what they can do in their own lives to help salmon, such as not washing cars in the street and cleaning up after pets.
Winecka, the salmon advocate, said, “I work in restoration, but I think we should be focusing on preservation. If we can preserve some of the salmon holds, then we don’t have to restore them, and it’s much cheaper to do that. They just need a chance — each project at a time, each regulation at a time, salmon need these human interventions. People have been trying for years to make them go extinct, and they’re still here … so there’s still hope.”
The Kennedy Creek Trail is living proof of this hope, where salmon-watchers of all ages cheer fish after fish back home.
Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to NW Weekend.