Death and Renewal on the Bulkley

The border collies are taking up as much room in the bow of the boat as they can. The old one must be carried to and from shore now. The young one vaults anything less than ten feet, which she does as the boat nears the bank of the river. They sortie in the general direction of Scotland, searching for sheep they will not find, and dead salmon they will. As the light comes up, they fade downriver into an impression of black and white flowing over boulders of the same colors, leaving me in two feet of water and out of my depth in memory. 

The rivers of childhood sparkle in high summer, clear water over cobbles of infinite diversity. Waist-deep in that crystal water, so recently snow that it numbed my bare legs immediately, I felt a part of the joyful removal to the ocean of the continent.

Not here. While this piece of the Canadian Rockies is inevitably helpless in the face of gravity, water, and time, she has not gone gently into that good Pacific. As the continent has been lifted by the oceanic plate being shoved under its western margin, this river has almost eternally cut down through hard metamorphic and sedimentary sections thrown into fantastic orientations by tectonic forces of unimaginable power. The exposures within this canyon are witness to geological events that, while occurring over millions of years, are nonetheless essentially violent and often cataclysmic rather than so slow that a thousand years produces no apparent changes. I am standing on the basement floor of the continent, nothing but solid rock, mantle, and magma between me and the middle of the planet. “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” I feel the answer.

All salmon spawn and die, leaving behind their eggs in the gravel. As their parents rot on the bottom, their carcasses leak nutrients into the water; nutrients absorbed by their eggs. It is a miraculous, ugly, and beautiful cycle.

– Craig Laurie

The water is trapped in the basalt corridor. Five feet toward the middle of the river, the ledge on which I stand is sharply truncated and beyond it is only dark green water. The river hates this constriction. She is sullen, and the color past the ledge speaks more of danger than anything else. Or perhaps eternity. Perhaps they are the same thing. There is a ski run in Jackson Hole: Corbett’s Couloir. A friend skied it with a guide. He said “You understand you don’t fall here?” I have fallen in countless waters, and have never been afraid. I realize without being told that you don’t fall in here. It is at least twenty feet deep. If you go in, you have waders full of water, and 100 feet to get something under your boots before the rapid below.

Stevie Morrow knows when to dish out minutiae and when to cut to the chase. In some pools, he threatens – God save us – to bring out the white board and the dry erase markers, but here…… “Work your way down about two steps this side of the dropoff and throw it as far toward the middle as you can.” I elect for three, while also yielding to temptation to ask whether there is a strategy that embraces the other side of the dropoff. The border collies find this funny.

This river has a loneliness. The country is still empty relative to a small town, let alone a large city. One feels that one could break an ankle and starve to death 100 feet off the road. No one would ever come. Stevie fires up the jet and disappears up the river. He can see in my hands and my eyes the decades behind me, the waters traversed, and the hearts and lines broken. He knows enough to leave me to it, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. The border collies and I are alone, at least on this side of the surface. Beneath it we hope are steelhead, supposedly the reason for our presence here.

The ledge is littered with the carcasses of pink salmon. These return every other year to spawn here. In a time for most anadromous species of an endless litany of loss to warming oceans, commercial fishing, habitat degradation, dewatered rivers, and an overabundance of spey anglers, the pink salmon swims on undeterred, in reckless abundance. We searched hard yesterday in the parts of the river shallow enough to see the bottom. We saw two steelhead. Contrastingly, in the time it takes to compose this paragraph, several pinks invariably will pass, moving upriver to gravel where they were born. Such abundance compared to other species is not well understood, but it is a good thing. All salmon spawn and die, leaving behind their eggs in the gravel. As their parents rot on the bottom, their carcasses leak nutrients into the water; nutrients absorbed by their eggs. It is a miraculous, ugly, and beautiful cycle. The grizzlies are also big fans. I don’t know what they eat in the fall of the years in which the pinks don’t come, but this year I am walking in tracks the size of dinner plates in the morning. When I first came here, I asked why we were not fishing late into the evening, as the fishing is best then. The grizzly is nocturnal. Ah.

Cast. The line lands straight out and swings around until it is below me. Three steps. Cast again. Repeat hundreds of times every day. Spey casting for steelhead is meditative on the good days when your stroke is smooth and the wind is not blowing, as close to Buddhism as one gets with a rod in the hand. Deeply ironic, as it originated in entirely Presbyterian Scotland of the 1800’s. And so it goes. Halfway down the ledge, the border collies are looking less hopeful. My first stop when I get home is the hospital and a knee replacement. Mindful of this, I cast a wary eye on landing spots for my left boot, the one downstream from the offending joint. The ledge is dangerously smooth. Probably a million years of polishing at this spot. I continue to the tail of the pool, uninterrupted by steelhead and chaperoned by the borders, who have given up on a grab and are hoping for snacks in the boat at this point. I manage to stay upright, and Stevie rescues me and my friends from this bit of water.

I lie awake in my wall tent. Generator off at 10, so there are not many options. I think back to my morning foray this side of the dropoff. I am a salmon nearing the gravel where I was born. I know this, though it does not haunt me. A new knee may keep me in the water a few more years, but the keenness of my eye and the strength of my arm are failing. I do not know how my life will help the ones I leave behind after I die. It is not as simple as a rotting salmon in this river. Yet I have faith that I will matter then. And if today my left boot had made the wrong choice and I went one step too far, I know that I would have at least thrown my fly rod to where Stevie would find it, and it all would have been most well in the end. Though the border collies probably would have somehow rescued me. The young one has taken a fancy to me.