A Salmon-eye View of the River

Despite having been with the Tuolumne River Trust for over 10 years and having spent much of that time on the Tuolumne River or in its watershed, I still get excited every time I head to the river, wondering what will amaze me this time. And the river never disappoints. In the heat of the Central Valley summer, the lower Tuolumne greets me with cooling shade, inviting swimming holes and lush green tangles of riparian habitat surrounded by an otherwise dried up landscape. Winter fills the sky with welcoming rains and thousands of migrating birds, many of which stop to refuel or winter over at places like our Dos Rios Ranch restoration site at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers. In the spring the river bursts with new life from snow-fed flows to wildflowers to wildlife. But what happens in the river this time of year, often while we are sleeping or simply caught up in our busy human world, is a wonder of nature that blows my mind every time I experience it – the return of the Chinook salmon.

Beginning as early as September, mature Chinook salmon that have spent several years out in the ocean gorging themselves (and growing to a size they could never achieve in the freshwater rivers where they are born) begin to gather in the brackish waters of the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta waiting for signs to begin their journey back to their natal rivers to spawn. Between October and December, hundreds, even thousands, of Chinook salmon make their way from the Delta, up the San Joaquin River to the Tuolumne where they will continue their journey as far upstream as La Grange before being stopped by one of many human-made barriers, in this case the La Grange Dam. In the gravel beds of this reach of the Tuolumne, female salmon will use their broad strong tails to dig out gravel nests called redds in the rocky riverbed. Each female will make several redds and lay anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 eggs before she is done. Brightly colored males hang out at the river’s edge, jockeying for position to be the first to reach a redd to fertilize the eggs. Battered and exhausted from their long journey back from the ocean and from the energy expended during spawning, these powerful fish spend their last 24 to 48 hours protecting the redds that hold their future offspring before giving them one final gift by dying and releasing a plethora of rich nutrients and energy from the ocean into the waters and soils of the Tuolumne River – a gift which sustains the ecosystem and, in turn, the juvenile Chinook salmon.

One of my first, and still most memorable, experiences with the Tuolumne River Trust was a staff canoe trip during the salmon spawning season. The day started with me arriving about 30 minutes early to our take-out for that day, the Turlock Lake Recreation Area. Within minutes of walking over to the river the show began with my first sighting of river otters frolicking in the water and chasing each other over fallen trees. I remember looking around to see if anyone else was witnessing this amazing sight, sure that nobody would believe me if I didn’t have backup. The second act was headed by a bald eagle keeping watch on an old snag a few hundred feet downstream. Again, I felt a wave of excitement and disbelief travel through my body at seeing such an iconic bird overlooking the river I had recently signed on to steward through education and outreach. I remember the beauty of that stretch of the river between Old La Grange Bridge and the Turlock Lake Recreation Area as being intoxicating and so different from the stretches in and around Modesto that I was familiar with. It’s hard to put into words the thrill of seeing that first salmon, for me, a female “working a riffle”, her arched back exposed as she fought her way upstream then flipped onto her side and pumped her tail up and down to remove a little more gravel from the redd until satisfied that it is ready to receive her eggs. I remember jumping when taken by surprise by a male Chinook shooting out from his hiding place in a shaded spot near a bank in an effort to “win” a redd to fertilize. Finally, I remember seeing my first carcass, not washed up on shore by the current or dragged out by a lucky predator but lying on the river bottom like a white ghost, giving itself up to the river and associated ecosystems.

For two weekends in November (11/4, 11/5 and 11/12) the public has the opportunity to join the Tuolumne River Trust for our annual Paddle with the Salmon canoe trips. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that never gets old. Our trips are led by experienced river guides and knowledgeable staff who know how to share this amazing natural event while taking precautions to keep the salmon and the redds safe. These half day paddles are leisurely, perfect for beginners, and take participants through the heart of the Chinook salmon spawning grounds as well as some of the most scenic stretches of the lower Tuolumne River. While viewing a salmon is not guaranteed, gaining new knowledge, insight and appreciation for this amazing resource is! I hope you will consider joining us for this amazing event, the return of the Chinook salmon to the Tuolumne River.

  • Sunday November 12th –  Half day – Space Available!

For full details on each trip, including start time, meeting location, what to bring, what to expect, etc, please visit the registration site by clicking the button below. Register to reserve your spot today – space is limited.We look forward to seeing you on the river!

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