I am standing in my underwear while working for the government…
I hear gravel crushing under the weight of most likely a truck, racing down the back country dirt roads and heading straight towards me. My waders are stuck at my knees and clinging on tight as if they have sprouted squid-strength arms. The battle is unmatched because I am laughing uncontrollably, which weakens my ability to pull them off.
The truck is getting closer… My co-worker, Amy, comes around the truck and tries to pull them off of my leg but she is laughing so hard she can barely move as well. The truck gets closer and I forgo all efforts and pile down on the side of the truck to hide. The rednecks, with their guns mounted pridefully on their back window, stop to ask for directions. Our crew leader, Pam, quickly informs them of where to go. The truck races off and I scurry to the bushes to pee, something I am getting used to this summer working on the stream survey crew.
I leave my waders on and we drive down the road to check on the Kickbush Slide (the place where they built up the hillside to keep it from sliding). I follow Pam up to the hill to hear what she has to say because she is A GI 3000+ or whatever level is the highest in forestry government labels. I think I might be a GI -10 because my mom just got me the summer job through a college deal and she knew Pam. So I am pretty much unqualified and out here pretending to know about how the forest works and that I know why we are measuring everything.
She points to a pile of rocks on the hill with fencing over it and says,
“Look how nice this is holding together. What a beautiful project”.
I stare at the side of the hill that is literally in the middle of nowhere- a 3 plus hour drive to a gas station, and think- wow a million dollar project in the back country… I guess I am still not getting why this is so beautiful?
We drive for another half hour towards Lake Pend Oreille to meet up with our section of Gold creek that we are almost finished surveying. Pam parks on the opposite side of the road that is precariously perched on the cliff of the mountain. She walks to the edge and says,
“We have to go down here to meet up with our last survey spot”.
How does she do that? How does she know where to go without even looking at a map? She really is a GI level 3000+ because at this point I thought the river was headed South East. Amy , Paul- the other crew member, and I walk over to meet her at the edge of the cliff and I laugh. I say,
“Ha- Ha, this is some kind of new employee joke. You got me- I almost believed that we were going to go down that cliff.”
Pam laughs and grabs a handful of trail mix out of her pocket to munch on. Then after a few minutes she continues the conversation,
“You ready to head down?”
I look at her and she is serious, so I say nothing and try to act as collected as possible. I grab my back pack and survey measuring stick then peer over the cliff, brainstorming all of the possible ways I could die today. Pam goes first and backs over the side while holding onto brush that is conveniently placed throughout the hillside. Amy goes next and then our other coworker, Paul confidently climbs on down. I pray in my mind and face my fears of death by rolling into a river and mindfully (and shakily) place my foot at each rock.
Once I get a few feet down, I realize that “the cliff” is actually not even that difficult to climb down- I was being a sissy for sure. I start to wonder how many cliffs I have avoided because they looked impossible… (Deep thought- in case you missed it).
We climb through giant spider webs and teeter over log jams that have been blown out by the spring river run off. The brush is insanely thick at the bottom of the valley- I feel like I am walking through a giant’s long hair or the baleen of a huge whale. We come across a few bear beds that have been abandoned but are fresh. Pam educates us on the recent release of some grizzlies in this area about three years ago. Thanks, Pam. I start talking loudly (and singing Christmas songs) to scare off the bears and the rest of the crew thinks I am just being weird again, something I’m sure they are getting used to this summer.
We make it to the river and just like at our last stop of surveying, the creek is about 5 ft. wide and covered with logs. I can’t believe the government would have us climb all the way back in here to measure a creek that barely moves through the mountains (?). I take the height and depth of the pools and Amy and I use a tape measure to find out the length of the miniscule runs. Paul and Pam document the types of vegetation they see around the creek.
It is lunch time now so we take a break. We are all so tired from hiking that we lay down next to the creek on the ground and pass out for about a half hour. Spiders and bugs crawl over our faces, but the sound of the water rocks our minds to sleep like a room full of preschoolers passing out at nap time. Hopefully a bear does not come down to get water or else he will be genuinely confused by the not-dead people lying around all dead-like.
I wake up to Pam talking about the Bull Trout- she says that the Idaho Fish and Game (along with other people around the area that said it was a good idea) have planted a form of shrimp in the lake in order to provide more food for the Kokanee and Bull Trout populations to feast on; however, the plan backfired and so the shrimp actually ended up eating the zoo-plankton that the Bull Trout fry feast on- causing major setbacks in the already declining Bull trout population. She said that the mines and dams built throughout the area have also caused a significant problems for the Bull Trout to be able to spawn in its normal creeks and rivers; so what we are doing is documenting information for possible future restorative projects in order to open up spawning grounds for the bull trout (now I truly know why we are measuring everything).
I remember hearing that the Fish and Game tagged a bunch of Rainbow trout for summer fishing so that people would catch them and kill them in order to make room for the Bull trout and Kokanee fish in the lake. My redneck friend, J, decided to quit his summer job and ‘just try to fish for them big dollar trout’ all summer. [He made about $400 I believe.]
The more I think about the Bull Trout, the more I start to see them as a stuck up class of fish. My imagination starts to get funky as I picture the Bull Trout as the King of the Lake. His inferiors follow in front of him saying (or gurgling I guess):
“Make way for the king! Presenting, Mr. Bull Trout”.
I bet the Bull trout fry are rude to the other species of fish in school and play pranks on their teachers because they know they can get away with anything. They say,
“What are you going to do, teacher? You can’t hurt me, it’s the law because I am a BULL TROUT. Ha Ha Ha Ha… (Dark laugh)”.
Then when that little Bull Fry gets older, all of the other trout follow him around and he plays ‘chicken’ with a fish hook because he knows that they have to throw him back- because he is the king of the world (he doesn’t know he lives in a lake). I feel so bad for the fish in the lake that are being bullied by the Bully Trout.
My interesting time of imagining the underwater cultural ramifications of the snooty protected Bull Trout is interrupted by Pam saying it was time to get back to work. We start walking along the creek and measuring how long it is by walking with a tape measure. My eyes have been trained to search for deer sheds or various prizes one might find while in the deep parts of the mostly uninhabited forest.
Paul found a rare white tail deer rack last week and it made me so mad because that was the second cool thing he found this summer. My time will come- I just have to keep my eyes open. Since I never find anything noteworthy in the woods, I have turned into a rock addict and I am known for carrying 40 lb. plus rocks on the hiking trail to hide for later and pick up on the weekends (I was really buff by this time because of yet another strange addiction of rock hunting). I don’t know if it was the mines or just the way the glaciers raked through this area, but the rocks were beautifully shaped and held various colors that were all so original. Most of them ended up in my mama’s front yard because as a poor college student, rocks were my greatest gifts.
We survey our way around the corner and realize there is a trailer on the side of the creek up ahead. We move quickly and quietly through the creek and sure enough, as soon as we get about 50 ft. passed the trailer, we hear a crazy person yelling something about their property, the government and a few cuss words. We are in the creek so we are allowed to walk through their property, but I thought for sure they were going to shoot us and bury us where no one would ever think to look.
The woods people scare me more than any bear ever would. All the government gives us for defense in the woods is bear spray, and they treat it like it is a grenade- only the highest level of foresters can carry the deathly precious bear spray. But they did give me a whistle…thanks government, I guess I could try to do a Christmas melody just to freak the forest-dwellers out so they don’t cut my limbs off or decapitate me.
[Its ok though, ever since watching the Power of Shera when I was little, I have always know I have secret ninja powers that I could harness if I needed to (maybe that is why I always put myself in these sort of dangerous situations- no fear because of the power of Shera. Hoo-Rah?).]
About a mile after our white trash encounter, (that was rude- maybe they are just outdoorsy people that don’t like the government. I shouldn’t say white either because I didn’t actually see their faces)…. the river starts to widen out slightly and then it dives down into a log jam. Below the log jam there are several rocky areas that have been smoothed over by the years of water rushing over them. We decide that I will stick to the rocky parts to try to measure the pools formed by these boulders and the other two are going down stream to finish out the rest of this stretch before we have to climb the cliff and drive 3 hours back to base camp (ok its town, but base camp makes me sound really important).
I sit down with my metal clip board and start to examine the vegetation surrounding my pools, thinking about how we were almost shot at in order to save the precious Bull Trout (I say “Bull Trout” like a bratty child). The breeze blows softly and the melodic sound of water rushing over the log jam surprisingly makes me smile- I do have the best job ever. For a second I think about bears but then decide that I have spent so much time in the woods this summer and I have not seen one bear, wolf or mountain lion- I’m sure they have plenty of deer to eat.
As I go to stand up, I see out of the corner of my eye a fin braze the top of the water’s surface. I duck back down and slowly crawl closer to the water to find it’s the biggest fish I have seen in these creeks (or lake for that matter) and I remember it is more than likely a spawning Bull trout. When I get closer I notice its spots and decide it is for sure a Bull trout (snooty stuck up fish).
The fish is focused on maneuvering its way through the rocky boulders that have made the water shallow in spots. I stand up straight and the fish doesn’t spook so I slowly go in behind it and stick my hands in the water around it; it still doesn’t move away. I pull my hands together and actually pick ‘Big Ole King Bull Trout’ slightly out of the water. It’s handsome and we meet eyes as it pathetically gives a mild shake- probably surprised I had the nerve to pick ‘the king’ up out of the water. I lower him back down and hold on to him, looking at his shiny spots and glistening small scales and then I let him swim out of my hands. He apathetically finds his way to a hole, almost as if he is saying he isn’t afraid of me and I am annoying him.
My heart is racing because I have never had an experience like this alone in nature. I look around, hoping someone witnessed my interaction, but no one is around. I am pretty sure I am a fish charmer of some sort- with gifted fish hands that can calm fish like the horse whisperer calms horses. I run to catch up with the crew and tell them what I just did and they were not as excited as I was, but still thought I was cool, I think.
After my mid-day Bull Trout experience, I was hooked on working hard for the ‘King’ the rest of the day- measuring his habitat to make sure he had room to spawn and make more little Bully’s. I have connected the dots of why we were out here, driving, hiking, sweating and getting shot at by woods people: all to protect a beautiful species of fish that originally, without human interruption, would have been blooming in these rivers and lakes.
At first it seems like just a miniscule fish population and one wonders why that matters- but the bigger picture is overwhelming as we look at how the fish help handle the algae and the sea weed and how if that is not taken care of then the lake could become toxic, effecting the trees, effecting the people, effecting tourism, causing eventually pandemic death-by- fishy (I might have made that last part up). I guess the King Bull trout really do have a reason to be so cocky.
The long hike/climb back to the truck was less exhausting today; probably because I was so jazzed over cradling a Bull trout so I forgot to look for rocks to haul back so I was less tired, but for sure the encounter gave me a little more gusto in my step for the journey.
Holding that Bull Trout started in me an unexplainable desire to connect with nature- I crave it, I want to protect it and I get irrationally angry when I see people littering in the lakes and rivers or mistreating fish or animals- but I have to remember they don’t know what lives in these waters, their perception of reality is that someone else will pick it up. Even though I care about fish, I still fish because selfishly, I want to hold more fish in my hands and pull them out of their underwater world momentarily to see that they are there, and then let them go back to their way of life (or cultural hierarchy like the Bull Trout). It is a beautiful experience to hold another species in your hand and release them tenderly back on their way.
After my time working for the forest service fishery crew, I learned so much about fish habitat, but most importantly I learned a lesson about our perceptions of reality and that our perceptions are usually based off of our own understandings or fears and they are not necessarily the truth. I thought the Bull Trout was a stuck up selfish fish, but in the end the Bull Trout was a dying population that needed people to help save it and one let me hold him, which in some way changed the way I would do life from then on.
And just like the cliff I did not think I could climb down, or the bear beds that I was afraid to walk through, I had to push myself to challenge those perceptions of fear in order to learn that I can scale a cliff and I can go into the woods without being mauled by a grizzly. All of these challenges or fears faced made me a stronger person and taught me more about life, which I often think I have all figured out.
So again, I leave this awkward story of a inexperienced stream surveyor turned fish-crazy from a simple experience that is summed up in one word: Adventure. I look forward to the ways I will grow in life if I take those adventurous risks and challenge my own perceptions of reality.
Last awkward thought: I think at the end of the summer, the Rainbow Trout were so mad at their massacre that they revolted against the Bull Trout because they were so tired of their stuck up ways. But then the Bass came in (they are sort of the smart hippies of the lake) and said, “You guys are so stupid- you are all from something bigger, called the ocean, and you are just playing the human’s game by fighting like they want”. After the Bass’ intervention, they all decided to get along and to take their anger out on the humans by not letting their kids catch anything on derby day and parading around the lake educating the new fish on hook safety and chanting to fisher people, “Catch and Release, Catch and Release!”. Darn snooty trout population. It’s a true story.
Check with your local Fish and Game or Forest Service groups, or a Trout Unlimited group near you to learn more about fish habitats, spawning grounds and restoration projects! TU Link Click Here: www.tu.org