North Coast Series: Salvaging a Salmon Stream

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

Geologic upthrust near a fault zone called the Mendocino Triple Junction causes the land to shoot up at the rate of nearly half-an-inch per year, creating steep shoreline bluffs... with no beaches. This scene is just south of the Eel River.
Geologic upthrust near a fault zone called the Mendocino Triple Junction causes the land to shoot up at the rate of nearly half an inch per year, creating steep shoreline bluffs… with no beaches. This scene is just south of the Eel River.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 20, 2005 — My original plan, after rounding the rhino horn of Cape Mendocino, called for making landfall at the mouth of the Mattole River. The story posted just prior to this vividly explains why that was a no-go. Attempting it would have meant landing on a steep beach in the dark. So we camped near Hells Gate, about seven miles short of the goal.

Never mind. We'd arrived alive, and that always takes priority. We hunkered down, chatted with local ranchers, and actually attained permission to camp on the site for one more day. On Wednesday, we planned a 33-mile dash to Shelter Cove before a gale swept in.

My Trek to Find a Computer

But to file my story on the Cape, I had to find an internet link. Such things happen to be rather sparse in that neighborhood. So out I went onto the Mattole Road and began to hike down it in sandals – only footgear I possessed other than my wetsuit booties. I flip-flopped at least four miles, heading to the rural village of Petrolia, and became fully resigned to beating my foot arches flatter than tortillas. However, a kindly housepainter from Eureka drove up and gave me a lift in his van. Once on the outskirts of Petrolia, I went to the offices of the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) to borrow a computer.

Also, I connected with Chris Larson, director of MRC, whom I'd met during earlier coastal research. After I sent my text to the Chronicle, Larson plopped me in his Subaru for a little educational tour. We took off for the river mouth. It felt odd to be riding in cars again, after so many hours spent paddling a slow-moving kayak.

High on an overlook, we gazed down at the estuary.

"Does seem it's already turning winter around here," Larson said, commenting on the weather trouble we'd encountered. "Fog's in a different pattern, reaching higher elevations. Water in the estuary has cooled. Trees have begun to slow their transpiration (water uptake), which puts more water back in the creeks, even without a rain."

Water temperature, flow, coolness – these are topics of concern for a man struggling to heal a once-rich salmon stream.

A River of Ruin

To an untrained eye, the Mattole's estuary may appear healthy. It is not.

Take that jumbled knot of logs, not far from the estuary beach. Looks like a natural tangle, providing shade and cover. But it's the result of a $50,000 human project, a product of the Mattole Salmon Group, an ally of the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC). It's a Leggo logjam, built of epoxy, cables and chains, as well as old-growth redwood logs and rootballs tugged out of a coast highway landslide.

This small improvement is one of a galaxy of projects launched by the MRC and its allies.

Around 1920, the Mattole still gushed deep, clear and cold through 304 square miles of old-growth forests of fir and redwood. The river supported runs of steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon, all thrashing upstream in such profusion that they spooked horses as their riders urged them to cross at river fords.

Environmental mayhem then made fish runs plunge to a few scant survivors – a tale repeated up and down the coast. But the Mattole had a plot twist, due to intervention by a few new settlers. One leader of the movement was Freeman House, 67, a man with a combed mane of lank white hair, and a gentle yet regal presence, whom I'd met on earlier visits to the region. His award-winning book, "Totem Salmon," published six years ago, is luminous with description of what it takes to try to save a stream once nearly written-off by government agencies.

How to Wrestle a Salmon

House tells of gripping the thick muscle of a female salmon's tail, and struggling to hang on amid the windswept uproar and rushing currents of a winter storm, the magical feel of stirring a cold bucket of freshly fertilized roe with his fingers.

Larson, 27, his hair completely dark (but receding), followed to snatch up the torch. He began as an intern with the group four years ago. After two years, he was invited to hop into the boss' swivel chair at MRC's office. Not that he gets to sit in it much.

"The first big part of our job is to protect old growth forest," Larson said, "which has fallen to only about nine percent of the original. The other is to restore logged-over lands. But you also must work on lots of small parts, like how residents in this drainage use water, what happens along roads. A watershed gathers effects from many causes."

The Mattole River is the first place where a crusade to start community-based salmon restoration occurred. It didn't take long for participants to realize that achieving their goals with fish eventually would entail healing an entire watershed.

A History of Decline

Thrashing of the Mattole had been swift. After World War II, new bulldozers and early models of chainsaw enabled assaults on hillside forests. Local landowners, struggling to get by on sheep ranching, suddenly hit an economic boom by letting loggers harvest virgin stands of old-growth trees. Taxes on timber also discouraged them from letting the trees stand.

Health of the watershed paid the ultimate price. Soft and erodible Franciscan Formation geology and heavy winter rains caused landslides and collapsed logging roads. Great floods of 1955 and 1964 dumped unsecured soil wholesale into what had been a cold, deep stream.

"This estuary was once a 40 foot-deep holding area for arriving salmon, and for juveniles before they headed out to sea," Larson says. "Now a wedge of sand and rock extends all the way upstream to Honeydew. Some estimate that area holds 80 million cubic yards of fill."

To put that figure in perspective, it's nearly 18 times the mass of Hoover Dam.

In summer, the estuary forms a deathtrap for young salmonids, as sunlight heats the shallow water to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and hotter. Upstream, once-loose spawning gravels have been cemented into a damp sidewalk.

A Tale of Determined Hope

When Freeman House arrived here in 1978, part of the back-to-the-land movement, he bore a deep love and fascination for salmon from seven years as a commercial angler. Officials from the state Department of Fish and Game told House the Mattole was doomed as a salmon stream. But the fledgling group refused to accept it. By the early 1980s, a ragamuffin cadre of earnest volunteers harvested the paltry run of upstream migrants for the living gold of their eggs, thus ensuring continuation of the runs for another season.

Their outfit, the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group, continued its work with other projects, such as rearing ponds for juvenile salmonids. Meanwhile, in 1984, the Mattole Restoration Council was founded to try to address larger conservation issues in the watershed

From the start, there had been deep cultural divides between back-to-the-land "hippies" and the old guard, descendants of the area's first Anglo settlers. That rancor was worsened by conflicts like the "Redwood Summer" demonstrations of 1990, that brought in a fresh influx of obstreperous outsiders.

But gradually, House said, newcomers learned to, "value those things about the watershed that the ranchers and loggers already knew. Also, some old guys who just discounted us as a big mob of welfare cheats, they've died off. Things are friendlier, and there's more mutual acceptance. Younger inhabitants are better educated. They've grown up with us being around."

The MRC now occupies a sizeable suite of offices in Petrolia, has a $1.3 million annual budget (half spent on contract restoration work in the drainage) two full-time and 15 part-time employees — which expands to 90 workers in the summer, as heavy equipment operators and hand laborers set about controlling erosion and fixing the forest. Ironically, MRC is now the valley's biggest employer.

You can paint the struggle by numbers. Fifty years ago, the estimated spawning runs in the Mattole were 10,000 chinook salmon and 4,000 coho. By 1980, runs had plunged to 3,000 Chinook and just a trace of coho. Despite all the volunteer work, there were only 200 total spawners counted in 1990. But had it not been for the work, they might have vanished entirely.

Finally, numbers began to resurrect: 1,000 in 1996; then 3,000 chinook and 1,500 coho in 2004.

Though there remain occasional disagreements about specific measures, the state Fish and Game, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management became valued allies and full partners in restoring the watershed.

Critics Following Suit

A rancher I spoke with during my research, Joe Zanone, who runs cattle near Cape Mendocino, says that in his opinion the MRC, "mainly, milks their position for everything they can get. But in general, they seem to be a force for good in the Mattole. They've learned to get along with us ranchers okay. With loggers, though, they've made things a lot harder than they need to be."

However, Zanone and a few other landowners agreed to join in a project that sounds like the sincerest form of flattery. They've formed a group called the Bear River Restoration Council, to work on problems in the next major drainage to the north. They hope to improve instream conditions, and bring steelhead trout and salmon back to their ancestral home.

— See all previous posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.