Monday, September 28, 2009

Michigan Salmon

It’s autumn. The salmon have arrived and are rising in front of our cabin on the Middle Branch of the Pere Marquette River in northern Michigan. Strong and energetic, they burst out of the water in the clear, morning air. They've come from Lake Michigan, about 100 miles downstream, to spawn in our cold woodland stream full of deep holes and dancing riffles. Three to four feet long, they weigh 20 to 30 pounds and look incongruously out of place. They are, in fact, home - in the very river where they were born.

My memories of my childhood neighborhood were of a wide busy street, big buildings and a long walk to school. When I visited as an adult, however, everything seemed small and close together. I wonder if the salmon feel that way about the river, if they are surprised that their memories are so different from reality.

Like me, the salmon are not native to Michigan. In the 1960s, they were planted in Lake Michigan and several of its feeder streams. They have thrived and every year, we eagerly anticipate their arrival to our part of the river, listening intently for the unmistakably loud splash of a salmon fighting its way upstream.

Now, as I watch from the bank above the river, a female salmon emerges from a deep hole and glides silently onto the redds, the shallow gravel beds where she will lay her eggs. She swishes her tail and rolls on her side, flashing silver. The males follow her much less silently, thrashing and fighting for the right to fertilize her eggs. It is their final battle. After spawning, all the adult salmon die. At the end of the winter, the quarter-inch eggs, which have been safely tucked among the gravel, will hatch. The tiny salmon lucky and resourceful enough to survive a perilous first year in the river, will then make their way downstream and into the big lake. In a few years time, they, in turn, will return to this same river and, perhaps even this same spot, to complete their life cycle.

Fly rod in hand, I walk down to the river. Enticing a salmon to an artificial fly during spawning season is no easy task. It requires skill, patience and a bit of luck. Fishing for salmon certainly teaches patience. Acquiring skill is a lifelong task and luck, as everyone knows, can be elusive.

Luck, however, may be with me today. There is a huge male salmon, just downstream, holding in the fast-moving water along an undercut bank. My first cast, it seems to me, is perfect, but the salmon thinks otherwise and lets my fly drift by - again and again and again.

Instead of casting, I let my fly drift downstream. It sits there just in front of the salmon’s snout. It’s a tiny, tasty-looking egg pattern, but my salmon is not hungry. From the time they leave the lake and enter the river, salmon eat practically nothing. I know that if I annoy a salmon, he may become aggressive and take my fly. My male, however, seems to be a particularly calm sort. For 20 minutes, I do my best to be annoying, drifting my fly downstream and bouncing it off his nose. Finally, it works. My salmon shakes his head, swishes his tail, and silently disappears downstream.
A kingfisher, flashing blue against the autumn reds and golds, flies by protesting loudly. Perhaps his luck has been no better than mine. Deciding to practice patience, I concede today’s battle to the fish. Unlike the kingfisher, I go quietly and without regret, for as Washington Irving said, "there is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure sincerity of mind."

(For a great short video of a kingfisher on a more successful day, click here.)
To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Portland Oregon and The Deschutes River

Portland, Oregon is a city we love to visit (and not just because our son lives there). It's got everything we look for in a city: art, music and theater; good restaurants and nightlife; a reliable transportation system; lots of green space; good proximity to outdoor sports and Powell's, the best book store in America.

On a clear day, it's also got a fantastic view of Mt. Hood. True, a clear day is rare in the rainy Portland winters as early settlers learned to their dismay. Their journey along the Oregon Trail usually began in Missouri in late April or early May and they arrived in Oregon months later at the height of the rainy season. In summer, however, Oregon looks like the promised land - a place where the sun shines almost every day and the temperatures are usually in the 70s and 80s.

This year, however, when we arrived for our August visit, a topsy-turvy Jet Stream had transformed the normally balmy Northwest into an inferno. With daytime temperatures reaching 106 degrees (and air-conditioning the exception rather than the rule), there was only one sensible thing to do: get out of town and head for the river.

As word of our trip spread, we were joined by seven of our son's friends, who easily convinced themselves of the wisdom of our decision. Our flotilla included a drift boat, a big inflatable raft, a small inflatable kayak and a canoe.

We packed up the boats, food, water, camping gear and two dogs and set out for a five-day float down the Deschutes River. To get to the river, we drove about two hours east on Route 80, which cuts through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge.

In 1805, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed this way and in his journal, Capt. Clark described the Indian villages which lined the Gorge and the "bad rapids" at the mouth of the Deschutes River. Today these Native American villages are gone and the rapids have disappeared under Lake Celilo, a reservoir formed when the Dalles Dam was constructed in 1957. The Gorge, however, is still breathtakingly beautiful, with high steep cliffs cut by the now diminished, but still mighty, Columbia River.

The Deschutes, a Federal Wild and Scenic River, is a big wide Western stream, passing through an arid desert landscape of high basalt cliffs formed more than 15 million years ago. The fishing is usually great and there are rocky, turbulent Class III rapids to enliven the long, languorous afternoons.

We put in at Buckhollow, just below Sherars Falls, whose 15 foot vertical drop, makes them impassable by boat. Our destination was Heritage Landing - a journey of 43 river miles and 14 rapids.

It was just as hot on the river as in town, but the tumultuous waves of the rapids kept us cool and we stopped often to swim and fish. The Deschutes is one of the West's best trout fishing rivers, but this trip, the fish seemed too hot to be bothered. Several experienced anglers couldn't even come up with a story about the "big one" that got away. We were able to produce only enough fish for one dinner - delicious rainbow trout that we grilled on our camping stove.

Campfires are not allowed because of the dry landscape. Instead, at night we sat by the river watching falling stars. At Harris Ranch, where the cliffs rise hundreds of feet above the river that formed them millions of years ago, nature has sculpted formations that resemble huge elephants. Illuminated by a full moon, they seemed to march across the dark-red canyon walls.

The next day we trooped up a riverside trail to the original Harris Ranch, a once-thriving, but now abandoned cattle spread. The ranch house, in its decay, is oddly beautiful and a rusty iron cooking stove in the old kitchen attests to a different time and way of living.

Our last half-day was the most exciting of all. We shot four Class III rapids in the final seven miles and like the Lewis and Clark party referring to rapids on the Columbia River, "we went on verry [sic] well, notwithstanding the horrid appearance of this - agitated gut swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction."

To see photos of our trip, click here.

Until next time,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor