Take a Peek in Donkey Creek

Donkey Creek
Donkey Creek

Each year, thousands of chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) return from feeding in the open ocean to the stream they hatched three to five years earlier.

In Gig Harbor, the chum salmon migration takes place in the late fall and early winter, long after most other species have spawned. While there are many wildlife viewing areas where you can witness the spawning event, downtown Gig Harbor is the newest location to observe this incredible feat of nature.

Located at the head of Gig Harbor, Donkey Creek is a tributary that feeds into Austin Estuary. Donkey Creek Park and Austin Estuary Park border the creek and make up 13 acres of uplands and tidelands — home to a variety of marine and terrestrial species, including eagles, great blue herons, harbor seals and, most notably, chum salmon.

Donkey Creek was modified in 1950 when Harborview Drive was constructed and two culverts were installed, severely restricting the water flow into Austin Estuary. Recognizing the environmental importance of this site, the city of Gig Harbor replaced the roadway and culverts with a bridge that “daylights” the creek and restores traditional water flow into Austin Estuary in 2013.

Today, with beautiful walking trails, restored fish habitat and stunning views of Mount Rainer, this location is perfect for admiring one of the five salmon native to the Pacific Northwest.

Chum salmon can be seen making their way up Donkey Creek in mid-November through January. And since life for salmon begins and ends in the stream, it is often easier to smell the chum than to see them as the weeks pass.

Dead chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)
Dead chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)

The spawning process begins with female salmon digging a shallow depression, called a Redd, to lay 3,000-5,000 of her eggs in. Once laid, the eggs are fertilized by one or more male salmon and then carefully buried into the gravel.

But this is no easy task. The female must be careful not to bury her eggs too deep because it may limit water flow and minimize oxygen needed for development.

In turn, if she buries her eggs too shallow, they can get washed away downstream or easily become a snack for a predator.

Visiting Donkey Creek will allow you to see the chum salmon hard at work, making their last weeks of life count!

The completion of spawning will give life to the next generation of salmon.

As you tour Donkey Creek Park, notice the healthy riparian zone with lush plant life such as evergreen blackberry, Western sword fern and huckleberry. These native plants create a perfect salmon-rearing habitat.

As you make your way through the trail, you are likely to encounter other wildlife as well, including bald eagles, harbor seals and great blue herons. These animals, along with river otters, raccoons, decomposers, bacteria and many others, acquire important nutrients from feeding on the salmon carcasses that are left behind after spawning is complete.

Haven’t experienced the amazing journey of Washington’s native salmon? Donkey Creek Park is a must-visit for families to truly understand why salmon are crucial to the Puget Sound ecosystem.

Enjoy the easy walking trails, the beautiful scenery and of course, the chum salmon.

For information on chum salmon activity in Donkey Creek, please visit Harbor WildWatch’s Facebook page for the latest news.