A remarkable event happens every year along the Tuolumne River, but sadly, very few people know about it: Chinook salmon run up the river to their spawning grounds. Like clockwork, the salmon return year after year, but in ever fewer numbers.
In the 1930s, upwards of 130,000 salmon spawned in this river, but those numbers have dwindled down to just several hundred in recent years. Drought, invasive species, water diversions, and urban and agricultural land use have compromised the health of the river and its wildlife, says Patrick Koepele, deputy director of the Tuolumne River Trust.
Right now, the survivors of the run are making their way upstream, and the canoes of the Tuolumne River Trust are there to meet them. Coinciding with the late fall salmon run, the trust hosts four canoe trips on the Tuolumne River starting at Basso County Park and ending six miles downriver at the Turlock Lake Recreational Area.
The goal of the canoe tours, says Koepele, is to “get the people out and in touch with the river; to come out and play and have fun. The more people we have come out, the more people will be there to support, improve, and clean up the river.”
I headed out on a trip last weekend, and you could do the same this weekend. The canoe trip is a remarkably peaceful (no cell phone signal!) five-hour journey that’s easy enough for beginners but has a few curves that will keep more seasoned paddlers happy.
“Maneuvering the canoe was a bit challenging, but it was fun and a good learning experience,” says novice paddler James Liu, of San Carlos, who won tickets for the trip at a raffle put on by his company.
We saw a few salmon popping up before we even hit the water, then none after that. But we did see other wildlife, including raptors, turkey vultures, and even a family of river otters.
The California Department of Fish and Game as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service list the chinook salmon as a species of concern, which marks the fish as at risk of endangerment but falls short of protected status due to a lack of sufficient data under the Endangered Species Act. While the “species of concern” designation does not carry any protection under the Endangered Species Act, it does draw specific attention to and from environmental groups who proactively work on conservation efforts and public awareness.
The last two Paddle with the Salmon tours of the year are this weekend, November 12 and 13. Find information about the canoe tours at www.tuolumne.org.