Exiled Salmon Return Home
Railroads like straight tracks. Rivers, they like curved courses. Both conserve energy, and both came into conflict with each other a century ago in the home waters of the Chickaloon Native Village, Alaska. And the Chinook, coho and chum salmon suffered for it.
Few people alive today were witness to events of history in the early 20th century. But eyewitnesses tell stories, and oral histories passed along among the Chickaloon people tell a different account of the salmon fishery on Moose Creek that we know today. That salmon fishery was recently confined to the first three miles of Moose Creek above where it joins the Matanuska River. Yet, Chickaloon oral histories relate something much different. Village elders say that their parents told of a thriving salmon fishery that ran the length, about seven miles or so, of Moose Creek.
Something happened. As streams run their course, they tend to bend and turn at their lower ends. It’s a physical matter of conserving energy within a water course. A waterway’s meanders are an expression of energy. At the turn of the 20th century, the railroad needed to get to coal in mountains above Moose Creek, and the railroad had to essentially get by Moose Creek. The rail builders did that by straightening the creek with earthen levies. One-hundred year-old hand-drawn maps reveal the extent to which they went to move the creek, to eventually move the coal. The creek’s energy formerly expressed in its bends and turns had to be expressed elsewhere. Artificially straightened streams move quicker downhill and will quickly erode. That’s what Moose Creek did – it scoured to bedrock to create a natural-looking 10-foot-tall bedrock barrier that fish could not swim over three miles from its mouth. It looked natural, but it was completely caused by man. The historic salmon fishery fed mining camps and Native people, but the barrier caused the salmon to play out upstream. The coal played out 25 years ago, but an unnatural Moose Creek remained, and the native salmon run remained blocked from miles of former spawning habitat.
But that has changed, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chickaloon Village. In 2005, we set about fixing the fishery. We wanted to restore fish passage around the barrier waterfall, and reestablish the original meanders. Our first step was to build a half-mile long road on the old railroad bed to get to the site. Trees and brush that we had to clear, we set those aside to put into the creek to create habitat for aquatic bugs and fish later. It was heavy machinery that destroyed salmon habitat, and now it was a bulldozer that would recreate it. We constructed the new channel to former conditions, trying to recreate an historic meander. Using trees removed, we put them back in the creek in log piles intended to create diversity in stream flow and diversity in fish habitat. We also used boulders to direct flow to the same effect – to create a diversity of habitats in the creek. Large boulders, randomly scattered in the creek, were placed there to simulate natural creek conditions – to create a “roughness” in the stream, again, to create a diversity of habitats. Since young salmon need slow water to grow in, off-channel pools were built to connect with the main channel where fish can pass the year-round.
The Chickaloon Native Village and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor both project sites for at least five more years. But we already know this: the Moose Creek Fish Passage Restoration Project has been a huge success, connecting fish to habitat, and we are pleased to have completed such a remarkable project. (Brian Winnestaffer).