New trail offers tour of salmon spawning grounds

Salmon in the trees peek out at passers by. Close to 50 life-size salmon silhouettes remind us that the stream is a key salmon run. TIMM COLLINS photo

NASELLE - This time of year might not bring the best weather for a hike in the woods, but if you're up for it, a new interpretive hiking trail offers a great chance to see salmon as they return to spawn in local waters.

At the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge office, located near the mouth of the Naselle River, the staff is ecstatic. Their new interpretive hike called the Salmon Trail is near completion, and this year's return of spawning salmon has reached record levels.

The half-mile trail begins near the refuge headquarters and snakes its way through the trees and hillside following a small stream that empties into the Willapa Bay.

The trail and the stream represent the culmination of efforts by lawmakers, nature junkies, students and artists.

It all began in 1997 when volunteers removed a tide gate that had blocked fish passage for more than 50 years. They created spawning beds for fish and turned what was once a quick flowing waterway into a wandering creek, rich with life and perfect for spawning.

The first native chum to return to the creek in nearly 60 years appeared in 2001, 12 of them to be specific, and the numbers are growing every year. Last year the staff counted close to 300 chum returning to spawn, this year over 500.

"It is a pretty stinky creek right now," said Charlie Stenvall, Salmon Trail project leader. "We are over 500 fish on the year, and the ones that are still here are dying and beginning to rot."

Aside from the occasional dead fish, the trail is loaded with "interpretive nodes" or artistic renderings of the wildlife that inhabits the area for at least part of the year. These take the place of traditional interpretive signs made of wood and words and instead give the passerby an image, a starting place to ponder the often unseen wildlife of the region.

Fifty salmon silhouettes cut from pieces of steel hang from trees and seem to peek out at hikers on their way by. The metal cut-outs represent all different stages of the fish's life. Life-sized bronze amphibians representing 13 native species adorn the "amphibatheater," a hillside suitable for small group lectures. The red-legged frog is represented in a "leapwalk," designed to show the four-foot distance the animal is able to jump. And there is more to come.

Still in the works are a moving sculpture indicating the location of the tide and an overlook designed to give hikers a bird's-eye view and an idea of what life in the trees would be like. Both are scheduled for completion next spring when the ground has had time to dry out. An additional half-mile will be added to the existing trail.

Although most of the trail is not open for public use, most of the artwork can be seen without stepping a foot from the refuge office. For more information about the Salmon Trail, please call the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge at 484-3482.

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