Watching the salmon life cycle at Switzer

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

The circle of life is always an interesting topic and few species' circle is better documented than the salmon. Juneau is blessed with an abundance of natural habitat for spawning salmon and one of the best areas to view this is Switzer Creek.

Near Lemon Creek, the diminutive Switzer Creek only flows about 1 mile before it empties into Gastineau Channel. It was named after Charley Switzer, who ran a dairy in the area in the 1920s and 1930s.

The stream ranges from 2 feet wide in its upper section to 15 feet or more in width in the intertidal area between Egan Drive and Glacier Highway. It has a low gradient and the clear, partially spring-fed water ranges from a few inches to 2 feet deep.

Although small, Switzer Creek is teeming with spawning salmon during the summer months and is used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as one of its five index streams off the Juneau road system. Each year, Fish and Game staff conduct routine "walks" of the stream and count salmon to give an indication of the abundance of the fish each year. The other waterways are Montana Creek, Steep Creek, Jordan Creek and Peterson Creek, which empties near Amalga Harbor.

"The idea is to walk the same section of stream to count how many cohos are spawning," Fish and Game biologist Bryan Glynn said. "It gives a reflection of changes of the stream from year to year."

In 2002, Fish and Game counted 124 cohos. That was a significant increase from 2001 and 2000 when 50 and 71 cohos were counted, respectively.

"The numbers went up all over last year," said Glynn, who contributed the increase to the decline of the price of cohos in the commercial market, forcing commercial fishermen to seek other, more profitable species to fish for.

Switzer Creek has good access to view many portions of the stream. The best is the Richard Marriott Trail, which, with its branches, connects the various neighborhoods in the Lemon Creek area and Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. Fish and Game also uses the trail to conduct periodic nature walks to educate the public on the ecology of the Switzer Creek area.

Just a few hundred feet off the trailhead at the end of Lund Street is Spring Pond, where currently, hundreds of spawning chum salmon are congregating and living out the last few days of their lives. A boardwalk trail runs adjacent to the stream and a bridge was constructed at one end of the pond, giving a great vantage point of the spectacle.

Although the peak of the chum run looks to have been last weekend, there's still a small window of opportunity to see the spawning salmon in action in their natural habitat. But other species, such as coho and pink salmon, will make their runs later this month. According to Glynn, it's also not uncommon to spot a pair of wayward sockeye spawning in the stream too. Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout also make Switzer Creek their home.

Switzer Creek has gone through many changes over the years, many of which have been documented by naturalist Richard Carstensen through Juneau's Discovery Foundation. Some of his research can be found in a report titled "Two Centuries on Switzer Creek" in which he maps out the topographical changes on four different maps of the stream starting in 1750 and going through 1929, 1962 and 1997.

Carstensen recorded Switzer Creek's changes in respect to hydrology, land-sea relations, succession and the people of the area. Many variables have affected the stream. Recently, logging and the encroachment of residential areas have affected the stream the most.

In 1970, Spring Pond was reported to be 8 feet deep. Now the pond is only 2 to 3 feet deep due to deposits of sediment. Glynn says that some of the deposits do happen naturally, but clearcut logging in the 1940s and 1960s has added to the sediment build-up.

Also, in the past 50 years, homes have been built at the edges of Switzer Creek and its four small tributaries, putting pressure on the fish population. Although fishing is not allowed in Switzer Creek due to its small size, it does receive some angling pressure from neighborhood children.

But even with all the changes over the years, and the challenges the stream has or has yet to overcome, it is still a terrific place to see first-hand the natural cycle of life of the salmon.

Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and a former Empire sportswriter. He can be reached at 209-7427.

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