Downstream from Wellness Drive in the heart of Anchorage's busy and ever-expanding University-Medical District, the city's most abused creek was showing signs of healing itself this fall.
In the greenbelt behind the Providence Alaska Medical Center, where Chester Creek was left intact and undisturbed within its natural channel, coho salmon seemed to be everywhere. By threes and fours or half-dozens, spawning fish worked the gravels in the riffles at the ends of the many deep pools where the clear water meandered through the cottonwood and spruce forest.
Blown-down trees reminiscent of wilderness Alaska creeks hung across the swirling water in many places and woody debris filled a creek between banks untrampled by human feet. But the volume of litter in the woods and the human flotsam on the water made it clear this was not your normal Cook Inlet tributary.
There was no hiding that this was very much an urban stream. The salmon didn't care. They were everywhere in this stretch.
But even where humankind has tried hard to destroy the coho homeland in Chester Creek, the salmon were coming back. There was an unconfirmed report of at least one of them making it into the remnants of the Chester Creek Middle Fork in Russian Jack Park, which would require the fish transit an underground pipe about a half-mile long.
Bypassing garbage in creek
Elsewhere, there were salmon obvious in stretches of long-channelized creek -- the places where humans had tried to turn the stream into a ditch -- from Muldoon at the north end of the city all the way back to near Westchester Lagoon at tidewater.
"We saw a pair spawning basically in the mouth of a culvert across from East High School,'' said Doug O'Harra, a one-time newspaper reporter turned aspiring novelist who has lived in the Chester Creek drainage for two decades. "I've lived here 21 years, and in all that time, I've seen only one salmon in the Middle Fork.''
This year, there were lots of them. Curious, O'Harra and his wife, Helen, a school teacher whose students raise salmon in class as part of a state education project, hiked much of the Middle Fork. They were shocked at the number of fish.
"They had to go up a friggin' ditch that in places you can jump across,'' Doug said. "Several times, I said, 'Look at all this crap in the creek. Salmon couldn't go beyond this. And then we'd go a little father and there would be more salmon.
"I saw one coho one time near Tikishla Park'' on East 20th Avenue, Doug said. "My impression was that it was a stray, but there's always been a few salmon in the South Fork.''
By this summer, the few in the South Fork had become the thousands. Nobody knows exactly how many, but the evidence was pretty clear that the stream is still building on the salmon boom that began when an old, buried fish pass at the outlet of Westchester Lagoon was in 2009 replaced by an artificial stream reconnecting the creek to Knik Arm.
"The last year in which salmon had to move upstream though the weir to escape into Westchester Lagoon was 2008,'' wrote Rusty Myers, an Alaska Pacific University professor involved in a Chester Creek rehabilitation project. "Visual counts conducted in 2008 indicated 497 cohos escaped into Westchester, while corresponding counts from video footage indicated 388 cohos escaped.''
By last year, with the new creek in place, more than 2,000 of the fish were counted returning. This year, Myers went on sabbatical and no one counted salmon, but indications are that population was continuing to build toward historic levels, said Cherie Northon, executive director of the Anchorage Waterways Council.
All indications are that the creek had its biggest salmon return since the 1970s, she said.
Myers has reported that counts done on the creek then -- before the waterway was channelized in the center of the city and then dammed near the tideflats to create Westchester Lagoon -- found a population of 217 coho per mile.
The creek drains 38 miles of Anchorage. Theoretically then, it could be home to more than 8,000 salmon. That is, however, a big "could be" because much has changed in Anchorage since the early 1970s.
Alaska's largest city was home to less than 50,000 people when that decade began. The JC Penney store was the biggest building downtown. The George Parks Highway connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks was still under construction. Only eight years earlier, Providence Hospital -- now the sprawling Providence Alaska Medical Center -- had opened the doors on a 92-bed facility carved out of a big patch of forest.
"Chester Creek watershed is (now) home to about 109,000 residents, several businesses, two universities, two major hospitals, elementary, middle, and secondary schools, and Merrill Field, a commercial service airport,'' says a draft Chester Creek Watershed Plan published in September. "Its area is almost 20,000 acres, which drains nearly 38 river miles.
"Settlement in the watershed was early in Anchorage's history, which has resulted in a fairly dense population of which much is literally along Chester Creek. Unfortunately many of the rules and regulations that apply to more recent development were not in place during much of the early construction, so there are spots where Chester Creek is hemmed in tightly by homes and businesses."
Feces from pets, ducks
The 77-page plan sets out steps for continuing creek restoration. It concedes the salmon are back, but other problems persist. Asked if the creek could be called recovered, Tom Eley, the biologist for the Waterways Council, said, "I'm not comfortable with that. It's still fecal coliform contaminated.''
He blames runoff from feces from pets that wash into the creek. The city's University Dog Park sits in a prime spot to drain into the creek. And there are people feeding ducks in places all along the creek, Eley said, creating unnatural clusters of defecating birds.
Not to mention all the storm-water runoff that makes it unfiltered into the creek.
No matter how wild Chester Creek might still look in places within its greenbelt, it's an urban creek with all the problems of urban creeks.
The creek "has received considerable mistreatment, the watershed plan summarizes. Besides an interruption in fish passage (which was reversed around 2008 by removal of the dam), there are several undersized culverts that freeze and clog and need replacement, straightened sections which enhance water velocity, sections that flood property, and storm-water runoff, which has led to it being categorized as an impaired water body.''
Dissolved oxygen levels in the creek sometimes fall dangerously in the summer due to "the decomposition of yard wastes dumped into the creek,'' Eley also noted in a Chester Creek report card. "A number of residents are dumping yard wastes into the creek, and some residents are cutting their lawns right to the edge of the creek removing the natural vegetation that protects the creek's banks.
"Chester Creek is suffering from severe bank trampling particularly in the Valley of the Moon Park area...Bank trampling is also severe in the Chester Creek Greenbelt between Lake Otis and the New Seward Highway.
"Considerable trash was found in and along the creek, including bicycles, luggage, tires, construction materials, pallets, household and yard debris, cups, aluminum cans, fast food debris and plastic bags. In addition, homeless camps appear to be another major source of trash and well-worn trails lead from the homeless camps to the creek.''
Basically, Chester Creek has all the problems that come when large parts of a natural creek are turned into a drainage ditch to solve the problems that running water creates for development and a greenbelt becomes a de facto campground because no one knows exactly what to do with the urban poor looking for a free place to live.
But the salmon clearly don't care.
If you provide them access to a place they can spawn, and if people don't kill them before they get there, they will come.
And they have come.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com