Monthly Archives: May 2012

Separation by suffix?

Ponder two simple suffixes: –er, –ist. The former comprises the angler, climber, skier, hiker while the latter includes the activist, environmentalist, conservationist.

These are certainly not mutually exclusive states of being and on the contrary, the –ers evolve into –ists: angler-conservationist, climber-environmentalist, to name a few press monikers. Without the –ers, we have no –ists. Hardcore conservationists know that without participants in a sport, there’s no pool of advocates. No steelhead anglers, no steelhead-stream lobbyists.

But there are those who see the outdoors purely as refuge and recreation, a sanctum sanctorum outside of work and home and devoid of politics. They have a connection to the land, but also maintain a certain detachment from it, albeit unconsciously.

To be sure, -ers post plenty of eye candy on the Internet to motivate more people  to do: bushwhack to a blue squiggle on the topo, drop the slot for a powder stash, rappel down the wrong couloir. It’s harder to make conservation cool. Nobody goes into a public comment hearing with a helmet cam. C-SPAN debates don’t go viral. A DEIS (Draft of Environmental Impact Statement) won’t fetch many likes on your Facebook page.

People with more spare cash than spare time write checks rather than letters. I’m not dissing donors. I’m just saying they somehow find the time to fish, ski or climb. Rich Simms, president of Wild Steelhead Coalition, suggests other ways people can make a difference.

“Learn how to become a single voice and take the time to understand the issues. Write a letter. Attend a meeting. You gotta get out of the mode expecting someone else will do it,” said Simms.

It’s great to support companies that support the environment, but let’s face it: The politicians and judges and bureaucrats who decide on whether or not Pebble Mine goes through, thus destroying the biggest native sockeye run on Earth, don’t give a shit that you’re wearing a Patagonia puffy.

Yvon Chouinard probably doesn’t either. The Patagonia chief would be happier if you took some real action. Trust me. Name another apparel CEO who coughs up for a full-page ad in The New York Time with the bold-faced imperative “Don’t Buy this Jacket.” (Incidentally, Google ‘climber environmentalist’ and guess whose name pops up first? You’re right, Rick Santorum.)

We live in the age of mouse-click activism, where in a few seconds your index finger can save Bristol Bay salmon, Idaho’s Gray Wolves and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Believe that and I’ll sell you a bridge. There are myriad issues—certainly too many for one person to address, so force yourself to be myopic. Pick one, maybe two, and do something that really takes effort. Don that organic cotton tee, jump in your Prius and do something rad for the planet.


Sally Portman Birthday Tour

Carla Schauble about to climb the staircase to Blue Peak Col.

Washington Pass

Sunday May 20, 2012

We missed the good weather, and the zoo, by a day. Diane Hennessey, Heather Mirczak and I drove to Washington Pass on Saturday night with plans to ski the Birthday Tour the next morning.

A spring favorite, this ski tour boasts two stout climbs and two fun descents plotting a horseshoe path around the dramatic relief of South Early Winter Spire. It had risen to the top of my spring tick-list. The forecast for the Sabbath was iffy: 50 percent chance of showers after 11am.

We arrived at Klipchuck Campground, downstream of the hairpin, around 8pm and found Carla Schauble and posse—three fine lads named Brian, Tom and Randy—stoking a big fire and slaking their evening thirst. They had skied it that day and reported stellar corn conditions—the best in their collective history of skiing this route. Fun enough to merit a repeat. So instead of heading back to Seattle, Carla and the guys decided to ski the tour again with us.

Cloud cover kept the mercury above freezing at night creating toasty tent conditions. I read DH a bedtime story: Bruce Tremper’s tale of cheating death in a slab avy in a narrow couloir. Revelry bugled at a civilized 7am, allowing plenty of time for a spot of tea and soft-boiled eggs, or in Carla’s case, a single, stick-to-your-ribs Nutter Butter. Our gang of seven convoyed to the hairpin where we left DH’s ride, our shuttle car, and hopped into Brian’s newly purchased camper van to continue to the tour’s start, Blue Lake trailhead, elevation 5,400 ft. At 9:40am, our group was skinning up the trail under warm, cloudy skies.

Brian, HM and Carla at the start.

DH practicing old-school free-heeling at the trailhead.

We climbed a well-worn skin track along the forested trail, eventually spilling out to open slopes where we ascended southeast to Blue Peak Col, elevation 7,800 ft. Slipping was a problem and I had to lift my skis often to gain skin purchase in the soft track. I stopped at the bench before the final 200-ft. climb to A-frame skis to pack and to rest. Many thanks to the hundred people (no hyperbole) who had booted a staircase to the top. A beefy cornice lip typically droops off this saddle, but this year’s leaner snowpack and recent warm spring temps had reduced the flap to nothing. It was snowing at the col so I swapped out shades for goggles before locking heels for the south-east descent known as Madison Avenue, a wide, open run into the Copper Creek drainage.

The view north.

Skiing down 2,000+ ft. of quality corn was fun, though the 8 or 9 degree rise in temperature translated into liquid precip in the basin. Breaking out skins for the hoof-up to the second col, we observed a woman in snowshoes who had presumably come with her boyfriend. They didn’t seem to be in a festive mood, the kind that speaks “Birthday Tour.” They seemed more dour. Perhaps she was sad about the snow-shoeing conditions (somewhere between lousy and fucking lousy) or not keen about being the lone shoe-er among schussers. We suspected trouble in paradise.

The second climb, out of Copper Creek drainage, is shorter and takes you to a bench, then to a col at roughly 7,200 ft. We didn’t stop for lunch to enjoy the views that were sure to come once those pesky clouds burned off. (Hey, isn’t this just the marine layer??) Instead, we dropped into the skinny slot, one by one. I side-slipped down the slot without incident, but unexpectedly pooched a carve to the right and flipped assoverteakettle, followed by a stylish backside, head-first glissade, trying not to clip Brian in the process. (Insert frowny face or head-bashing emoticon.) I dusted myself off and waited for HM to drop in, scoop up my abandoned pole and deliver it. I continued the descent and caught wee air off a small jump Brian, Tom and Randy hucked spread-eagle.

I loved the final run down a steep chute with perfectly-spaced larches. We all triggered some shallow sluffing. A descending traverse through the thicker timber of Early Winters Creek brought us to the hairpin at 1:50pm for a total tour time of 4 hours and 10 minutes. A thin rain fell as we changed out of soft-shell and Gore-Tex. We piled into Brian’s van, drained the last of our IPA rations and toasted to another Birthday Tour gathering in 2013.

The Elwha: Fighting for laissez-faire recovery

It’s more than a fish story. I get that. But if the point of breaching the Elwha dams is to restore the ecosystem, and wild salmon and steelhead are the keystone species of that system, then it is, ultimately, a fish story.

People spoke of ‘the chrome tide’ to describe the bounty of the Elwha, a coastal watershed in Washington with fish runs cresting at 400,000 annually. Fifty-pound Chinook were common and the trophies tipped the 100-pound mark. More than a hundred years ago, construction began on the first of two illegal dams providing cheap power but no fish passage. There wasn’t even high demand for kilowatts. Private developers took the “build it and they will come” approach to economic development in this sleepy corner of the world, the Olympic Peninsula. Fish runs crashed. The graph of wild-fish returns looks like many others with a line traveling asymptotically towards zilch. Now, the chrome tide is nothing more than a beautiful anachronism.

Elwha Dam, the first barrier to anadramous fish seeking spawning gravel, is now completely gone. The 105-ft. structure sat a mere five miles up the Elwha’s mainstem from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  A few more miles upriver, Glines Canyon Dam, twice as tall at 210 ft., has been reduced by a third, as a hydraulic hammer chips away at the slow pace of 18 inches a day. (Any faster than that and sediment loads would overwhelm the river.) Perhaps as early as next year, that second impasse will be history and the Elwha will flow freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains.

Will the storied Chinook return? Or other wild fish: steelhead trout and the four other species of Pacific salmon? Experts say yes. Eighty three percent of the Elwha watershed lies within Olympic National Park, which translates into an unprecedented shot at bona fide restoration.

But Mother Nature needs time to heal anthropogenic wounds. Meanwhile, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe wants a hatchery to provide during the barren period of restoration. The problem with stocking a river with hatchery brats is that they sometimes mate with wild fish, a phenomenon called introgression, resulting in weak offspring, genetically inferior to the progeny of a purely wild pairing.

“But all hatchery fish are sterile,” a friend of mine argued not long ago.

No, they are not. They lack an adipose fin, not sex organs. Science has proven that hatchery fish are harmful to wild stocks, especially those in recovery. But in this case, as in many others, science takes a back seat to politics.

Last fall, several conservation groups including the Wild Steelhead Coalition (disclaimer: I am a member) sued over a $16 million, federally-funded hatchery for violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The intention of taking out the dams was to restore a wild river with wild fish,” notes Rich Simms, president of Wild Steelhead Coalition. “That was the intention and that was the message. Evidently, that wasn’t the route taken.”

Non-native steelhead from the hatchery, currently operating, would be swimming in the Elwha and its tributaries already. But WSC, among other conservation groups, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe reached an agreement in February to delay plants of  those controversial steelhead for a year. The wheels of litigation continue to turn slowly in this suit potentially pitting science and the Endangered Species Act against Native American treaty rights.

Simms remains sanguine and points out “there is common ground” between the two sides. He won’t tip his hand on litigation strategy or settlement expectations, but voices optimism about “a collaborative plan in the interest of everyone.”

In the United States, we have already taken down more than 900 dams, according to data published by advocacy group American Rivers. But none of those presented the opportunity we have before us: to watch a wounded river heal itself; to see real, native fish runs flourish; to see the chrome tide return. We have a great educational opportunity and can apply lessons learned from this to future dam removal efforts. The vast majority of the Elwha watershed’s 321 square miles lies protected in a national park, unfettered by urban development.

Planning for the Elwha dams removal started more than 20 years ago, Simms explains, adding that many people worked long and hard for the promise of “restoring a wild river with wild fish.”

“The public was duped and sold a bill of good of a federally-funded production hatchery with tax payer dollars,” said the WSC leader.

The concept of spending $325 million on Elwha dam demolition is absurd if we continue to exploit artificial propagation. It’s glorified, overpriced aquaculture. We let the river return to its natural state but fill it with unnatural stock scientifically proven to harm wild fish recovery. Common sense, when it comes to public policy, is going the way of our wild salmon and steelhead.


“No, seriously. How much are a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes?” I ask my sister.
“A pair of heels starts at about $800 to $900,” replies Susan.
I pick myself off the floor.
“That’s the cost of a Winston fly rod,” I tell her.
“I have many pairs of Louboutins,” she laughs.
“That’s a lot of Winston fly rods.”
“Nanc, I can’t relate to that at all.”

An edited sampling of Susan's Louboutin footwear

I’m certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Susan has never heard of R.L.Winston, a hallowed marque in the angling universe. She’s incredulous that I live and breathe in a world where a red sole, the signature of a Louboutin pump, means nothing. And yet, those rarefied shoes make her as happy as a Winston fly rod makes me. Granted, I could only afford the only Winston in my quiver second hand.

Susan carries a French handbag of distinction while I stuff my cash—a wad of ones and fives– in a wallet made from repurposed, leaky waders. My dog Shackleton is named after the explorer; her cats Darren and Samantha, after the couple in the 70s sitcom, Bewitched. Susan likes red soles. I like felt soles. My mother swears on my father’s grave that Susan and I originate from identical broodstock.

Susan knows designer goods like a mycologist knows mushrooms, able to discern good from bad through subtle field markings. She can spot a knock-off Chanel or Louis Vuitton at 100 yards even though she squints at the “E” on the optometrist’s eye chart. While I ascribe these forensic skills to highly developed powers of observation, perhaps she draws her conclusions from faulty universals such as “All Koreans buy fakes.”

I glance at my closet and see wading boots, rock climbing slippers, water sandals, ski touring boots, cycling cleats, and some lightweight hikers with a hollow heel, melted from a campfire. So I have a lot of shoes too, but does technical footwear count? I paid a king’s ransom for my AT ski boots which were still cheaper than the cheapest of Susan’s French kicks. We both like shoes, though we could never walk a mile in each other’s. Of course, I don’t think Louboutins were designed with a mile in mind.

Louboutin's signature red sole