On Monday November 23rd, the third grade class from Orcas Elementary School, accompanied by teachers, instructors from San Juan Nature Institute and a few parents, set off to see the return of the Kokanee at Cascade Lake. It was a field trip made possible by a veritable village of interested parties: Friends of Moran provide funding for the project, Moran State Park staff rear the eggs in their hatchery, Long Live the Kings at Glenwood Springs rears a large portion on the fry to a large size (50 fish per pound) before release into Cascade Lake in December each year. The San Juan Nature Institute included this expedition in their annual Salmon in the Classroom course.
Kokanee are land-locked Sockeye salmon and our trip was to see the return of the salmon to their home stream Moran Creek. Instead of the anadromous life style of Pacific salmon these spend their whole life in freshwater. Nevertheless, they exhibit the same instinctive behavior as their oceangoing relatives driven at spawning time by an urgent need to return to the stream they lived in as alevin.
Before leaving the classroom, students were told that their task was to make observations when they reached the stream. Could they recognize male and females? Were the salmon showing aggression? Were the females scooping out redds? Were the salmon demonstrating mating behavior?
On arrival there was a short tutorial on how to recognize the sexes then the students, in teams armed with clipboards on which to record their observations, spread out along the stream. I confess that at first I did not see the dark bodies of salmon making their way up stream, but as my glasses adjusted to the shade and my eyes to the slender forms I was amazed at the number of salmon I saw. Soon Iwas able to identify the slight hump back of the males. Choruses of amazement were repeated up and down the stream as excited students saw the migrating salmon. Like them I was astonished at the sheer numbers, at the determination of the salmon and at the challenges facing them at barriers like fallen logs. Try as I might I could not capture a picture of a salmon leaping up a small waterfall, but I soon learned to recognize the splashing sound of one preparing to leap.
Moving downstream to the junction with the lake I saw even more fish and learned that this was the perfect place to watch at dusk when predatory birds, including a territorial barred owl came for their dinner! It must seem like a banquet spread out for them!
This extraordinary phenomenon will continue for about another month.. Teaching children about salmon life style is fun, seeing it in action is astonishing. I encourage you to visit the park to see it. Like our third graders you will be amazed.