Sunday :: Oct 30, 2005

Letter From California

by paradox

Letter From California
10/30/05 0421.06 pst

I’m generally happy with the era I was born into for our puny species. It would have been very good to see the pyramids, coliseum and acropolis as they really were, or to be at the Champs Elysees victory parade in 1945—Andy Rooney was there and said he has not seen such a outpouring of human joy and affection before or since. I was alive and ten miles away from the Stones gimme shelter Altamont concert, yet I have not the faintest shred of memory of it. It’s cool.

But there is one era I missed that I ache for, a throb of longing, sadness and shame that has never left me ever since I found out about it 17 years ago. So many times since I’ve wished I’d been born just forty years earlier, such a tiny snapshot of geologic time, barely missed by a human life span. I never saw the steelhead in the Livermore Valley.

When California rose from the sea the water flowed north from here into the great northern delta near San Pablo bay, but in that massive flow was a wrinkle in the sea floor where Pleasanton is now, a small depression surrounding it that is now known as the Livermore Valley. As the waters receded 20,000 feet of gravel was left in the wrinkle as the remaining waters finally flowed back south through Sunol to the sea.

I was born and raised on the southern edge of that valley, not one mile from sharply rising hills and a creek graced with stately sycamore. The waters were warm and dead, as I thought they had always been, the stony creek an irresistible place of play and retreat all though my life there.

One great, great day my Father awoke me before dawn, for I was finally old enough to go salmon fishing. I had no idea what to expect but was tremendously excited not to be left behind again, a feeling that only rose as my Father, feeling unconstrained from the law at 0430, tore over the valley at 80 mph toward Emeryville, the ocean darkly on the horizon in the thrilling rush of speed and wind.

Diesel fumes never smelled so good as our small boat glided over the bay in the growing light, a fairyland of lights twinkling on the bridges over the great harbor. I watched Alcatraz go by in wonder and then realized with awe we were going under the Golden Gate bridge.

The salmon were stunning—seemingly huge silver fish that grown men worked hard to net, friends shouting with excitement at the bite and the haul. It was a slow day but near the very end I finally got a hit, jumping at the rod, reeling in with all my might as I landed my very first salmon. “Are you shaking from the cold or the fish?” one of my Dad’s friends kindly asked me. “I don’t know,” I said, smiling back. I got drenched and frozen on the bow for the 90 minute ride in, never wanting the day to end.

Through the years as I sporadically fished up and down the coast—always the sea, never the rivers—I often heard fish tales of the hard-to-catch steelhead. This remarkable fish goes out to sea as the salmon does, but often does not die at spawning, returning year after year to the same inland creeks. But steelhead meant fly fishing in crowded shores, assuming one could find them, an extremely poor choice compared to swell and diesel, in my mind, so I never tried to catch that elusive fish. Still haven’t.

I easily could have long ago, but the passing of years naturally brought the story of what happened to the California salmon and steelhead, along with all the other great fisheries we used to have. Being on the waves for fish often brought aching sadness at the dead lines—the fish were gone, and if they were caught one guiltily wondered if your own hands were speeding their demise. Going fishing isn’t supposed to get one sad.

25 and trying to get a life, I was tearing off a roof on Livermore when Mike, the friend who had hired me, mentioned he used to fish for steelhead in his hometown of Petaluma. There used to be steelhead in Livermore, too, he said.

Flabbergasted, I gestured to the 360 view of the smooth hills around us. Impossible! The bay was forty miles away from here, we were locked out of the estuary, surely. He calmly said it was so, many guys had told him steelies used to be here.

That weekend I went to the library to look at a valley topography map very, very carefully. Good Lord above, not one mile from my house was an old tiny flood plain from a small mid-coastal watershed where Dell Valle reservoir is now. Two creeks eventually meandered into what is now Pleasanton, down through Niles Canyon, through the wetlands and into the bay!

That weekend I went to the library to look at a valley topography map very, very carefully. Good Lord above, not one mile from my house was an old tiny flood plain from a small mid-coastal watershed where Dell Valle reservoir is now. Two creeks eventually meandered into what is now Pleasanton, down through Niles Canyon, through the wetlands and into the bay!

Cursory research immediately confirmed that Livermore was no different than every…single…river, tributary or creek north of San Louis Obispo to Alaska: in 1800 all of them had salmon and steelhead runs, the tiniest and remote creeks always getting at least steelhead, some of them well over fifty miles inland. Just forty years before I was born the creeks in my home valley were cold and swarmed with steelhead every fall, thousands of Pacific sea miles behind them.

This isn’t a story about what a terrible thing we’ve done and how there isn’t any hope for our fish. That ship sailed long, long ago, frankly. Salmon and steelhead join the list of abalone, rockfish, Dungeness and sardine we wiped out and lost in just one century, they’re gone and they’re not coming back.

Tiny fragments remain of these once vast California fisheries, the buffalo all over again. Fish and Game do what they can, but salmon and steelhead require fresh cold water in pristine gravel creeks to spawn. We took the land and the water. We’re still doing it.

Glen Martin of The San Francisco Chronicle had an excellent article last week outlining how the criminal freaks we call the executive branch have diverted more cold water from the Klamath and Trinity so around 200 farmers in the Westlands near Fresno can generate a billion dollars revenue every year.

Always seems like such an impressive number, but a small corner of Silicon Valley dwarfs it every quarter. For chump change and commodities we don’t have to produce we sacrifice our biology, as we always do. It never seems to occur to the powerful and greedy that we simply can’t take this copout forever, the biology of the land is us.

I don’t hold out much hope for Klamath or Trinity salmon, not really. Given what’s happened in the past and the inability of Californians to even care for their children it’s hard to keep hope for the fish and our land. Perhaps if the Trinity were made a national park we could save a tiny sliver of what used to be great and noble species, our migratory fish.

That way 100 years from now a boy can take on the sea anywhere on the northern coast and catch his first salmon, perhaps even catching his first steelhead on an inland trip.

But most of all so a boy or a girl can wander aimlessly on a precious last day of summer, biking or wandering in the fields. The creek and little floodplain inevitably call for a shady seat, shallows to wade in and rocks to skip. In the lazy heat with so little going on, suddenly a ripple and swish of water would reveal the miracle of a beautiful fish on the last stage of amazing trip from the Pacific, so startlingly alive in the oppressive California heat. A joy to watch, a great skill to catch, a fine experience to eat, a precious resource to guard and protect, an enormous satisfaction knowing that if the fish are healthy and thriving our great grandchildren have a good chance to be, too.

I’m so sorry I missed it. I pray we have the sense not to put further generations through that if the salmon vanish.

paradox :: 4:20 AM :: Comments (3) :: TrackBack (0) :: Digg It!