It all comes down to very basic and extremely important matters, such as life, death, and perpetuation of species.
Far and away the biggest attraction for many of us when adult salmon return each year centers on catching and eating them.
Still, it is only when they finally reach their spawning stream that most of us have a chance to see these amazing fish in their natural environment. It is truly remarkable what these fish have endured to return home, but it only gets more intense for them in their final days of life, and there is much to see.
In the end, it all comes down to very basic and extremely important matters, such as life, death, and perpetuation of the species. Given such high drama, why not go and observe one of nature's most intriguing dramas first hand?
Every community in Southeast Alaska has an easily accessible opportunity to view spawning salmon, although sometimes the number of fish returning to spawn is small relative to other years. For example, this year the local return of chum salmon may be down compared to other years. Nevertheless, here are some of the best locations in Juneau to see spawning salmon.
Steep Creek (near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor's Center): This is the best roadside accessible stream in Juneau to view spawning sockeye salmon. Sockeyes travel up the Mendenhall River during June and early July, enter Mendenhall Lake, and prepare for spawning in the creek, which takes place from late July to late August. During the peak of the run, in early August, there may be well over 1,000 sockeyes present. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a trail along portions of the stream and there are several bridge crossings and overlooks that provide excellent views of spawning fish.
Early in the run, these bright red-bodied, green headed fish are gorgeous and full of energy, but fighting, gravel excavation, mating, and lack of food, all take their toll. When they have finished spawning, these fish are beat up and their bodies invaded by fungus; not long thereafter they are dead. It is interesting to visit Steep Creek several times through the course of the spawning run, to better appreciate the dynamics of the overall process. Later in the fall, a similar drama is played out in Steep Creek by coho salmon. The best time to observe spawning cohos is during October.
Salmon Creek (at the Hospital intersection): This is generally an excellent place to view spawning chum and to a lesser extent, pink salmon. The best times are from mid-July through mid-August. Salmon can only utilize the lower portion of this creek because a large waterfall about a quarter mile upstream prevents fish from going up any farther.
Sheep Creek (Thane Road): This is another easily accessible and very popular spot to watch primarily chum salmon returning to the DIPAC hatchery at the creek. However, many fish spawn in the short intertidal portion of the stream below the highway.
Fish Creek (North Douglas Hwy.): Look for pink and chum salmon, from mid-July through mid-August. King salmon, reared at DIPAC's Macaulay (Gastineau) Salmon Hatchery and released as smolts in the Fish Creek pond, return as adults to Fish Creek. The kings begin entering the lower creek and pond around the 4th of July and remain for a month or more before moving up the creek and attempting to spawn. Although some of the king salmon may complete the spawning process, there does not appear to be any resulting production from their efforts. Still, in late August and early September, there are great opportunities to see king salmon spawning in Fish Creek both upstream and downstream of the North Douglas Highway bridge. Some of these fish are very big.
There are many other streams crossed by our local road system that support salmon runs and where spawning salmon can also be observed. This is just one of many things that makes living here so special. Some of these streams are very small and not open to fishing, such as Switzer Creek and Jordan Creek. Others, like Montana Creek, Cowee Creek (near Echo Cove), and Peterson Creek (mile 25 Glacier Highway), which are our most important streams for sport fishing in Juneau, are also good places to see spawning salmon.
There are other opportunities to see returning adult salmon up close, but not in a natural stream situation. Thousands of salmon return annually to DIPAC's Macaulay Salmon Hatchery in Gastineau Channel, and from now until October visitors can see them as they congregate at the facility. A window built into the side of the fish ladder provides excellent viewing and photographic opportunities.
One final word of caution: spawning salmon attract other wildlife, including bears. Seeing a bear in its natural habitat is always exciting and a highlight for many residents and tourists. It is another reminder of the fact that we live in an area that is still very much wild and pristine. When you visit a stream when spawning salmon are present, remember you are in bear country. There are both black and brown bears in the Juneau area.
Given the number of people that visit Steep Creek, there has been increasing concern over someone possibly being injured by a bear, however, thus far this has not happened. Perhaps the bears have learned to work around the daily schedule of tourists. Also, Forest Service staff at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor's center have increased public awareness about bears along the creek, and they alert visitors when bears are present.
Elsewhere, anyone hiking along Montana, Cowee, or Peterson Creek when spawning salmon are present has a pretty good chance of seeing a bear. If you do not, rest assured one is not too far away. In such situations you should avoid brushy areas and make plenty of noise so as not to surprise a bear. If you do see a bear, do not approach it and give it as wide a berth as possible.
The risks of being injured by a bear are quite low, but it would be tragic if a visit to a local creek resulted in a serious injury or worse. The opportunities to experience nature at its best are all around us in Alaska, but we are continually reminded how unforgiving our home can sometimes be, so take care, but enjoy.
Mark Schwan is a fishery biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Douglas. Contact members of Juneau Audubon Society at firstname.lastname@example.org.