On August 29 at around 11 a.m., Coralee Johns spotted two spawning chinook salmon in Fox Creek. It was the moment she had been waiting for, a culmination of seven years of work.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Johns. “Super, super exciting.”
The Ta’an Kwach’an Council has been raising salmon and releasing them into the creek since 2007. Johns has managed the project since 2009.
Elders say that they used to fish salmon in Fox Creek all the way up to the bridge at the Klondike Highway, 14 kilometres from the mouth, said Johns.
But in the 1950s, the salmon stopped coming back.
No one knows exactly what happened, but an explosion in the beaver population could have been part of the problem, she said.
And so, with money from the Yukon River Panel’s restoration and enhancement fund, the First Nation has been working to restore the salmon run to Fox Creek, a tributary of Lake Laberge.
The salmon start their journey in the late summer as roe and milt collected from spawning salmon at Yukon Energy’s Whitehorse Fishway.
From there, they are moved to the incubation facility at McIntyre Creek.
The tiny fry, measuring only about six centimetres, are clipped, tagged and released the following summer.
The juveniles spend a year or so in the creek, getting ready for the long journey, 3,000 kilometres down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea.
Tens of thousands of these little salmon have been released into the creek every year for the past six years, in the hopes that some of them would make it back. And in the hopes that once they start coming back, they won’t stop.
Last year, Johns was expecting that some four-year-old males would come home to Fox Creek, the first to return.
But she didn’t find any evidence that they came.
This year, she was looking for five-year-old males and females.
Johns and a fisheries technician spent the last two weeks of August and the first week of September trekking along the 14-kilometre stretch of Fox Creek between Lake Laberge and the highway, looking for salmon.
It wasn’t easy work, she said.
“We had quite a bit of deadfall.”
But all the effort was worth it on that late August morning when she spotted a male and a female chinook hanging out about eight kilometres up the creek.
She flagged the area and took the GPS co-ordinates, and continued her survey.
Another three kilometres up, she found a five-year-old male washed up on a grassy overhang.
It was already dead, spent from the epic journey from the ocean.
“I think he was exhausted from the stretch that he did do, because above where we found the two, there was probably a seven-metre-high cascade of log jams,” said Johns.
His body was almost entirely intact, save for a gill taken by a bird, she said.
The next day, when she returned to where she had seen the pair, they too had passed on.
But they had left behind an amazing gift: The eggs of the first salmon to spawn in Fox Creek in half a century.
Johns took samples from their carcasses. The female had released all but three of her eggs into the creek. The male had released his milt.
Next May, when Johns returns to the creek to sample for minnows, she will know if some of those eggs were successfully fertilized and able to survive the harsh winter.
It’s easy to tell which salmon were born in the wild, since all those raised in a hatchery have their tiny adipose fin clipped before they are released.
Johns hopes that next year even more spawning adults will return.
The First Nation developed a management plan for the creek in 2005. Over the next year, Johns will go back to that plan and see what can be improved, she said.
Johns had some funding a couple of winters ago to train youth to trap beavers in the area.
But an elder who trapped along Fox Creek passed away, and her land could not be touched for a full year out of respect.
Ta’an Kwach’an Council returned the money for that project.
Beaver management remains a significant obstacle to restoring the salmon population on the creek, said Johns.
“There are a lot more beaver dams in the last six years, so that’s getting hard.”
The First Nation will continue to work with the family to either help them to trap in the area or train youth to do it, she said.
If the beaver population can be brought down, it could make the journey of the returning salmon just a little bit easier.
With a little help and a little luck, there may again be a day when salmon can be caught right from the highway.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at