November in Gig Harbor is typically cold and wet – the start of what I’ve called The Dark Ages. But it also marks the annual return of chum salmon to Donkey Creek and other streams in the Gig Harbor area, with Donkey Creek being the most accessible place in the local area to watch their return.
Walk along the paved path behind the Harbor History Museum and there’s typically been opportunities over the years to see the big lunkers as they reach the location they were first released into the stream four years before when they began their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
It is inspiring to see the pure drive of the chums as they swim with all their might to complete what now will be the completion of that journey by spawning. Watching them swim up the creek, one can also see dead chum lying along the bank, those who already completed the final act of their lives.
It is a place both inspiring and not a little sad, as it is a reminder of the cycle of nature and the journey of our own lives.
But this past November there were no chum salmon in Donkey Creek. The annual Chum Salmon Festival was a bust.
The reasons are rather straightforward.
Donkey Creek is not a natural spawning creek – too many obstacles; too close to urban runoff; and too close to the waste treatment plant. The chum salmon released from Donkey Creek – typically one million eggs are planted there in what is a mini hatchery – come from Minter Creek, an area to the west of Gig Harbor. With all the eggs, the ten-year average is about 300 chum salmon returning ever year.
The odds of a full life for a chum salmon are rather small.
Unfortunately in past years, haematopoietic necrosis was discovered in returning salmon and no eggs were provided to the Donkey Creek incubator; those eggs were still released from Minter Creek. Given disease in the return over several years and the COVID pandemic, it appears there will be no chum salmon returning to Donkey Creek until at least 2025.
And more disease was recently discovered in the Minter Creek eggs. The impact on Donkey Creek is to be determined.
With all that is going on in the world – war, genocide, economic challenges, pandemics, mass migration, climatic changes – the problems of Donkey Creek fade into insignificance.
But the chum salmon of Donkey Creek represent an annual cycle that goes back to before Europeans first sailed into Puget Sound. They link us to both those native bands and future generations who could still be raised with a Chum Salmon Festival in their lives. They still have lessons to teach.
They are a physical reminder of how short life is, and what we can and must make of our own lives.
You can read more here.