The Voyage of the Doomed

There are no mental wellness days here at Hoh River Rafters, because you’d have to be crazy to work here. We are in the trenches in the tourist industry. Tourism is a pipeline for a forced migration of desperate travelers seeking someplace cool in our heat-stricken nation. These are the climate refugees whose hometowns are being deep fried with an unseasonably warm triple-digit heat wave that has them fleeing thousands of miles north.

There are so many Texans here now it makes you wonder if there is anybody left in Texas. Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California must be deserted for the same reason. People want out of those ovens — if only to come here to complain about the weather.

“Is the weather always like this?” The tourists ask.

To which we, as ambassadors of the tourist industry, must reply that, no, most of the time it is a lot worse. This is in keeping with the goals and objectives of the tourism industry, getting the tourists to go home.

Another goal and objective of the tourist industry is to keep the tourists from killing themselves by doing stupid stuff. Perhaps it is a symptom of the dumbing-down of this great nation or a byproduct of social media that has people risking their lives so that the internet will like them.

Like the young man who asked my advice about paddling his pack raft, an inflatable craft that is, ironically, about the size of a coffin, through 15 miles of open ocean from the mouth of the Hoh River to La Push. I advised him, (it’s always a guy coming up with these ideas) to check on that life insurance policy.

They all seem to become defensive at this point. All that is left is to plead with these would-be adventurers to not make people come and look for them.

The fact is, we really and truly care about the health, happiness and welfare of our tourists because if they kill themselves doing stupid stuff, it jacks up our outfitter insurance rates. That is why we have a waiver form where prospective rafters declare that they are physically fit to engage in the activity. It is usually after signing this document that the prospective rafters share the intimate details of their medical history.

We’re not sure why people who’ve just had back surgery, are recovering from a major heart attack or recently escaped from a mental institution for the criminally insane would think river rafting is a good idea, and we don’t care. We sell raft trips.

If we only floated healthy, happy, well-adjusted people down the river, we would seldom be employed. We are dealing with tourists after all.

Our sympathies go with the children, our brightest and best hope for the future. They would rather be playing video games. Instead, they are forced into river rafting with either the “lawnmower parent,” who enables and smooths the child’s path through life or the “helicopter parent” who asks the child if they are “OK,” every 15 seconds, or both.

Today’s children are like hot house flowers.

One mother insisted her daughter was allergic to water, so she gave the child Benadryl as a precaution should the child get accidentally splashed on a raft trip.

The other child was hyperactive, so he was on a different medication. While the little girl nodded out, the little boy was bouncing around screaming and making animal noises.

Mom was obviously zonked on something else, so I kept the Narcan handy. Dad just wanted a cold beer in the shade.

It’s all about quality time with the family.


The Hunt For Blackberries.

THERE ARE FEW outdoor activities more enjoyable than picking wild blackberries. By wild blackberries, I don’t mean the exotic berries that ripen along every roadside at the end of summer, no. We’re talking about the little ones that grow out where the wild things are — the further from the road the better.

They are just now getting ripe. This is a good year for blackberries. After months of rain that swelled the berries to a trophy size, a shot of sunshine has ripened them to perfection. Blackberries are good canned or frozen but nothing beats them fresh.

Blackberries grow largest in partial shade, but they are sweetest in full sun. It is almost impossible to ruin blackberries no matter how you cook them — but you have to pick them first.

That means you have to find a blackberry patch. Blackberry vines are easiest to spot in the spring, when the blossoms can turn the ground white as snow, but you can’t make a blackberry pie out of blossoms. You have to wait until those blossoms turn into berries, and pick them before the bears do.

Bears can see in the dark, so they can pick around the clock. Bears are not as picky as most people about picking blackberries. They’ll eat the unripe green and red blackberries along with the black ones.

Bears will munch down a hornet’s nest if they find it, leaving the surviving hornets in a foul mood for the next unfortunate berry picker that stumbles along.

There’s very little left of a berry patch once the bears get done with it. You should find another blackberry patch.

Of course, it’s always a good idea for anyone engaged in an outdoor activity to inform someone where you are going and when you plan to return, just to be safe, unless you are a blackberry picker. Then you will trust no one.

There is no point in letting the search and rescue do-gooders in on your blackberry patch.

In a good patch, you might pick a gallon of berries a day.

Find a really good patch and you can join the hallowed ranks of the 5-gallon-a-day club.

Blackberries grow best in burns and clear-cuts. If you find a good berry patch, chances are you can thank a logger.

It takes a couple of years for the berry vines to start producing. By then, the slash, the tree limbs and tops that were left over from logging, should be just rotted enough to break when you step on them.

Other plants will have grown up as well. The stinging nettles and devil’s club are the wild blackberries’ best natural defense. While these native plants are known to contain a pharmacopeia of medicinal properties, you won’t care when you get caught in a patch of them.

Devil’s club is an evil plant that resembles a whip shaped cactus with some thorny leaves on top. The stem of the devil’s club can be 8 feet long and hang down the mountainside as thick as dog hair. Try pushing your way through a devil’s club patch and they’ll push back like a thing alive. Just casually brushing against one of these plants will coat you with spiny little souvenirs, which should fester nicely with a rash of stinging nettles and lacerations from the blackberry thorns.

Berry picker’s hands often look like they’ve been mauled by a bear. Maybe they were.

You cannot let the bears, hornets, devil’s club or nettles scare you out of a blackberry patch.

It will all be worthwhile when the pie comes out of the oven.


A Profitable Extinction.

In last week’s episode, we traced a cause for the degradation of our ecosystem to the elimination of spawning salmon from our creeks and rivers. Salmon are anadromous. They start their lives in freshwater then migrate to saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn.

When they return to spawn, salmon convey nutrients up our rivers.

For example, an adult chum salmon returning to spawn contains an average of 130 grams of nitrogen, 20 grams of phosphorus and more than 20,000 kilojoules of energy in the form of protein and fat.

As the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation. One study concludes that trees on the banks of salmon-stocked streams grow three times faster than trees growing along a stream with no salmon.

Salmon feed the trees along with up to 137 species of microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds. A salmon-spawning stream is like a free supermarket for creatures great and small. Native Americans called bears, “the mother of all creatures” since they caught more fish than they could eat, leaving the rest to nourish the ecosystem.

We have eliminated this cycle before we even began to understand it.

Today, it is believed the trees feed the fish. Entire forests are routinely logged to build log jams in rivers as an excuse for salmon restoration. As you read this, the logs from 30 acres of forest and thousands of tons of concrete are being sunk in the Hoh River.

Previously, they drove steel I-beams into the streams to make log jams until it was discovered the pile driving of the steel burst the air bladders of the fish, killing them.

So instead, we’ll crush the fish and their eggs with concrete. This is what the salmon restoration industry calls, “the best available science.”

Building log jams, spraying glyphosate along our streams, buying property from “willing sellers” and building multi-million-dollar bridges over seasonal streams that have no salmon has done nothing to restore salmon anywhere in Washington.

It has, however, made fortunes for the so-called salmon restoration industry, while our salmon circle the drain to extinction.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Salmon Restoration Plan spent $187 million. This year, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is offering another $255 million. The Coast Salmon Partnership is offering $4.974 million to one or more salmon restoration projects.

Lack of money is not a problem for the salmon restoration industry. A lack of positive results is.

Is there anything we can do to bring back the salmon? Yes.

The Treaty Tribes of Washington are enhancing salmon runs with fish hatcheries using native brood stock. While various “nonprofit” environmental groups claim that 150 years of fish hatchery production has harmed the native fish, The Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences just published the results of a 27-year-long study that determined that fish hatcheries do not negatively affect salmonids. Pinniped predation does.

Fish hatcheries are not the only answer to salmon restoration. There is a simple solution to filling our creeks with spawning salmon. Native Americans, the Indigenous people of British Columbia and the pioneers of the Olympic Peninsula have a long history of putting fertilized salmon eggs in the gravel of streams that have no salmon.

Why can’t private citizen volunteers do this now? The answer could be that it is not expensive enough. It does not require heavy equipment contractors and consultants, so it will never work.

Perhaps our rivers are worth more dead than alive. Our fish are worth more as endangered species to government agencies than as the foundation of our ecosystem.


River Babies.

Looking at a baby salmon, it’s hard to believe that something not much bigger than a mosquito larvae could have such a tremendous impact on everything from fish ducks to the orca, but they do.

Right about now, this year’s hatch of baby salmon is venturing out into the world. Their parents had laid them as eggs in a gravel nest sometime last autumn. The eggs developed into a larvae-like creature called an alevin that fed on its own yolk sack. Emerging from the gravel, they are called parr or fry. With a little luck, they will survive a period in fresh water and migrate downstream to the ocean as smolts. With even more luck, a small percentage of these young salmon will return to their home rivers where people call them everything from blue-backs to sore-backs.

Along the way, the salmon feed an entire ecosystem through every stage of their lives, starting with the baby fish ducks who appeared, coincidentally, a day or two after the baby salmon were hatched.

The mother merganser lays her eggs high in a hollow cottonwood tree so the first thing the baby fish ducks have to do is to jump out of it. They hit the ground running to the river where nearly every living creature wants to eat them. This is a well-disciplined brood that sometimes rides down the rapids at the height of the spring flood on their mother’s back. The chicks grew up fast on a diet of regurgitated fish. I once saw a mother merganser with 21 chicks. These days, there are very few merganser mothers that have more than one chick while small flocks of barren hens lounge on the gravel bars with no chicks at all. Perhaps the number of baby mergansers hatched by their mothers in a given year may not be an indication of the health of a salmon population on a river, but it will have to do until a better method comes along.

The great blue heron has become a rare sight on the river. They used to wade along the edge of a pool in the river where the mergansers fish. The fact that there are so few herons on the rivers these days is a sobering thought with disturbing implications.

Even the belted kingfisher is becoming scarce. These little birds’ call sounds like someone shaking a can of rocks. With a beak too big for its head and a head too big for its body, the kingfisher flies in a manner totally against the laws of science. Hovering above the river, they dive down to catch a fish then shoot back out of the water like a ballistic missile.

Families of river otters used to be a common sight too, but individuals are rarely seen these days, and no babies have been observed.

We used to blame these fish-eaters for eating fish, but they were an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. With the salmon gone, the creatures that depended on them are going away too. The forest itself has been diminished without the fertilization that the spawned-out salmon carcasses represent.

Even worse than the fate of all the varmints and fish ducks put together was the effect of the elimination of the salmon on the humans. Many of these salmon-dependent people have simply disappeared. Their extinction eliminated the culture of salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, precious little is being done to restore the salmon. Our salmon are now worth more as an endangered species revenue stream for government agencies than as a foundation of our ecosystem.