Third Graders & Kokanee Salmon on Wild About Utah

Oct 13, 2017

It’s a cool crisp morning as my Edith Bowen third graders disembark their mini buses at Cinnamon Creek Campground and sprint for the water’s edge. We’re here to witness an animalian rite of passage as old as evolutionary time: the Salmon Run.

Utahns flock to reservoirs and their adjacent streams all over the state in early autumn to watch as salmon- adorned in their fiery red spawning attire- depart their placid range waters en route to their natal homeland. It’s an extraordinary feat of endurance. The salmon, once they start, will not rest or eat for the duration of their journey upstream.

We have Kokanee Salmon here in Utah, brought from the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest. ‘Kokanee’ is an Okanagan word used to refer to landlocked populations of Sockeye Salmon. Unlike their ocean-dwelling cousins, Kokanees will spend their entire lives in fresh water, trading the unattainable ocean swells for a more placid existence in inland lakes. I’ll let Blake explain how it happened.

“A long time ago, some Sockeye schools got separated from one another- possibly when mountains formed, large bodies of water shrank, or some fish decided to try something new. This caused some Sockeye to be cut off from the ocean. However, all Sockeye Salmon, including Kokanees, will return to the same freshwater streams where they were born.” In the case of our fish, they are traveling from Porcupine Reservoir, in East Canyon at the southern end of Cache Valley, upstream to nesting sites along the East Fork of the Little Bear River.

And when they return, it is an impressive sight to behold! Salmon is a word derived from the Latin salmo, itself a possible derivative of salire, meaning “to leap.” And leap they do! Over beaver dams and waterfalls, rock outcroppings and logjams in order to make their way upstream. Salmon are well-known for their acrobatics even when they aren’t attempting to scale a turbulent obstacle course, and scientists are really at a loss as to why.

Some people think the salmon jump out of the water to clean parasites from their gills and scales. Others say they jump because their bodies are changing, or because they’re agitated. I think it’s because they want to get to a shallower area so they can lay their eggs.” It’s quite clear to Aspen why the fish are breaching the water today. They have places to be and evolutionary duties to fulfill.

The salmon run is a coming-of-age ritual of sorts wherein mature adult Kokanee Salmon, usually around the age of three to five years old, vie for the privilege of reproduction. For salmon, reproduction is a taxing stage of life. Their bodies morph and change colors- the males much more so than the females; social hierarchies can break down entirely as a result of competition to breed; and females may lay eggs in as many as three to five different nests, known as redds, before tirelessly defending their progeny until the very end.

During our excursion along the Little Bear River, students were able to see both the beginning and the end of the Kokanee life cycle. Adjacent to the spawning redds where the next generation lay incubating, there were several mature adults seen wavering in their task, their scales turned gray from age and exhaustion. One departed salmon washed up on the river bank, causing quite a stir amongst the young researchers gathered there.

The salmon run is a fascinating and poetic scene to witness. In their last grand gesture to the perpetuation of life, the spawning Kokanee admirably fulfill their evolutionary duty, and pass from this world to whatever is next for such an elegant fish.