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Kokanee Festival a family event

Patrick McCartney

As faithful as the spawning habits of the salmon it celebrates, the Kokanee Salmon Festival returns to South Lake Tahoe for an eighth year this weekend, featuring two days of family activities and educational events.

The festival is held at the U.S. Forest Service’s Visitor Center, three miles north of South Lake Tahoe on State Route 89.

The stars of the festival are the kokanee salmon, an inland variety of sockeye salmon that were introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1941.

While the salmon have spawned in other creeks, and even along Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, they continue to return to the South Shore’s Taylor Creek, which flows from a dam at Fallen Leaf Lake.

At the height of the spawning season, thousands of red-backed kokanee build gravel nests in the creek’s shallows, where they deposit hundreds of eggs before dying. Their offspring will return to the creek in three to four years and repeat one of Mother Nature’s most dramatic life stories.

“The festival is very much a family activity,” said Gay Eitel, a visitors center naturalist. “It’s a fun way to learn about the salmon and their life cycle.”

This weekend’s featured attraction is the Grand Re-Opening of the Stream Profile Chamber, a walk-through stream exhibit that gives the public an underwater view of the salmon in their stream environment.

First opened in 1969, more than 8 million visitors have visited the center, which has been rebuilt with $670,000 in public funds and private donations. The new profile center features floor-to-ceiling viewing windows, and a diorama of the creek through the four seasons.

But most of this weekend’s activities will occur outdoors, where families will find a host of activities, exhibits and other attractions.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care will serve up barbecued salmon dinners, with corn on the cob, coleslaw, a roll and beverage, at $10 a plate, but will also provide such non-salmon delicacies as hot dogs and nachos. The Salmon Feed is one of the year’s major fund-raisers for Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, which nurses injured and orphaned animals back to health.

Cheryl Millham, the care center’s executive director, is unapologetic for serving salmon at the festival.

“If people would buy tofu salmon, we’d do it – but they won’t,” Millham said, adding that the salmon which are barbecued are the ocean-going variety from the Pacific Northwest.

Besides, the funds Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care raises goes toward buying food for the animals they nurse back to health. The center’s two eagles together require a rabbit a day, dead or alive, and the center buys 5,000 chicks every two months to feed the owls, hawks, bobcats, coyotes and raccoons.

Greeting the public at the festival will be Sammy Salmon, the festival’s official mascot. The 5-foot Sammy will introduce visitors to the festival’s numerous activities, which include a number of light-hearted exhibits to educate children about salmon and the outdoors.

At 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the Forest Service visitors center naturalists will present The Life Cycle of the Kokanee Salmon at the Lake of the Sky Amphitheater. The interactive presentation uses bigger-than-life cutouts of the salmon and other Taylor Creek animals to act out the salmon’s life cycle.

Other activities that have become a tradition at the festival will return as well. Back this year are 5k and 10k trail runs, a children’s run, children’s activities and programs, Oriental fish painting and nature walks.

The events are sponsored by the Alpen Sierra Coffee Co., the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, the Tahoe Mountain Milers Running Club and the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

The children’s half-mile Tadpole Trot will be held at 9 a.m. Sunday along the Rainbow Trail, one of a number of self-guided tours at the visitors center. Afterward, adults will compete in five- and 10-kilometer races, starting at the Taylor Creek parking lot at 10 a.m. An awards ceremony, which will include raffle prizes for all participants, will take place at 1 p.m. at the Lake of the Sky Amphitheater.

Call Dave Cotter of Alpen Sierra Coffee at 573-2600 to register for the races or to volunteer to help with registration, as a timer, or at an aid station.

One of the festival’s more popular activities for children is the fishing booth, where children line up to cast a line for prizes. Other booths will include educational exhibits, displays by Tahoe Basin agencies and nonprofit groups, and will feature different activities and products, including the Kokanee Salmon Festival T-shirt.

Organized activities are just part of the fun at the festival, though. Visitors can spend the day taking in the sights along four self-guided walks at or near the visitors center, including the Rainbow Trail along Taylor Creek. Along with the salmon run, Taylor Creek will offer visitors a view of fall foliage, as the native aspens, willows and grasses change color in anticipation of winter.

Naturalists and a fisheries biologist will be stationed at the creek and around the visitors center to answer questions and provide information about the salmon run and Lake Tahoe’s fall season.


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