One Foot in Front of The Other
If our recent bout of record-breaking rain has you down, then you’re probably not an anadromous fish. That is to say, you’re probably not a salmon. “Anadromous” describes fish that are born in freshwater rivers, spend their lives at sea and return to their birthplace to spawn. The technical term was one of several tidbits I gleaned from informational signs during a 2.2-mile walk around Carkeek Park on a recent suitably wet day, exactly the kind of weather that salmon crave this time of year.
Pipers Creek, which runs the length of this 220-acre park in northwest Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood, is one of the best places close to home to watch our region’s iconic fish complete their long journey home.
I began my walk at the information kiosk in the park’s Lower Meadow. There are a dozen parking spots here just before the main road in Carkeek Park splits into a one-way loop. I found Mary Vincent under the awning, sheltered from the pelting rain and clad in a sturdy Viking raincoat. Vincent, a retired engineer, is a Greenwood resident who volunteers as a salmon steward to educate park visitors about the Pipers Creek salmon run. Look for a blue pop-up tent near the information kiosk on Saturdays and Sundays Nov. 6 through Dec. 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
When I asked Vincent how long she had been a salmon steward — and before that, a salmon watcher who counted salmon in local creeks — she pulled down her rain hood to count the eight salmon-shaped pins affixed to her hat, one for each year of volunteering. Ultimately, she reckoned, the true count was closer to 15 seasons.
“I got into this [hobby] when I got a salmon tank for my kids’ school in the 1990s,” she said, explaining how the Seattle Public Utilities program Salmon in the Schools lured her into more serious salmon pursuits.
Over the years, Vincent has learned her way around every bend in Pipers Creek. As we walked downstream along the Pipers Creek Trail, a flat stretch of crushed gravel suitable for reasonably rugged wheelchairs and strollers, I counted no less than 10 overlooks that offer clear views of the creek. There are three bridges, including one right by the information kiosk popular with salmon watchers because it spans a popular spawning location, but Vincent prefers the nooks and crannies along the trail, especially those that offer a spyhole down to the deep pools in which returning salmon like to linger.
“One of the best ways to find fish is to listen,” she said. “You can hear them swim.”
While the creek was running strong on the day I visited, Vincent cautioned that water conditions change quickly and a steady rain is better than a deluge. “Our urban system flushes very fast,” she said. “Good water today doesn’t guarantee good water tomorrow.”
During our walk, we saw more salmon stewards out for their biweekly count on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which began on Oct. 23 and tallied 74 live salmon through the end of October. Six volunteers clad in rubber boots and waders hunched over a coho salmon — dead, alas — and cut it open to check its particulars: male, unspawned.
Vincent says coho are particularly sensitive to urban pollution, a major factor that doomed this once natural salmon run in 1927. Seeking to bring back the salmon, neighborhood resident Nancy Malmgren founded the Carkeek Watershed Community Action Project (CWCAP) in 1979 with support from Metro Council (a metropolitan government body overseeing water quality that merged with King County in 1994), which wielded the federal Clean Water Act to considerable success. Today, chum salmon fry are hatched by the Suquamish Tribe across Puget Sound and raised in tanks at the Les Malmgren Imprint Pond, named for Nancy’s husband, where the baby salmon learn to call the Pipers Creek watershed home. (From the information kiosk, go upstream and turn left at Venema Creek to follow a short but narrow .1 mile jaunt. When fry are growing, visitors can feed them during hours that stewards are present.)
The CWCAP tells a concise history of salmon in Carkeek Park. For audiophiles looking to soundtrack their walk, I recommend the salmon episode in Town Hall’s new “Beasts of Seattle” podcast, hosted by Samantha Allen.
It’s about .5 mile from the information kiosk to the end of the Pipers Creek Trail (when the trail forks toward the end, I recommend taking a left toward the Wetland Trail boardwalk). The end of the trail is clearly demarcated by the chain-link fence separating the park from BNSF railroad tracks. If your group can handle stairs, walk over the tracks and down to the beach and contemplate the vastness of the ocean realm where the salmon spend their lives before miraculously finding their way home to Pipers Creek. (If you bring your four-legged friend, remember that dogs are not allowed on Seattle beaches.)
As you come back over the tracks and into the park, look left to spot the giant salmon-shaped slide, a playground favorite. For the most accessible route, reverse course on the Pipers Creek Trail back to your starting point. Otherwise, turn right and take the South Bluff Trail. You’ll immediately cross Pipers Creek at the point where it turns from river to estuary, roughly demarcated by two wooden beams that form a narrow sluice where salmon wiggle their way upstream. Only the highest tides flush this area with saltwater.
The South Bluff Trail gains elevation going south — look for a bench with a Sound overlook to your right — and then curves around to the left where it becomes the South Ridge Trail. Follow this undulating path through a dense forest, the kind of vegetation key to salmon habitat, and enjoy the last remaining fall colors while watching underfoot for slippery wet leaves. After 1 mile from the creek crossing near Pipers’ mouth, you’ll descend a steep section and cross the creek once again, this time too far upstream for salmon to travel.
Turn left onto Pipers Creek Trail to return to your starting point and note the culvert on the left adjacent to the Carkeek Pump Station and Combined Sewer Overflow Facility. When heavy rains overwhelm our region’s wastewater treatment capacity, the surplus flushes through here — largely untreated — only further worsening conditions for salmon struggling to make their way home.
Vincent rattled off a list of pollutants that affect Carkeek’s salmon: fertilizer, pesticides, car-wash detergent, tire dust, dog poop. Some solutions are easy. Only use a carwash and don’t ever wash your car in the driveway. Always pick up after your dog — and make sure to leash Fido if you bring him on a salmon-watching walk. Practice organic gardening methods. Other ways to help the salmon are more difficult and likely require legislative action, like ferreting the chemical 6PPD-quinone out of rubber tires or replacing culverts that block salmon access.
For over 50 years in the mid-20th century, no visitor to Carkeek Park saw any salmon. Vincent was fortunate enough to arrive shortly after citizen activism, combined with strong federal environmental laws and forward-thinking regional government, resuscitated one of Seattle’s natural wonders. As she helps to steward these fish for the next generation, she reflected on her own first encounter.
“I was walking in the park at dusk and I heard the salmon,” she said. “I was absolutely amazed to find salmon in an urban stream. It was a magical experience.”