Pilot story by Joseph Friedrichs
Pilot photos by Peter Rice
CRESCENT CITY, Calif. Summer Morgan, the youngest of the group, was trying her hardest to spot the massive Chinook salmon.
Once the fish turned onto its side and began flapping a tail larger than 6-year-old Summer's arm, she spotted it.
"There, it's right there," she said, pointing from the bridge above Mill Creek. "Do you see it?"
The creature she spotted swimming in the frigid waters of Del Norte County was indeed massive. Possibly a 40-pound Chinook.
"That fish is bigger than you are honey," Summer's mother, Kathy, said.
Summer, along with her family and six others, spent Saturday watching one of nature's wonders: the great salmon spawn that comes inland from the Pacific Ocean.
The Mill Creek exploration was part of the Redwood National and State Parks and Save the Redwood League free-guided tour program. The tours will be occurring throughout December.
Sue Calla, representative ranger for the parks, said last weekend's tour was very successful.
For starters, the sun was shining, which can make any outdoor experience all the more enjoyable.
Also, the group was fortunate enough to locate more than a dozen salmon during the three hours they spent in the Mill Creek Watershed area.
"We had good luck today," Calla said.
The lucky onlookers that joined Calla for the tour included the Morgan family from Crescent City and a couple traveling from Canada. Assisting Calla with the tour-leadership responsibilities was Rick Hiser, a docent for the Save the Redwood League.
In addition to detailed explanations of the salmon spawning process, an added feature to the tour was walks through old growth forest. During these quick side trips, Hiser talked about the history of the Redwood trees in the area.
The Mill Creek Watershed is 25,000 acres of land that was purchased by California from the Stimson Logging Co. in 2002. The state paid $60 million for the property.
Of the 25,000 acres purchased, only 14 of them contain old growth forest. The rest were cut down for timber. However, some of the trees that Hiser showed the group were more than a thousand years old and loomed enormous into the clear December skies.
While explaining about the trees, Hiser also linked his talk back to the salmon.
"Fish grow on trees and trees grow on fish," Hiser said.
Although this may sound bizarre, as it did especially to Summer, Hiser said the statement is true.
When a salmon spawns up a freshwater creek, they do so with the expectation of not returning to the ocean. Upon their death, the fish become an incredible source of nutrients for the nearby soil. The trees absorb this nutrient, nitrogen 15, and it helps them grow.
How a fish grows on trees is that the redwoods stabilize the soil and prevent erosion along the creek banks. This, in turn, helps protect the eggs that are laid in the water.
Calla said the hatching process can take 50 to 60 days. During this time, a female will select the proper nesting area, known as a redd. She then clears out an area using her tail as a broom, in a sense.
Hiser said the fish use ancient DNA to determine the proper spot to build a redd.
After the redd is prepared, the female lays her eggs. A male then comes by and fertilizes them with milk.
The salmon don't eat upon entering fresh water. They will work themselves to death, literally: making that last swim only to keep the species alive.
During this time, a salmon will lose its color and become almost a ghostly white, especially on the tail region of a female, which can become worn to the bone when building a redd.
This lighter color aids in the viewing for salmon spectators, but cloudy waters can still make it difficult.
"It's like trying to see bats at night," Hiser said.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service cleaned up a number of watershed areas throughout California, including the Mill Creek area. The process involved removing log jams that were plugging the stream.This negatively impacted the holes that salmon used for breeding.
Currently in the Mill Creek Watershed, restoration efforts are being used to recreate areas where redds are made. Trees that fall on or near a roadway are cleared and may be used to create backwater eddy areas for fish.
This is extremely important because the Mill Creek Watershed is the top producer of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
Salmon are also the "silver thread" of a coastal ecosystem along the Pacific. This means, if the salmon are doing OK, then likely other natural aspects in the area are, as well.
The Salmon spawning tours have been given for the past three years in the Mill Creek Watershed.
They're an extremely enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning or afternoon. The tours are far from strenuous but educational and rewarding.
To sign up for one of the tours in the Mill Creek Watershed, call (707) 464-6101, ext. 5064.
Similar tours are also available in the Prairie Creek Watershed. Call 464-6101, ext. 5300 to sign up.