Welcoming the salmon home to Piper's Creek at Carkeek Park, now through mid-December

Finning gently in the current, they dip and swish gracefully in Piper’s Creek.

These chum salmon are survivors, back home three to five years after they first nosed out into Puget Sound. And on Saturdays and Sundays until Dec. 12, the fish are getting a welcome hosted by volunteer salmon stewards and a naturalist at Carkeek Park.

After all, these are salmon with a special purpose: They are teaching fish, introduced into the creek specifically for public education. Not a restored natural run, they are planted, with eggs donated by the Suquamish Tribe, and raised in a holding pond in the uplands of the park.

It’s just a tiny run, fewer than 300 fish, even in a good year. But if they’re the first live salmon you’ve ever seen, they’re a big deal all the same. Just ask 11-year-old Joel Tinsley of Tukwila, visiting the creek with his family Saturday.

“We saw, like, four!” Joel said, his eyes big indeed.

Piper’s Creek, in North Seattle, flows directly into Puget Sound, and it’s been a tough place for fish to survive. Historically, the creek was home to summer and winter steelhead and sea-run cutthroat, coho, and chum salmon. The last of the virgin timber in the watershed was logged off in 1921, and the last pair of native salmon were spotted in the creek in 1927.

The chum salmon introduced to the creek today survive partly because of the refuge of the park, with its 185 acres of forest and more than 13 acres of tidelands. Resident cutthroat trout can be found year-round in the stream, and the chum, introduced in 1984, give some hint of what might be possible if stormwater runoff and other effects of development can be addressed.

For Brian Gay, naturalist at Carkeek, the salmon are ambassadors for the natural world, uniquely suited for getting people interested in learning about something like stormwater. “People need something to grasp, to touch,” Gay said. “They are the icon, the reason to save this creek.”

From now until mid- December, some 700 to 1,000 people will come by to visit the fish, just as they do every year, he predicted.

To help rebuild the health of the creek, Seattle Public Utilities has been working since about 2000 to install natural drainage systems in neighborhoods in the upper watershed to help absorb rainfall.

Stormwater runoff rushing over hard surfaces scours the creek bottom and carries fine sediment and pollutants into the stream, harming salmon and other life in the creek.

The drainage work is intended to help the landscape more closely mimic the way the forest used to absorb rain in a big storm. More drainage work is planned, with the work expanding to the watershed around Venema Creek, a tributary of Piper’s Creek, said April Mills of Seattle Public Utilities.

Meanwhile, people like Dale Calkin, 66, of Shoreline, will be rooting for the fish: After nearly 20 years volunteering to help nurture and monitor this salmon run, he says he never misses his visits to the creek every spawning season.

On Saturday, yellow leaves sifted down around him and birds chittered in the alder, big leaf maple and fir as he looked for spawning salmon. The creek purled over logs, and Calkin was in his element. “Smell that?” he said, as he neared a spawned-out carcass, nice and stinky.

He considers himself a steward of this watershed, and these fish. “It’s a passion,” he said. “I know every single inch of this place.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com