Decades after it was founded, Issaquah’s homegrown festival shows no signs of slowing as it swims into its 50th year.
David Harris joined the effort to put on Salmon Days in 1983, and since then, he’s stuck around to volunteer and see how the festival would evolve. Through the event’s nearly five decades, there’s been many notable moments. And lots of planning happening, backed by a large cohort of more than 500 volunteers who contributed 477 shifts of three to four hours each last year.
“Salmon Days is an amazing example of what a team can do when they really put all their heads together and work hard,” said Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly.
These volunteers, the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce and other agencies will again come together this year on Oct. 5-6. They work to ensure the community festival goes off without a hitch. And for nearly 50 years, they’ve more or less succeeded. However, some things just can’t be foreseen — especially moments of unfavorable weather that fall out of organizers’ hands.
Chamber and Kiwanis members who created the event in 1970 as a replacement for an aging Labor Day Festival planned for the celebration to happen when people were already flooding into town. They came to witness the salmon make their annual return, battling upstream to spawn. So they embraced it and dedicated the October event to the fish.
Knowing that fall is an unpredictable collision of sunshine and rain, they looked up weather statistics and selected the weekend with the best weather record. But even having the annual event during the first weekend of the month, a time predicted to have clear skies, couldn’t mitigate all bad weather.
In 1981, a windstorm swept through town — and on that Saturday night just blew everything over. Even the main stage was gone. “It just disappeared,” said Harris, who is in charge of entertainment for the event. There have also been several occasions of heavy rain, soaking attendees and adding to the complications of running such a large-scale gathering.
“We loved it anyway,” Harris said.
The event not only brings people together, but also promotes the importance of salmon, said Kathy McCorry, executive director for the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce. It’s the reason why it was an October event that replaced the dying-out Labor Day festival instead of a warmer summertime gathering.
For the love of salmon
It’s hard to ignore the dwindling number of salmon populating local waters and a massive recovery effort for the creature. As salmon numbers continued to deplete, the event has become a means to raise awareness of the scarcity of the fish and the environments they impact. Some scientists point to the lack of salmon as a contributing factor to struggling Puget Sound orcas.
In 2010, just over 485,000 Chinook salmon were reported in the Salish Sea, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — a 60 percent reduction in abundance since the Pacific Salmon Commision began their tracking in 1984.
This wasn’t an issue when the event was founded, said Robin Kelley, executive director of the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery (FISH). But as it became a problem, more messaging on the fishes’ important role in the ecosystem has been disseminated and activities have been created at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery grounds.
The Issaquah hatchery was built in 1936. During this time, folks would not see salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn, Kelley said at a press event on June 11. The salmon had been eliminated by the effects of mining and logging. The hatchery’s mission was to replace those lost salmon runs.
FISH was formed in the early 1990s. That’s when an Issaquah Press reporter discovered the state was considering closing many state hatcheries, including the one in Issaquah. Petitions began around the community to show the importance of the facility and a large group formed. They traveled to Olympia by bus and spoke with legislators, vocalizing their disagreement with the hatchery closure.
Out of that group, FISH, a nonprofit that leads hatchery tours and promotes watershed stewardship, was formed. And today the hatchery remains open, working to prevent the complete devastation of remaining salmon, Kelley said.
“We’re still working fervently to keep those salmon runs in Issaquah Creek,” she said. “One day we hope not to be needed, but we’re not there yet.”
Fish are raised from the egg to smolt stage at the hatchery. They’re released into streams, go out to sea and return several years later — hopefully making their way back to Issaquah to spawn — just in time for the festival.