After an absence of more than a decade, a trickle of salmon are finally finding their way back to Sonoma County streams, thanks to private landowners and a coalition of conservationists.
Roughly 22 million years ago, the fish we know as salmon evolved the complicated biology they needed to commute between inland freshwater streams and the open salty ocean. Thus began one of the most remarkable life cycle journeys known on the planet.
Two million years ago, on the ancient California coastline, the salmon would have found a perfect cold and clear waterway emptying into the Pacific near the mouth of today’s Russian River. Running a hundred miles back among high ridges and dense redwood forest, its widely branching network of creeks and tributaries made ideal habitat for the spawning fish and its young.
And that paleo-Russian River has been the salmon’s home ever since.
So it came as a shock in 2001 when naturalists, fishermen and the community discovered that the number of coho salmon counted returning to the Russian River, once totaling 100,000, had dwindled to only 5.
It was found that throughout the watershed, the populations had crashed, and the salmon were disappearing, stream by stream. By 2004, only 3 of 39 tributaries and creeks in the entire watershed held any coho at all.
This past December, in a quiet event out of public view, red-flushed mature coho salmon were once again found spawning in the tree-shaded upper reaches of Mill Creek west of Healdsburg, where they had been virtually absent for decades.
That small, exciting homecoming was no accident. It came after more than 10 years of study and planning, captive breeding and painstaking stream rehabilitation by a smorgasbord of local, state, and federal agencies, private groups, academic institutions, community coalitions and concerned individuals.
And the vital key and the unsung heroes of the salmon rescue, according to those involved, are some of the private landowners whose property surrounds Mill Creek. In a scene that’s playing out along hundreds of miles of streams and creeks across Sonoma County, individual landowners are proving to be the crucial link in bringing the salmon home again.
Tracking the salmon
Everyone involved with salmon rescue in Sonoma County knows Mariska Obedzinski, because it’s her job to count the salmon. A fisheries biologist, Obedzinski is the coho monitoring coordinator for UC Sea Grant. Counting, for Obedzinski and team members Nick Bauer and Zac Reinstein, involves daily checks of underwater traps during the spring, snorkeling through chains of creekbed pools during the summer, and monitoring remote sensors to spot salmon carrying tiny implanted tracking devices.
Before the coho can be upgraded from the red-line federal “endangered” classification, Obedzinski must find 10,100 salmon in the watershed for three consecutive years. This past January, the estimate was 456. That makes every single salmon spawning again in prime habitat like Mill Creek vitally important.
Challenges for the coho
Mill Creek collects water from mountains in one of the wettest spots in Sonoma County, near Venado. Then it burbles and winds for 15 miles through wooded mountain canyons and second growth redwoods, before entering Dry Creek about a mile from the Russian River, and 35 miles from the sea.
Mirabel Park: 8400 River Road, Forestville. 15 grassy campsites with picnic tables and fire pits along Mark West Creek. Firewood $7 a bundle. Free hot-water showers. Crazy Dave’s jerky for sale at camp store. $31 night. No two-night minimum after Labor Day weekend. Make reservations several weeks ahead. Cash only, no credit cards. 887-2383. mirabelpark.com.
Casini Ranch: 22855 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills. Look for camp sites 46B, 47, 45A and 46A along river at south end of ranch for easy entry and exit. You still have to beach boats on river rock and lug bags up to camp.
General store stocked w/beer, wine, ice, tchotchkes galore and plenty of firewood that will be delivered to your camp site. Tent sites starting at $60.86. 800-451-8400. casiniranch.com.
Burke’s Canoe Trips: 8600 River Road, Forestville. Burke’s also offers camping, but their main focus is on canoe and kayak rentals and providing camping for those renting customers. Kayakers passing through with their own boats should call well ahead. $12 night. 887-1222. burkescanoetrips.com.
Willow Creek Environmental Campground: 25381 Steelhead Blvd., Duncans Mills. The drawback is it’s first-come, first-serve with no reservations. The bonus is you’re much more secluded than at the bigger private campgrounds. Of the 11 sites, #8, #9 and #11 have best access to the river. No running water, pit toilets. No dogs allowed. $25 night. Cash/check only. Search for “sonoma coast state park” at www.parks.ca.gov.
TIPS IF YOU GO
-Keeping dry: Make sure you invest in waterproof dry bags for all storage AND you attach to your boat in case you tip over.
-Food storage: Bring a well-insulated soft cooler, like a Bison, that keeps ice and food chilled for days.
-Not for the novice: Be sure you’re a proficient paddler. “If you haven’t spent years paddling on rivers, don’t even think about camping,” says Russian Riverkeeper director Don McEnhill.
-Portage possibilities: River dams at Johnson’s Beach and south of Wohler Bridge are usually taken down after Labor Day, says McEnhill. If not, be prepared to portage — that’s where a tiny portable dolly comes in handy.
-Stay hydrated, happy: “Drink lots of water and bring a change of dry clothes and a great attitude,” says Mirabel camp’s Lora Meeks.
-Timing is everything: After kids go back to school, “September is really a heavenly time of year to be on the river,” says Linda Burke, owner of Burke’s Canoe Trips.