A river comes apart

  • Clearwater Country

    Diane Sylvain
  • Charles Pezeshki

  • Sleek as a salmon: Swimming in Cold Mountain Creek

    Charles Pezeshki photo
  • Misty: Confluence of Kelly and Cayuse creeks in Clearwater Country

    Charles Pezeshki

Nov. 30, 1995, was the day that the Clearwater Country in northern Idaho came apart. In today's society, the words "come apart" are usually reserved for nations in apocalyptic collapse. Here it meant something much less hyperbolic, but no less real. Dirt slid into a creek - a lot of dirt.

The Clearwater Country is mostly granite. A lot of the land is steep and covered with trees - lodgepole, western red cedar and Douglas fir, with ponderosa pine along the river.

Rivers cut through the granite, incising canyons through sterile country so clean you could eat off the ground. But the soil crumbles in your hand when you pick it up. And when the trees have been logged off the ground, the rain hits the soil and runs downhill like marbles off a wooden ramp. Sometimes, the marbles take the dirt with them.

The Clearwater Country is mostly wild, and "managed" by the Clearwater National Forest, though wilderness is being corroded by this management. I used to think it was big country, but as I started hiking more in the backcountry, I changed my mind; I can walk across it in a week. It's just the biggest wilderness left in the lower 48.

There used to be lots of salmon in the Clearwater Country - big kings, huge and green, a gift of solar energy and nutrients from the ocean far away. Salmon were the life of the land, so thick it was said you could walk across the streams on their backs during the seasonal runs. Salmon gave the gift of life - 300 million pounds of biomass a year, 16 million fish in the whole Columbia run - swimming to a place with no nutrients in the soil.

The old-growth forest in this part of the country was built by salmon. But the run last year in all of Idaho was nearly nothing. I have nightmares for my great-grandchildren, inheriting a land of scraggly trees and barren rivers.

The dams on the Snake, as well as huge Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater, have played the main role in driving the fish to near-extinction. But dirt in the creek has done its share - dirt flowing off the network of logging roads on fragile ground. Dirt fills in the voids between rocks that the smolts need to survive; it erases the deep pools and turns the tributaries into raceways where fish can find no rest.

It was cold all of October 1995, and I'd hoped for lots of snow, bringing a strong flush for the salmon during runoff. But it warmed up in November, and started raining hard. Thanksgiving week, a warm wind from Hawaii met cold air from British Columbia. The temperatures reached 60 degrees, and the rain came down on the October snow, causing it to melt quickly, which then caused the hillsides to slip. One "slip' - 400,000 cubic yards of mud that blocked Quartz Creek - started in a small salvage-timber cut.

Then, on Nov. 28, the warm front really started pouring. Virtually every drainage in the Clearwater watershed flooded. The ones that had been roaded and logged in the fragile areas started to "blow out," a term describing a riverine avalanche, a torrent of rocks and debris that scour stream channels into a uniform "U" shape. Cut banks slumped onto roads. Roads washed out into creeks. Fish biologists expressed concern that the last of the salmon spawning grounds would be washed to the sea.

The environmental community had been telling the Forest Service for years that the creeks were going to blow. The agency already knew it, of course. I think some considered it the price of doing business. But they couldn't tell the public that. They had to maintain the myth of a perfect world up there on the Clearwater. And they pretty much pulled it off until Nov. 30.

I called the Forest Service constantly that day, monitoring the blowouts, updating my map like an Army general recording incoming missile strikes, gleefully recording my prophecies. In the "real world," my environmental buddies and I got some press for being right. But when I talked to my co-workers to see if anyone had read the stories in the newspapers, most looked at me with blank stares.

Reading about the passenger pigeon before settlers razed the Midwest hardwood forests and blasted the birds into oblivion makes me dream of pinwheeling wings and flashes of color reflected off green backs. The hardwood forests are growing back now, but without pigeons, the land is incomplete. Likewise, salmon and wild fish in Idaho are in decline. Days like Nov. 30 bring their end closer. What will the Clearwater Country be like at the end of this extinction spasm?

I look in the mirror tonight, approaching middle age. I grew up in Ohio and Kentucky coal mine country, and have run far to escape the dirty skies and polluted rivers of my youth. But old ghosts have followed me. As the rain continues to fall, the creeks blow. I am swirled up in the middle of my own extinction spasm, crazy as the fish blown downstream. For a moment, I am 16 again, running drunk next to a muddy, flooding Ohio river, throwing beer bottles into the stream next to piles of washed trash.

I remember hiking on Cook Mountain two summers ago, between the Lochsa and the North Fork, howling for wolves that had begun moving down into my country from Montana. A wolf howled back at me once. I was with a friend that trip, and for the next five days, we tried to repeat that experience. We were not successful.

How long does it take for the land to die? Do we get more than one warning? If that warning goes unheard and unheeded, does life pass out of the land?

Is there a dance that I can do for the salmon, a dance that will put back their streams? And what will put my soul back together after the wild world is gone? The salmon are the tie that binds the land. I pray for them, and fear their fate.

Charles Pezeshki is a backpacker, whitewater kayaker and environmental activist who teaches mechanical engineering at Washington State University in Pullman. The essays here are adapted from his new book, Wild to the Last: Environmental Conflict in the Clearwater Country, an area stretching across north-central Idaho that Pezeshki calls "one of the last big wild places left in the Lower 48." The book was published by Washington State University Press, Box 645910, Pullman, WA 99164 (800/354-7360).

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