Wearing waders and what looked like small kegs strapped to their backs, a team of government biologists slogged through Willow Creek near Jenner Tuesday searching for good places to let their precious cargos go.
Dipping nets into the aerated containers, the biologists released juvenile Coho salmon into the creek a couple at a time, allowing the silvery fish to dart away beneath a canopy of Redwood trees.
Tuesday's release of 11,000 Coho into Willow Creek marked a new phase in what has been a major and time-consuming effort to restore the endangered fish to the waterway, which is the largest of the tributaries flowing into the Jenner estuary.
A decade of planning that has involved numerous government agencies and non-profit organizations has so far gone into the restoration effort, which also has included spending more than $1 million to upgrade a bridge that was considered a main barrier to salmon thriving in the creek.
Observing Tuesday's fish release, Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, reminisced about the first planning meeting 10 years ago.
"We got a bunch of people in a room and said, &‘What do we need to do in order to do some restoration work on Willow Creek?'" she said.
The answer, as it turned out, was a lot.
Willow Creek, which flows nearly nine miles from Coleman Valley to the Jenner estuary, was once prime habitat for salmon. But run-off from logging and agricultural activities, coupled with the discontinuation of dredging efforts that were aimed at preventing roadway flooding, had turned the once pristine waterway into a clogged and meandering mess.
The watershed is mostly within Sonoma Coast State Park. It also flows in an area of privately-held ranches and land owned by the Mendocino Redwood Company.
A network of culverts that had been accumulating sediment after state parks purchased the property in 1987 and discontinued dredging were identified as significant impediments to Coho salmon being able to travel up and down the creek.