May the Rivers Never Sleep

Book cover

Many people – most perhaps – see time as linear. A year begins; months pass; and then the year ends. It then recedes into the past, remembered only as an incrementing number on one’s decrementing life journey. Infrequently, a year will be remembered for some significant achievement or tragedy.

Fly fishers, hopefully more wise than most, have evidence of the cyclic nature of time as seen in the annual hatches and return of treasured species of fish. And to be fair, evidence of the cyclic nature of time is shared certainly with hunters and others that chase fish with plugs or bait.

Depending on the river, fly fishers eagerly await the Skwala hatch, Mother’s Day Caddis, hopper season or October Caddis. On other rivers, autumn is the time for brown trout. Fishers, both fly and spey, on the coasts wait for the return of salmon and steelhead.

Whatever the month or season, it is a time for being outdoors with a fly rod in hand; an occasion to reflect on fond memories of past outings as well as look forward to the possibilities of the next hatch or the return of salmon or steelhead.

There are a few, a relatively small few, who put aside fly rods to look for the deeper revelations of fish and the world they inhabit. Once such person was the deservedly revered Roderick Haig-Brown. Among his books is the enduring A River Never Sleeps published in 1946, in which he uses the calendar year to write of his experiences on rivers, streams, and estuaries – using the calendar year to mark his journey.

Haig Brown

Now following along in the writing of Haig-Brown are the father/son team of Bill and John McMillan. Bill is well known in the Northwest for his writings on salmon and steelhead and was one of the founders of the Wild Fish Conservancy. His son John leads the Trout Unlimited Wild Steelhead Initiative.

Their book, published in 2012, is May the Rivers Never Sleep. Their river calendar takes place on the salmon and steelhead rivers of primarily Oregon and Washington.

Similar to Haig-Brown they’ve often traded rod for snorkel and mask. This is a large format book with plenty of photographs of salmon and steelhead taken underwater as well as surface photographs of well-loved streams.

Their prose is full of reflection and insight.

There are surprises, such as when the McMillans observe male rainbow trout mating with female steelhead on Olympic Peninsula rivers. They also cite recent studies that indicate that male rainbow trout may father more than 50% of steelhead in both Oregon and Washington in some years.

Their writing also reveals the extent of what has been lost. Whether due to loss of habitat due to logging and dams or the impact of climate change, populations of salmon and steelhead are in decline.

They observe the Grande Ronde river in Oregon. It was once considered one of the most prolific salmon and steelhead rivers in the Columbia basin as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Now those fish must traverse eight Columbia and Snake river dams to reach their natal streams. Further, many are confused and unable to find their natal streams; as juveniles they were collected and barged 200 miles downstream.

But this is not a book of pessimism. They see hope in the adaptation of pink salmon, whose number have increased, to warmer North Pacific temperatures.

They note the depletion of char in British Columbia, but note the Skagit River holds sizable numbers of bull trout, one of the three species of char found in North America; the other two are Dolly Vardens and Arctic Char. Given bull trout are nomadic they could spread to other river systems in Puget Sound if water temperatures are conducive and if salmon recovery proceeds – the bull trout feed on salmon eggs and fry.

This is a book to be read, and then reread a second time, with the second reading occurring over the months of a year – one chapter for each month. Each month of the river year then provides an opportunity to reflect upon the wider (and deeper) perspectives of what it means to chase salmon and steelhead.

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