Quirky Seattle – Fish Ladder, Locks, and a Troll

Fremont Troll quirky Seattle (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Fremont Troll sculpture under a bridge in quirky Seattle (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with a fish ladder, but on our one day in Seattle when we had a rental car (after a fun day trip to Snoqualmie Falls) I was absolutely determined to see the Ballard Locks where the fish ladder is located.

The official name is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks; they’re in the northern part of the city and connect Lakes Union and Washington to Shilshole Bay in Puget Sound.

The ladder is a series of 21 stepped pools called weirs. They help salmon migrate upstream from Puget Sound so that they can spawn (lay eggs) in early fall, and for the young fish to return to the Sound. The fish even change color in the shift from salt to fresh water.

Sockeye salmon through viewing windows at Ballard Locks (courtesy Hiram M. Chittenden Locks Page on Facebook)

Sockeye salmon through viewing windows at Chittenden – Ballard Locks. Click the photo to see the original, and hey, Like their Page! (courtesy Hiram M. Chittenden Locks Page on Facebook)

From the Chittenden website:

“When we see them at the Locks they are silver color, called ‘ocean phase,’ and are easily identified from other salmon species by the lack of spots on their backs….As they journey through fresh water to the spawning beds their bodies will take on the distinctive red color called ‘freshwater phase.'”

The salmon weren’t quite active on the ladder yet when we were there in April, so there wasn’t much to see through the thick underwater viewing windows at the little ladder Visitors Center, but it was fun to learn how the process works.

The photo to the left shows what it looks like when the fish are migrating, courtesy the Chittenden Facebook Page…

From the website, the best times to view are:



  • “Chinook, or King Salmon, July through November (best viewing last two weeks of August)
  • Coho, or Silver Salmon, August through November (best viewing last two weeks of September)
  • Sockeye, or Red Salmon, June through October (best viewing July)”

Kinda creeped out by the little critters in formaldehyde, though….

Fish development stages display Chinook salmon yoke-sac fry Ballard Locks Seattle (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Baby fish growth stages on display – this is the progression of Chinook salmon yoke-sac fry development, at the Ballard Locks in northern Seattle (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The ladder was first built in 1917, then replaced by a larger one in 1976.

People have been fishing here for a very long time – the location is actually reserved by treaty for the Muckleshoot and Suquamish tribes to fish, and they help manage fish counts and population protection along with the state of Washington.

Ballard Locks Seattle waterway plus Indian fishing rights sign (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Chittenden-Ballard Locks spillway in northern Seattle (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

While we were there, we watched several watercraft go through the locks.

When one water level is different from the one next to it, locks fix the problem.

The lock is like a bathtub. It is filled to the water level of the approaching boat or ship, then they sail or drive into the lock, which has big doors on either end.

Ballard Locks Seattle boat approaches (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Ballard Locks Seattle – a boat approaches from the lake side (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Once it’s inside the lock, doors are closed and water is added or removed by big pumps.

The boat or ship floats up or down as water is added or removed from the lock to match the level of the adjacent body of water.

Ballard Locks Seattle boat in the lock (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Ballard Locks Seattle – a boat in the lock (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I was drawn to watching all of this because I did the same thing years ago, on a much larger scale.

Here I am aboard my Navy ship the oiler USS Merrimack (AO-179) in the Panama Canal locks, when I was the Chief Engineer in the early 1990’s ….

Sheila Scarborough USS Merrimack at Panama Canal

LT Sheila Scarborough on the USS Merrimack (AO-179) – photo taken looking aft from the fantail in a lock on the Panama Canal

At Ballard, the process takes ten to fifteen minutes per watercraft; the water drops a little over 20 feet from the lake to become even with Puget Sound.

It doesn’t cost anything to see all of this, and there is a nice botanical garden to walk through as well.

Just outside of the facility is a nice old-school seafood joint, too; the Lockspot Cafe.

Another fun thing to see that is fairly close by is a big sculpture of a troll in the Fremont neighborhood, underneath the Aurora Bridge. That’s the photo at the top of this post, and yes, he’s holding a smushed Volkswagen in one hand.

It’s on Google Maps and not hard to find, but the parking there is very limited, so try to go on a weekday.

Yes, you can climb on the troll.

Do you have favorite quirky Seattle sights to see? Share with us in the comments!

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