I spent the weekend traipsing around western Marin County learning about the coho salmon that still return there to spawn and about their natal streams in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. Since I have never met a salmon story I didn’t like — here and here, for instance — I had a pretty good time. (Of course, the drama surrounding this endangered species this fall is the absence of any rain to boost stream flows in the watershed and prompt the fish to head upstream to spawn.)
Among the sightings on Sunday as we traipsed near the mouth of Lagunitas Creek, just outside Point Reyes Station: A peregrine falcon that appeared overhead and circled our group (about a dozen humans) for a couple of minutes before moving on to search for more likely prey. I had a long lens, borrowed from my son Thom, and managed to get one passable shot (of about a dozen or 15 frames) of the bird. If you click on the image above, the larger image makes it clear the bird had its head cocked a little, almost like it was checking us out.
So we saw one falcon and no salmon — though after the peregrine passed a big fish of some kind leaped out of the water several times. Maybe a steelhead.
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):
Word was out toward the end of last week that coho salmon had appeared in Lagunitas Creek and tributaries in western Marin County, to the north and west of us here in Berkeley. Coho are endangered on our part of the coast, so their annual appearance is an occasion; and also a rarity, because Lagunitas Creek has one of the few viable wild population on the north-central California coast. I had heard that the fish–were talking about five dozen fish so far–were spawning both in the main creek and in a couple of tributaries: San Geronimo Creek and Devil’s Gulch Creek. San Geronimo flows into Lagunitas Creek after skirting several small West Marin townlets and passing a golf course; to get into San Geronimo Creek, the salmon (and the steelhead trout who migrate later in the season) have to make their way up a series of low falls and rapids called the Ink Wells. With few salmon returning the last couple of years, very few have made it up there, but this year maybe 30 fish have gotten past the barrier and started to spawn.
Devil’s Gulch Creek was an unknown to me and appeared on maps to be a tiny little thing. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine big fish going some of the places these big fish want to go. I was told a few days ago by a watershed biologist that salmon were spawning in Devil’s Gulch, though, so I went this afternoon to check it out (yes–the sad truth is that for all my interest in California salmon, I’ve never seen truly wild fish spawning).
I didn’t see any today, either. But I can confirm the creek is small, rocky, and full of the things that biologists say the coho need: gravel beds (for spawning) large woody debris (to provide refuge for growing salmon in the year-plus they’ll spend in the stream before migrating to the ocean), and lots of shade (to keep the water cool–salmon don’t tolerate warm water). Next time I’ll try to give myself more than the tail end of daylight to conduct my explorations (it was pretty much dark when I got back to the car).
(Picture above: Devil’s Gulch creek, just upstream from the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard bridge–you can see the road in the background. Here’s a Flickr Devil’s Gulch slideshow.).
The big project for the last three weeks has been my first radio feature–on Northern California’s coho salmon populations nearing extinction. The story involved lots of driving–too much for someone doing a story that in many ways is about the larger state of our environment. And it involved lots of anxiety over whether I could sort through all the “tape” (I actually used a flash recorder) and manage to tell a coherent story that reflects the complexity of the subject. Overall, I’m happy with the way it came out. The audio to the story is embedded below, and here are a couple other story links for good measure: