As he lifted the cover off a serving pan, Bill Howarth patiently guided a swarm of yellowjackets away before advising people to move slowly when reaching for their taste of naturally smoked salmon.

"If you give 'em a seat at the table, they're OK," Howarth joked.

Howarth, 73, of Phoenix, volunteered for his third time at the Bear Creek Salmon Festival at North Mountain Park Nature Center in Ashland, but Howarth has devoted more than six decades of his life to fish and fishing. Having learned to fish at age 11, Howarth spent 35 years as a tour guide that included numerous trips to Alaska.

"I've had the unique pleasure of watching 'em spawn day after day," Howarth said.

The coho salmon Howarth helped serve had been smoked on sticks above a fire that Tom Smith kindled and blessed with herbs following Native American traditions. The smoked salmon was one of 29 exhibits at the 13th annual festival, which drew some 600 people Saturday.

Festival coordinator Jen Aguayo said the event combines messages of sustainability with a wide range of live performances and demonstrators, including Wildlife Images and the Rogue Valley Council of Governments' Stream Smart program.

"Then we add music and fun to get the people out," Aguayo said.

At the Stream Smart table, program coordinator Greg Stabach focused on mitigating pollution from urban runoff — water that goes from storm drains directly to Bear Creek. Using cartoon flash cards, Stabach talked about how factors such as pet waste or washing a car near a storm drain impacts salmon. Through his program, Stabach guides kids toward simple solutions, such as picking up after pets and washing a car at a car wash, where drainage is processed through the sewer system.

"It's built on really tying things together," Stabach said.

At the nonprofit Rogue River Watershed Council's exhibit, kids waded through Bear Creek with nets in search of macroinvertebrates. The initial focus was to demonstrate how the species they find can be a sign of healthy or unhealthy waterways, but by afternoon the program had shifted focus to what kids could find.

"We're trying to get kids out to appreciate nature," said program manager Donna Chickering.

Stoneflies in the creek were a welcome surprise for fisheries biologist and Rogue River Watershed Council Executive Director Brian Barr, who said the insects are typically sensitive to pollution and warm temperatures.

While handing out apple slices, Cassidy Milnes with Rogue Valley Farm to School focused on how local sustainable agriculture helps waterways.

"Agriculture does play a role in our whole water system," Milnes said.

Mt. Ashland Ski Area General Manager Hiram Towle demonstrated new soil-stabilization techniques being tested at steep areas of the mountain, intended to mitigate erosion. Wood chips taken from trees in the area are blended into the top 6 inches of the soil. Towle said the ski area is the first to be certified through the Sustainability Tourism Operators Kit for Evaluation, or STOKE.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.