Salmon are one of the Northwest’s most iconic creatures, but many people have never seen the majestic fish outside of a supermarket or aquarium.
With very little effort, wild Pacific salmon can be found in local creeks and streams this time of year. The Nooksack River basin is home to all five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye. But what we’ll see now is mostly chum and chinook, said Maggie Long, education manager at Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.
NSEA is a local nonprofit group that works with environmental groups, schools, farmers and others to educate people about salmon, create awareness about habitat loss, and aid in restoration efforts. Watching salmon in their natural state deepens our appreciation of the fish and its relationship to the watershed, Long said.
“Arroyo Park us is one of my favorite places to see salmon because it’s just such a low-impact habitat,” she said.
Trails in the area snake past rushing water, stands of evergreens, mosses and ferns. Salmon can seen most easily a few hundred yards upstream and downstream from a footbridge that crosses Chuckanut Creek near the parking areas along Old Samish Road.
Farther upstream — and especially later in the salmon run — you’ll find dead and dying fish struggling in the shallows and littering the banks. Long said that’s nothing to lament, because it’s part of their natural life cycle.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s how their life is supposed to end, and they are bringing important nutrients to the habitat,” she said.
When they mature, salmon return from the ocean to spawn and die in the streams where they hatched. Long has immense respect for the fish and their extraordinary voyage from remote creeks and streams to the open ocean and back.
“When you think about their journey and what each and every salmon has gone through to get there ... it’s really an amazing story,” she said. “They’re at the end of a great journey.”
Although Arroyo Park offers an authentic viewing experience, Long said salmon can be seen in more urban areas, too.
“In terms of getting good views of salmon up close, there’s Maritime Heritage Park at Whatcom Creek,” she said.
She said the park’s downtown location is easy to reach with public transportation, and paved walkways flank the creek, making it accessible to people of every age and ability. On the creek’s east bank in Maritime Heritage Park is a native plant walk with interpretive signs, a Salmon Art Trail with sculptures, and a carved Northwest story pole featuring the legend of Salmon Woman. On the west bank is a fish ladder and a hatchery that’s part of the nearby Bellingham Technical College aquaculture programs.
“It’s a little bit different experience,” Long said. “You can sometimes see the fish jumping up the fish ladder, which is cool. Sometimes you can see the BTC people counting the fish — they have to pick them up out of the water — that’s cool to see.”
Long’s favorite spot to see salmon is near the fish ladder, and from the walkway under the bridge below DuPont Street, where great blue herons frequently hunt.
“That whole Whatcom Creek Trail, you can walk the whole creek to Whatcom Falls Park almost. Sometimes you can see salmon farther upstream. It’s easy access and it’s all paved.”
Long said salmon also can be seen from the footbridge at Salmon Park in the recently restored Redtail Reach area south of King Nissan and north of the industrial area along Fraser Street. Trails around Fairhaven Park and toward Bellingham Bay come close to Padden Creek, where salmon are seen frequently.
For more information about salmon in Whatcom County, go online to n-sea.org; co.whatcom.wa.us/publicworks/water/naturalresources/recovery.jsp; or to cob.org and search for “salmon.”