Quiet and inconspicuous, Larson Creek winds through southeast Medford before joining Bear Creek near the Exit 27 interchange. Upon encountering Ellendale Drive, the stream dips into a culvert; on the other side it plunges a good 3 feet before continuing on its way. Motorists passing over the creek en route to Quail Point Golf Course wouldn't know it, but an epic struggle is taking place below.
"Most afternoons this time of year, you can watch 4-inch fish bashing their heads into the concrete as they try to swim upstream," says Frances Oyung of the Bear Creek Watershed Council. These fish are juvenile steelhead, seeking quieter waters before the winter rains come.
What: Eighth annual Bear Creek Salmon Festival
When: Saturday, Oct. 6, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: North Mountain Park, 620 N. Mountain Ave., Ashland
Next fall, the BCWC will implement a project to improve fish passage on Larson Creek by creating 1-foot "steps" at intervals below the culvert; this way young fish won't have to bridge the gap in one great leap. The project is one of many helping to make conditions across the watershed friendlier for native fish, and one more reason to celebrate during the Bear Creek Salmon Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 6, at Ashland's North Mountain Park.
This year's festival, the eighth annual, will acknowledge recent improvements to salmon habitat in the region and will aim to increase watershed awareness with an array of exhibits and events, including fly- or spin-casting, Bear Creek tours, and Native American drumming and storytelling, along with music, food and activities for children.
Bear Creek drains more than 350 square miles of Southern Oregon. It begins near Emigrant Lake and 27 miles later joins the Rogue River northwest of Medford, receiving dozens of feeder creeks along the way. Historically, steelhead, coho and chinook salmon have spawned in Bear Creek and its tributaries, and although significant dam removals on the Rogue River over the last few years have done much to improve access to spawning habitat, many impediments remain.
"Fish passage is poor in Bear Creek due to poor culvert placement," says Dan Van Dyke, fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Unscreened diversions lure fish into irrigation canals, where they often become stranded.
Development and flood control measures have transformed Bear Creek from a sinuous water body characterized by braided streams, oxbows and wetlands into a single channel forced through culverts and shored up with rip-rap.
"Because Bear Creek has been so channelized, it leaves fewer places for fish," says Oyung, whose organization is working on a project to restore a side channel along Bear Creek near U.S. Cellular Park in Medford, which will hopefully provide nooks of quiet water attractive to native fish.
Steelhead, coho and chinook face more than physical obstacles.
"Bear Creek is impaired by sediment, high temperatures, bacteria and nutrients," says Bill Meyers, Rogue basin coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality.
Female salmon lay their eggs in "redds," shallow depressions in gravelly creek bottoms. Erosion exacerbated by development, logging and agriculture sends sediment into streams, where it can suffocate eggs. Meyers says sediment also directly affects fish by abrading their gills and clouding the water, making it harder for them to find food or detect predators.
"Native fish need cold, clean water to thrive," says Van Dyke. Riparian vegetation is even more critical for keeping creeks cool during our hot, dry summers. Coho, a federally-listed threatened species, is especially vulnerable to warm summer water temperatures.
"We naturally have low summer flows here," says Meyers. "And a lot of riparian vegetation has been removed."
This is true in both urban and rural areas. And though development continues to take its toll, Jackson County and several cities now have riparian ordinances, which regulate development next to creeks and limit the removal of vegetation.
Not only do trees and shrubs keep creeks cool, they stabilize banks. Dead trees eventually fall into the water, creating pools favorable for spawning. For these reasons, restoration efforts often focus on planting native vegetation along streams. The Rogue Valley Council of Governments is targeting Larson Creek for such a project this fall.
Many agencies, municipalities and nonprofits are working together to repair the sins of the past, and there are signs those efforts are paying off. Surveys in the last 10 years have revealed an average of 10,000 to 20,000 steelhead smolts in Bear Creek. And 2011, which Van Dyke calls a "fantastic water year," found juvenile steelhead along the entire length of Bear Creek and in Larson Creek during August, the warmest month of the year. That's a far cry from the summer of 1991, when native steelhead couldn't be found in the lower 14 miles of Bear Creek below Phoenix.
Boulder weirs along the stretch of Bear Creek running through North Mountain Park seem to be doing their job. Eugene Wier of the Freshwater Trust surveyed this area last year and discovered more than a dozen chinook redds. Fish data gathered during a weir construction project in Ashland Creek in August revealed "very good" numbers of steelhead as well as some juvenile coho.
Despite the presence of several small barriers along its length, Ashland Creek is the "Cadillac of tributaries," says Van Dyke.
"Ashland Creek is still producing native fish," he says, plus it delivers cold, clean snowmelt from Mount Ashland to Bear Creek.
He believes the low point for Bear Creek has passed, and Meyers agrees.
"We still have a long way to go, but Bear Creek is moving in a positive direction."
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.