A trip to the Chittenden Locks in Ballard in the fall is a good time to see salmon making their way up through the fish ladder en route to their spawning grounds. If we know the salmon are there, so do their predators. On this day, it was seals. Seals and sea lions are both common at the locks when hunting for salmon. A pair of seals were playing around in the waters near the locks, no doubt choosing their moment for a snack. Another pair of seals had been a bit more aggressive in their thinking. They had made their way into the fish ladder itself.
There are gates on the entrance to the ladder that are intended to allow the fish through and not the larger predators but I guess on this day, the gates had been left open. Our first glimpse on one of the seals was as it was chomping its way through a salmon it had already caught. It was making swift work of it. A while later we saw them again. They would haul themselves out on to the walls of the ladder for a break before diving back in to search for the next snack!
The salmon head to spawn in phases with the three different breeds coming at slightly different times. They head through the ladder at the locks in Ballard in the fall but, before they head into Lake Washington, they pause in the approach area. The transition from salt water to fresh is something that they have to adjust to and the area just by the locks where the fresh water is spilling out provides a good place for them to get adjusted. They can stay for a couple of weeks or more. The result was that we saw a lot of salmon swimming around in the waters by the dam. This was not a risk free occupation as shall be covered in a future post.
The smaller of the locks at Ballard has mooring points that float with the water level so the boats can tie up and wait for the process to be over. In the big lock, the boats have to let out or take in their lines as the level changes because they are tied to the lock side itself. When the boats were down, the lock crew shouted out clear instructions to everyone to keep their lines tight until instructed to do otherwise. As the boats had come in, we had watched with some amusement a guy who didn’t seem to know how to handle his boat. Judging by the text on the boat, it was a share scheme of some sort.
I wandered away as they started to move out of the lock but Nancy and Mum stayed to watch. Judging by the shouting that followed, one of the boats had let off his lines early. When the gates open, there is a flow out of the lock which starts to take loose boats with it. One of them started to rotate and take the other boats with it. I missed the whole thing but I was able to guess who was the one that hadn’t followed instructions. Hmm…
While watching a bunch of leisure craft heading through the locks at Ballard, a tour boat was coming from the opposite direction and was fed into the smaller lock. I headed across to watch it come into the lock. It was a pretty snug fit. All of the people onboard were out on the deck watching the lock process. I was watching them watching us. They were below me when the boat entered the lock but, once the water level was up, they were looking down at us on the lock side.
As the locks at Ballard transfer the water, they manage to catch a lot of salmon at the same time. It was very common while we were there to see the salmon leap out of the water. Some would leap out and crash back into the water on their sides while others would leap upright and nose back in to the water like a dolphin. Catching this on the camera was a touch trickier. I have a lot of shots of splashes as the salmon has just reentered the water. I did get some on video though so you know I am not totally making this up!
Two small boats came through the locks while we were there. One was just over 50m in length while the other was much smaller and just under 50m in length. Both of these boats looked like they might be quite comfortable. They were also both flagged in the Caribbean. A quick Google search on each showed that they were available for charter. Both seemed to have plenty of people on board but they looked like they might have been the crew rather than the guests as they seemed all business as they handled these tiny boats through the lock. If I decide to get a boat at some point, I might be tempted by either of these. I do prefer one over the other but I suppose I could make do with the less preferable one if the price were right.
Hiram M Chittenden was not only the man in charge of creating the Ballard Locks, he also was ahead of his time in understanding some of the ecological impact of what he was doing. The importance of the fish to the region and the disruption that the salmon would experience led him to the creation of a fish ladder. There is still one there now although it appears to be of slightly more modern construction.
There are ramps alongside parts of the ladder so you can look down and see the fish as they work their way up the steps. You can also look down and see a lot of them swimming around in the approach to the ladder itself. Meanwhile, there is a viewing gallery that has windows into the side of part of the ladder where you can watch the fish either resting in the quieter flows or forcing their way up to the next level. There were signs telling us which types of fish there might be but I have to admit they all looked alike to me.
I learned something new about boat traffic while at the locks in Ballard. There is a clear rule structure about which types of boats get precedence when traversing the locks. Priority goes to government boats and emergency services. Then scheduled commercial boats followed by unscheduled commercial boats before you start to get to the pleasure craft that make up a big chunk of the traffic. One of the boats had tried to enter the lock and they got a loud verbal warning that they had jumped the traffic lights and that a commercial craft was going ahead of them.
After hearing this, I chatted with one of the lock staff and he explained the way in which things are prioritized. The boat that first demonstrated this was a fishing vessel that went through the smaller lock and was a pretty snug fit (although the crew didn’t seem to even pause when running it in to the lock). The other commercial vessel that came in was substantially larger. It was directed to the main lock while the smaller traffic continued to use the smaller one. Seeing such large vessels come through and the change in perspective from when they were below you as they entered to being so much higher when they left was quite impressive.
A few kayakers were out while we were in Ballard. One group appeared to be either a club or a training course. Most of them were in identical looking kayaks while they seemed to be escorted by a pair of kayakers in more professional looking rigs. They did not go into the lock but came to check it out before heading back in the opposite direction.
Another pair came from the direction of Lake Union and were heading towards Puget Sound. They did take a ride through the lock. Since they did not have ropes to tie off during the lowering of the water, they hung on to one of the other boats as the water level was lowered before paddling out of the lock and on their way. I imagine being at the bottom of the lock in a kayak is quite intimidating but they seemed like seasoned users.
The salt water end of the locks is tidal. The walls clearly show how high the water will rise with a combination of algae and barnacles. The barnacles seem to have got themselves well established everywhere. There is a ladder built in to the wall to assist you if you end up in the water and need to get out. However, judging by how many barnacles are now in residence on the rungs of the ladder, I am going to guess that climbing it will be a very painful experience. Maybe there is a better way?