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Dick Barbara is organizing the 14th annual Bear Creek Cleanup centered around Bear Creek Park Saturday. - Jamie Lusch

Creek cleanup moves from spring to fall

Wild fall chinook salmon are now coming home to Bear Creek just as a consortium of volunteers are sprucing up their downtown Medford nursery.

The annual Bear Creek Cleanup event held each spring for 13 years has been moved to Saturday, and the focus will be stretches around Bear Creek Park instead of Hawthorne Park.

The shift is because the cleanup is part of the statewide effort targeting rivers and beaches known as Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism, or SOLV.

The SOLV event has moved to the fall, allowing local volunteers to spend less time lugging out monstrous amounts of trash and more time improving the streamside riparian habitat wild fish need to survive in this stream that is still considered marginal water.

Instead of fighting swifter spring flows to collect dead shopping carts, car parts and other debris, crews will be ridding the area of noxious weeds and other non-native plants, planting native vegetation and even monitoring some of the water flowing through the east Medford park and into the creek.

"We're shifting our primary purpose," says Dick Barbara, the event's longtime coordinator, though trash pickup still will be part of the cleanup.

"Before, the lion's share of the job was dredging out trash and maybe as much as 1,000 pounds of car parts, bicycles, shopping carts and other metal," Barbara says. "Here, we're going to focus on restoration."

Saturday's effort will be followed Oct. 16 when a local nonprofit group plans to plant more than 300 native willows and other vegetation along the southern bank of the creek along Hawthorne Park to improve the riparian area there.

Volunteers for both projects are needed, and they will become the latest attempts in a history of efforts to reclaim this urban stream for the wild salmon that spawn and rear as juveniles within the shadows of downtown Medford.

"We'll be looking for them, for sure," Barbara says of the chinook. "It's amazing how rugged these fish are. The water quality still isn't good, but they still come back."

The upper Rogue is the upstream fringe of Rogue Basin fall chinook, which are the largest of the five salmon and steelhead species present at times in Bear Creek.

They spawn more heavily in the Grants Pass area and in the Applegate River, but they can be seen digging egg nests, called redds, in the creek channel throughout the stretch from Ashland to the Kirtland Road bridge near White City.

This year's run into Bear Creek may be a tad early and likely was triggered by last week's rainstorms swelling the normally light-flowing stream this time of year.

"This could be the first pulse of fish to come in on that freshet," says Chuck Fustish, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who studies Bear Creek's salmon and steelhead.

Peak spawning in Bear Creek comes in early November, Fustish says.

All chinook then die after spawning, but at least this year's return will be checking out in cleaner confines.

On Saturday, volunteers wearing good boots and gloves will meet at the parking lot near the skate park off Highland Drive, with registration beginning at 8:30 a.m.

The Bear Creek Wastershed Education Partners, which is running Saturday's effort, will give volunteers garbage bags and send them to portions of the creek there, as well as the portion of Lazy Creek that flows through the park, to collect debris.

Other crews will pull non-native vegetation such as purple loosestrife that out-competes native vegetation for space, and replace it with native species, says Evelyn Roether, the group's spokeswoman.

The Oct. 16 plantings will be led by Oregon Stewardship, a group of volunteers looking to improve stream ecology throughout southwestern Oregon.

Last year, Oregon Stewardship director Jim Hutchins planted five bio-swales to capture and filter runoff from the Interstate 5 viaduct before the water flows into the creek.

The upcoming planting, which is on the 15th anniversary of Oregon Stewardship's founding, will add native vegetation to the area between the swales, Hutchins says.

Over time, the vegetation will provide shade for that stretch of creek, where the water often is too warm for young salmon to survive in summer.

That project will run from 9 a.m. to noon, with volunteers meeting in the parking lot near the Hawthorne Pool.

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