Kids teach a lesson: happy salmon, happy people

There’s nothing like trying to explain the life cycle of a chum salmon to a group of three and four year-olds to bring a person face-to-face with his own pedagogical limitations.

Luckily for me, the young students from the West Side Cooperative Preschool along with their parents and teacher were not only bright and enthusiastic but also forgiving. It didn’t hurt that I was working with a veteran docent with a degree in early childhood education.

All of us were watching the autumn ritual that takes place each November at the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail (KCST), just off Highway 101 between Olympia and Shelton. For the past 15 years, the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group (www.spsseg.org) has coordinated a group of over 50 volunteers who welcome 2,500 students, teachers, and adult chaperones each weekday in November to experience the annual return of chum salmon.

On weekends and holidays (except for Thanksgiving Day) another 2,500 visitors walk the trail, bringing relatives and friends (sorry, no pets) from all over the world to “see the salmon” as they return to their natal stream to spawn, die, and complete the cycle of life. Once numbered at less than 800, the annual Kennedy Creek chum run now averages between 20,000 and 40,000 fish, largely due to the efforts of Squaxin Island tribal fishermen and fisheries managers from the Tribe, the State of Washington, and the federal government.

KCST is a classic example of what’s possible when stakeholders with competing interests focus their efforts on ways to improve the health of watersheds that support endangered salmon instead of fighting over the right to catch the last fish.

While the South Puget Sound group maintains the trail along with recruiting and training volunteers and scheduling visits, the land on which the trail sits is owned by Taylor Shellfish Farms and the road that visitors drive on to arrive there belongs to the Green Diamond Timber Company. Funds to operate the trail each November come from a variety of sources including individual donations, the Squaxin Island Tribe, Taylor Shellfish, Olympia Federal Savings and Loan, and The Mountaineers Foundation.

Visitors to the trail on Saturday, Nov. 15, and Saturday, Nov. 22, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., can make a donation while enjoying a hot bowl of Xinh’s famous oyster stew or clam chowder along with a cup of hot chocolate at the Chocolate and Chowder Open House.

It turns out that the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail isn’t the only place where local residents can witness the annual miracle of returning salmon. McLane Creek Nature Trail is located just off Delphi Road and is open every weekend including Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. Stream Team Salmon Stewards are on hand to answer questions from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday from mid-November through early December. Vehicles to McLane Creek are required to display a Discover Pass. (http://www.streamteam.info)

Writer and former commercial fisherman, Freeman House describes a moment of epiphany that occurred as he was riding an elevator after a frustrating meeting with a state official. “By the time I reached the street floor, I had reconvinced myself that an effort to engage people with the evolutionary and geological processes of their collective home would surely be an effort in service of their own self-interest and their pursuit of happiness. The happiness of people has a great deal in common with the happiness of salmon. And the happiness of salmon is embedded in the ability of watersheds to provide them with what they need.”

Our collective home is sometimes called Salmon Nation in recognition that we share it with many species including salmon. Healthy watersheds where salmon and people can return each autumn to celebrate the circle of life are testimony that we are taking seriously our shared responsibility for the common good of this incredible place.

Which brings me back to my inquisitive young friends from the preschool.

Luckily for all of us, my fellow docent just happened to have a box full of puppets depicting each stage in the salmon life cycle from egg through returning adult. Within minutes, the children were lined up with their puppets forming two complete life cycles even as the drama of wild salmon spawning was taking place within earshot. As their parents and teachers scrambled to take pictures, the smiles on their faces were proof that Freeman House was right.

The happiness of people has a great deal in common with the continued health of wild salmon.