Through the years I’ve talked to Bruce Hill on the phone more times than I can count, often at odd hours, about subjects big and small. Recipes for teriyaki sauce and salmon caviar. Conservation campaign strategies. Guitar techniques. Family. Personal issues and challenges. For so many reasons it’s been a steady comfort in my life to know that I could pick up the phone any time and he’d be there with wisdom, compassion and his own special brand of kindness.
When I was going through a particularly tough time, he was there, knowing when to keep it light, when to sympathize, when to make suggestions. He offered me the couch at the Hill house, which I have slept on many times, saying, “Just come up and we’ll fish and eat. If you start driving now, you’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll have dinner ready.”
Yesterday I woke up wanting to call my old friend Bruce, as I have so many times, and it finally hit me that he’s gone.
When I met Bruce, he was already a giant, a legendary figure in the conservation world for the campaign to protect wild steelhead in British Columbia, and for working tirelessly—often desperately—to save the Kitlope, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, from destruction. Along with his Haisla brother, Gerald Amos, he continued an incredible run of work, helping to stop Royal Dutch Shell in the Sacred Headwaters, keep the Enbridge Pipeline and it’s oil out of the Skeena, and most recently, prevent Petronas from destroying critical salmon habitat in the Skeena estuary.
As a father, I’ve always tried to make sure my kids spend time with the mentors who’ve helped me along the way. Perhaps it’s laziness on my part, but my hope is that their wisdom would rub off on the kids. Four years ago I brought Skyla and Weston to meet Bruce and Gerald. We took the Suncrest, an old converted halibut boat to explore the Inside Passage. We fished, hiked, snorkeled, cooked epic meals, fought the weather, gathered prawns and crab, laughed and sang. We made lifetime memories, and the kids learned valuable, early lessons on what it takes to protect the world we love.
When I think of Bruce, I see him playing guitar and singing with the kids on that trip. I think of him holding court at the Hill’s legendary kitchen table with friends and activists of all kinds gathered around. I think of countless long drives and boat rides and fishing trips and the stories that filled them. I remember the time Bruce, our friend Yvon, and I ate an entire salad bowl of salmon eggs in one sitting. I think of his life’s work, how he taught us to kick ass and butt heads, but to remember the human side of conservation. I think of how he could get angry and rage, then let it go and laugh and hug you.
Bruce has left the building, but he isn’t gone. The untouched Kitlope, now protected forever as a Provincial Park; the Skeena, flowing clean from headwaters to sea; the eelgrass beds teaming with salmon on Lelu Island, all stand as monuments to his work. His wisdom and teachings have fueled the next generation of ass-kicking conservationists, the Shannon McPhails, the Greg Knoxs, the Caitlyn Vernons of the world. His presence flows through his wife Anne and their two children, Aaron and Julia, who follow in his footsteps with a ferocious commitment to protecting our planet. And yes, his spirit rubbed off on my kids, Skyla and Weston, who carry the fight forward as budding activists. This weekend, as we joined the flotilla protesting net-pen salmon farms in our home waters, I could see that spirit in my kids. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to call Bruce.
He’s with us and all around us in the wild places that remain wild, in the rough-and-ready conservation spirit of the North, in the meals we cook and share with friends and family, in the kindness and generosity that made hundreds, if not thousands, of us who knew him want to be better human beings. I still need to come to grips with knowing I can no longer pick up the phone and hear his big laugh and welcoming voice, but I am happy—and honored—to have been his friend. Giants live forever.
The film project I’m working on took us into the Sawtooths in search of salmon 6,000 feet above sea level and 900 miles from the sea. We hiked, waded and drove miles of gorgeous water and perfect habitat that should have been alive with thousands of spawning Chinook salmon. And yet, we found almost none. The miracle of nature that once brought millions of salmon so far inland seems to have been undone by a combination of environmental events (spring drought during outmigration, hot water in the ocean) and human factors (dams, reservoirs, hatchery genetics) that conspired to wipe out this year’s run. The days and river miles passed, and it was tough to keep our mood up–all that habitat, empty. I keep wondering, what happens to the trout, whitefish, bears, wolves, trees, grass, deer, elk and all the other species that depend on salmon to deliver critical nutrients, when the keystone species can’t provide?
My brother and his family came out from Brooklyn, and my mom came up from California for some good Pacific Northwest fun. We spent time on the water for a little fishing–that’s my niece, Nora and me multi-tasking with boat-driving selfie–and mostly just enjoyed our time together. The cousins, Skyla, Weston, Nora and May, live in such different worlds, and see each other only a few times a year, but they love each other so much it lifts my spirits just to watch them together. I am so thankful for our family, and for the NY and Cali members to make the effort to be here.
We went berry picking, and the kids teamed up with their grandma to learn the secrets of making The Greatest Pie In The World.
Just the smell of the pie cooking took me back to my childhood, and when it came out of the oven, we could hardly wait for it to cool. This is the pie I dream about–crisp, flaky, tender, savory crust and sweet, slightly tart blackberry filling. The very taste of August in the Northwest. Now…if the kids just learned enough to make it again themselves, I think we can squeeze in a few more before the weather turns. If only the whole family could be here to enjoy it!
Sometimes the old internet just isn’t enough. And with the catastrophic failure of Cooke Aquaculture’s open-water net-pen salmon farm on Cypress Island “spilling” hundreds of thousands of invasive Atlantic salmon into the Sound, the kids and I wanted to make sure word is out about the upcoming protest.
Now is the time to strike, as they say, while the iron is hot. In response to the Cypress disaster, the State of Washington has enacted a temporary ban on new net-pen approvals, but we really need a permanent ban. One that stops Cooke from building their new facility off the mouth of the newly restored Elwha River. And one that also gets rid of existing net pens and all their associated chemicals, drugs, waste, pathogens and parasites that kill wild salmon and pollute the public resource.
Let’s gather off the south end of Bainbridge Island, where Cooke has another net-pen anchored to the Orchard Rocks State Marine Protected Area, on September 16th and make a real statement. (For details, click HERE) I think the media, the public and our state government are finally ready to tell Cooke they and their net pens are no longer welcome in the Salish Sea.
For thousands of years, the Lummi people fished reef nets at ancestral sites throughout the Salish Sea. And today, for the first time in more than 100 years, the Lummis are once again fishing a reef net in the waters of Legoe Bay. This weekend, the kids and I were honored to visit with some of the elders and help record their stories for a little film project I’m working on.
That’s me hard at work, or as they say, hardly working, talking fish with (from left to right) Richard Solomon, Steve Solomon, Larry Kinley and Chief Bill James. So much knowledge in this group, I could have spent all day soaking up the wisdom.
The next morning, we were privileged to witness Chief James perform the First Salmon ceremony for the first time on Lummi Island in 100 years. It was so beautiful, and so heartfelt, I had goosebumps on my arms and tears in my eyes. One of the great experiences of my life, made even more incredible by being able to share it with Skyla and Weston.
When Richard Solomon waded into the water, carrying a sockeye salmon on a bed of cedar boughs, to the beat of a single elk-hide drum and the voices of four men singing an ancient song, I could feel the 10,000 year story of humans and fish evolving together. I could feel it in my bones, and felt lucky to be a part of it.