One of the nice features of my neighborhood in Sterling is an unnamed crick.
In case you’re wondering, I call any running water that you can jump across without getting your feet wet a crick. Anything wider than that is either a creek or a river.
Cricks don’t usually have names, at least not officially. My neighborhood crick is spring-fed, so it runs clear and cold, year-round. Walk near it in mid-January, and you’ll hear it babbling away under a heavy coat of snow and ice. It begins near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and the east end of Scout Lake Loop Road. From there, it meanders through a low, swampy area for about a mile, then turns right at Silver Salmon Drive. From that point, it picks up speed and runs through two driveway culverts and a road culvert before making a 200-yard dash to its mouth, at the Kenai River.
When most people think about salmon habitat, they don’t likely think about places like this unassuming crick. Unless you get down on your hands and knees beside it and watch for a while, you’d never know there were fish in it. It seems impossible that tiny fish can work their way upstream, sometimes for miles, in these cricks, but they do.
This crick and many more like are nurseries for young salmon. According to studies, salmon that rear in small streams survive better in the ocean than salmon that rear in other places. In other words, more “crick fish” survive to become the adult silvers that so many of us like to catch.
Over the years, my neighborhood crick has suffered abuse. At some point in the past, someone dumped the crushed body of a car into its bed. Whoever constructed Silver Salmon Drive diverted the crick, forcing it to run straight down a hill instead of meandering through the woods. Neighborhood kids occasionally try to dam it. One neighbor set up a fish-cleaning table beside it and threw fish carcasses into it, until it brought bears. Another neighbor stuck a hose in it and pumped its water to his greenhouse. The worst abuse to date has been three culverts, one under a road and two under driveways. The downstream ends of these culverts were too high for baby salmon to be able to jump into them. When combined with the swift current of the modified stream bed, they blocked young salmon from migrating upstream. In effect, these culverts caused the loss of more than a mile of habitat.
If we Alaskans can unanimously agree on anything, it’s that we want to protect salmon runs in Alaska from disappearing as they’ve done in many other places. A major problem in the Pacific Northwest has been the loss of spawning and rearing habitat due to various types of development. With this in mind, the Kenai Watershed Forum (KWF) has been determining whether Kenai Peninsula streams that could provide salmon spawning or rearing habitat had been altered in such a way that they could block fish migration. They found that nearly half of the culverts on salmon streams weren’t providing adequate passage for salmon. These culverts were causing the loss of many miles of useable habitat.
A few years ago, the three culverts on my neighborhood crick made the “top priority” list for replacement, and were subsequently replaced. Afterward, young salmon were again found using the creek upstream.
This little crick plays only a bit part in the overall scheme of things. I guess you could equate it to a tiny vein in your little toe: You could get along without it, but along with the multitude of your other veins, it performs a necessary function. As with veins, you can get along without a few cricks, but lose too many, and things no longer function.
We’re doing more on the Kenai Peninsula to avoid harm to fish habitat now than we were 20 years ago, but we still have a long way to go. Whenever we build a road or clear land for anything, we need to remember that every trickle could become part of a crick that’s a salmon stream. We need to take care not to put anything on the ground or in the water that might harm fish or the fauna and flora fish need in order to live. We need to take care of the places where fish live at all stages of their lives.
If we can learn to welcome the small ones with the same fervor that we have when welcoming the big ones, we just might have salmon 50 years from now.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.