Why May the Rivers Never Sleep?

by: John R. McMillan

I never thought of the question until now.

Randy Stetzer asked me: What was your inspiration for May the Rivers Never Sleep?  How did it come about?

Great question, I thought. Easy enough. 

But, after sitting down to the computer to punch out a quick response I realized it was not so straight forward.  So I let the question rattle around in my brain for a month or two, pondering the answer while fishing and hoping it would collect some of the mental residue lying around from past ideas.

Alas, I was never able to recall the exact moment that sparked the idea for the book.  And for good reason. I came to realize that there was no specific impetus. Rather, the idea had been drifting around in our family for some time – like a caddis circling the gyre of a back-eddy – before becoming a daily thought that necessitated an outlet.

The sinuous path to publication started long ago, probably with my grandfather and his brother who were raised on the banks of the Willamette River near Oregon City.  Their love for fishing was passed to my father and then to me. Given my family’s history of living in the Pacific Northwest and our long connection to fish, it just seemed the natural thing to do.

I was raised as an angler and budding biologist with a dad who was struck by the curious life of rivers and fish.  Maybe there were other things I would have done if my father had been different. Maybe there were other things I wanted to do as a boy – like become Dan Marino and a football star.  Regardless, the path was blazed and for the life of me – while being a professional quarterback would have been incredible – I don’t think there is a damn thing I would have changed.

I digress, which is why my answer to the question is so obtuse.

One thing that is clear is the motivation. My father and I both loved one book in particular that was written by Roderick Haig-Brown. Haig-Brown was a remarkable observer of nature who lived on the banks of the Campbell River on Vancouver Island.  In our view, his writings represent the benchmark of all other fishing literature thereafter, largely because he was not just a fisherman.  He was also a pioneering conservationist that paid as much attention to the rivers and their life as he did angling, and his stories beautifully conveyed a complex understanding of nature’s patterns and the ecological relationships underlying the steelhead and salmon.  The stories were read and re-read by my father too many times to count.  I most frequently read them under the dim light of winter in a bedroom that overlooked the Washougal River.  We wanted to pay homage to Haig-Brown and his book A River Never Sleeps that captured our mutual passion for rivers and fish.

I also wanted to write something with my father. I love him dearly, and we have done a great many things together.  But writing was not one of them.

And this is where things begin to stray.  Although we modeled our book after A River Never Sleeps, it was actually another book that planted the seed for collaboration: The Monk and the Philosopher. 

The book is essentially a conversation between a father, a scientist, and a son, a former scientist turned Buddhist monk.  The back-and-forth dialogue uniquely highlighted the difference and similarities between spirituality and science, but in our case the roles were slightly reversed.  My father is more the philosopher, though also a field biologist, while I have worked professionally as a fishery research scientist for most of the past twenty years.  We initially wanted something similar, but eventually realized that the format was inadequate for our purpose.

My father and I had several discussions about this over a one-year period before approaching Frank Amato about publishing the book. After a few meetings with Frank and his team, we agreed to a basic template that combined the two books in a way that would allow the reader to see the different perspectives of father and son.  To do this we settled on a concept of what we call “river time.”

The concept is that we view nature as our calendar, and that the shifting concept of calendars across human history has been fundamentally linked to nature’s patterns – or those based on agriculture.  Regardless, the point being that the need for understanding and measuring time is founded in the seasons and the biological patterns that follow.  A life spent on rivers is intrinsically linked to these patterns, but there is also a fabric of life overlaying that template. This is what we wanted to focus on. Both the rivers and the life therein.

To capture our perspective of river time we focused on the twelve months of our annual calendar and divvied the months equally among father and son – each of us selecting the months that most strongly resonated with our experiences in angling and biology.

This is the core of the book, a story about the seasonal changes in rivers and life.

On the surface, the river calendar represents a shifting mosaic, a biological tapestry overlaid on physical changes in climate and stream flow.  More deeply, it is an instinctual anticipation derived from decades spent on rivers. Owing to this connection, I no longer think of December as Christmas or January as New Years. I anticipate those months as winter floods, ice and steelhead. They are about the song of the winter wren and the drenching rains of rainforest storms. They have nothing to do with snowy mountain peaks, skiing, holidays, Christmas parties or any other shit like that.  They only represent the start of winter steelhead season and the close of the salmon’s fall run. 

In the same vein, I don’t think of July as Independence Day nor do I associate June as the beginning of summer, because as anyone who grew up on the west side of the Cascades knows, summer always begins sometime around the second week of July – before climate change at least.  Summer is not about bikinis, surfing or vacations to Disneyland. Those are all likely very fun things, to others.  No, summer to me is about fishing for trout, steelhead on surface flies, and snorkeling rivers.  It is about drought, unexpected thunderstorms and massive evening caddis hatches.  It is the time of nature’s bounty, or nature’s bust if you live in a warmer and drier region.

Fall is uniquely dichotomous in the river calendar, salmon spawning and dying on the coast while summer steelhead are just coming to life in the interior Columbia as temperatures cool and river flows rise.  It is not about Halloween or football season, it is a contrast of death and deserts, the stench of rotting salmon versus the sweet smell of sage.   On the other hand, spring is the gift of life, horny steelhead and birds caught in the throes of reproductive desires.  It is not tax time nor is it about any specific date representing the onset of spring. It is a gradual change, the time when plants rise from the dead and the fragrant cottonwoods begin to tease the nostrils about the upcoming warmth of summer. 

That is my river time: the ever changing theater of birds, fish and plants. The end of life, and the beginning, all in a calendar year. 

The hope in writing the book was that other anglers and biologists start to recognize their own internal calendars, those based on their local rivers and fish.  Each of our calendars has been sculpted by a lifetime of experiences, and as such, observations and patterns likely differ strongly among regions and individuals.  Every river is different, every population of salmon and steelhead unique.  Our calendars should reflect this diversity.

And that brings me to the real reason for writing the book.  Rivers are only alive as the life within.  Yet, the only reason we know what we once had is through reading the observations and study of others – people like Haig-Brown.   We need those guideposts if we are ever going to fully appreciate, and potentially recover, our rivers and fish.  Without them we are at the mercy of the Shifting Baseline syndrome, where undocumented losses accumulate such that each generation – not knowing what formerly existed – comes to accept the diversity and abundance in their lifetime as the new norm.  This is a very real and big problem in fisheries conservation.  It is hard to fix something if the person does not know what was broken, and as a result, it is nearly impossible to define what recovery looks like.

Our book leaves behind a documentation of what we have and what we have lost in the places and populations that my father and I are familiar with. But our knowledge is limited geographically.  It is incumbent upon others in different areas to leave behind similar knowledge of patterns and place. All we ask is that next time you are out on the river, closely observe something and parse out a bit of effort to keep written notes about changes in rivers and fish.   If we can do that, cumulatively we can leave behind what others have left for us.

While it may seem we are on the losing end of the conservation war, remember, nature always bats last. There is hope for the future. In the closing chapter of the book I reference my experiences working on the Elwha River during and after dam removal.  It was something to observe the first steelhead make it above the dams, to see the dippers feasting on salmon eggs and realizing that sooner than later, some person will be fishing the river. 

It is amazing to see how much the Elwha’s river calendar has changed over the past four to five years, and it is continually evolving. Just a few weeks ago a close friend, James Starr, was snorkeling the upper Elwha and documented four wild summer steelhead.  We were lucky to see any wild summer steelhead prior to dam removal, and James saw four in just four miles of river. 

We can’t relax though. We need to strive for greater change. Our book is a prayer that the change continues – that The Rivers Never Sleep – and that the coming generations of anglers have opportunities to fish and snorkel rivers that we did not.

That won’t happen with a book. It won’t happen overnight, nor will it be easy. But it won’t happen at all if you don’t get involved.

It will only happen with each of you making a very small difference.

You can purchase a copy of the book at: http://www.amazon.com/Rivers-Never-Sleep-Bill.../1571884807

You can see John McMillan’s underwater photography at: www.instagram.com/rainforest_steel/