Autumn is a spectacle giving way to decay. Leaves flare golden, russet and red, then drop to the ground, dead. Homeward bound salmon fight the current upstream, spawn and perish. It is the season to soak in the beauty and morbidity of nature — a perfect time for a trip to Gnat Creek.

Gnat Creek seeps from Nicolai Mountain, tumbles through lava-formed flumes and pools and empties into the Brownsmead Slough. It’s a destination for anglers, but worth checking out whether or not you fish. To start your adventure, head eastbound on U.S. Highway 30 through Knappa. Turn at the sign for Gnat Creek Campground and park at the trailhead.

The Lower Gnat Creek Trail is one and a half miles long, threading through a strip of forest between waterway and highway. Along it, coastal favorites abound: moss-bedecked alder and bigleaf maple; hemlock, spruce and Douglas fir; a tangled understory of vine maple, sword fern and salal. The path veers to creekside clearings ideal for reading and napping. Sunlight filters through the canopy, dappling the water and forest floor.

In one ear, hikers hear the sound of the stream, in the other, the whir of traffic and groan of engine brakes. The landscape bears the signatures of wind, wildlife and humans. Snags have been snapped in two by storms, perforated by insects and woodpeckers. Someday they’ll topple and join the nurse logs – decomposing downed trees in which plants have rooted. Stumps of felled giants – bearing springboard notches – likewise feed new vegetation.

The trail crosses the highway and ends at Gnat Creek hatchery. A log-constructed pavilion offers sheltered picnicking. An informational kiosk fills the mind with fishy factoids. Spring Chinook fingerlings dart and cower in the raceways.

From here, take a short stroll to Barrier Falls, a modest cascade reminiscent of those constructed for zoo habitats. Farther along, Sasquatch lurks near the start of the Upper Gnat Creek Trail, which extends two miles to Bigfoot Creek.

A confession: The trails and streams, the forest and falls, are lovely distractions. But the main attraction is the hatchery show pond, where two sturgeon and a fluctuating population of rainbow trout reside. Both sturgeon have lived here for more than twenty years. One has learned to thrive. That sturgeon – The Sturgeon – is why I return regularly, armed with fistfuls of quarters for the fish food station.

I’m not alone. Kacie Welch, a hatchery technician, estimates that the haul from the pellet dispenser is $1,000 per month during the summer – in change.

The water roils as trout snap for pellets, their glossy bodies cutting the surface, flashing pink. I stare into the agitation, hoping the splashing grabs the sturgeon’s attention. I wait for a sharklike shape to glide below the clustered prey, roll over slowly and reveal a pale belly – and a mouth, toothless but lethal. I hold my breath, because I’ve heard tales: this particular beast — a would-be bottom feeder capitalizing on opportunity — sucks adult trout into that belly-mouth, swallows them whole.

The trout, too, have curious habits. During a recent visit, I watched one worry a mouse carcass, exactly as a dog would a rope bone. Welch, who is more than happy to share stories of piscine antics — tells me that they will eat almost anything that falls their way, from garter snakes to birds. That said, please don’t throw anything besides pellets into the pond.

I hear the sturgeon vs. trout carnage peaks in June, after the hatchery stocks a pond with young (small) trout for a youth fishing derby. The surviving fish transfer to the show pond, where you-know-who lies in wait.

I’m disturbed. And I’m intrigued. I love animals (I even refuse to squish spiders). Yet I long to see the sturgeon kill.

In the show pond — and in the evolving forest along Gnat Creek — I see my species’ hand and reflection. The game of survival is disquieting — and riveting. I lean over the rail and toss pellets like coins, making wishes. And I mark my calendar for June.

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