Free guided tours of the largest salmon-rearing hatchery in the state are being offered weekends through January in the North Cascades.
Volunteers with the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group will be escorting tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Marblemount Fish Hatchery, near the confluence of the Skagit and Cascade rivers just east of Marblemount on the North Cascades Highway. Brochures for self-guided tours are available weekdays (except Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year's Day).
Lucy De Grace, outreach coordinator for the nonprofit fisheries group, said visitors will be able to see salmon in all phases of development, from eggs to spawning adult. Nearby creeks offer a chance to see the fish in their native habitat, she said.
"If you go earlier in the season - until mid- to late December - you can still see coho salmon return to the creek that feeds the hatchery," De Grace said. "Later in the season, you'll see eggs hatching."
Built in 1945, the Marblemount hatchery raises and releases hundreds of thousands of various coho and chinook salmon, rainbow trout and steelhead annually.
Guided tours start with a short video and continue to see smolts and older juveniles in the outdoor ponds, De Grace said. Visitors are encouraged to ask questions and might even get to help feed some of the fish, she said.
"You can sometimes even hold an egg while it's hatching - that's pretty cool," she said.
De Grace reminds visitors to dress for the weather, because much of what the facility offers is outside - and even the incubation room can be cold, she said, because salmon eggs need to be chilled to the temperature of their native creek.
She suggests bringing binoculars to watch eagles that are plentiful in the area, as well as kingfishers and American dippers - an aquatic songbird.
An eagle-watching station staffed by volunteers as part of the Skagit River Eagle Festival is near the hatchery, she said.
"It's kind of nice multi-pronged educational opportunity," she said.
To reach the hatchery, go south on Interstate 5 to Cook Road, exiting eastbound. Go left on Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, to about milepost 105 (about 50 miles from I-5). As the highway takes a sharp left at Marblemount, continue straight on Cascade River Road and cross the Skagit River. Take the first right, on Rockport Cascade Road, and the next right, on Fish Hatchery Road to the hatchery.
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