The power of a river upon us is universal, and a good example of the mighty ones is the Columbia of the Northwest. The first time I saw the river, stopping at a sandy beach, I eagerly ran to the waters edge and filled a small vessel to be treasured, a piece of this awesome waterway to take home as if it were holy water to be revered in longevity. Seven years was my age then, and that was also my age when I met Tom Chasm.
But even a small river, or any river, can be mighty in its own right with its own unique mysteries and powers, as I discovered through the years by exploring the waters in many different pursuits. All youthful river ventures aside; jumping off Castle Rock, those long drop rope swings, tubing the rapids; a paramount river experience was fishing with Tom.
Tom is as engaging a person as one could ever hope to meet, the type who seems like your best friend after only ninety seconds of conversation, and will keep you amused with his quick wit thereafter. After a number of fishing trips with lodge owner and fishing guide Mark Kimball, an easy bond of comradery developed, enough so that Mark bequeathed upon Tom, abet temporarily, a very special fly rod and reel for an upcoming steelhead outing of which I was a part.
The reel, dulled to bronzy patina by year’s of use, and the slender rod were imbibed with untold stories of patient pursuit, of victories and set backs, all part of the quest to master the unwilling in nature. These cherished instruments of the sport belonged to Mark’s mother, an avid fisher woman active into her 90’s.
Well, this is a fishing tale, and if you want to add something to your bucket list, fighting a
steelhead in a small mountain river is as thrilling a tug of war with nature as you will ever find, to have 15 pounds of frenzied fish dashing up and down the river, leaping and dancing on his tail as he spits your hook right back at you.
Such was the pursuit we embarked upon in late winter, when the mountain streams ran the coldest and the steelhead runs were prevalent. Our method of traversing the wild river canyon opening up before us was by unmotorized drift boat, letting the current work for you in casting a line and moving the boat down river while using oars for maneuverability. As the wild river gushed out of the mountains, one of its biggest drops presented an extra challenge.
“We’re heading for the falls, so get ready for the drop and hang on,” Mark’s warning rang out as he held back the boat in a wide expanse of the river. The procedure was to reel in the lines and secure the poles for the ride over the approximate 4 foot drop of the waterfall in the middle of a turbulent, rock strewn series of rapids. Looking at the flat expanse of water ahead from only a few feet above the water line, it felt like the ancient mariner’s view of sailing off the edge of the known world.
Just as we were beginning to reel in, “Boom” it hit, sending a shudder through the boat as the dynamics immediately shifted. With the rapids looming, there was no time for the colloquial “FISH ON” to be shouted. At the end of the long, wide calm that forms at the top of rapids, where the river gathers its energy for its propulsion into the narrowing channel, out on the very brink, the shiny steelhead leaped and tugged at the end of Tom’s line.
Mark was a strong an oarsman as any on the river, but there was a limit to fighting this wide body of water that gathered strength with every lapping wave as it funneled into an ever tightening corridor. While Tom fought the fish, which was now evident to be a very large steelhead, Mark attempted to keep us in position away from the looming rapids, but finally called out, “I can’t hold us back much longer, we have to try and take this fish through the falls.” In the few seconds before Mark gave in to the current, he elaborated, “We’ve got to pull the fish through with us, if he decides to stay behind, above the falls, the force will snap the line, we lose the fish.”
The wide expanse of compounding force engulfing all three of us and the fish quickly propelled us to the drop off, and as we were sucked into the raging current, all pandemonium broke loose. While Tom frantically reeled to keep slack out of the line, Mark somehow kept his footing standing upright, slashing and slapping at the fish with an oar, trying to drive it through the falls with us. All the while the boat was bouncing and rolling like a toy, careening about with the current and finally making one big drop from bow to stern as we transcended the falls and shot out the other side into a chute of rapids.
When the rapids subsided, we found ourselves in a verdant green pool shimmering in an oasis of calm. For a moment is seemed like a dreamlike state, a surreal moment in the quick transition from rage to calm. But even as this moment engulfed us, we were shaken back to reality with a mutual concern. Where was the fish? And just as quickly, Tom knew he still had him on the line, as it began streaming about this wide pool of the river.
The fight was on, and as Tom slowly urged the fish into sight, Mark readied the net. Slowly, slowly, in an ever shrinking circle, Tom brought him in, until this beautiful creature was in close proximity to the net and fully visible. In its tight circle, it vibrated with a green brown back melting into a swath of bright pink with silver white underneath, all speckled with black spots. With its full forty inch length shimmering in the cold, clear river water, it exemplified the world of nature at its finest and a splendid sight to behold.
But it did not hold still, and as Mark maneuvered the net for the catch, it made a terrific lunge, and pulled out the bail line as it made its way back across the river. Once again, Tom brought him up to the net, but this time, as this beguiling creature sensed the entrapment, his powerful lunge completely broke the line.
Our collective sigh echoed down the canyon walls, raked the wispy tree tops, and bounced back to haunt us. It is always risky to recount stories of “the one that got away” but with three witnesses, and only one third of them known to exaggerate, it should be enough to safely validate this tale. Although the grand prize had eluded us, the day’s venture on the river and the image of its awe inspiring, aquatic sojourner that was frozen in my mind was merit enough.
During this time, Mark and others like him ardently supported a campaign to ensure the protection of this river’s headwaters, and in March of 2009 President Obama signed into law the Copper Salmon Wilderness, which did just that.
Where on Earth?! Elk River, Southern Oregon, USA