With the 2017 waterfowl season nearly upon us, Smarty needed to make space in his freezer. The solution? A 10-person wild duck dinner of (Russell) Chatham-esque proportions, featuring fresh Dungeness crab appetizers, wild rice, Helene Smart’s famous lemon-garlic-pine nut salad, and piles of whole-roasted, unstuffed mallards cooked exactly right–hot and fast. That’s the hunter/chef above, working the cutting board, and just a few of the ducks we consumed. (I eventually returned to the carcass pile to gnaw the chewy, flavorful legs.) I ate until I could eat no more, but woke up the next morning already craving the fresh version that’s soon to come. Clearing out the freezer is tough work, but someone had to make the sacrifice and help. And I did more than my share.You’re welcome, Smarty.
I’ve been meaning to post this since we returned from Japan way back at the beginning of summer: In the midst of a fantastic, city-based jaunt through the ancestral homeland, I savored each opportunity to look at and eat fish of every kind. In fact, one of the things about Japan that makes a fish-obsessed person like me feel at home is the overall cultural importance of fish. But after days of exploring fish markets, seafood sections in grocery stores, fishing departments in sporting goods stores, and fish restaurants, I found myself yearning to get out in the country and actually go fishing.
My old friend, Hisashi Suzuki, who I met years ago while chasing native trout in the Japan Alps, came to the rescue. As luck would have it, our one completely unscheduled day happened to be in Nagoya, where Hisashi runs a fly shop and guides. He generously made time to take the kids and me fishing, and provided expert guiding, boat, waders, rods and everything else we needed.
I was expecting that we’d drive to the mountains and fish small creeks for the tiny, jewel-like yamame (trout) and iwana (char) as we did when I’d last been there. Instead, we drove east to the Pacific Ocean, and spent a fun, completely absorbing day wading and sight-fishing for black bream on sand and eel-grass flats. It was the perfect contrast to our days in the crowded, chaotic cities (which us country folk love but aren’t used to) and a great time to introduce the kids to a good friend and new kind of fishing. What treat. Arigato gozaimashita, Hisashi!
The protest to stop the net-pen salmon farms in Puget Sound was a bit overshadowed here (and in our lives) by the loss of our friend Bruce Hill. But in many ways, the flotilla fit the model of what Bruce always taught: It was part of a well-planned, strategic campaign (led by Wild Fish Conservancy), the kind of campaign that can actually create change. In my mind, it was also an important opportunity for the kids to participate in shaping their own future. We’ve been talking about the net pens and how they impact the Sound, and the night before, we discussed how to articulate what we were feeling in short, strong messaging for our signs. On the day of the protest, everything went perfectly. The weather was warm and calm, many boats–kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, commercial fishing boats, canoes, a boat from the Suquamish Tribe, sport-fishing boats, bow riders–showed up, and Lummi Island Wild’s enormous tender, the Galactic Ice, with our friend Riley Starks at the helm, led a procession around the dirty, putrid-smelling net pens. More importantly, the flotilla was well-attended by media, with crews from the local Island paper on up to NPR and Reuters there to cover the event. Mission accomplished.
And on the way home, with warm evening light silvery on the glassy Sound, the kids and I stopped to enjoy some of what we’re fighting to save–strong, beautiful, wild sea-run cutthroat trout. I think Bruce would approve.
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?