Salmon in Scarborough: Back to Highland Creek
The creek looked just as I remembered.
When I was a child my father, brother and I carried our bikes across this gravelly curve in the Highland Creek. We were explorers on a quest downstream to find the lake. We’d follow the creek past the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, through Morningside Park and onwards to Coronel Danforth Park, all the way to the mouth of the river. When we got there our faces would be red with exertion and pride as we gazed out over the waters of Lake Ontario, triumphant.
It has been a long time since I’ve made that trip.
This year I returned to the Highland Creek to see creatures that make the reverse trip – moving upstream from the lake to reproduce. Those creatures are Chinook salmon.
Their presence is a secret that I discovered only recently in this beautiful piece by the Toronto Star’s Catherine Porter. Fellow Bunch writer Meri Perra posted about an event to see the salmon this fall. By the time I tried to register the event was of course sold out. So I went to my own personal expert – my father.
When I mentioned the salmon to my dad, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he knew all about them. He’s been frequenting Scarborough’s ravines for over 30 years and he knows them inside out.
“The salmon aren’t easy to see,” he told me. “You’ll need patience. You’ll need to wait and watch silently.”
Easier said than done with a 3-year-old and 6-year-old. Yet noisy as we were, we saw wildlife as soon as the creek came in sight. A Great Blue Heron flew within meters of us before disappearing downstream.
Encouraged, we hunkered down to watch the moving water. We chose a spot where the water danced over rocks forming a small rapid. We had hoped to see the salmon leaping upward. Our expectations were too high. Still, we were not disappointed.
Within a few minutes my husband was grinning and pointing.
“I saw a HUGE fin! How big are these things?”
They’re big. Ontario’s Chinook salmon can grow up to a meter long and individuals living in their natural marine habitat can get even bigger. This is not the kind of fish that comes to mind when one thinks of a creek that flows within minutes of Scarborough’s infamous strip malls. And still, there it was: a Chinook salmon – in Scarborough!
Chinook salmon are not native to the rivers that flow into Lake Ontario. Though Atlantic salmon were once common here, and efforts to bring them back are underway, Chinook salmon are native to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Introductions of Chinook salmon into the Great Lakes started in the 1870s and most recently they were brought as predators for invasive Alewives, whose populations exploded with the decline of their main predator, the Lake trout.
Lake trout numbers have since recovered but anglers love to fish for salmon, so every spring the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) releases half a million Chinook salmon fry into creeks around the lake.
The kids and I watched the water with rapt attention hoping for another glimpse. There! We all saw it. A huge dark fin emerged from the churning water, followed by the flash of a tail and flurry of splashes as the huge fish struggled to propel itself upstream. It did not leap from the water, but rather seemed to slither up the rapids. We could just make out a slivery body, tinged with the reddish purple of a breeding adult, moving up amongst the rocks.
And then it was gone, past the rapids, and beneath the waters of a deeper pool upstream.
This salmon was returning, following an ancient instinct to return back to its natal stream to spawn the next generation.
In their native habitat Chinook salmon are anadromous (from the Greek anadromos, meaning “running upward”). Anadromous fish are born in the upper reaches of freshwater streams where males and females meet to spawn. Females prepare nests by lying on their sides and beating their tails so that fertilized eggs fall into spaces between the gravel.
They guard the nests as long as they can but the adults die shortly after spawning, having used the last of their resources for reproduction. Sadly, in our urban streams not many of these nests make it. Run-off from autumn storms funnel too much water through the streams, often washing out the eggs or burying the nests in sediment.
In less disturbed native streams, the eggs hatch in the spring and the young salmon spend a year or more in freshwater before migrating out to sea. Even after years in the open ocean, most salmon will return to the same natal stream in which they were spawned to begin the cycle anew.
So even here in Scarborough this salmon was returning, perhaps to the stream where it was spawned or where OMNR staff released it, but it was returning. Just like I was returning to the Highland Creek with my family
Although I never watched the salmon run with my father, it was he who instilled in me a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature. He recently passed away and can no longer join us to watch the salmon at the Highland Creek.
So we watch in his stead. We watch an ancient process of death and birth – of children that return to start another generation – just as I return to pass lessons from my father on to my children.