Guest Post by Kyle Keegan who has been walking Salmon Creek and its tributaries:
Harry Vaughn and I met at 8:30 am on at the Salmon Creek / Thomas Road junction with plans to hike Mill Creek, which is a tributary to Main Salmon Creek in the lower watershed. When I arrived at the turnout, I saw two DFG vehicles parked and wondered what their plan was since Salmon Creek was too high to navigate and the visibility was close to zero. We met two young DFG biologists who have been conducting surveys in Humboldt county this season and are working under Allan Renger who is the lead biologist for DFG out of Eureka (Fortuna?). After talking to them briefly and finding out they were heading back to the office, Harry and I headed out in hopes of finding spawning Coho Salmon. DFG supposedly found 3 Coho juveniles in Mill Creek in Sept 2009. We want to believe it could be true but feel we have to see it with our own eyes and the presence of Coho in the watershed is something worth double checking since it is my understanding that the last possible siting of them in Salmon Creek was in the early 1950’s.
Mill Creek was historically one of the favored tributaries of the lower watershed sought out by Steelhead, and most likely Coho Salmon as well. It’s redwood country down there and has a much different feel than the upper watershed. The creek was completely obliterated during the logging boom that started after World War Two in the early 1940’s. Harry shared stories that day about his parents walking to Oakdale School, ( the original Salmon Creek School) that was located on what is now Mahoney’s property on a large oak forest studded flat adjacent to lower Salmon Creek. His parents would pass Mill Creek on their way to and from school. This was in the 1920’s, before the redwoods had been hit by industrial logging. A time when there were only small groups of hardy men drinking wine from a jug and spending their days splitting redwood posts from hand-sawed trees to later be carried out by donkeys or horses.
He mentioned that his parents remembered Mill Creek being full of fish and sometimes they would stop, grab a fish and take it back home for dinner that night. In the years to come after World War Two, the prototype of the army tank was transformed into the modern day bulldozer, and the forest lands of the Pacific Northwest have never been the same. The new technology gave the timber industry the power to push their extractive interests into even the most remote places—it was now a war on the land. The pace of logging increased exponentially, and the fate of Mill Creek would be met by being turned into a skid road to access the giant old growth that lined it’s banks. Back then, during the industrial logging era and before regulations, the center of the creeks were often the path of least resistance in steep terrain. That was the “boom” and now we’re seeing the slow recovery from a long lived “bust”. The lasting reminders still lingering with the presence of massive log-jams laid down like wounded soldiers among the recovering landscape.
Mill Creek is on the mend, but it’s going to be a long time before it sees and feels the past energy of it’s ocean going companions. We were pleased to see the recovery of certain sections of habitat. There are tiny fragments of health where the creek is finding some stability to work with and build upon. We saw some newly formed potential for spawning areas, and plenty of good rearing habitat for juveniles amidst the log jams and large woody debris that was left behind over 60 years ago. Mill Creek is still sediment impaired and the gravels are mostly embedded in that fine sediment. Alders are doing their early successional job of fixing nitrogen, building soils, and creating a temporary microclimate for the redwoods that will follow them. Past (hand work) restoration projects conducted around 2005-2006 were looking good in the upper reaches, helping to firm up some of the larger landslides in the drainage. Fresh bank failures caused by this season’s high flows were also obvious as well as some new road-related damage.
So what about the fish? We only saw a brief glimpse of a juvenile fish (1+) year old. Most likely a Steelhead. We didn’t see any signs of Coho this season. No redds, live spawning fish, or carcasses. We plan on getting in there again this summer to snorkel and look for juveniles in the hopes of finding a Coho. Harry says they swim like guppies and have wavy tails unlike the lightning fast and stream-lined juvenile Steelhead. I have yet to see one myself. Mill Creek would benefit greatly from more redwood tree planting as well as more “light-touch” hand work restoration in some of the new slide areas.
Harry Vaughn emphasized our need as humans to observe more closely what is working in nature and replicate those situations in our continued efforts. Many of our conversations that day lead us to analyzing the “boom-bust” phenomenon and how it just keeps cycling around in our dysfunctional economic systems. It’s got us thinking about life in these hills after our current short-lived “cannabis boom” descends and retracts into a scale that meets the land’s ability to regenerate itself. We will no doubt have the chance once again to rethink our actions as we are faced with the challenges ahead. Our walk that day served as a clear reminder that the short-sighted pursuits of those before us still haven’t healed over, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll be gifted the chance once again to see the silver flash of Coho under the recovering canopies of Mill Creek.
Photos by Kyle Keegan