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.