Photos by Cheryl Landes
From November through January, the salmon return to Carkeek Park in northwest Seattle after a long journey at sea. The journey marks the end of their life cycle and the start of a new one as they lay eggs in the creek.
By the time the salmon arrive to Piper’s Creek in the park, they’re exhausted. But they struggle upstream to reach the spawning grounds so that they can finish their final task before they die.
A trail follows the shore of Piper’s Creek, where you can watch the chum and chinook salmon. Often they’re heard before they’re seen, because they vigorously splash as they wriggle in shallow spots to continue their journey upriver.
Interpretive signs along the creek provide details about the salmon’s life cycles. The eggs hatch in the spring. After coho salmon hatch, they stay in freshwater for about a year and then go to sea for another year before returning to spawn. Each female chum salmon lays from 800 to 1,000 eggs.
Chum salmon swim directly to the ocean after they hatch and stay there from two to five years. Each female lays from 1,000 to 7,000 eggs.
During spawning, a female builds several nests in a redd, a quiet area of the stream. She turns on her side and digs the next with her tail while a male courts her. After she lays eggs in a nest, the male moves beside her, opens his mouth, and deposits milt over the eggs. The milt fertilizes the eggs. Then the female covers the eggs with silt, and the process repeats. The females can build as many as eight nests, and they’ll protect the nests until they die. The nutrients from her carcass provide nutrients to plants and insects that the young fish will eat when they hatch.
Carkeek Park has many other activities. It’s the home to Seattle’s oldest apple orchard, where a festival takes place every year. (It was cancelled in 2020, however, because of the COVID pandemic.) The 220-acre park has miles of hiking trails, beautiful views of Puget Sound, picnicking, birdwatching, and educational programs. From the beach, you can see from the southern tip of Whidbey Island to the Kitsap Peninsula. The Olympic Mountains are also visible on clear days.
The park is located at 950 NW Carkeek Park Road. For more information about the park and its educational programs, visit Carkeek Park’s website or call (206) 684-4075.