When the doors opened, it was the smell that hit you: almost sweet, but with the faint sour of turned flesh. The outsized fish—366 steelhead, to be precise, behemoth ocean-going trout—awaited me in a pair of cloud-white totes, voluminous and lined with translucent plastic bags. For a week, they had been thawing under the overhead heaters in the spawning house. Whenever the technicians needed to work inside, sorting or “collecting” the steelhead and salmon, they forklifted the totes into the March sunlight, aired out the place, hosed down the concrete floor. The flies enjoyed a taste, and then the fish were wheeled back in. But this was to be the last exit, for this batch. Soon more totes would be driven out of the freezer, where, for two weeks, the carcasses are kept at -10 degrees Fahrenheit to kill a parasite that will poison scavenging dogs.
Coast: the edge of land, or conversely the edge of sea. Range: a measure between limits, or the scope or territory of a thing. Coast Range, the debut collection of essays from writer Nick Neely, meticulously and thoughtfully dwells on these intersections and much more. The book’s title refers to the region in which these essays are set: the California and Oregon Coast ranges. In deeply moving prose equal parts exhilarating and pensive, each essay explores an iconic organism (a few geologic), so that, on the whole, the collection becomes a curiosity cabinet that freshly contains this pacific Northwest landscape.
I was drinking my coffee with Chuck Fustish, a salmonid biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. We had ridden together to the Cole Rivers Hatchery north of Medford to pick up the essential ingredient for tomorrow’s “stream enrichment” session. With other volunteers, we were going to hurl these bad boys, these noxious remains, into one of the Rogue’s nursery creeks. The idea was to simulate the natural die-off of salmon and steelhead, which no longer exists as it once did in the Northwest because of collapsed wild populations. These silver goliaths deliver not only thousands of eggs to their birth streams, but also all of the sea-won nutrients in their rippling elephantine bodies. It is a crucial delivery, a key gift to river ecosystems, but in Oregon less than 10 percent of historic wild salmon and steelhead still exists. Surplus hatchery fish, however, we can toss. Over 70,000 carcasses are launched into Oregon and Washington creeks each year.
The affable, and aptly named, Chuck wore a beige ODFW polo tucked into jeans below his stomach and a fluorescent orange ball cap that declared the agency’s role in regulating the hunt. He has ice-blue eyes, curly gray hair, and a face genially askew to one side, his mouth sliding as if in a permanent Wyoming drawl. As a young man, Chuck gave up that sagebrush ocean for Oregon and his obsession with big fish, which he first glimpsed in the gloss of National Geographic. After earning a master’s in fisheries at Oregon State, he migrated to the Rogue Valley, where he’d worked for ODFW for 39 years. He would retire come June, in just a few months.
One of Chuck’s diehard volunteers, Larry Butts, had ridden along as well, as he usually does the day before a carcass toss. Short and scrappy, with roseate thread veins in his pale cheeks, Larry had flown for the Navy and American Airlines before retiring to the Rogue Valley where he was raised. He was a fast but quiet talker, a fish zealot who drove a large green truck with a “Bend Over” anti-Obama sticker on the bumper.
Chuck, Larry, and company lob carcasses into the Rogue and its upper tributaries on ten Saturdays a year: salmon in the fall and early winter, steelhead in the spring, when each arrives. Salmon, “the king of fish,” are famous for their all-or-nothing, one-and-done reproductive strategy, known as semelparity: after three or four years at sea, they run inland—potentially hundreds of miles—and devote every ounce of their existence to broods of tangerine, oleaginous eggs buried loosely in gravel nests called “redds,” which the females painstakingly excavate and groom with their tails. Then, without fail, they perish. Their carcasses sink away or float to nearby banks.
In fewer numbers, steelhead also go to the ocean, typically for two years, before returning inland; but the strongest among them, especially females, fin back to the Pacific once more, rejuvenate, and attempt the epic spawning journey all over again in future years: iteroparity. Genetically, steelhead are merely a rainbow trout, a grandiose maritime one, and scientists aren’t sure why some trout fry become steelhead and others are content with freshwater. But probably this gigantism is genetic and an elaborate strategy, or anomaly, to bolster the species’ fitness: it hedges bets against the vicissitudes of a single habitat; it hides roe in disparate baskets. In any case, for our modern enrichment purposes, a steelhead carcass serves just as well as a salmon’s. Though a tad smaller and less iconic, it’s an analogous sack of nutrients. It likewise stinks to high heaven. This spring alone Chuck and Larry would let fly eight tons of steelhead into Rogue tributaries.
The forklift whined in and out of the aseptic spawning house as it hoisted the totes onto Chuck’s wooden flatbed trailer. It also loaded a third virginal tote between the laden, blood-spattered ones, just in case we needed to pitchfork some of the argentine bodies over to expose a frozen block below. “Otherwise,” Larry told me, “you’re sitting there with a crowbar and hammer trying to throw them into the stream. Tissue seems to hold its cold better than water.” But these fish had left the freezer a week ago and it seemed turning the fish over, like the fertile compost they were, might not be necessary. As I stood by the totes, a playful breeze swirled and sent me reeling.
“Aren’t they nice?” said Chuck. “You’re going to love it.”
“The smell takes some adjusting,” I said.
“It gets better,” Chuck replied.
Fading metallic, lightly freckled, the steelhead had settled into one another, each cradled in the soft valley of two more. Rather they had melted together: oozed, a mucilaginous film their temporary glue. On average each was four and a half pounds. Together they weighed 1,600 pounds. The genus of Pacific salmon and trout, Oncorhynchus, means “hook nose,” and their jaws had grown long and sickled, becoming the “kypes” that display their fitness, their desirability. All, or nearly all, were male. At the hatchery, most females are squeezed of their sunset eggs with the push of a thumb and hauled downstream in a tanker truck to be “recycled,” alive, back into the Rogue for anglers. But the males receive no such second chance, since they can’t be stripped of their milt and so might spawn with wild fish, diluting the imperiled native gene pool if they “stray,” if they don’t return to the hatchery. Their only second chance is enrichment.
It was only males in jeans standing around these fish, I noticed—me, Chuck, Larry, and several hatchery employees. It was to be that kind of guys’ weekend. We wended south toward Medford along the Crater Lake Highway, the Rogue gliding low and pitted beside us, bedrock visible in the river where it usually isn’t: a dry year. I rode in the back of Chuck’s cab, listening to Larry talk like a gentle riffle. Then onto a rolling back road through boutique wineries and old orchards, the famous Medford pear blossoms just emerged, pale and diaphanous, on their lumpish branches. Chuck prefers to avoid the main thoroughfares when towing fish so as not to create a public disturbance. “One time,” said Chuck, “we let’m go real good, spring Chinook carcasses in the fall, and of course the flies are real thick at the end of the year. I had a trail of flies going from here to Medford. They were all trying to catch back up.” No flies in our exhaust, so far as I could tell; the fish hadn’t been thawed for long, and it wasn’t yet the warm season. But our lone tailgater, a woman in a cream sedan, did pass us impatiently, and I wondered if it was Chuck’s languid steering or if she’d caught a whiff.
We pulled into the Denman Wildlife Area, Chuck’s headquarters, which rests in Central Point, adjacent to Medford, in the middle of the broad, fertile Rogue Valley. The unassuming office sat beside a tranquil pond with a view of snow-capped Mt. McLoughlin, 9,495 feet in elevation, to the hazy east in the Cascades. It was a World War II army building turned faux chalet: forestry brown, with evergreen shutters sporting the cutout silhouettes of rising trout and antlered bucks. We rumbled past to a rear gravel lot and unhitched the trailer beside an aged red barn with dust holding the light in its cavernous mouth. The fish would benefit from an afternoon’s sunbath.
Then we hit the highway, I-5, heading west a half-hour to Grants Pass to drop off some little steelhead hitching a sloshy ride with us in a plastic trashcan. Steelhead and salmon morph from newly-hatched alevin to fry, to parr, to smolt, the stage when the fish silvers—ocean camouflage—and heads for salt. These were parr. At the hatchery, they had netted from one of its 54 concrete ponds for “an experiment.” They were guinea pigs, canaries. They were going to be placed into a tiny creek, and if they survived, then ODFW would build a temporary barrier and pour in thousands more to “imprint” on the flow for several weeks. When the grown fish returned from the ocean, those survivors would rediscover their first stream—steelhead might be able to smell them from 13 miles away—and linger, trying to find a way up despite an impassable dam. It was yet another ploy to bring luck to anglers.
To my surprise, we pulled into a skate park: that’s what a nursery stream can look like these days. In flat-brimmed caps and baggy jeans sewn with graffiti letters, boys were swooping in and out of the smooth and sinuous dugout, a small concrete canyon, while across the lot a ditch ran between banks of mown grass: Skunk Creek. The water did look skunky, and most of this stretch was in full sun. But an incoming culvert dumped a froth in a shadowed pool, and maybe the fish would survive there.
As Chuck tentatively backed his truck toward the curb, Larry furtively slammed the butt of his fist against the door. Sounded as if we’d hit something, and we jumped. “Asshole,” hooted Chuck, with nothing like true irritability. A local, salt-haired volunteer in rubber boots was waiting for us, a member of the Middle Rogue Steelheaders. He would coordinate feeding and monitoring the parr. Chuck dipped his green net into the trashcan and turned it inside out, a perforated pocket, to count them as they tumbled like loose, living change into his palm. Ten, 11… 12. They had faint stripes on their sides like the shadows of new grass. He put them in a small wire-mesh trap, hinged, the shape of a barrel.
Larry and I looked on as Chuck sat on the tailgate to slide on hip waders and then he and the volunteer carefully climbed down the grassy slope to the pool half in shade. They were a little halting in their movements; they stepped circumspectly; and Larry confided in me then, “Another thing to worry about is that these volunteer groups are getting older, and younger people like yourself don’t seem to be joining. I don’t know if it’s that they just don’t care, or what.” Maybe, I suggested, it wasn’t apathy—though it well could be—but that youth are taking longer to home in, these days; that they are still in search of the places and things they loved.
We rubbernecked as Chuck tossed the barrel trap lightly into the water and tied it by a nylon cord to the bank. If these inconspicuous parr lasted in Skunk Creek, ODFW would open the valve of the tanker truck and pour in those shimmering thousands. Those little transplanted fish would grow into smolt and eventually the massive steelhead we’d left to rot in the sun in Central Point. “If the herons and boys don’t get’m,” said Chuck. If they survived the shallows and the deep.
We returned from Grants Pass through White City, the old World War II base turned industrial center of the Rogue Valley, which is surrounded by—intertwined with—nature reserves that harbor rare and endangered species like the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam and American pillwort. This savannah had been known as the Agate Desert and, in the patches of open space, you still can find not only semiprecious stones but also an endemic plant, the Agate Desert lomatium, found nowhere else. In 1942, Camp White was built on 67 square miles and soon became known as “the Alcatraz of boot camps,” because it was remote and tough. Replicas of German pillbox bunkers were, are, built into the side of Upper Table Rock, one of the prominent volcanic buttes on the north side of the Rogue Valley, and troops practiced storming them with live fire. After the camp was decommissioned, all but two square miles were sold as private real estate. But those two were donated to ODFW for the common good.
Chuck stopped for government gas behind a warehouse in White City, and then, as we climbed back in the cab and drove the final stretch back to the wildlife area, he asked, “Did you hear the one about the biologists who went to hell?”
Larry and I had not.
“Well, the Devil said, ‘Come on, boys, you got to choose.’ And there were three doors. He opened the first door and there were people in fiiiire, burning up, and the biologists said, ‘No, we don’t want this.’
“So they went to the second door, and there were people in there, and they were gett’n tortured, torn apart and everything.
“Then they went to the third door, and there were all these guys standing up to their waists in old, dead Chinook carcasses, just drinking coffee. And they say, ‘We’ll take this one.’ And the Devil says, ‘Okay, get on in there n’ get your coffee.’
“So they got in there with their coffee, and the Devil says, ‘Okay, boys—coffee break is over. Down on your hands and knees.’”
At the wildlife area, we found the remainders of Friday’s lunchtime barbeque. There was pepper-crusted salmon on the table with those no-see-um bones, thick and wet yellow potato salad, slim hot dogs, and Chuck’s offering: a plastic tray of crackers, salami, and other round, sliced meat. “That’s some good meat,” Chuck observed, sampling as we ambled into the kitchen. “Here you go,” he said, handing me a paper towel for a napkin. He pointed to the salmon in its foil nest and said, “I’ll go halves with you.” I forked six or seven lipidous mouthfuls into a New England–style hot dog bun and ate it as is, thinking about the long, fortuitous voyage this flesh had taken to my tongue.
The day’s main chore accomplished, Chuck insisted I pocket some cookies for the road. “Ah, thanks,” I said. “See you tomorrow morning for the toss.” I drove out the refuge’s gate and down the road through backyard orchards in anticipation of fitting in a hike up Lower Table Rock, where ephemeral pools hold fairy shrimp and, as Larry told me, “you can dangle your feet right off the edge.” But then I remembered: I’d meant to stay with the fish awhile, to honor them with a closer look before they disappeared tomorrow.
I U-turned, went back, parked, and walked unnoticed across the gravel lot to the red barn where the carcasses were basting in the raw light. The flies were waiting for me. A thousand iridescent, lapis backs lifted off annoyed, in a drone, but they quickly resettled, surmising I was an anemic threat. In the sun, the color of the fishes’ bony gill plates had ripened to a peach-orange. Their skin had dried to a taut leather that showed their muscular weave beneath. Their mouths were uniformly agape and barred with teeth curved like fangs. Piled all together, they seemed a deposition of unending hunger.
Twenty minutes later, Chuck found me lurking with my black notebook. He sauntered across the gravel in his neon orange cap, a Coke sweating in hand as usual, to clean out his truck and ready it for tomorrow’s enrichment. The fish were hitched and rearing to go nowhere.
“Couldn’t get away, could you?” he said.
“Thought I’d muse on the fish awhile,” I said.
The flies rose in a murmuring wreath as Chuck arrived and, after a pause, began to repopulate at a simmer. “Just think how deep we’d be buried in bodies if we didn’t have flies,” said Chuck. I wrote this down furiously.
Chuck then gave me an aerial tour of the fish, gross as they were. The bright peach-orange tint on their gill plates, the “operculum,” is their breeding hue, he told me. Their teeth only grow long and canine while spawning: They aren’t used for feeding, only for aggression or defense. The strange extra layers of teeth on their tongues are called “hyoid” teeth, but Chuck wasn’t so sure about those on the roofs of their mouths, which looked like the sharp, conveyor-belt rows on the jaws of sharks. “Hey, I never took salmonid dentition,” he said, drawing out the syllables. Steelhead feed to and from their freshwater rendezvous, but salmon don’t feed at all, Chuck reminded me, not even a little, as they make their one and only pilgrimage inland. “If you take a migrating salmon and cut it open,” he said, “it’s chock-full of eggs or sperm, and its gut is like a thin ribbon.”
“The thing that gets me most,” Chuck said as he surveyed the awful landscape of the totes one last time and began to stroll toward his Prius, “is how a fish this big”—he spread his fingers a few inches, the size of one of the minnows that we’d dropped off at the skate park—“can go into the ocean, swim down to San Francisco, and return this big.” He spread his hands beyond his shoulders.
It may be intuitive that a generous forest, a luxurious riparian buffer, benefits fish like salmon and steelhead. Trees are a stabilizing force. Salmonid embryos and fry are sensitive to temperature, and a lush, leaning canopy shades and cools the water, which lower on the Rogue can reach 80 degrees during the summer. Roots prevent erosion that can fill the interstices in redd gravel and choke the flow of oxygen and nutrients to buried eggs. Trees are also essential to rivers because they provide, and ultimately are, “large woody debris”: which lodges and creates scouring pour-overs; which then become stable pools that protect spawning gravels during winter floods and allow fish to rest. The larger the debris, the longer it lasts and the less likely it is to be swept off. In rivers thirty feet wide, generally only trunks a foot and a half in diameter withstand the most intimidating flows. Additionally leaf litter is fodder for aquatic insects that juvenile fish devour. Thus, along with overfishing, dams, and now climate change, the legacy of logging is a major reason salmonid populations have plummeted so sharply in the Northwest.
But what if salmon and steelhead are also critical to forest health? They are, we’ve found, and the reason is simple: their bodies are tidy packages of nitrogen from the ocean, packages that dissolve. Typically nitrogen—a component of both the chlorophyll used in photosynthesis and the nucleic acids found at the heart of every cell—is the limiting factor for vegetative growth in Northwest forests. Not much is available to organisms on land, but plenty dissolves from the air into the ocean, where it is transformed or “fixed” by certain microbes, turning into ammonium that other microorganisms can readily access and incorporate into their bodies. As a result, the ocean is fertile while the freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems are, in many places, “nutrient-poor.” Fortunately more than 95 percent of a salmon’s palatial bulk accrues in the ocean, where they feast on krill swarms that lend their supple flesh its orange-pink. Each returning fish embodies about 65 grams of nitrogen.
Scientists have shown that steelhead and salmon swim up into the trees, so to speak—especially salmon, because they are so well studied. The key to this discovery is isotopes: two or more forms of an element that have the same number of protons (which is essential to the atom’s chemical identity), but differing numbers of neutrons. A nitrogen atom usually has 14 neutrons, but less commonly it can grab one more. About 12 percent of the nitrogen in the sea happens to be of this rarer 15-neutron variety, while on the continent there is pretty much none.
Along streams, even far inland, researchers have collected foliage samples and ground them to a fine powder for spectrometer analysis, which allows us to pinpoint the isotopic ratio. An elevated N-15 to N-14 ratio signals a contribution from the ocean. In reaches where salmon spawn and die, up to a third of the nitrogen found in leaves is marine-born, the gift of carcasses. Core samples from these trees, which allow us to compare annual growth rings, show that the growth rate along these enriched streams is as much as triple and an increase is significant as far as 300 feet from the bank. Which means, at healthy spawning sites—at funerary sites—it might take less than a hundred years for a tree to reach that flood-resistant girth of a foot and half, when it would take 300 years otherwise. In this way, anadromous (“up-running”) fish are crucial for the vigor and recovery of forests and streams. They generate shade and debris that, in turn, support their own reproduction. And of course, the taller the trees, the farther away from the bank they can topple and still make a splash.
It’s a classic, exemplary ecological cycle, but this positive-feedback loop is terribly frayed throughout the Northwest. Only a fraction of the “nutrient subsidy” that anadromous fish once offered river ecosystems is still delivered. In extreme cases, up to 95 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous in watersheds once came from salmon, and their infusion of carbon also invigorated the food web. But Pacific salmon are now found in only 40 percent of their natural range and, within those waterways, they deliver just 7 percent of the nutrients of old. In the Snake River Plain of Idaho, notoriously beleaguered by dams, a paltry 2 percent of historic salmon numbers have arrived in the past 40 years.
In more ways than one, then, the strength of the run dictates the number of smolts that later will travel out to sea. Fewer parents mean fewer eggs, obviously; but fewer carcasses also mean the “carrying capacity” of the river gradually falls and, for lack of food and shelter, fewer juveniles will be able to survive down the line. In essence, the riverbank is overdrawn. You have a “net nutrient export”: Smolts go to sea, but adults don’t return. As a result, many conservation efforts are at risk of sabotage. A stretch of pristine or restored river might look like paradisiacal salmon and steelhead country, but if adult fish aren’t already running strong, it’s probably malnourished. Wild rivers can’t rely on the massive bags of fish feed that arrive on pallets at hatcheries like Cole Rivers, however. Or they could, but there’s a more holistic, if not transcendent, way to fertilize, to jumpstart the “riverweb”: one carcass at a time. In the words of Chuck, “Gives the whole system a shot in the arm.”
There were glazed donuts in the morning, and a waiver. Larry was there, along with two other volunteers, Steve Brummett and Tom Treese, both retirees. Steve was a lanky California figure with white hair to his shoulders, glasses, and severe cheek lines. He wore a baby blue UCLA cap, the gold of its Bruins “B” exactly matching his down Patagonia vest. Tom’s suspenders held up black rain pants. He had a full face, a trim gray mustache, and an ODFW volunteer cap—one of the perks of this filthy job. He’d moved to Medford from San Diego where he’d run a construction scaffold business, and he liked to remind us that he was born in Oregon, though he left as a baby. These guys squeezed into the cab of Chuck’s four-by-four with me, while Larry wheeled off separately to pick up the last member of the crew and endeavor to beat us to the toss site.
We took the Lake of the Woods Highway east toward the Cascades, past muddy ATV tracks and broken cars abandoned in fields. The white cone of Mt. McLoughlin grew until it finally sunk behind the green foothills we drove into. Earlier known as Snowy Butte, this stratovolcano had lent its name to Little Butte Creek, which soon we sailed across at 50 miles per hour. The size of a one-lane road, Little Butte ran swift and opaque with silt; 17 miles east to west, it empties into the Rogue across from Upper Table Rock. “Don’t let me miss the turn,” said Chuck. “It’s Lake Creek Road.”
No flies trailed us into Lake Creek, so named for a branch of the Little Butte: there are tributaries upon tributaries for fish to swim up and call home. The town was only a grange as white as a chapel, a log-cabin pioneer hall, a general store, and a handful of houses. Just beyond, we turned left up the South Fork of the Little Butte and followed it through ranchland studded with petite black oak, wiry and handsome. Past a turn for Dead Indian Road, the pass over the hills to Ashland, the valley began to narrow and evergreen. Then up ahead was a temporary Caution sign, an orange diamond. Chuck slowed and steered us around a rockslide in the middle of the gravel road. Amid the rubble was the tawny medusa of an uprooted madrone tree.
“Quite the fall down here,” said Tom. “Goodness gracious.”
“That’s a good one,” said Chuck.
“Damn,” said Steve.
“Don’t let Marian see all those rocks,” said Tom. “She’d have me over here trying to get some for the garden.”
We came to the end of the line, a concrete bridge with its piers buttressed by heavy riprap. Chuck drove the rig on and over and performed a careful three-point turn. “Come on back, come on back,” said Tom, waving into the side mirror. “There you go, looking good.” Obscure in the hemlock was Camp Latgawa, a Methodist retreat you can rent for your next gathering outside of Medford. “The end of the canyon,” reads its brochure. “The beginning of a journey.” In the language of the Rogue Valley’s natives, Latgawa means “those living in the uplands.” The Takelma people wintered along these tributaries, relying on steelhead and salmon, and in the summer they climbed the ridges to hunt deer, gather huckleberries, and escape the infernal heat.
Mid-bridge, Chuck cut the engine. “All right,” he said, “we’re ready.” Larry and John Thiebes, a retired ODFW biologist and our final tosser, had caught up and eaten our plume of dust, and now, without ceremony, everyone snapped on latex gloves the hue of clear skies. They hoisted the pughs—short poles with sharp, gently-hooked tips—from Chuck’s pickup bed and began to spear the long-marinated carcasses, one at a jab. They carried them dripping along the bridge, planted their feet, and flung the poles forward like lacrosse sticks. The fish twirled heavily outward, flashing and spraying, and crashing through the willow to another existence.
Chuck played foreman and supervised as the steelhead were skewered and sent packing. “John has got four on the bank so far,” he said, with a guffaw. The idea was to throw them into the water, where, in theory, they would have once died naturally.
“What!” said John. In his jostling green waders, he scampered to the bridge’s edge and peered down through dark sporty sunglasses, a tarnished fish swaying from his pugh. As a former regional coordinator for ODFW biologists, until recently John had been Chuck’s boss; Chuck told me that the acronym for John’s official title had turned out to be PRIM DIC, in all seriousness. But he was a really nice guy.
“Oh, shoot,” John said, dumping his steelhead over the side. “I didn’t even notice that, Chuck. I didn’t see that the creek went around an island.” The water’s flow was subdued this year as the drought in the West deepened.
“That’s all right,” Chuck said. “There’s crrittters that’ll eat’m.”
“Ooo, doubleheader,” said Steve, lifting two fish on his pugh, each grinning and dripping devilishly.
“Ooo, here’s one with maggots on it,” said John. They squirmed like extra teeth in the steelhead’s mouth.
The scene was the inverse of an old fishing site, I imagined, where natives and settlers alike would have lanced or netted salmon and steelhead from rocks at falls. It was tradition played in reverse, a renewal, a repentance for past sins: the ruination of spine-tingling fish runs. As the steelhead were ushered along the bridge, the morning light shone amber through the triangles of their flimsy tails. Sometimes the guys just shook them off directly into the creek. Sometimes they flung with all their might. Steve stood on the trailer’s platform and chucked, slow and steady. He stared each steelhead in the eye, holding it aloft; then he watched its body sink or roll away like a man contemplating his golf shot.
John Thiebes explained to me why they tossed them instead of simply dumping the whole lot. “There are so many little different currents in a creek,” he said. “The more varied you put them in, the more highly distributed they’ll be.” In other words, the proverbial butterfly effect comes into play: The slightest difference in where a carcass lands could mean a wild difference in its final resting place; could mean miles of drifting or whether a bruin scatters it through the woods to feed the trees. Tossed carcasses are known to wander several feet, to a few miles, to, in one recorded case, 12 miles downstream.
Chuck then handed me a clean pugh and I speared one through its rancid shine and lifted it from the half-frozen, sticky mass. Walking to the railing, I loaded the ponderous fish, its surprising weight, over my shoulder. Its jaws hung open as if in anticipation. It gave no objection. Awkwardly, it catapulted, remembering nothing of its fluidness, except for the fetid arc of ruby droplets that may or may not have decorated me.
Upon impact—smack—the leakage must have been explosive. Finally the river began to consume this steelhead, to reclaim its contents. A carcass acts as a “slow-release” fertilizer and, after a month submerged, will lose more than 40 percent of its mass, deflating like a bladder. Nymphs would crawl across its skin; a fungus shag would eventually coat it. Within a hundred feet downstream, a bumper crop of “biofilm”—a slick matrix of algae and bacteria—would thrive on underwater rocks and fuel-grazing insects. Aquatic invertebrates might increase eightfold, temporarily. Meanwhile, the willows, fir, and hemlock along Little Butte would absorb their share of downwelling nitrogen and invest it preferentially, not in root development or foliar maintenance, but in tender furnaces, new shoots and leaves. Leaves that would eventually twirl and drown.
“All aboard!” Chuck shouted, calling us off the bridge. We slid the pughs into the pickup’s bed and hopped onto the trailer. Ruefully, I gripped the juicy rim of a tote as we rattled downstream to a second, and then a third, tossing spot, both with an easy window through the willow to the creek. Midway through the morning, the bins turned a little soupy. The remaining fish sunk into a slush the not-so-vibrant color of uncooked steak past its prime. John dedicated himself to prying the bottommost dwellers loose from this icy slurry of blood and ooze with his gloved hands. Like a monger, he tossed the fish underhand onto the grassy shoulder between the road and river, where they bounced and skidded, and waited for us to stab and project them into the Little Butte.
Now you had to be careful where you stood: John kept us on our toes. Was he aiming for our feet? He was. One toss grazed my sneaker, and I knew my laces would waft for days. From a long way off, John then managed to torpedo Larry while he wasn’t looking. “Asshole,” said Larry with reluctant admiration. Luckily he was wearing a Gore-Tex jacket. Karma kicked in, eventually, when John’s hat fell into a tote. “Shoot,” he muttered, whisking it up. “Shoot” was an understatement. He studied his cap, and put it back onto his balding head though it was damp with mucous and serum. “That’s okay,” he reassured himself. “It’s my fishing hat.” But flies would orbit him later.
I found myself standing by Steve as the totes were drawn down. Each time his pugh punctured the loose bag of a fish, a pop was heard, a dismal sound. When he cast, he let go of the pugh with his trailing right hand and let the pole drift outward in his left with the fish’s momentum, just as you might cast a fishing rod. After a time, his tosses barely reached the creek. Twice in a row, his steelhead smacked off a dry boulder and deflected into the water.
“Bank shot,” said Steve. “I think I’m getting tired.”
The valleys of his cheeks seemed to deepen, to stretch into a grimace, with each toss. He began to wobble slightly; his follow-through carried him out of kilter so that he’d have to take a step or two. I imagined a heavy door might throw him off balance sometimes, as it does for me. We are both tall and willowy. Even as dead weight, these fish reminded us of their muscle and ours, and it was hard to say who was denser.
“I’m looking tired,” said Steve, as if seeing himself through our eyes. Stooped in the shoulders, drained. Under his gold vest, he was, in fact, a relatively slight man.
“I think you need a break,” Chuck said, stepping forward as foreman.
“I need a break,” Steve agreed.
Chuck took Steve’s pugh and hurled until, before long, the steelhead were gone and all that remained on the bank were dark stains on the soil and the frozen embers of roe scattered in the grass. Turns out, a few of the fish had been female. At the hatchery, they’d drawn a short stick and been offered no second chance. Or maybe this was theirs. I imagined that yellow jackets would find these pellucid orange delicacies and wing them off, glowing, like tiny rogue suns.
As Chuck gunned down the gravel with the lightened trailer swaying and clanging behind us, from the back seat I asked him and Tom what there was to be said, in the end, about the art of tossing carcass. We were headed back to the Cole Rivers Hatchery at Lost Creek Lake to get rid of the slimy totes.
“How about being damn good exercise,” said Tom.
“A strong back and a weak nose,” replied Chuck. “That’s what you need.”
“How about a strong back and a weak mind,” said Tom.
“That too,” said Chuck.
We took a back road along the Little Butte to its intersection with Crater Lake Highway, in the town of Eagle Point. The creek swelled to the size of a river as it slid past neat ranches with hay and RVs under open-air barns. Tom pointed out where he and Chuck had planted seedling pines or pumped farm ponds dry to kill invasive snails. He remembered his first carcass toss with Chuck, up another tributary of the Rogue, Elk Creek. That was seven years ago. The snow had been deep, unlike this spring. They talked of the guys who had helped them heave; they talked of those men’s wives.
“I saw Madonna the other day,” said Tom, who always spoke as if trying to catch his breath. “Went to that memorial for Linda Wood.”
Chuck nodded and said, “I thought that was pretty cool that they dumped her ashes right where they dumped his.”
“Yeah,” said Tom. “Jeff. Miss them both. Their daughters were real nice, very receptive. They called us that morning. She died at something like 2:30 in the morning, and I think by 7:30 the phone rang. It was Dina? Dina or Diane. Anyway, one of the daughters called and let us know that Linda had passed. Such a sweet lady… God, I enjoyed fishing with Jeff. He was just so nice. Wonderful guy.”
In Eagle Point, we rumbled past the historic Butte Creek Mill, founded in 1872, early for Oregon. It’s the oldest gristmill in existence west of the Mississippi, and the only one still active in the Beaver State. Stones from France were carted by wagon from Crescent City on the California coast, and afterward farmers throughout the region carted their wheat to Eagle Point. The mill took every seventh bag as payment, selling it in their general store and trading it to the Klamath tribe—the local Takelma had been run out of the territory already—for hide and dried berries.
Until the mid-90s there was no fish screen on the mill’s tailrace, so those migrating salmon and steelhead that chose this dark passage, instead of going over the dam, were minced in the turbine like grain under the stone one floor above. In the basement, a rusted pitchfork now leans against the wall to show visitors how the mill owners once speared their main course from the flume. But today a dedicated fish conduit exists and, for a while, ODFW counted the fish that passed through. In 2002, 25,000 steelhead fry—and over 6.5 million spring Chinook salmon fry—traveled downstream. It was a drought year, like this one, and more fish had been forced to spawn in the Rogue’s larger creeks such as Little Butte.
We passed a chic school that Chuck visited each year, one of 25, to talk salmon and give each classroom 500 Chinook eggs to raise in an aerated aquarium. “You go in there,” said Chuck, with wonder, “and there’s no blackboard—they’re all sitting in front of computers.” Barring disaster, the kids eventually release their minnow salmon into a local stream. Thus the Rogue Valley’s youth learn and hopefully begin to care about their native fish and watershed. Begin to home in. Each teacher is asked to eventually turn in a report noting how many salmon they pour into the neighborhood. The State wants even that data, though from 10,000 eggs, the whole program, only three adults are likely to return. This year, Chuck’s last, was the first time that every teacher had submitted a report to him. “One of the biologists up in Salem,” Chuck recalled, “she used to send out a Certificate of Death if you didn’t send in your end-of-the-year report. Oh, they didn’t like that.”
I asked Chuck why he was retiring just now, as if the answer weren’t plain. “Cause I’m eligible,” said Chuck, gazing at me with his glacial eyes through the rearview mirror, “and I’m seeing myself not getting the time to do the things I want to do, like go fishing and hunting, and traveling in my trailer. It’s always work, work, work, and every night, when I go home from work, I’m so damn tired I just fall asleep.” He talked of revisiting the alpine lakes he had fished in Wyoming as a boy.
“Don’t you get over there and retire and then turn around and die on us,” said Tom, “or I’ll come over and piss on your grave.”
“No, no, no,” said Chuck.
“I won’t stand for that shit,” Tom said.
“No, I ain’t going to die, that’s for sure.”
We listened to the purr of the truck, the rattle of the dash.
“It’s about time you’re able to go and do what you want to do,” said Tom.
“Thirty-nine years is enough,” Chuck agreed. “The body is starting to de-te-ri-o-rate.” He isolated each syllable.
At the hatchery, we pulled up to an empty navy blue dumpster. Tom and Chuck slid on four more disposable gloves and, between them, hoisted the clear bags that lined the totes. Some of the bloody liquid, sloshing within, spritzed from where the pughs had punctured the film. Then we drove the totes a hundred yards to the spawning house, coming full circle. Under an overhead nozzle, we wrestled the hollow bins off the trailer. Chuck yanked on a wall-mounted lever to release a stream from above into each tote, frothing the syrupy remainder to the blush of a rosé. This way it wouldn’t dry before the hatchery employees returned on Monday. They would rinse the totes, sterilize them, and stack them along the chain-link until it was time to “collect” again, to freeze and thaw and haul up another tributary. On the way out, Tom and I each ate a glazed donut in triumph, but Chuck declined, said he wasn’t hungry.
As the sun began to draw the shadows of the elfin black oaks across the wintergreen ranches, I drove back up Little Butte Creek to stay with the fish once more. The carcass toss had been a whirlwind; the fish had burdened the pughs and our nostrils for no more than an hour. Now the real work would begin, the long decomposition. Chuck had told me that, in cold water, a carcass might last four to eight weeks, though in warmer cases a week would suffice for its disappearance. Each fish, he said, would soon have a crawdad looking out from its open maw. “They eat their way out,” Steve had added. I wanted to spend more time with the fish, to see where they had first settled and stand by.
Past the immaculate grange, I stopped at the Lake Creek General Store and found, on the bathroom wall, a kitschy metal sign that read, “I say we fish five days a week and work two,” beneath the silhouette of a man and his boy, the generations, sitting side-by-side in ten-gallon hats with their rods. I bought a black coffee to go that I planned to save and curved lazily up the South Fork again under the basalt buttes as the valley began to funnel and fill with conifer and shadow. Pairs of Canada geese loitered in the fecund pastures. A Holstein cow rested its head lightly on the rump of another.
When I stepped from the car at the site of the morning’s final toss, the smell, an old friend by now, rose up to greet me. It had soaked into the ground where John Thiebes had tossed the fish at our boots and made us dance. It clung to the thin grass newly between the gravel and was embodied in the orange roe that now caught my eye like polished sea glass. From the road’s shoulder, I could see the steelhead where they’d come to rest below in the stream: ghost white, cuticles in the river. The cold had forced the rouge from their skin and carried it inside or away.
Down the bank, I stepped, to study three steelhead jammed like logs behind a boulder. I was pretty sure one of them was a fish I had tossed, one that had barely reached the Little Butte. Pinned by the current, they seemed frozen in an association they might have known in another life: some moment of spawning, maybe. Some flurry of defense or fondness. The kype of one male was raised above water, barely, and its golden eye flickered in the clear pulse that rolled up its face. The fin of its neighbor was also lifted into the air and quivering like a tuning fork. Nearby, another fish hung broken in a willow, flies resting on the red jamb of its lip. An accidental sky burial.
Past the Caution sign and the rockslide, I arrived at the bridge to Camp Latgawa. Some of the steelhead here, the first we’d thrown, had washed a few hundred feet downstream. Descending the bank through blackberry and willow, I waded into the stream in my rubber boots and was absorbed by the noisy silence of the creek. The fish were wrapped around stones like wrecks around telephone poles. I nudged a few over with my toe and looked into their sodden mouths for crawdads, but none had arrived. Not yet. Their eyes bulged opal white. Two pale fish were snagged in the woody debris on either side of a riffle, just where the creek fell into waves; these reminded me of marble statues guarding an edifice, a library, all of it submerged and overturned.
Carcasses can be held by large and small boulders, slow margin-water, and pocket-pools; they can be buried by gravel quickly or over time, abandoned above the waterline by receding flows, or held in the tentative grips of roots, the washboards of riffles, and living branches. Scavengers wrestle them onto the banks and scatter them for others. But it’s a complex logjam, intricately woven with sticks and branches, that is the best retainer of the dead. Trees are the original, unwitting fishers, stringing seines across creeks to drag for salmon and steelhead and, in the long run, nurture more of them. Or maybe it’s the fish that are unknowingly raising and culling the trees.
Then, in a half-dry channel below the bridge, lay a fish at rest in a shallow puddle. Half-exposed to the air, lending its oil to the pool’s surface—evidence that it already had begun to leach, to pass on. And there on its side were three gray moths, adhered, each pasted upside down to the fish’s scales. To a moth, it was clear, a steelhead carcass can be a fatal moon. They had visited in the dusk and become stuck to its mucal surface.
But bending lower, I saw: they were still alive. The legs of one moth tickled the air, and when a second managed to raise a wing in instinct or memory of flight, its upper surface showed violet-blue. These weren’t moths, I realized: they were those small blue butterflies so fond of roads and trails, the genus Celastrina; those spring azures, as they’re known, that “mud-puddle” in clusters, especially the males, to drink the sodium they require to breed; fragile two-fold creatures that advertise the sky, but, when they close their wings, are perfectly camouflaged on gravel or in the salty ash of a campfire.
I slept diagonally in back of the Jeep, in the sleeping bag I had stolen from my father long ago, ancient and baby blue, with the down half-gone out of its cells. My breath gradually fogged the windows as the night cooled and locked me in. We were in the mountains, I realized, we were near headwaters. Sometime in the early morning dark, I pushed open a rear door to piss and shiver. The quarter-moon poured down and the fish shone chalk white in the Little Butte like stones for someone to cross. But not me.
Direct sun on Little Butte around nine. The fish hadn’t budged, not that I could see. No bear in the night, no raccoon. I drove a quarter-mile upstream past the rockslide to Camp Latgawa and walked the concrete bridge again, eating a banana and drinking my frigid day-old coffee in the building sun. The willows were lit with the nibs of their new buds. The stream continuously divided around the elliptical island of cobbles where John Thiebes’s errant steelhead still lay stranded. Other carcasses were also mostly as they had been the day before: bandaged around stones, their opercula pried open like doors by the current, their pale bellies an invitation.
Even from high on the bridge, the flies were now visible. There were at least 50 on the burnished flank of the steelhead that, last night, had trapped the spring azures. I scrambled down the purple slate riprap and, as I came upon that particular fish, my shadow seemed to become the flies it raised to nearby rocks. The three butterflies were still there, held in the wetness, clinging to the body. As I knelt in the mud to photograph them in the morning light, one lifted a wing and revealed its lavender-blue. They had survived the chilly night with their backs, their microscopic scales, glued to the fish’s.
The flies’ confidence returned and so did they, at a trickle. One twitched to an overturned butterfly and with rubbing forelegs prodded its fellow insect. Their legs engaged, bicycled in concert. Some transpiration: our beauty and our hideousness communing, though, this close, they were difficult to tell or tease apart. They were one animal. The lustrous flies gathered faster and nosed into the openings—the gill slit, the quarter-inch wound at the base of the pectoral fin—where they turned to oviposit. This is how the fish would begin to disseminate, one larva-cum-fly at a time. Fifty thousand maggots, I’ve read, will grow in a salmon carcass and devour it completely within five days.
A salmonid carcass is an environment unto itself, an ephemeral ecosystem. More than 60 species of insect from 36 families were found teeming on carcasses marooned in British Columbia, especially saprophagous (“putrid-eating”)flies. These in turn lure tiny predators. Certain parasitic wasps carry high concentrations of marine nitrogen, because their larvae feast on fly larvae raised on salmon. In fact, chemically speaking these wasps are as much of the ocean as sea lions or orca whales: they’re on the same trophic level, the same step of the pyramid. Slugs and snails slime across carcasses; ants, beetles, spiders, bristletails, cave crickets, mites, and springtails arrive opportunistically. And in the footprint, “the hotspot,” of a dead fish there is heightened subterranean burrowing: Millipedes and worms thrive in the enriched soil. So do roots.
How much nitrogen does a dying fly then bequeath to the earth or to the bird, the viridescent tree swallow, that catches it? The answer doesn’t matter to me, ultimately. Just the fact of it. The act of it. The face. A fly will have a nitrogen “signature” specific to the fish in which it was born.
Back on the bridge, waiting for some further sign, I spotted a mink—a shaggy, brown member of the weasel family, an aquatic specialist and nemesis of crawdads. It galumphed swiftly up the rocks with obsidian eyes, and once more I held my breath. Surely it would find and scavenge one of these fish. On some rivers, more than 40 percent of carcasses are strewn inland as scraps or scat. Chuck had seen bald eagles descend on the freshly tossed. “Bears get a hold of them,” he also told me, “and you know what happens when they get’m: They tear’m up and run’m through. That spreads them to the far reaches of the riparian area.” Where the run is strong, bears eat the brains, eggs, and dorsal muscles, and leave the dregs to the smaller world. The trees get the bear shit, too.
This mink was no bear, though, and it kept bounding, under me and the concrete span, and upstream through the glowing lattice of living and dead willow. It would find the carrion later, or maybe it had already had its fill. It wasn’t alive to fulfill my story. Instead, I found my banana peel where I’d accidentally left it, draped on the wood rail of the bridge. In an hour of sun, its skin had mottled entirely black and brown.
But this journey will finish as you might expect: they did come, at precisely 11:30 on a Sunday morning, just as I first felt the wind touch my face. Or perhaps I noticed the warming breeze only after those three drifted nonchalantly overhead, from behind, on rigid up-tilt wings of silver primaries. But I don’t think so; the wind and the hoodless birds arrived as one. The pink of their low, passing faces reminded me of the alpenglow that burns on the cheek of a spawning steelhead.
They triangulated in the V-shaped canyon, trolling stiffly across the spires of conifer, circling the few hundred meters to which the fish had been randomly delivered. So many bodies confused them, I thought, made it more difficult to home in. They didn’t land as I watched, but they would. They would defecate steelhead onto their feet, as vultures do to keep them free of bacteria. They would carry these fish—this ocean—to their basalt cliffs, to their downy white nestlings hissing in some concealed recess.
It was then that I felt I could end my vigilance and let the fish live.
Nick Neely grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he spent his youth roaming the oak, chaparral, and redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Now he lives in Hailey, Idaho with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird, and works at the Community Library in Ketchum. His essays, articles, and poems are published in journals including Kenyon Review,The Georgia Review, and Orion. His next book, Alta California–which recounts the 12-week trek he took from San Diego to San Francisco retracing the first Spanish expedition into the territory–is due out from Counterpoint Press in 2019.