Kalama 1991

On the way down I-5 from Canada towards Portland, you pass the chimneys of a paper and pulp factory, then an exit for the Kalama river. It seems implausible that you can reach a real living river from a interstate, but then, there's probably a freeway on the way to anywhere if you go back far enough. I slept last night in Vancouver, so I haven't travelled far at all. On the other hand, it was five thousand miles drive to Vancouver; before that, seventeen years and several continents since I first wanted to see these rivers.

Happy in the contemplation of a whole day to spend on a new stream, I roll down the window, memory and anticipation persuading me to expect the startling new clarity of morning near water. The paper mill's stench sensibly reminds me that the morning may be new made, but the world is not. To the people employed there it probably smells like a day's work, food and a house to sleep in: or, more likely, it doesn't smell at all. I'll be used to it by the end of the day.

The first stop is a pool beneath the hatchery outlet. The chinook salmon returning home tend to accumulate here, sensing the concrete rearing ponds of their youth in the narrow trickle spilling over the gravel. By this time the main run is over, the latecomers that are still alive are old and black, their first ocean strength spent in the weeks of waiting for rain. Their expectations are confounded by a stream which never rises high enough to run up. They line up in the shallows below the outlet, surging away under a strong roll of water when some fisherman comes too close. Some half dozen fishermen are here this midweek day, presenting a variety of salmon flies to the fish that cruise over the sunlit weeds and algae, their massive shapes clear in silhouette. Salmon will take a fly out of aggression, or perhaps some dim memory of river feeding: but these fish, in the bright clear water, are indifferent to all blandishments. I don't expect or want to catch one, but I like to see them, a mystery for once visible and present.

Another mile or two up the road is a fly shop of local renown. Inside, the usual discussions of times and places where the fish were, are expected to be, should have been but weren't, etcetera. Down at the mouth of the river, where it joins the Willamette, newly arrived fish are schooling, waiting for the river to rise. Asked about these, one of the men pantomimes a snagger yanking his hooks through the water. Snaggers operate by dragging hooks through water where the fish are thick enough that they can be foul-hooked - through the belly, in the back, wherever. It's illegal but hard to prove. This raises hackles in all the company: flyfishermen tend to a respect approaching veneration for their prey, so that snagging seems bloody, brutal and rude. Of course, it's unlikely that it makes any difference to the creature whether it is killed with curses or respect. It becomes a nice philosophical question, a bone of contention to be gnawed upon profitlessly. Although it makes me feel better to address the fish with a decent humility, playing a game that requires some understanding of their simple alien world, in the end I'm still killing something to eat it.

Out again, under the uncomplicated sun, more salmon are at their necessary business. These have withstood the delusions of the hatchery pool, instead making a difficult way up through the shallow runs, thrashing over stones in dazzling splashes. The smaller, brighter female fish hangs over the hollow she has dug in the gravel, surrounded by the dark looming males. Her pale spotted back blends into the brown of the stream bed, dappled with light gray shadows of ripples chasing over the surface. As she twists to beat against the hollow, scraping it deeper still, the silver of her flank flashes and winks out again, a kind of semaphore in an unreadable code. The males lie a little below and behind, queuing in an order determined by aggression and muscle. The smaller fish attempt to dart ahead, but are knocked aside by rushes from the bigger males. I watch this old battle appearing and vanishing again beneath the patches of rough water swept over the scene by gusts of wind: then stand up, moving faster than I meant to, but the fish flinch only slightly, the female not at all. I'm going further upstream, don't mean to pester these salmon with the glittering tinsel and flummery of flies.

Near the headwaters, a narrow concrete bridge marks the end of the legally fishable water. Fishermen call these last or first few miles the 'holy water': it is proper that sanctuary should lie above them. Beyond this is timber company land covered by saplings of recently planted firs, meagre in the vanished shadows of their elders, though the stream still runs clean. The river is thin here, its bones showing: the rocks of the bed poke out of narrow green coils of water, lie under impassive sheets of reflected sky. Somewhere invisibly below, the fish up from the sea are awake and patient in their element, waiting for what the water will tell them, to know the next thing. After several years of drought, they wait for the same thing as last year - rain to swell the flow and spike the currents with dissolved oxygen. These are steelhead, anadromous rainbow trout, called 'steel' for the blue and grey of their heads, and for their entirely surprising strength when caught. What does a steelhead know of foundries ? Beaten and burnished by the multitudinous perils of stream, river, ocean and back again, it is now as simple as a knife blade, driven by a single quick purpose. I am looking for these, the idea of them (you may have noticed) has an extraordinary power over me. Finding them requires reading the river, like a book in a new language, "like any writing to the illiterate"; deciphering the meanings of leaves that pause in the current, a curl of water on the surface from a boulder five feet down; things for which an instinct would need no elucidation, though dry observation needs a slow long chain of reasons.

A fifty yard run of white water, thigh deep, turns at a spit of small round stones, then runs into a narrow channel divided by a single sharp edged rock, before settling into the pool below. Auden wrote, when touring Iceland, "Too many stones, and all of them the wrong size". These stones, on the other side, are all quite right: slightly smaller than an apple, with a cool mossy presence and a comfortable heft in the hand. In the pool, the currents are thick smooth ropes of water, braided into the misty depths. If the river were running strong, there would be fish at the tail, resting in quiet water after fighting the current of the outflow. As it is, the probabilities are for the channel or near the powerful current at the head. There is shelter both behind a rock and in front, but steelhead usually prefer to rest in the cushion of water piled up ahead of the stone. Trying to remember all this, I wade into the brisk turbulence to begin.

After twenty minutes, every imagined lie in the channel has been shown the fly. Carefully, attentively, I have watched the tip of the line as it drifts, imagining the lure's progress as it lifts and swirls over the bottom. From diving in rivers, I know the cool gloom down there, under a bright and dancing sky: holding in a break of the current, seeing the drift of small particles of detritus blowing by, like travelling fast in one place. In all this, the fly is startling and egregious, tinsel ribs glowing over the black body under a white wing, red tail barely red, closer to purple in the deeply filtered light. Losing faith in this channel, so also I lose concentration, considering the broken surfaces of the water instead of its deeps. Further down, the river bends off a rock wall some twenty feet wide, extending fifteen feet above. To reach down that wall will take a cast thrown well upstream, allowing the fly to sink throughout a long drift. Planning these casts, but reflexively fishing the fly around the rock that splits the current, the awaited event is unexpected. As I write now, clattering on a keyboard in a cube of plasterboard in a cube of concrete, I still see her head break into the sun, watch as she allows the current to wash her from her lie downstream.

Tightening on the fish brings a fierce reaction. A swift run to the tail of the pool ends in the shallows with a jump that's nearly a headstand, the whole length of the fish arcing around to splash heavily down. With more water, she would have run straight out, racing with the river, and I might have been able to follow. As it is, whatever will happen will stay in the pool. After ten minutes, the fish hangs deep, braced under the main flow: far off, the rose and silver of her side gleams up through obscure complex patterns of water. The fish is too heavy and the current too strong to bring her up to the head where I stand. Attempting to cross here would mean a swim, but the rock wall blocks any other passage. A few cracks and ledges in it allow me to convince myself that climbing over is possible. Before starting, I watch the fish for several minutes, memorizing the details - a slight hiss where the line cuts the stream,weaving under the pressure, a thin film of water sliding up then collapsing in a smooth curve; a weight electric and dense held now in hand; glimpses of dusty rose in the misty green, through shafts of light let into the river. This is undeniable. Halfway over the climb, I lose a foothold, then the crack in which my fingers are cramped.

The fall breaks the reel from the rod, ending on a ledge some four feet deep. Rod in one hand, reel in the other, leaning hard into the rock and gripping with my elbows as the water pulls at my clothes, I traverse the ledge hoping that it won't end. An undeserved happiness, when I take up the slack the fish is still fast. From here it's easy, complicated only by having to manage the line without a reel. In the end the fish comes back to me, the powerful beats of her tail establishing a slow and waning time. I grasp her wrist between the tail and the body, keeping a taut line to hold the head up, and walk ashore.

Afterwards I contemplate the torn jagged metal of rod and reel. There is duration, since the wind is in the leaves and sunshine dazzles off the water, which speaks in its sweetly running voice. In the late afternoon I try to fish further, rolling curves of line out across the stream, but can't make it other than mechanical. Below the surface is a pure wildness. On this side, the quotidian - a wisp of foul odor from the paper mill, cars passing on the road above, a headache from dehydration, the edge of a worry about my wife in the city. From the timber farms through the valley of second homes, down under the interstate, this compromised river. In it lives the ideal, but how would the ideal know that? It is the 'ding an sich', the thing in itself. The ideal lives in my head, from where it is a long way back to the real.

Living at all times with illusions and regrets from the past, assailed by fears and dangerous optimisms for the future; trying to be merely in the stream, feeling the wash of its currents over my back. Why so simple a thing as catching a fish and experiencing its terror should place me so solidly, centrally, in being alive, I don't know. I am saddened that I need so much violence to live.