Friday, December 4, 2009


I set my brother up with a lightweight fly-fishing outfit for his birthday about a year ago. He loves to fish. We said we'd celebrate on a river when he was finished with the rehabilitation program at a methadone clinic. And we did. With our father, we celebrated his freedom from heroin, and methadone, the day before our Thanksgiving feast this year. The river was the Lower Salt, a tailwater trout fishery in the Sonoran Desert just thirty minutes from my brother's home. There are saguaro cactus on the rugged ridgelines and palo verde trees along the river's banks.

Trent is fourteen years younger than me. We've always been close in a big-brother/little-brother kind of way but over the past several years he's become a best friend and my screenwriting partner. Our writing partnership got started when he was in a detox clinic, kicking heroin. He sounded miserable when we talked on the phone. I said, "This has the all makings of a classic movie formula: the protagonist is having the worst day of his life when an even bigger challenge confronts him." I asked, "What's the worst thing that could happen to you right now?" "Zombies," Trent said. And Junk Sick was born.

Over the next two years we learned how to write a script and wrote one. We learned how to make a Hollywood pitch and we've pitched Junk Sick more than a dozen times so far, getting, like flyfishers do, everything from looks to plucks and, occasionally, that exhilarating strike. Our script has been under consideration by an indie studio for over a year now but they've yet to give it the green light. We've come close with two other studios during this time but we still haven't landed a Deal. Last month, Junk Sick was one of 10 Finalists for the Dark Hart Screenplay Award at the 2009 Spooky Movie Film Festival.

Being flyfishers, it's in our nature to wake early and try again. And it doesn't hurt that Trent's a musician and I'm a poet: rejection is part of our daily lives.

The people I've met in the drug rehab world during this journey with Trent are always quick to remind me that "Trent is a miracle." He is among that 1% that not only survive addiction but live to thrive again. Our friend Colin, a drug rehab specialist and a screenwriter, too, stressed how important it is for an addict to find something that matters more to him than his particular drug. When you understand the nature of a drug like heroin, and the physical changes it actually makes to how a person's brain functions, you appreciate what a tall order that is.

Fortunately, Trent found that sense of purpose in screenwriting. A life-long horror film fan, he always dreamed of writing a movie himself. Right now, he is writing a new script and an article under the working-title, "Writing Myself Clean: How Horror Saved My Life."

My Thanksgiving trip, and our heroin-and-methadone-free fly-fishing celebration, became all the more poignant for me this morning. I received an e-mail from a woman I loved many years ago. She wrote to tell me that her little sister recently died an alcohol-related death. She was Trent's age. Memories of our much-younger siblings tagging along with us on dates came rushing back. So many smiles. So much laughter. My heart is broken.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Tule fog threads the red tips
of bone-gray willow stalks. Water lisps

in an eddy’s clot, cackles through the riffles.
The murmur of crows descends on a downdraft.

The sand and gravel bar below the bridge—
inscribed by braided streams—is a mosaic

of polished stones, lost feathers, the skeletons
of spawned-out salmon: a cuneiform of death and drift.

How many mornings have I stepped into this river,
felt its inexorable pull—a muted ache

unspool an old affliction that never found redress.
And how many mornings have I watched the fog

gleam radiant with the sunrise—
a luminous blizzard of refracted light:

an alchemy, a transubstantiation.

My poem appeared in Inspirit Magazine in 2005. When I took this photo, just this morning, I knew the two would go together.

Monday, November 9, 2009


by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

This poem can be found in Even in Quiet Places (Confluence Press 1996). It's a plain-spoken collection of intimate and thoughtful poems. Stafford also had a way of saying something serious in a playful way. In a piece he called "Sayings for a Dedication Page," William Stafford wrote this about rivers.

What the river wrote we can read:
"Build on high ground."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


David taught me how to fly fish for trout with dry flies on the North Fork of the American. A generous and patient teacher, he talked me through the process of stalking wild fish in clear water. I was especially grateful to David last week—not only for teaching me how to fish these streams but also for teaching me how to teach my nephew how to fish them. Let me untangle that sentence though the following story.

Last week, I took my ten-year-old nephew fishing near Kirkwood Meadows. The trip started with a hearty breakfast at the Lucky CafĂ© in Sacramento. We both ordered silver dollar pancakes and bacon—appropriately hearty fare. During the drive along Jackson Highway, Riley called out the clues for the crossword puzzle in that day’s newspaper. We spent nearly two hours trying to solve them. When we reached the trailhead, we geared up on the tailgate of our pickup. We followed the creek through a small meadow and scrambled alongside it as it plunged into a valley—where it resumed its meander through another meadow.

Catching one of these brookies would require stealth and Riley was intrigued by the idea of thinking like a predator. We crouched in the pine tress and crawled through the bunch grass to observe the wild fish from the stream banks. They were feeding voraciously. Riley and I applied all the techniques David taught me to catch and release fish after fish that day. There was a moment—when I was moving Riley into position to cast and telling him just where to drop his Cutter Caddis—that I realized I was coaching him the way David coached me. I was using the same words.

I called David the next day to thank him for teaching me, and now Riley, how to fish that creek. He demurred and asked if I’d teach him how to swing for steelhead.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Writers talk about going to coffee with their characters; I go fishing with mine. Most mornings I’m in the water at first light, swinging a wet fly and listening to the river and the city start their days. Sometimes, my stainless steel coffee mug is hot against my chest inside my waders’ bib. The smell of Coffee Works Italian Roast mixes with the cool air rising off the water.

I’m getting to know the American River, step by step. Several dozen times each morning I lift my spey rod, sweep the tip out and across the river, lift again and feel the D-loop form behind me—loading the rod—then make my forward cast. When all goes well I toss a mend in the line and let the fly swing across the current. At the end of the swing I let the fly dangle for as many seconds as my patience allows. Then I strip in line and take two steps downstream.

Lift, sweep, load, cast, mend.

While I’m getting to know the American I’m also getting to know the characters in Marian’s Mandala, the screenplay I’m currently writing. I bring them to the river with me—sometimes in my conscious mind, always in my subconscious.

Lift, sweep, load, cast, mend.

I’ve met new characters on the river, too. I knew Marian well—from the start. She and her adult son are the script’s co-leads. Their relationship with Tom, her husband and his father, is essential to understanding their relationship with each other. The problem was that I didn’t know Tom. We hadn’t been fishing together. We’d never sat down over a cup of coffee. I tried to write around him for almost a year but I was getting nowhere. I reached a point where I thought about giving up on the script completely.

Lift, sweep, load, cast, mend.

And then Tom appeared, right there on the river with me, the details and the meaning of his life unfolding with each step we took together downstream. Since meeting Tom, I’ve fished the last hours of daylight several times. He’s the kind of character you want to have a beer with—maybe even a wee dram of whiskey.

Monday, September 21, 2009


A twenty-fish day on the Trinity; swinging wet flies. This would be an epic fish tale if it weren't for the fact the average length of those twenty fish was probably six inches. Palm-of-the-hand fish, I thought to myself, admiring the parr marks on the next generation of steelhead. Maybe, a palm-of-the-hand story.

A palm-of-the-hand story is a literary form developed by the Japanese novelist, and Nobel Prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata. Throughout his life, Kawabata wrote short short stories that many consider the novelist's equivalent of the haiku: rich in content yet extremely compressed. Kawabata said of his stories: "Many writers, in their youth, write poetry: I, instead of writing poetry, wrote the palm-of-the-hand stories."

My Trinity River fishing story began in Roseville at a steelhead clinic taught by John Fachetti; with the gracious gift of a steelhead fly, tied by John himself; and a tip to swing it through the run behind the Del Loma RV Park. It was at the Del Loma that I met Patrick and Michelle, the park's owners, and learned more about the fly John gave me. Patrick told me that more than one generation of John Fachettis have fished the Trinity and the fly the youngest Fachetti gave me is a local favorite. John actually learned to tie the fly at the Del Loma when he was boy, from an older gentleman who nurtured his interest.

The fly was effective. It worked on the run behind the Del Loma, and in every run I swung the day my wife and I floated the river with Patrick. While other fisherman pulled twenty inch salmon out of the deep holes using crawdads and sardines for bait, I plucked little fish from the seams, one after another. My heart jumped during the first five or ten grabs and, for a long while, at least, I enjoyed the opportunities to observe the wild fish closely.

I'd come armed for an adult Trinity River steelhead, though, with my seven weight, 13'9" spey rod. As such, I didn't know there was a fish on half the time. To prevent sending one of the little guys on the single-spey ride of his young life, I lifted my rod tip carefully before initiating each new cast to check for a fish on the line.

And so my days went. Each palm-of-the-hand fish an exercise in both patience and persistence. They were preparing me, I told myself, for larger fish to come. The way Kawabata's palm-of-the-hand stories prepared him to write his great novels.

Eventually, a great fish did take that fly. But not on the Trinity. I connected with a sea-bright steelhead my first morning back in Sacramento. At first light, I swung through a run on the American that lower flows had made accessible. The silver fish smashed John's fly and ran and jumped and dove and jumped again, and again. Then he was off the line and gone.

Part of me wished I'd landed him. Okay, most of me. But after bringing so many little fish to hand the previous days, I have a new appreciation for the cliche: "the one that got away." I'm still thinking about that fish today.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Everyone, it seemed, was getting ready for the Labor Day Weekend. My wife was shopping for exterior house paint. I was trying to beat a deadline for a book of poems I'm reviewing. Then Adrian called. "Up for a crack of dawn float tomorrow morning? Jason and I want to check out the Arden rapids at these lower flows." The book review would have to wait. "Count me in," I said.

Flows were down to 2,300 cfs and the guys were getting ready to teach a steelhead clinic. Time for some crop-checking, as the farmers in my family call it (you can read more about this venerable tradition in an earlier post). We put in at Rossmoor at first light and took out at Gristmill a few hours later. Along the way we noted good swinging water, changes in the riverscape, and realized we weren't the only people out on the river getting ready for the weekend.

Sheriff's rescue was on the water, running up- and downstream at will in their high-powered inflatables. One crew was kind enough to slow down as they passed and point to a place they'd moved fish. Our drift boat moved a pod of four salmon. Jason spotted them while standing in the bow. They shot off at a right angle and we all scrambled to get a look at them.

Our urban river always offers something unpredictable. When Adrian and I floated the river a week or so ago we saw a naked hiker, strutting along the riverbank, t-shirt wrapped around his head. This week we saw a man, fully-clothed, walk into the river until he was fully submerged. As we got closer he resurfaced, and we saw he was carrying a net in one hand.

We floated past half-a-dozen homeless people setting up lawn chairs for a good view of the infamous Mud Island. Front row seats for the inevitable collegiate mud wrestling festival that breaks out during holiday weekends. Despite the ban on alcohol.

Days later, I'm still thinking about the middle-aged woman we saw standing on the riverbank, looking lost and lonely. She watched us drift by, not bothering to shield her eyes from the intensifying sun. Hands hanging at her sides, she just watched. There was poetry in that moment. Which reminds me, I better get back to that book review. I want to go fishing tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2009


We chose an olive E/C caddis, our go-to fly, a fly that drew at least a dozen hard strikes from wild rainbows during our trip to the Ishi Wilderness a couple of weeks ago. On that trip, my niece Kennedy was really getting the feel for casting and her dead-drift presentation was nearly perfect. The sudden strikes startled her, though, or made her laugh so much she either didn’t think to set the hook or she snatched the fly away from the fish’s eager mouth—much like her uncle does.

On this trip, we were fishing the edge of a Desolation Wilderness lake we’d backpacked to and we could clearly see the fingerlings schooling around sunken logs and sedges. We spotted an occasional three-inch lunker so we decided to cast a fly. “We’re going to need a really small hook,” Kennedy said, leaning in to study the open fly box with me. That's the main reason we chose the olive caddis. It was simply the smallest fly we brought along.

When her younger brother, Riley, caught his first fish on a dry fly he launched the little creature through the air and onto the granite slab behind him. Kennedy was going to be more cautious when she had a fish on, she said, and she was. Despite being photographed while suspended in midair, the little fish was returned safely to the water. Actually, the fish in the photograph was the second fish she had on the hook. The first fish on was eaten right before her eyes by a bigger fish: a true National Geographic moment.

Kennedy was thrilled to catch her first fish and considered the fingerling an excellent starter fish. I was thrilled by everything associated with the moment: the five mile, uphill hike she handled like a trooper; her ability to pitch her own tent and help me and her Auntie Kathy establish a comfortable camp; and her willingness to pump water and tend to other camp chores. But I was especially thrilled by her genuine excitement over the four weight outfit I put together for her before the trip.

Kennedy and I consulted several times during what she believed was a hypothetical selection process. We decided a four weight rod around eight feet in length would be just right for the kind of streams we fish on our backpacking trips. My friend Larry had recently loaned me his copy of Lefty Kreh’s Presenting the Fly so I was under his influence and chose a rod Lefty designed. Jason Hartwick helped me match the right line to the rod and loaded it onto a reel that had been waiting in the fishing closet at home for some action. “Is this a surprise?” he asked, eyes smiling, when I told him the rod was for my niece.

After her first fish, we walked along the lake watching for signs of active feeding. Ducks flushed and grumbled. The afternoon turned into evening. The wind picked up and we tied on a slightly bigger fly, a yellow humpy, hoping to draw out a bigger fish. We also wanted a chance at seeing the fly on the darkening water.

Kennedy’s second fish of the day and her life was bigger, that’s a fact, but it was little more than bait itself. Two fish on a new fly rod was more than enough for us to declare victory, though, and I suggested we head back to camp and help with supper. I smiled when she asked for one more cast, then one more, and another.

Walking toward camp in the dark, Kennedy twitched and wiggled her new rod, getting to known its personality. “Uncle Shawn,” she said, “I think this is going to be my lucky fly rod.”

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Anchor Point Fly Fishing's Adrian Psuty swinging home waters.

A wild steelhead caught and released right here in river city (Photo by Adrian Psuty).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Bill Baird was an Outdoorsman. Born in Pine Valley, Oregon, in 1913, he began fishing and hunting to help feed his rural family when he was still a boy. This way of life suited him and he could tell story after story about the deer, the pheasants, the trout, and the salmon that sustained and nourished him both physically and metaphysically.

During his last years in the field with us, Bill tried to get into the spirit of catch-and-release. Kill-and-eat remained his mantra, but he indulged our younger-generation ethics graciously. He knew, far better than us, I'm sure, that times had changed. Bill died at 93 and he is the reason I started to fly fish.

One time when Bill was down from Idaho to visit his son, Larry, he pulled me aside to express a concern. "I'm worried about my boy. He's not going fishing nearly enough." Larry is my friend. He was also my professor and a professional colleague. Larry had asked me if I was interested in fly fishing many times over the years but I wasn't quite ready for the quiet sport.

Then there I was in Larry's kitchen with Bill. "Take my boy fishing," he said. "He needs it." How could I refuse?

Ten years later, Larry and I are experiencing a particularly, even by our standards, unproductive day of fishing on the Lower Yuba. Flows are high and it's hard to tell where a fish might lie, especially a feeding fish. I suggest we rerig to fast-sinking polyleaders and strip streamers, and Larry agrees. Rerigging also offers us the chance to pull a couple of river-cold Black Butte Porters out of our stash spot. We sit down on the cobbled bank.

A pair of nesting Osprey call out. The sky goes from clouds to sun then back to clouds. There's a light sprinkle of rain. And the sound a river makes. You know the sound.

Larry chooses a "pimp" from his streamer box, a fly Jason Hartwick turned us on to earlier this year. We try to come up with a tagline for an ad. Lines like, "my pimp swings for steelhead," and other boyish things. The beer goes down smoothly.

Thanks, Bill, for bringing me to this moment on a river with your boy.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


After getting shut-out yet again on the Lower Yuba, I admire the moonrise with fisher-lawyer David Abelson. Dave asks me a question taken straight from my poem, Asked A Philosophical Question While Fishing Off Paradise Beach:

"Any luck?"

I answer with the poem's last lines:

"How to answer? In a world of achievement, I have no fish."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


There’s nothing quite so fun as fishing with kids. Especially, I’ll assert, my niece and nephew. Kennedy and Riley are thirteen and ten years old, respectively, and a day on a river with them is a mixture of earnest dry-fly presentations into tight shadows under bay trees, and joyous Huck Finn explorations. Invariably, after proving his prowess by landing a fish, Riley lures his Auntie Kathy away on a river scramble. Last weekend, the rugged and storied country in and along Mill Creek, in the Ishi Wilderness, nurtured our collective spirit of adventure. But first, let me try to discourage you from exploring this backcountry treasure that I’d really rather keep to myself.

Rattlesnakes. Twenty-five miles of dirt roads that climb up and down river canyon walls. Black bears. No cell-phone reception. Mountain lions. Not a single drive-through espresso stand after you leave Chico. More rattlesnakes. A vile-smelling pit toilet at a primitive campground with no potable water. Still with me? Fine. Then I’ll mention Mill Creek still supports salmon and steelhead runs, and a hearty resident rainbow trout population. These are wild, native fish in wild country that took a dry fly aggressively. E/C Caddis, Elk Hair Caddis, and the Yellow Humpy all drew strikes.

Mill Creek drains snowmelt from Mt. Lassen to the Sacramento River and on to the Pacific Ocean. Volcanic terrain, the canyons are deep V cuts. At some points it’s over a thousand feet from rim to riverbed. For at least four thousand years it was home to the people known as the Yahi, a sub-tribe of the Yana. They were hill people who followed seasonal routines and rituals that depended on gathering acorns to make a flour and a soup, and the annual return of the salmon. These great fish were taken with two-pronged, wooden harpoons and nets, then dried, smoked and stored in woven baskets to sustain the Yahi through the long, harsh winter. The Forty-niners actually called the Yahi the Mill Creeks, and the two cultures collided with disastrous consequences—for the Yahi.

But Mill Creek itself still teems with life. The salmon still come in on the high water of the spring runoff then hold in the creek’s deep pools throughout the summer. On our next summer visit, we’re bringing swim goggles. If we make it back to Mill Creek this fall, we may get to see the salmon spawn—the end of their lifecycle and the beginning of the next generation.

Mill Creek runs through the federally-designated Ishi Wilderness, named for the last surviving Yahi, a man many of us learned about as kids in school: “the last wild Indian.” You may recall that Ishi walked out of that wilderness in 1911 and, fortunately, into the care of University of California anthropologists and linguists. His name literally means “man” in his native language. A Yahi’s real name is sacred and secret.

Even when their population was at its greatest number, the Yahi people traveled no father north than Mt. Lassen, which they did each summer, a distance of four "sleeps" as Ishi described it. They favored the creek canyons of the hill country and avoided the lowlands along the Sacramento River. When Ishi walked out of the wilderness, he walked, literally, out of the Stone Age and into the Industrial Age. Starving, near death, painfully lonely, he walked out of his known canyon world and into an unknown world as a last resort.

I brought Theodora Kroeber’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (University of California Press, 1961), along with us on our trip. As I mentioned in a previous post here at These Rivers I’ve always been fascinated with survival stories. Ishi’s is one of the most intriguing and intense survival stories I’ve ever read.

Take a look at the picture of Riley again, smiling and relaxed at the edge of that deep pool. And remember Riley is ten years old. At ten years old, Ishi and a mere handful of surviving Yahi entered a thirty-five-year period they called The Long Concealment. They were, Kroeber wrote, “a macrocosmic nation victimized by the common killers: invasion, war, famine, and intolerance.” The massacre at Kingsley Cave—where thirty-three Yahi men, woman and children were murdered and scalped—and the kidnapping of several young Yahi led the vigilantes to believe they’d “wiped out the Indians.”

In fact, the few surviving Yahi became elusive to the point of invisibility. They jumped from rock to rock so they would leave no footprints behind, traveled at night in the creeks, or crawled on all fours under chaparral thickets a deer would find impossible to negotiate. They retreated into the harshest reaches of Deer Creek and Mill Creek canyons, ultimately establishing a completely camouflaged village on a cliff-shelf that was once a grizzly bear’s den. At this point only four Yahi remained in existence: Ishi, his mother, a sister, and an old man.

Their village was stumbled upon by surveyors in 1908, flushing its inhabitants like wild game. They ransacked the village, showing Ishi’s mother, who was dying and unable to flee, faint to no concern. Ishi returned to his mother when the intruders left but she died soon after. He never saw the old man or his sister again. Ishi was alone in the wilderness for three more years.

Before I travel into remote country like this, I inspect my pickup’s spare tire and make sure my jack’s on board. I bring an extra battery and ten gallons of water. I toss in all the odd-flavored Cliff Bars I’ve never quite felt like eating. If I had to, I know I could put on my rucksack and simply walk out over the course of a day or two. The point is, though, I feel the weight of the solitude in places like this as soon as I start planning my trip. I can’t begin to imagine the psychic weight Ishi felt during his three years of isolation.

There’s a photograph in Kroeber’s book that shows Ishi swimming in Deer Creek. He’s returned home with a team of anthropologists to demonstrate his lost way of life for them. His smile looks genuine and expresses a delight in the body. He is free, perhaps, for the first time in his life in his own country. Free to swim under the midday sun like Kennedy, Riley, Kathy, and me.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Fisher-poet Danyen Powell waist deep in wild oats, laughing at the obvious metaphor.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Once, I read a story about a Chinese poet who rode through the hills and valleys all day on his little pony, writing lines of verse. He carried two pouches with him. One was filled with blank strips of paper on which he would write about the things he encountered and imagined. After he wrote a line or phrase on one of the paper strips, he would put it into the second, empty pouch. In the evening, he would empty the second pouch and arrange and rearrange its strips of paper into a poem. Over a glass of red wine, I like to think.

I thought about this distant poet and his method when I encountered a deer’s foreleg along the Truckee River. Someone hung it on a pine trunk. On this rare occasion, my pocket-sized notebook wasn’t with me. It was back in the truck. These are new times, though, and new technologies are available to the plein air poet. My cell phone’s text messaging function enabled me to write a line, and send it to my own e-mail address.

Severed deer’s leg hung eye-high on a pine trunk.

The game was on.

As always, I watched for insects during my approach to the river. I kicked the meadow grass and shook the bottlebrush aiming to “match the hatch.” Grasshoppers everywhere.

Grasshoppers jump one step ahead on the meadow’s edge.

The day was hot. I tossed my thermometer into the water and soaked my hat. The sky was Sierra blue and vast.

One small cloud and the sky no longer empty.

Sixty-four degrees. Trout thrive in water between fifty-eight and sixty-four degrees. The oxygen content is just right in that temperature range. When the temperature is higher or lower they seek out lies with higher concentrations of the oxygen they need to breathe. And when the sun is high and bright the trout simply want shade like the rest of us.

Brown trout slumbers in alder shade.

Over the course of half and hour, the brown trout refused the dry fly, nymph, and streamer I did my best to present to him. I text-messaged the line about the alder shade to myself while standing waist deep in the calm spot behind a big boulder, after I eased my cell phone out of my shirt pocket—the highest dry place on my body. Then the rubber hatch was on. A dozen kids floated by on inner tubes and makeshift rafts.

A young girl giggles through the rapids.

I was as careful and deliberate as I could be when I used my cell phone in the river. I’d dunked and destroyed my digital point-and-shoot camera the week before, on home waters. As can happen when the flows are high, I found myself pressed into much deeper water than I’d intended to wade. My fanny pack was completely submerged and I learned its old seams weren’t waterproof anymore. Now my cell phone doubled not only as a Moleskine notebook, but also as a camera. I used it to snap the (low-quality, I admit) image of the deer’s leg.

Bright trout struggles in Osprey’s talons.

While I was texting myself, an Osprey snatched a Rainbow trout from the riffles, just like that, from the shallow zone at the downstream edge of a gravel bar. The bird carried the fish up and up, onto a tree branch. The trout writhed high above the river, over an abandoned ice pond’s rock walls. An ice pond that was handbuilt by Chinese laborers one hundred forty years ago.

The ice from the pond was used to preserve the flesh of the river’s wild Lahontan Cutthroat trout. They were packed on this ice and shipped on trains to supper plates as far away as Chicago. Perhaps millions of these much-desired "cutts," which ran about the size of a salmon, were harvested during their spawning runs. These spawning runs were very effectively put to an end in the 1930s, with the construction of Derby Dam and its associated water management practices. Imagine, humans put an end to more than 4,000 years of a wild trout species's spawning run.

The river's dark memory pulls at stones beneath my feet.

Truckee’s Chinatown was the second largest in the West when workers built the Central Pacific railroad over Donner Pass, across the Sierra. Standing in the river, I thought about the transience of the Donner Party, the Chinese laborers, and finally the near-mythical Lahontan Cutthroat—all here on the Truckee River in their times.

Later that night, while drinking a glass of red wine, I thought about the Chinese poet and began assembling the day’s lines into a poem.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This week, I encountered wildness in two unique and diverse ways. First, I connected with a steelhead on the American, a rare event during the summer season. With the flows high and the river blown-out, my friend Larry and I went out to practice casting in the evening. Larry introduced me to fly fishing years ago but that’s another story.

We went to a favorite spot on the river, a place that gave us room to cast and didn’t present a wading risk. A side channel that usually runs low was ripping. Where it rejoined the main channel a nice bucket formed in the slower moving, oxygenated water. If a steelhead was in the river, I thought to myself, it would be right there.

In case one was, I tied on my go-to low-visibility streamer and swung it into the lie. Most of me thought there were no fish around, so when line spooled off my reel and headed downstream it took me a moment to realize a fish was on. Through the connection of wet fly, fly line, and fly rod, I felt that predator take his prey and turn back into the current. I applied pressure and he reacted. After a leap, a flash, and an exquisite barrel roll this silver fish was gone. To experience such wildness is why I fish for steelhead. And that such wildness exists in an urban river helps me begin to understand one of Thoreau’s famous quotes.

“In Wildness,” Thoreau wrote, “is the preservation of the world.” In an essay of the same name, Jack Turner writes that there is a “tension between wilderness as property and wildness as quality.” Turner, a philosopher turned climbing guide and writer, observes that fewer and fewer humans “have a concept of wild nature based on personal experience.” For this and other reasons “most of us simply don’t know what Thoreau meant.” Despite my own years in the wilderness, you can count me among them. For me, Thoreau’s quote is less a maxim, a saying with some proven truth, than it is a koan, a Zen riddle to develop one’s intuition. While puzzling over Thoreau’s koan, I experienced my second encounter with wildness.

That came in the form of live theater. My wife and I saw Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo performed at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. This stage play explored Thoreau’s koan. In the first of two acts, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class, married couple share a lazy Sunday. Despite being together in the same elegant apartment, Ann and Peter are each isolated in their individual spheres. Ann enters the living room from the kitchen and asks her husband if they can talk.

She cautiously questions whether the life they’ve chosen, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship,” was the right one. They’ve tamed their lives, and those of the children, the cats, and the caged birds we never see but assume are in their own safe places. She asks Peter if it he thinks it’s possible to make contact with their animal selves. She wonders if a place to make contact with that wildness is in sex, asking why they can’t make love like wild animals. Peter becomes uncomfortable because he fears the primitive wildness he knows is in him, and confesses that he’d lost control over it once when he was in college. That event still causes him to live cautiously, with restraint.

To escape the discomfort caused by the conversation, Peter essentially flees the apartment and, in the play’s second act, encounters a dangerous wildness in the form of Jerry, a self-described “permanent transient.” The park where they meet could as well be a wilderness. Albee, the playwright, doesn’t let Peter escape this difficult conversation or avoid its tragic outcome. Civilization’s thin veil is torn for him. He is no longer in control of things and he must act. Whether or not he acts to save himself from a life of quiet desperation, back in the apartment, is left unanswered.

Before I go, I want to explain that the title to this blog post is a line from “The Silver Fish,” a poem I once wrote. It appeared in Runes, an especially-well-conceived literary journal. The poem’s inspiration began with a Chinook salmon I caught near the Farallons, twenty-five miles off the Pacific Coast. A fish I brought home and grilled “on the fire I built in my backyard.” I went on to write, “His taste was the lost memory of my wildness.”

Whenever I bring a steelhead to hand its wildness stirs my genetic memory. Wildness is a quality you can feel. And sometimes, I still feel that wildness in myself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


This is a photograph of my father on his 74th birthday, smiling and laughing after a dunking in the fifty-degree tailwater at Lees Ferry. Minutes before I snapped this pic Dad was floating calmly downstream, feet first, waders filling with water, taking care not lose track of the fly rod his son gave him while using his arms like oars to steer himself in the style of a seasoned driftboat guide. I moved into position below him and gave him a quick assist into shallower water and to his feet. As is always the case when the unexpected happens, his eyes sparkled with delight as he extolled the virtues of an invigorating swim.

Clearly, I inherited what a friend once called “the sick gene” from my dad. Richard diagnosed me with this genotype during a midnight march out of the Tuolumne Meadows backcountry. We’d spent a spectacularly long day with our wives on the Matthes Crest Traverse and staggered our way toward the trailhead in the dark with two headlamps between us. “The worse things get,” Richard said to me, “the happier you get.” Actually, I was hungry-loopy going on dehydrated-delirious rather than happy but it had the same effect a good attitude has on getting one through a rough spot.

My dad’s good attitude came to mind again the other day when I was reading Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. I’ve been fascinated by survival stories since I was a boy and read Slavomir Rawicz’s epic, The Long Walk. The tales in Gonzales’s outstanding book affirm the attributes that carried Rawicz, and six other escaped prisoners, thousands of miles on foot from a Siberian Gulag to British India: Stay calm, be decisive, and don’t give up.

My early interest in survival stories eventually led me southern Utah, way back in the eighties, and into the care of an outdoor survival school. Upon completing the demanding, 30-day program I was invited to sign on as an apprentice instructor. I jumped at the chance and stayed in the field for another 75 days. During that extended summer, I experienced everything from flash floods under lightning skies to the biting deer flies that made the most pious students among us question Intelligent Design. Along the way, I learned first hand that the key to survival is to stay calm, be decisive, and don’t give up.

I’d like to add one thing to Gonzales’s maxim for survival, something essential that I learned from observing my father. Laugh.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


My friend June and I enjoyed the last day of her namesake month skating caddis flies from dusk until dark. We knew right where to be because I’d run into Jeff Putnam on the river, earlier in the day. He said the shad were taking caddis off the surface the night before—upstream a ways. Jeff spends about as much time as anyone on the American River—where he guides and teaches all aspects of fly fishing—so I knew the intelligence was legit. He was kind enough to point out the very fly in my fly box that the fish were taking.

Naturally, that fly was sold out at the fly shop when I swung by for more, but while I was there I got word that the flows might be increased that night by as much as 1,500 cubic feet per second. About forty percent. Now was the time to get out on the river. When I relayed this information to June she borrowed a line from California surf-culture: “we gotta do a go-out.”

Once again we marveled that we were standing in a river, watching a sunset while the swallows fed on a caddis hatch, mere minutes from our urban homes. After it was too dark to fish, we lingered in the park drinking Black Butte Porter. I enjoyed another pull on the stub of a cigar that’s traveled in my fishing vest since January. We wondered what the river would look like the next day if the releases were made. I told June I’d do some crop-checking and let her know.

Crop-checking is a venerable tradition practiced by the farmers in my family—back in North Dakota. On any given day someone might get a notion to check on the soybeans in a neighbor’s field. Or wonder if the wheat is ripening on the farms closer to the Red River. Everyone not pinned down at the moment will cram into a pickup and hit the section road, stirring up dust while surveying the land. That’s what I did this morning.

My route took me over the H Street Bridge for a look upstream, up Fair Oaks Boulevard to the Watt Avenue Bridge for a look downstream, and onto highway 50 to the Howe Avenue Bridge for another look upstream. The circuit ended back where it started at the H Street Bridge for the downstream angle along the golf course. From there, I could check my go-to landmark, Duckshit Island.

You won’t find that name on a map but I haven’t been able to call it anything else since the time I half-swam, half-crawled out of the current and onto its sand and gravel safety. That was the first time I flooded my waders. Actually, Canada Geese did the dirty work but I like the sound of duckshit. It resonates on my poet’s ear.

I decided I wanted a longer look at the river than passing over it at thirty miles per hour allowed so I parked my truck and walked out on the bridge. The river was running high and fast. I watched the water, which this ecosystem will so desperately need during the coming fall and winter to support spawning salmon and steelhead, flow copiously over Duckshit Island. I muttered to myself: All that water flowing south on the first day of July.

My years working in environmental planning and policy taught me that any conversation about allocating water—or using any natural resource—is inherently complex. Driving home, I wondered why it is, though, that we still seem so unaware of how interconnected we all are in this great web of life. Then I pulled into my driveway, where I was confronted with my own role in taking a precious resource away from the lives that depend upon it. Lush lawns as far as my eye could see.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


In Self-Interviews, James Dickey wrote, “I think a river is the most beautiful thing in nature. Any river.”

The past week took me to several rivers, streams, and creeks—in the company of new and old friends. It was just what I needed after a couple of whirlwind weekends. The first weekend was spent reading a selection of my poems in Santa Rosa at the Londonberry Salon. What a delight. The next was spent pitching Junk Sick, the script I co-wrote with my brother, Trent, at an event called PitchFest! down south in Burbank. It was intense. Months before the Londonberry Salon reading and PitchFest!, I signed up for a trout clinic at Ralph and Lisa Cutter’s California School of Flyfishing. The timing couldn’t have been better. I needed some river-time.

A two-day program, mornings were spent studying hydrology and entomology in a classroom setting. Ralph understands rivers like no one I’ve met, including my Fluvial Processes professor back at Arizona State—who was top shelf. Ralph’s knowledge is unique in that it includes countless hours underwater, wearing a mask and snorkel, crawling along riverbeds like an ephemerella tibialis.

The afternoons were spent on the Truckee River practicing wet- and dry-fly presentations and line-management techniques. The Truckee drains Sierra snowmelt in the Lake Tahoe area and flows north, then east, for 140 miles—into Nevada’s Great Basin. We spent our time downstream from the Town of Truckee in a section of the river that is a designated Wild Trout Stream. Only barbless flies are allowed and catch-and-release is the ethic. Ralph taught us a technique for fishing a streamer that allowed us to swim it both downstream and across the stream. Using a goblin—sans hook for demo purposes—one of the most adept students, Steffan, provoked a wild rainbow. The big fish crushed the streamer and made instant believers of us all. I’m eager to see how a steelhead will respond to this presentation.

Ralph and Lisa have a way of simplifying the complex, and making sure you know what really matters. For example, Ralph explained the role water temperature plays in fish behavior. Understanding why and how trout react to changes in temperature helps the fisher find the best lies on any given day. Ralph suggested we all buy a thermometer before we spend $700 on a fancy new fly rod—as it will do more to help us catch fish. I’ll offer a corollary of my own. Take a class with the Cutters before you buy that rod. Or the thermometer.

Those two days on the Truckee would have been more than enough for me to declare the entire week a success. Fortune, however, continued to smile on me. My buddy David and his wife Carol were in the midst of their annual two-week summer vacation in a rustic cottage near the Sierra Buttes. They invited me to swing by on my way home. If you love rivers, the route from Truckee to Sacramento lies not on the Interstate. Instead, it passes through the alpine meadows around Sierraville, up and over Yuba Pass, and down along the North Yuba River through Sierra City and on to Downieville. David promised to take me to a couple of his favorite, and secret, headwater spring-creeks and introduce me to the redband trout. Part of me thought I should get back home and back to work, follow up on the pitches I’d made just days before in Burbank. But I couldn’t resist David and Carol’s offer. As my wife will attest, I’m not any good at resisting temptation. This was actually a done-deal from the get-go.

The landscape was spectacular, with abundant springs, wildflower meadows, and a golden-colored Black Bear that gave us several angry looks. “Interlopers,” he muttered, before lumbering off into a stand of pines. Like the bear, the rainbows in these remote creeks are wild, native, and used to calling the place their own. And they hit a caddis dry with reckless abandon. I had great success with the downstream-dead-drift technique Lisa Cutter taught me two days earlier—once I remembered to be patient when setting the hook on a downstream take. This adjustment came after jerking the fly away from more than one eager mouth.

The fish we landed ranged from three to ten inches in length. In the first creek we fished the rainbows’ coloration had adapted toward a tint that matched the yellow-ochre of the rocks along the bottom. In contrast, the fish we caught in a creek that meandered through a boggy meadow were tinted a rich red to an almost blood-black. These are the redband trout David told me about. He made sure I saw the distinctive white tips on their anal, dorsal, and pectoral fins. Despite being in the second-worst mosquito swarm of my backcountry life, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Another nod to the Cutter family—and Deet—is in order.

Four solid days of fishing and friendship revitalized me. The brain cramp I’d developed during twelve pitches to twelve production studio representatives and movie agents, during two two-and-half-hour pitch sessions, was eased as gently as the precious fish David and I released back into those streams and creeks. Back in my truck and following the North Yuba home, fresh ideas for poems, stories, and scripts were rising in my creek-clear mind. When I hit the interstate my cell phone rang for the first time in two days—just as I entered coverage. It was my buddy Adrian, wondering if I could get away the next day to drift the Lower Yuba River with him and Riley. Riley is Adrian and wife Teresa’s amiable Irish Setter. “I know it’s a last minute thing,” Adrian said.

Adrian runs Anchor Point Fly Fishing and guides the Lower Yuba, among other northern California rivers. Any chance I get to spend time on a river in his good company is time well spent. He is also a talented casting instructor and shares his knowledge generously. With his continuing help I’ve become a decent enough two-handed caster to be able to fish effectively for my favorite trout in the rainbow family, the steelhead. Switch casts, spey casts, snake rolls, and circle speys are not just new ways for me to hook myself in the earlobe with a streamer anymore. Adrian’s offer was clearly another I could not refuse. The only problem was I had a meeting the next day at 5:45 p.m. that I did not want to miss. “No problem,” Adrian said, and it was on.

The Lower Yuba differs significantly from the freestone river and spring creeks I’d explored during the previous days. The Lower Yuba is a tailwater fishery, created at the outflow from Englebright Dam. The trout-friendly water temperature is consistently cold year-round because water is released from the lower depths of Englebright Lake. These are optimal conditions for the resident wild rainbows and for the seasonal spawning runs of steelhead and salmon. Adrian and I both like to swing streamers so we scouted for productive runs. I always look forward to casting a new rod from Adrian’s arsenal and found myself adding several of them to my after-we-sell-a-script list.

The surprise of the day was drifting into a run of rising fish at high noon. Drop anchor. Tie on a caddis. The fish were taking but I was missing the hook-set—again. One aggressive rainbow followed the fly I jerked out of its mouth all the way into a magnificent, aerial leap. Adrian and I passed the rod back and forth between us and we finally hooked a silvery-scaled rainbow. The set came just after Adrian ran a perfect dead drift with no takers. He handed me the rod to take my turn with the next cast just as the caddis skated. Fish on. We each claimed half-credit for the fish.

When I arrived at my 5:45 meeting that evening I was still wearing the river and a cologne of sunscreen. Being reasonable persons, my buddy Bill and I chose DeVere’s Irish Pub in downtown Sacramento as the place to meet for our strategy session, and Guinness as our fuel. Bill is another of the wonderfully bright people I’m fortunate enough to know. On the cutting edge of technology, he’s helping me make practical use of new media technologies to bring attention to my writing. At the top of our to-do list was figuring out how to make the most out of my pitches at PitchFest!

Naturally, toward the bottom of our second pint, our conversation started to meander, and we made plans to get out on a river together. Any river.