We’ve had very little weather this winter. The good: No sleepless nights cringing in fear of trees falling on the house, no power outages, etc. The bad: No windfall trees for next year’s firewood. Of course, we’ve been extra busy this year with the farm and book and kid activities, but still, I should have a huge pile of rounds stacking up in the yard by now. And I have to admit to a certain level of anxiety whenever I think about our wood supply.
So, when our good friend (and bookseller extraordinaire), Victoria, called to say there was a madrona down on the road, I was stoked. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it’ll burn.” That’s all I needed to hear. Madrona is the premier firewood around here, heavy, dense and packing tons of BTUs. A little madrona is better than a lot of most other wood, and it’s much, much better than the big zero we currently have. I threw the saw in the car, ran down there and started cutting.
She was right, of course. Not much. But just enough to get the pile started with hopefully more to come. I did see some pretty nice standing dead madronas over there while I was cutting…
We spent part of last week visiting with friends in a small cabin on the east side of the Cascades. On the drive up, the family slept and I was left alone to think and stew as I drove past all my old favorite fishing spots on the Skykomish River. The spring wild steelhead catch-and-release season–a fishery I once lived for–should just be starting now. But it closed in 2001 to protect the dwindling steelhead population, and has yet to reopen. I don’t know if it ever will. So the places–Buck Island, Two-Bit, I.R.S., Thunderbird–where I spent so many happy times are now off limits. And driving past them hurts.
The emotional grinding that plagued me on the drive evaporated, though, with a warm greeting from good friends and the heat of the wood stove. Weston was under the weather (he’s since recovered) so we stuck pretty close to the cabin, finding some epic sled runs and great hikes nearby. The picture above is Skyla and her buddy Aubine kicking it up the hill behind the house. Mostly, it felt great to be outside in the dry air and sunshine of Eastern Washington.
On the drive home, back down Highway 2, I had prepared myself for the sight of those great steelhead runs flashing past the windows. And the pangs were less intense, but still much deeper than when I’m working on fish issues from my desk. I guess it’s just good to go see what you’ve lost sometimes to help kick yourself into gear.
We spent last weekend out on the Olympic Peninsula, mostly visiting with friends and fishing a bit on the Sol Duc River. But the drive out there gave me time to stop off and introduce the kids to another old friend–the Elwha River. We didn’t have much time, but with dusk rapidly approaching, we pulled over at the bridge and walked up and down looking at the rebirth of a river.
The Elwha was once among the greatest salmon rivers in the world. Aside from the famous run of king salmon that grew to 100 pounds, there were staggering runs of coho, steelhead, sockeye, chum and pink salmon that together totaled nearly 400,000 fish per year. But in 1911, the Elwha Dam, built just upstream of the mouth, cut off 70 miles of the river from the sea. In 1927, to add insult to injury, Glines Canyon Dam was built eight miles upstream. Predictably, the salmon populations crashed.
Today, though, after years of hard work by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and a broad coalition of conservation groups, the Elwha Dam is gone and Glines Canyon is almost out. The river flows naturally for the first time in more than a century. This is the largest dam removal project in North American history, and a source of much celebration. From our viewpoint, we could tell the usual clear, green, low-water flows of a dam-controlled watershed are gone, replaced by a wandering stream bed carrying a huge sediment load (100 years of accumulation behind the dams) and wandering across the gravel flood plain, seeking it’s natural channel. It was uplifting to see.
There is a fly in the ointment, though. In spite of the best available science clearly demonstrating the negative effects hatchery fish have on wild salmon recovery, the dam removal-budget included a brand-new, $16 million hatchery. I have a hard time understanding the logic here. It’s as if the Federal Government decided to invest in a $325 million lung-cancer reduction project, only to spend $16 million of it to build a cigarette factory on the premises. I believe this is known as shooting one’s self in the foot.
I say, let the river come back on its own. Nature has been repopulating watersheds destroyed by natural disaster for thousands of years without human “help.” As biologist Bill McMillan points out, when Mt. St. Helens filled the Toutle River with boiling ash flows, killing the stream itself and everything in it, wild steelhead repopulated the river on their own. And quickly. Within seven years, there were more wild winter steelhead in the Toutle than any other lower Columbia tributary.
But I digress. And I will get off the soap box. I just hate the idea of hatchery after so much effort has gone into the dam removal in the name of wild salmon recovery. And it rankles even more when I think that we taxpayers are footing the hatchery bill. The main point, though, is positive. The dams are gone. And the river runs free. I hope that one day, I can fish it again with Skyla and Weston…with hopes of 100 pound salmon swimming through our imaginations.
Our great friends, the Sweeneys, celebrated their daughter Maren’s 16th birthday with a big party on Friday night. Tons of awesome food, family, friends and of course, a roaring bonfire out back. Kids careened through the woods in packs, playing hide-and-seek in the dark, laughing and shouting, while parents and grandparents kicked back and caught up. The crowd included at least one toddler and ranged right up to around 80 years old, and everyone had fun. Great time.
We left exhausted (Weston was asleep in the car before we were out of the Sweeney driveway), full of food and feeling thankful to be a part of it all.