By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
To former commercial and sport fisherman Rick Hiser, salmon has brought income, food and recreation.
Now, the fish represents the region's image and way of life to the 58-year-old who has lived in the Crescent City area for more than 20 years.
"I see them as being intricately linked together," Hiser said. "Salmon is like the totem animal of the Pacific Northwest."
Hiser leads tours through December to show the fish at their best when they return to their native freshwater streams to spawn and die.
The two-hour trips enter the Mill Creek addition of the Redwood National and State Parks, a 25,000-acre area that the Save the Redwoods League bought four years ago.
The unpatrolled, former timber company land and its approximately 350 miles of roads have not yet opened to the public.
For the third year, the Save the Redwoods League, Northcoast Redwood Interpretive Association and Redwood National and State Parks have teamed to offer salmon spawning tours at Prairie Creek, as well.
Hiser notes no guarantees of seeing the fish.
"You have to wait for 'em," Hiser said.
But the ancient, dramatic ritual has rarely disappointed the small crowds each weekend.
The salmon stop eating once they enter the freshwater, using their own flesh and organs for energy until they die days after spawning.
Females release eggs that males fertilize in the water, then cover them with gravel, sweeping their tails over shallow parts of the rocky river bed. The eggs will hatch in about two months.
Visitors can watch 3-foot males battle one another over females, leaving white scars on their opponents' dark backs and green sides. They can watch the fish splash and patrol the redds, the gravelly pits of eggs.
"We don't get to see full wildness that often," Hiser said. "When you can see the fish, that's the reason we do this and the fish tell their own story."
Renewal of life
Not many people have watched that story unfold in the Pacific Northwest waterways.
"Most people just read about it or hear about it," said Jim Waldvogel, a California Sea Grant marine advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "Most people aren't connected with the watershed."
Waldvogel marvels at the salmon's journey from freshwater streams to salty ocean waters and back, along with the physiological changes that they withstand as their organs adapt.
"It's a pretty dramatic life cycle," said Waldvogel, who counted chinook for 23 years in a section of Mill Creek to track spawning trends. "Their willingness to exist. There's a real determination there."
To Paul Albro, a fisheries biologist who contracts with California Department of Fish and Game and Rowdy Creek Hatchery to monitor salmon runs on area tributaries, the tours offer a chance to witness a unique event.
"This is nature at its best. It's a renewal of life," Albro said.
That process depends on a healthy habitat for the salmon to return to. Hiser leads tours through the Mill Creek addition in the summer to highlight the land's past use and the current projects meant to restore it.
Those include placing douglas fir trunks in the creek to mimic the fallen trees that would have provided riffles and pools for fish.
"The restoration of the ecosystem is directly tied to the health of the salmon population and vice versa," Hiser said.
He imagines how the stream would have looked 150 years ago, before white settlers arrived, and even 40 years ago, before loggers cut down much of the old growth redwoods along Mill Creek from 1965 to 1990.
"These were some of the most massive trees in the entire redwood ecosystem," Hiser said.
He envisions a waterway full of salmon, with fallen redwoods and branches in the waterway creating natural spawning areas for fish.
"People talk about salmon and they talk about habitat like they're two different things," Hiser said. "Salmon is habitat."
Free salmon spawning tours at Mill Creek and Prairie Creek will take place this weekend and on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31. Morning tours start at 9 a.m. and afternoon tours start at 1 p.m. The trips are hosted by the Redwood National and State Parks, Save the Redwoods League and North Coast Redwood Interpretive Association. To register or for more information, call 465-6191.