Oncorhynchus Kisutch

I used to have a route across Marin County when we were going up there from Berkeley. Most of the time, we’d be headed toward Point Reyes. I had an impression of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, formed by long-ago holiday weekend drives, of a long, slow winding slog that involved a big slice of suburbia. So I quit taking that way and instead would head north on U.S. 101 after crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and go up to Lucas Valley Road. Plenty of windy pavement up there, but a lot less suburbia, and pretty soon you’d be on the road through Nicasio and well on your way to Point Reyes Station.

In my era of long bike rides, which went on indefinite hiatus a few years ago, I was back on Sir Francis Drake from the point the nice Marin bike route peters out in Fairfax out to Olema. This gave me a new look at the road, an especially intimate look in dry and wet, in daylight and dark, to the badly chopped up concrete pavement one must endure while traveling through Samuel P. Taylor State Park. (What sort of state are we, by the way, that we’d close this place?) Riding through here, I would be conscious of the next threatening patch of pavement, other cyclists, and approaching cars in that order. I would be dimly aware I was riding through a forest, dimly aware of the occasional bridge and perhaps the proximity of a creek. But those were peripheral visions to the matter at hand, which was keeping my bicycle upright.

Then a couple years ago, I drove out Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to do a little reporting on the coho salmon run in Lagunitas Creek, the stream that runs along the road on and off as it goes through the state park. That gave me another frame of reference for the road, a byway hugging the banks of a stream that holds one of the last wild runs of coho salmon on this part of the west coast. I’ve been back maybe a dozen times since to go walking out there and get a feel for the area. And I’d look for fish, too. But until yesterday, I never saw one.

If you’re out here in California, you know how dry it’s been. Dry is an unfriendly condition for fish that need to migrate up freshwater streams to spawn, and for most of the coho spawning season this year, coho have been relatively few and far between. Then the week before last, a series of storms broke through the high pressure wall that had been pushing wet Pacific storms to the north, and we got rain. In what we persist in thinking of as a “normal” winter, the three storms that came through–pop! pop! pop!–wouldn’t have been especially remarkable. But they seemed something like deliverance to a region that had gone without an appreciable rainfall for nearly two months. And for the coho salmon lingering somewhere near the mouth of their native streams along the coast, the rains were real deliverance. The storms triggered high flows, and the fish burst into the freshets heading downstream to make their way to up, up to find stretches of the creeks where they might spawn.

We were fashionably late getting out to the creek yesterday, not making it until after 3 o’clock. The parking lot at a viewing area along Sir Francis Drake was nearly full, a sign that there was something to see in the water. We walked along a half-mile stretch of Lagunitas Creek , up to where Peters Dam blocks the stream’s progress to its old headwaters. What did we see? A dozen fish, maybe 15. They were born in this creek and survived the cruel numbers game that salmon have always faced–I’ve read that 99 percent of the fish that swim out of their home streams into the ocean don’t make it–to plant the next generation of their kind in the streambed. This looks like a better-than-average year for a run that has declined from thousands of adult fish returning each year to 150 or so the past few years. They are officially designated as an endangered species, and at this point it would not take an earth-shaking cataclysm to sweep them into extinction. So to be able to drive from our place in Berkeley, out through the suburbs, over a hill into the woods, and see them in the company of a lot of other curious souls–well, it’s the most ordinary and subtle of spectacles.

And bespeaking the ordinariness of it, here’s a bad video I shot while we were out there (and a better one, taken by someone else on a nearby stretch of creek the day before, is below that):

2 Replies to “Oncorhynchus Kisutch”

  1. Fascinating fish. I remember some science class (maybe 4th or 6th grade) where we studied the life of the salmon. They brought a projector in the class and most memorable part was seeing hundreds of these fish furiously swimming up what seemed like a fast waterfall. (Also, the film was narrated by that unseen, but familiar, monotone male voice.) Anyway, I just wanted you to know I appreciate all the work you’ve done on this story, Dan. Good video, too.

  2. Hey, Marie: That is much appreciated. Yeah, salmon have a way of swimming through what look like impossible spots, including up some low waterfalls (supposedly they’re able to time their leaps by reading when there’s less air in the water … don’t know if that’s true).

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