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A Fish Story in Reed Canyon

A recent sighting of endangered salmon is the latest indication that habitat protection efforts put in motion by the college are bearing fruit.

When Reed College naturalist Zac Perry spotted two mature coho salmon in the creek waters just below Reed Lake this past fall, he knew it would be exciting news to a lot of people. After all, he hasn’t seen any salmon in campus waters since he joined Reed’s facilities services depart­ment in 1999, although alumni from decades past report that the creek and lake were once teeming with spawning salmon.

The recent sighting of endangered salmon is just the latest indication that habitat protection efforts put in motion by the college are bearing fruit. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate spring-fed Reed Lake (which begins just below Southeast 39th Avenue at the eastern edge of campus), as well as Crystal Springs Creek, which flows out of the lake through Eastmoreland Golf Course into the Willamette River, to a condition more like the natural ecosystem that existed before the land was cleared for agriculture. Reed College’s earliest buildings date from 1912, when the adjacent land had already been largely converted to pasture.


zac perry image
Reed College naturalist Zac Perry

Perry has worked with Reed students, faculty, and staff, as well as volunteers from the community, to reestablish native trees and shrubs, and to protect wildlife, including ducks, geese, heron, and beaver. Perhaps most critical to the effort at watershed restoration has been a fish ladder, which was installed in 2000, after Reed’s old pool was removed from the creek bed.

The fish ladder connects the spawning grounds at the western end of campus with the rearing pond (Reed Lake) at the eastern end through a land bridge and former beaver dam.

“There are a lot of fish that use this,” Perry explained on a recent tour, pointing to the cataracts of fresh cold water that rush down the descending rocky pools of the ladder. “Everyone wants to talk about salmon because they’re endangered, but any freshwater fish that you’d expect to reside in this system, we have.”

Perry says the canyon provides some of the cleanest water for fish in all of Portland—in part because it is spring-fed. “There’s nothing above it to contaminate it,” he says. “The soil acts as a filter and pulls out any oil or impurities before it becomes Reed Lake.”

Some of the fish Perry has spotted include Cutthroat Trout and Sticklebacks. One of Perry’s most thrilling moments on the job came this past summer, when he discovered a nest of Pacific Lamprey, which follow the same migration path as salmon. “That was one of the first indicators that there was a clear passage from the ocean to here,” Perry recalls, “because Lamprey is a species that comes from salt water, and has to come up all the way through the Willamette, up Johnson Creek, into Crystal Springs, and into Reed Lake.”

Even in death, the fish are an exciting sign of health for the canyon ecosystem, Perry says.

“If you walked in the creek in the first week of April, you’d see dead fish all over the banks, and in turn you get birds of prey that come in—bald eagles, hawks—and a lot of raccoons and coyotes, to feed off the dead fish.”

With his scientific training (he studied botany at Oregon State University), Perry won’t predict with certainty that the salmon will be back next year—either stopping below the fish ladder, or moving above it into Reed Lake. But he is optimistic that the conditions are right. “I’m hoping that it becomes an annual visit,” he says.