ARLINGTON — Olaf Strad Creek is not the thundering mountain river you might picture when you think of salmon runs. There are no rocky rapids with fish jumping their way upstream, no bears waiting nearby for dinner to fling itself from the water.
The creek 5 miles south of downtown Arlington is 600 feet long and only a few feet across, shallow enough in places to walk right over to the other side without soaking too much of your pantlegs. It’s a relatively small chunk of the larger Quilceda Watershed that drains 38 square miles of land north of Everett, but don’t be fooled by its unassuming stature. Since it was built from nothing in 2021, Olaf Strad has provided a crucial rest stop as salmon make the long haul home from the ocean.
The second generation of fish to make use of the stream, created to offer an alternate route to Quilceda Creek from a polluted roadside ditch along 67th Street, is all but gone now, their spawning season having peaked around Christmas Eve. In the second week of January, a lone living salmon swam slowly through the frigid water, passing decaying carcasses resting on the gravel creek bed at regular intervals.
That’s a good sign, really, said Tom Murdoch, director of the Adopt a Stream Foundation, which created the stream almost from scratch with the help of dozens of volunteers. It means the salmon’s jobs are complete, their eggs laid safely and their future secured for another season.
After a successful second year, the foundation’s project to reestablish this crucial stretch of habitat isn’t over. In the coming months, volunteers will check the young trees planted along the creek’s banks, replacing withered starts with strong new ones. They’ll weed out invasive plants and add native ones in their place. And with help from the Tulalip Tribes and Snohomish County, they’ll expand their efforts to two other streams, the west and north forks of Quilceda Creek, hoping to offer even more salmon a little respite.
Murdoch said small waterways like Olaf Strad Creek are important to salmon life cycles because, despite their incredible hardiness and resilience, even the toughest fish need a minute to rest. He’s been observing fish in the tributary since 1978, back when they crowded the water “so thick you could walk across their backs.” Until recently, the remaining fish were forced to use narrow, unnaturally straightened channels and roadside ditches to make their way up Quilceda’s tributaries.
The new creek serves as a rest stop for fish passing through on their way to spawn, offering a quieter environment than the rushing waters and strong currents of larger rivers. When the creek was built two years ago, volunteers dropped in 30 log structures along its span to slow the water flow and give fish some room to breathe, so to speak.
Since then, the foundation has helped to plant around 2,000 trees along the stream, which will provide more resting places as they age and topple over into the water, Murdoch said. In the intervening years, the long shadows cast by the towering spruce and red cedar will provide shade, cooling the water for the fish and thus making more oxygen available in the water.
This spring, volunteers will comb through the budding forest along Olaf Strad removing stragglers and replacing them with healthy new starts. The thicker and healthier the vegetation along a waterway’s banks, known as the riparian zone, the healthier the stream itself is, Murdoch said. The 200-foot radius of forest that will eventually line the creek will act as a filter, catching rainfall and dispersing it onto the earth to recharge groundwater stores.
Volunteers undertook similar efforts along Quilceda’s Middle Fork where it passes through Strawberry Fields Park in Marysville, planting over 20,000 trees in the last five years. That stretch of creek has been channelized by human diversion into a straight, narrow stretch, a far cry from the meandering path it once took, Murdoch said.
The West Fork Quilceda is the latest focus for rehabilitation efforts. Adopt a Stream is collaborating with the Tulalip Tribes to improve a stretch of the creek north of Marysville where it flows through 10 acres of tribal land. This summer, the foundation, tribes and volunteers removed lengths of ancient barbed wire from the creek’s banks, eradicated invasive overgrowth of reed canary grass and implemented more log structures for salmon to rest at, Murdoch said.
By early summer 2023, a new 100-foot-wide riparian forest will be putting down roots on either side of the West Fork, just like its neighbors, Murdoch said.
The improvement efforts have gone a long way towards restoring Quilceda Creek to its former glory as the most productive salmon stream in the Snohomish Basin, Murdoch said, but much of the damage done by development will take generations to reverse.
“People protect what they love and love what they understand,” Murdoch said, paraphrasing a quote by Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum. “It’s our goal, our job, to help people understand that every little thing they do can impact our watershed, and that means they can impact it positively, too.”
Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; email@example.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.
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