Desperately Seeking Salmon at the Ballard Locks

The fish ladder at the Ballard Locks, Photo by Cecilia Kennedy

“Salmon are spawning all over the state and we’re missing it! Let’s go!” I frantically tell Nate and Alex, while pushing them toward the door.

“The salmon will spawn from September through October,” my patient husband calmly explains. “We’re not missing anything. They’ll spawn all day and all night. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. They swim up stream all the time.”

“We must fight traffic now. We must swim up stream as well,” I say with urgency in my voice.

“Let’s just go, Dad. Mom’s all crazy again,” Alex says.

I could hug Alex at this moment. Not because he says I’m crazy, but because he’s helping me get Nate out the door before noon on a Saturday. Being “crazy” is just an added bonus. That’s the way I see it anyway.

According to our research earlier in the week, Ballard Locks in Seattle is the best place to see the salmon swim this time of year. Nate has been tempting me all week with wild descriptions of water just teaming with fish that jump every which way. Not to brag, but I also know a bit about salmon, having once watched a National Geographic special in which ordinary salmon transformed before my very eyes. Indeed, Jim Ames and Steve Schroder, in an online article for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife explain that Pacific salmon “undergo a series of remarkable transformations” so that they can make it from the ocean and then live in fresh water in order to spawn. Their jaws elongate, their teeth protrude, and they turn a brilliant red and green color—just in time for Halloween, the way I see it. In anticipation of these freaky fish, I play Halloween music all the way to the Locks.

“It’s not Halloween yet!” Nate and Alex protest.

“When the leaves AND the fish turn colors where you live, it’s Halloween,” I reply.

The car ride is just under 30 minutes, which is just enough time to listen to “Thriller,” “Monster Mash,” and “Fear the Reaper” over and over and over again.

Nate parks the car and I start running towards the gates.

“Slow down!” Nate says. “We’ll miss seeing the locks in action and there are boats!”

Is he mad? We’re not here to see boats! We’re here to see salmon! But I humor Nate anyway—hoping to maybe catch a few glimpses of salmon. I don’t see any in the locks where the boats are, but I do see kayakers and some kind of yacht and sailboat. I’m looking for grisly salmon evidence on the bow and stern. Maybe the boaters ran into a few along the way. Maybe I’ll see some casualties that could indicate a massive migration of mythical proportions. I can hardly contain myself.

Just as we’re about to enter the underwater viewing area, Nate points out the fish ladder. The National Ocean Service defines a fish ladder as “a structure that allows migrating fish passage over or around an obstacle on a river.” A series of pools allows fish to swim up stream. Basically, they fight the current, rest in a pool, and then fight some more. It sounds like my day reviewing student papers: I fight through the words, take a hot shower, and then I go back through the struggle again. I get through 7-8 papers in four hours that way. It’s exhausting.

“Sometimes you can see fish popping out of the water right here,” he says.

I look and snap pictures with anticipation, but nothing happens. Maybe all the action is happening downstairs.

So, we enter the underground viewing area and I see about two or three fish pop into view.

“What’s wrong with them?” I ask Nate.

“What do you mean?”

“They’re silver. They’re not all red and freaky yet. Why aren’t they red and freaky? Did we miss it? Did we miss the spawning?”

“No. That’s just what salmon look like.”

Sure enough, a guide steps into the room and tells us that these fish are, indeed salmon. Here are some other facts we learn:

–The Ballard Locks fish ladder most often holds three species of salmon: Sockeye, Coho, and Chinook.

–There are 22 steps in the fish ladder and the area where we stand is step number 18.

–The fish hang out here and rest. They are exhibiting their ocean coloration, which is dark at the top and light on the bottom. This configuration acts as camouflage to protect them from being eaten by the harbor seals we saw earlier, though the sea lions that weigh 500-700 pounds are the real threat.

–Some salmon will continue to swim up stream, even if a sea lion has eaten a chunk out of its body.

–The salmon are in their “death throes” when they enter the fish ladder. They will rest here and then go to their spawning grounds.

–Once they are in their spawning grounds, the females push pebbles out of the way in order to make an impression. Then, she lays her eggs while the males spray them with sperm. Most of the sperm ends up in the ocean, but the salmon pair attempts to fertilize about 5,000 eggs.

–Of the 5,000 eggs, only about two salmon actually make it out alive. If the fertilized eggs grow into baby salmon, they’re either eaten or die from other ocean hazards.

–The best time and place to see all of the freaky red salmon is 10 a.m. on a Saturday in October near Landsburg State Park in Seattle.

“Aha! Did you hear that?” Nate asks. “We didn’t miss it. We have to come back in October.”

“So what do we do now while the salmon are all silver and ordinary looking?”

“We cheer for them. We have to get them to go upstream.”

And that’s just what we do. We have a rousing good time cheering for the fish as they swim up through the fish ladder. Take a look below:

Your Turn: What fall trips will you plan? Any trip counts—short or long.






14 thoughts on “Desperately Seeking Salmon at the Ballard Locks

      1. Michigan is beautiful! I’m from Ohio, so we’d root for the Buckeyes and then head to Michigan or Florida for vaction:) Nate, Alex, and I have such wonderful memories of vacationing in Michigan. We always visited Sleeping Bear Dunes.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh, gosh! I remember the first time my parents took us to Sleep Bear! There were boys there who gave me a quarter every time I moved my sister’s blanket closer to theirs! lol I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Ohio. My boys used to show rabbits and there are a lot of shows there. It’s so pretty there, too!

        Liked by 2 people

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