Running on the wild Cedar River with sockeye salmon

Sophie Ossorio, left, and her mom Carolyn get a chance to check out a big sockeye salmon at the weir next to the Renton Community Center. — Image Credit: Carolyn Ossorio
Sophie Ossorio, left, and her mom Carolyn get a chance to check out a big sockeye salmon at the weir next to the Renton Community Center. — Image Credit: Carolyn Ossorio


“We’re here to meet Paul Faulds for a tour of the new salmon hatchery,” I yelled into the faceless intercom. Rain drizzled onto my sleeve.

Somehow we had followed a winding gravel road that led us into a cell phone dead zone, without people, nothing but trees and wilderness. It felt like we were marooned in an episode of “Lost.”

“Hold a minute.” A voice said through the intercom decorated with only one red button.

“Kids, this is the last of our food supply,” I said, passing five equal shares of a Nature Valley granola bar.  I noted the irony that the idea of being stranded had instantly made us all hungry despite a big breakfast.

“Don’t worry, Mom.”  Sophie said, popping the last bits of granola into her mouth.  “I read about a lady who wandered off a trail, broke her leg and survived for four days eating banana slugs.”

I was relieved when Paul, the Landsburg mitigation manager, pulled up in his white truck, sliding his key card through the checkpoint.

Our trip to the salmon hatchery was the second leg of a field trip that had begun a couple of weeks ago. Sophie and I had met fish hatchery specialist Cory Cuthbertson and fish tech Jessica McDaniels and the rest of the crew by the mechanical weir, a small dam-like structure positioned inside the current of the Cedar River near the Renton Community Center.

Sophie and I watched fish tech’s wrangle and sort male and female sockeye into separate tanks.  Both sexes turn red with green heads. Males develop a hump on their back and the jaws and teeth become hooked in freshwater, this hook is known as a kype and is used for fighting other males.

“In the interests of protecting drinking water quality, sockeye are not allowed to pass and spawn above Landsburg Dam,” Cory explained. “So we take them up to the hatchery.”

So now the kids and I were following Paul’s Seattle Public Utilities truck through winding roads to the new hatchery to watch the sockeye spawning process.

The Cedar River Sockeye Hatchery is located near Landsburg Dam on the Cedar River. The hatchery is funded by the Seattle Public Utilities and operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As it turns out, there had been two security gates at the entrance of the hatchery. One led to the new hatchery and the other (the one we had erroneously entered) led into the 90,000 acres of The City of Seattle’s Cedar River Municipal Watershed that is carefully managed because it supplies clean drinking water to 1.4 million people in the greater Seattle area.

The new hatchery is nearly complete and the surrounding green baby grass has yet to fill in. Everything is shiny and new.

The “steel womb” is still being tweaked.  Eventually it will incubate more than 34 million sockeye fry (baby salmon), which is double what the old hatchery produced.

Paul walked us over fresh gravel toward a large concrete sorting water tank.  A rain gear clad employee stood in water up to his hips.  He was sorting female sockeye caught in the weir and transported by truck.  Another tech in a cement stall beside him was sorting the males.

We leaned over the railing, spellbound as the technician glided his fingers across the female’s abdomen.

“He’s checking to see if they’re green or ripe.” Paul said, as salmon colored eggs squirted out.  A ripe female had approximately 3,200 eggs.

It also meant the end of the road.  We watched as the fish head was placed into a blue mechanical box that blunted her to death.  My kids were captivated.  And I’ll admit so was I.

On the other side of the tank the same process was happening with the male sockeye salmon.

“The males are pretty much always ready to go?” I said cheekily.

Paul nodded.

Next to us was a room where the eggs from the females and sperm from the males was fertilized in stainless steel bowls with an approximate 95 percent success rate. The fertilized eggs are then taken to the “steel womb” where they are incubated.

The fry will be released after about eight weeks. They spend up to three years in the freshwater lake before migrating to the ocean and then will eventually navigate back to the Cedar River.

I love suggestions! If you know of people or places in Renton that surprise, delight and inspire the community, drop me a line at Also follow Carolyn on her blog,


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