By Melanie Kallas Ricklefs
Watching the salmon run at Kennedy Creek is one of our family’s autumn traditions. We’ve been taking our daughter to the trail since before she was in preschool, and each year we witness something we haven’t seen before. It’s the perfect outdoor educational experience, and it’s located right in our community. The forest trail is easily accessible, and the viewing platforms provide fantastic vantage points to watch the salmon spawn.
The courting and mating behaviors that salmon exhibit are fascinating, and knowing the purpose of these behaviors makes the experience even more meaningful. Every year, dozens of Kennedy Creek docents volunteer their time to walk the trails and explain the salmon life cycle and behaviors to trail visitors. One of Kennedy Creek’s most dedicated docents, Leeann Tourtillott, has been volunteering for 13 years, and her enthusiasm for the job has not diminished a bit. In fact, Leeann is so passionate about her work at the trail that she brought her children to docent for over a decade as community service for their homeschooling curriculum.
Leeann thoroughly enjoys being outdoors and providing environmental education for anyone eager to learn. She particularly adores teaching preschoolers about the forest, stream, and salmon life cycle. She delights in birdsong, falling leaves, and the sight of salmon spawning, and her excitement about nature is mirrored by young children as they connect with their surroundings.
After years of being a docent, Leeann is happy to say that she still learns something new every season.
One of the highlights of Leeann’s time at Kennedy Creek was witnessing the rarely seen gamete release. Gamete release is essentially the coincident release and fertilization of salmon eggs and it happens so quickly that many biologists, who spend their lives studying salmon, have never seen it in the wild. Leeann has seen it only once in 13 years and was elated to share it with the group of students she was teaching at the time.
“There are two things I want every group to walk away with,” said Leeann, “the first is how ecology links everything.” The Kennedy Creek area is an excellent example of the interconnectedness of all things in nature.
According to Leeann, the salmon that spawn in Kennedy Creek are basically “ten pound sacks of fertilizer delivered by tail from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” After spawning, the salmon die and decompose. This process deposits nutrients in the streambed, along the banks, and upland where carcasses have been relocated by wild animals. Leeann says that the nitrogen from spawning salmon in the creek has been found to be identical to the nitrogen in the leaves of surrounding trees. So, the salmon not only feed wildlife, they also feed the trees, which house wildlife, shade the stream, and provide a lovely space for human recreation.
The second piece of information that Leeann hopes to impart is the history of the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail.
The development of the Kennedy Creek Trail is an inspiring story of cooperation to effect environmental change. In 1979, the salmon run in Kennedy Creek was down to its lowest point at only around 800 fish returning to spawn. Realizing that this level of return was not sustainable, Jeff Cederholm of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and The Evergreen State College developed the concept of the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail. His idea brought together non-profit agencies, Taylor Shellfish Farms (which owns the land where the trail is located), Green Diamond Resource Company (which owns some of the surrounding land), the Squaxin Island Tribe, and government agencies to clean up the stream. By 1996, the salmon return had climbed to over 80,000 fish.
To support the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail, which is funded by visitor donations and small local grants, you can visit the trail for their annual fundraiser. The Fourth Annual Chum, Chowder and Chocolate Fundraiser will be held on Saturday, November 21 between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. During this event, you can walk the trail, enjoy delectable local seafood and chowder from Taylor Shellfish, and sip some cocoa. There will be docents on the trail to answer questions, and South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group (SPSSEG) staff to take your donations (a $5 donation is requested). Donations will help to keep the trail open to the public, and provide supplies such as polarized sunglasses, which reduce the glare from the water’s surface to allow for better visibility of the salmon.
Access to the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail is free for everyone. The trail will be open to the general public on November weekends, Veterans Day, and the Friday after Thanksgiving from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. During weekdays, the trail is reserved for pre-scheduled school groups. For more information, or directions to the trailhead, visit the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail website.
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