CHICO CREEK — If you want to experience what life is like for salmon, try kayaking against the wind and current on Chico Creek.
At least, it felt like I was swimming upstream like the proverbial salmon, occasionally tasting the churning water and watching out for seagulls.
Growing up in the Midwest, salmon to me was the expensive fish on the menu or at the market, a treat at special occasions. Even then, it was usually seen as smoked pink slivers with cream cheese nearby. I had no idea how big salmon were until recently — big, beefy mavericks of the sea. Such tough moms and pops, swimming hundreds of miles from the ocean to have their babies in safer, freshwater streams.
This week, I joined about 50 students from the Central Kitsap High School AP Environmental Science class, traversing the Chico coast of Dyes Inlet, searching for salmon. We were guided by the knowledgeable folks at the Olympic Outdoor Center, which hosts salmon kayak tours every November.
Olympic Outdoor Center offers tours of Miller Bay on Saturdays through Nov. 24, and on Chico Creek on Nov. 11. Private or group tours are also available in November. The tours hit all the marks of a Northwest fall experience — fresh air, time with family or friends learning about our natural surroundings, a bit of exercise, and a salmon treat.
Bill Wilson has been taking his class on this trip for the last 10 years, and many of the students were as excited as I was to see salmon up close. Spring Courtright, one of our guides and OOC’s program manager, said seeing the salmon jump all around you is like “fireworks.”
The morning of Nov. 6 was cool and crisp, but the guides were energized, seeing the sun peek through the fog — OOC owner John Kutnz said Tuesday morning’s conditions were perfect for our journey.
The five guides led the group in some safety procedures (which would come in handy later) and tips on how to hold the paddle. And sure enough, after everyone was launched and in the water, the fog rolled back as rays of light peaked out, leaving a sunny path along the shoreline.
We set off at low tide, and the air almost became balmy, with the sun and my even, left-right-left paddle strokes keeping me warm.
Sitting on the water, below the roads and sidewalks, gives you an interesting perspective. You see how close the development is to the water, how easily chemicals and waste can wash into the stream from parking lots and lawns.
You also see how clear the water is — Courtright said the neighborhoods surrounding Chico Creek have made environmental health a priority for a long time. It’s a fine balance between development and environmental protection, she said. We can’t go backward, when the laws allowed us to build whatever and wherever we wanted 30 years ago, she said; we didn’t know any better then. But we do now.
Because the group was so large, and a bit spread out, some of us were able to catch different glimpses of wildlife. After about 15 minutes of paddling, Courtright and I saw a salmon jump. Courtright said scientists aren’t sure exactly why they jump, but one theory is they are tasting the water at the surface, a way of checking for directions. She told me salmon have an incredible sense of smell, which they take in from the water they catch in their mouths.
From a distance, we saw some harbor seals sunning themselves on a floating dock, but escaped when too many kayaks got close. Some of the students saw otters, and a few raptor birds flew around us.
For the weekend tours, Courtright said there’s usually between six and 12 kayakers — a good number to search for salmon without disturbing the wildlife too much. The Miller Bay tours also have Paul Dorn, a Suquamish Tribe fisheries biologist, on hand.
My journey that day was pretty easy compared to a salmon’s. The wild Pacific salmon usually live about five years, maturing in the ocean, waiting to return to their home stream to spawn. Salmon then usually die within a few days or weeks of spawning. How salmon navigate and find their way to their home streams is also not exactly known, and Courtright told me salmon have a greater bond to the earth’s magnetic field that may be a factor.
We gathered at the end of the creek, where we roped ourselves together and Forrest Wells, one of the guides, went over the five species of Pacific salmon in the area — chinook, chum (dogfish), coho (silver), steelhead and sockeye. Then, he demonstrated what the other guides referred to as a “log jam” — running along the tops of our kayaks, to the disbelief and, sometimes, screams from the students (and me).
The water was choppy on the way back. Too choppy for some — three of the students fell in. We had been warned the water was about, but probably less than, 50 degrees. First went a double kayak a student had brought from home; with no bulkhead, the kayak soon became filled with water. Another guide, Jake, towed the two guys to shore while Wells took the overturned kayak.
Courtright and I powered on, talking about different kayak trips we’d been on — I had only ever paddled in Hawaii, and I was getting pretty cold, even with my waterproof gear. We then came across Jake helping another student, who had flipped out of his single canoe. Jake was able to pump out the water, and they were only a few minutes behind us pulling up to shore.
The crew was calm, professional, and quick in their reaction to the over-board students. Fighting the wind and outgoing current on the way back to shore, Courtright asked if I was glad I had an experienced guide with me. I laughed and said yes, thinking that otherwise I probably would have joined those guys in the water.
Seeing the pink, yellow, green-colored salmon jump around me, I had one of those moments where you see the flow of life — the rain keeps the stream flowing for the salmon to spawn; the salmon feed bears, eagles and people; and people do their best to protect their natural habitats. It is our duty to respect what other creatures contribute to the world.
For more information on Olympic Outdoor Center’s salmon kayak tours, go to www.olympicoutdoorcenter.com/Tours.php.x