July 5, 2010


First time for one of these! Fishing the Sound near Federal Way. It felt like a decent-sized fish when it took the fly, ended up being about ten inches of fish and two feet of seaweed. I'm really glad I got to see one though. Kind of like an episode of River Monsters but 1/10 the size and not on a river.

July 3, 2010

Thanks, Dad

My dad and I live about twelve hundred miles apart, so I didn't get to see him on Father's Day, but it seemed like he was close by. Some friends were visiting from out of town, and we spent the day visiting Snoqualmie Falls, hiking up the Twin Falls trail, and having a picnic -- exactly the kind of day my dad puts together for friends from near and far. I can't begin to add up all the days I've spent in Dad's roadworn four-wheel-drive vehicles, on back roads or dirt tracks that barely qualify as roads, seeing "critters and country", in his phrase.

He worked as a surveyor, and always had a little-known beautiful spot to head out to on the weekends, battered red cooler and picnic blanket in the back. We'd find somewhere in a meadow or by a river, build a fire from dead wood, roast some hot dogs, and explore. It was usually my job to gather kindling for the campfire, and I remember thinking how even chores were fun in the woods -- I still feel that way. One morning on the way up to the mountains, my dad stopped the car and told me and my stepmom he had to "get out and wee." He got out, closed the door, yelled, "Wheeeeee!" and then got back in and continued down the road.

A few years ago, I met some friends in Salt Lake City so we could visit Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which had become visible as the water level dropped in the Great Salt Lake. This was pre-Google-maps, the directions and dirt roads were both sketchy, and our view was wandering livestock, rusting machinery, and the cloud of dust we were raising. As our rental car juddered over the washboard surface, one of them looked at me and said, "Doesn't it feel weird to be out here? What if the car breaks down? You seem pretty comfortable, actually." I was totally comfortable; it was like a hundred other Saturdays I'd spent with my dad and various friends and family he'd gathered. I realized it was because of my dad that I felt safe out in the world away from buildings and phones and pavement. There's a lot of talk lately about how children in our culture are disconnected from nature. The biggest influences over whether a child spends time outdoors are parents, the first people to help you figure out what's safe and what isn't, where you belong and don't belong. My dad made the big wild world my playground and taught me its rules.

When I was eight or nine, my dad took me up a forest road to the top of a peak, showing me the different fossils scattered there, and explaining how they had once been under an ocean that was long gone, and how the earth had raised and folded up into mountains in the spot we were standing. I remember the feeling of stretching my mind to understand how wide and deep that ocean must have been as we looked across to the surrounding peaks and over the tree-covered valleys between them. Many years after that, when I was working at an engineering company and doing some surveying, I could somewhat understand my dad's daily world. One day he took me out to a piece of land that was about to be gifted as wilderness, and we found the section corner from when the land was surveyed a hundred years earlier. It was a pyramidal stone, scored on each side; there was also a small pit of charcoal. And I remember the same feeling of trying to stretch my mind, back to the person that had walked that land and measured it with chains, burying charcoal and hewing a stone to mark it. My dad's career spanned the time when surveying went from slide rules to GPS and computers; I spent a week working with him and his crew shortly before he retired, and learned more in that week than the previous six months at my job.

Maybe the best thing I can say about my dad is that he's my friend. If we'd met at work or on a trail, I'd think he was a pretty cool guy. He's shown me how to build a campfire, set up a surveyor's tripod, and make an awesome salad. He's taught me, not by words but by how he lives his life, how to truly love the land and water, how to toughen up when I need to, and how to be generous and hospitable. He's made my world bigger. Thanks, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

July 1, 2010

Madison River, Montana

Montana. I say it out loud and a panorama of golden hills, bouldery rivers, and wild fish unrolls in my brain. I know I'm romanticizing and it's marked like any land inhabited by twenty-first century humans. But it feels undomesticated -- as if the humans suddenly disappeared, Montana would quickly revert to looking like it did five hundred years ago. I've only been there twice, and it already feels like part of my internal landscape. Immediately after returning I was already figuring out when I could go back. This trip included three-ish days of fly-fishing; end of May is full runoff, but the Madison is fishable year-round. There were a couple of golden afternoons Friday and Sunday at various spots on the Madison, punctuated with vigorous cloudbursts, and a full day float on Saturday.

Picture a pinata full of weather; every half-hour or so someone gives it a good hard whack, and something else tumbles out. When Maile and I met our guide Tim at 8 am, it was about 35 and snowing, big fat flakes which continued much of the way to our put-in at McAtee Bridge. The snow stopped, the sun broke out briefly, and the wind kicked up; we zipped and cinched our layers, rigged up double nymphs, and got in the boat. We started finding fish within 10 minutes, and continued all day, Tim putting us into the sweet spots. Browns and rainbows, all of them big-shouldered, and one whitefish, which was brown and pink all at once.

The nicest fish I caught was a rainbow hen, strong and wild; she took my dropper nymph and some feet of line, and she was off. The river pulled us all downstream together, Tim finding the boat a way among the rocks and instructing me. I wasn't so much fighting the fish as following her lead with my rod; people talk about taking apart a piece of water when they fish it, breaking it down. The fish took apart the water, diving behind boulders, running in the shallows, until we came to a spot where we could land her. She was strong, glowing silver-pink, about eighteen brawny inches long. This was the one fish picture I wanted for the day, but the fish slipped out of my hands while I was admiring her, dove under the boat, and was gone. This as it should be; the fish had plenty of energy left, and reminded me that even though I temporarily outsmarted her, the river was her native element. I snapped a shot of this lovely small brown trout later in the day. We kept going, the hills and clouds and eleven miles of water unscrolled; snow, rain, wind, and sun, twenty or so wild Montana trout, and at day's end, a stop for drinks to warm up. Perfect day.

The postscript was going to be Monday on the upper Big Hole, continuing my quest for the fluvial Arctic grayling in their only lower-48 location, but the river was completely blown out and snow was dumping everywhere above 5500 feet. The chances of catching anything, much less a grayling, were extremely slim; the chances of getting my rental car stuck somewhere I didn't want to be were slightly greater. I took an hour or so at a Starbucks in Butte to consider my options, then headed west towards Missoula, briefly stopping to look at the Little Blackfoot, which was running up into the willows on the banks. I ended up driving over to Rock Creek, and fishing there for the few hours before sunset. It was running high and wild too, curtains of rain and mist drawn over the hills around, with the last few rays of sun occasionally touching the gray with gold. No fish, and no surprise. Nobody else was fishing, and the air had the heavy chill of rain that might turn into snow that night or might have been snow the night before. I took off my waders and boots in the dusk, and headed into Missoula.

June 27, 2010

Cedar Ghost

My takeoff on a classic wet fly, the Grey Ghost, with same proportions and some of the same ingredients. I named it for the Cedar River and the olive color. My tying skills still have a way to go, but I had fun tying up a few of these.

Body: light olive 6/0 thread, peacock sparkle thread, silver flat tinsel
Throat: flashabou and cat guard hairs (free and endlessly renewable)
Wing: gray saddle hackle, peacock herl, mallard flank

Head coating is Loon Soft Head instead of the harder epoxy coatings.

June 20, 2010

Cedar River Coastal Cutthroat

This little beauty came from a spot near a lot of Friends of the Cedar River habitat restoration projects I've worked on. Very satisfying. I love imagining the journey it may have taken from the river, through Lake Washington, to the Sound and back.

June 17, 2010

New Fly Rod

My talented and resourceful coworkers made this out of office supplies and used it to deliver my 5-year pin. Notice the awesome fly, which involves cannibalized holiday decorations and duct tape; not sure what size it comes out to, but I'm thinking BIG fish. The large arbor reel used to be someone's paper clip holder, but they aren't getting it back. This is an extremely fast-action rod, due to its half-inch hardwood dowel construction, and the line is probably equivalent to at least 12wt. In other words, the kind of fishing that requires going somewhere really cool. Seriously for a moment, I am incredibly fortunate to work with a group of kind, smart, committed, and creative people. Thanks guys!

June 4, 2010

Early May Yakima River Bugs

There was a massive caddis hatch that morning, a Hollywood hatch with backlit bugs swirling and dipping around the water, but no fish interested in anything on the surface. They weren't interested in nymphs either. They may well have been on vacation. The wind kicked up midmorning; after noon it took a break from blowing hard downstream and switched to blowing hard upstream. But there were plenty of bugs going about their business among the riverside willows and under rocks in the water. The brown stonefly flared its gills for several seconds when I put it back in the water, then slowly wedged itself back under a rock.

May 28, 2010

The Gift of Starting Late

My friend Tom grew up fishing; his cast is lovely and natural even though he hadn't picked up a fly rod for years the morning I took this photo. I got a late start to fly-fishing; until a few years ago I barely knew what it was, and running left no room in my life for another outdoor passion. Hiking, snowshoeing, cycling, and everything else were the side dishes, but running on roads and trails and hills was the way I touched my world and centered myself. There were a few gaps in my running resume, but I always came back, and always pictured myself as one of those sprightly eighty-year olds who can still drop a few youngsters in a local 10K. Then an intractable knee injury cut a hole in that picture. Then I met a man who took me out a river and handed me a fly rod.

Most fly-fishers I know have been doing it for dog’s years, and many of them kindly assured me that starting at forty I would do all right, but never as well as someone who grew up fishing. My cast would never be quite as good as if I’d started with a young body and brain, and years of learning to read water hadn’t piled up behind me. However, starting late means I don’t carry the weight of what I “should” know by now, and life's journey has taught me some useful things. I’ve learned life is boring if I only do things I’m really good at, because that list is a lot shorter than the list of things that might be fun -- so I do the things that bring me joy. I’ve learned that investing time and attention can get you just as far as being gifted. I’ve learned deep in myself how much I truly don’t know, so I don’t mind asking questions, even those that seem a bit dumb.

But the best part of starting late is that all my fly-fishing memories are fresh still, fully colored and fragrant. I remember the first trout I saw, caught from an alpine lake, sparkling in the mountain sun. I remember the first fish I caught, a six-inch rainbow on the Teanaway River on a June day, and how that tug on the other end of the line was connected to a previously unknown place in my heart. I remember the freezing winter afternoon and melancholy sinking sun when I landed my first decent-sized fish. I remember the first time I caught a fish on a fly I tied, a scraggly elk hair caddis, and how I felt like a genius. I remember the giddiness of buying my first nice fly rod, and the beauty of the first fish it brought me, a brown trout from Rock Creek in Montana, with a bright golden back and silver belly and spots like little gems.

I think about all the things I didn’t know a few years ago and that I know now, and then I think about all the things I don’t know yet and may never know. Now I notice all the blue squiggles and spots and spaces on maps, and how they connect and define all the other places on maps. I think about all the fish I have yet to catch, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat, grayling, a list too long to enumerate. I think about everything ahead of me, and I feel grateful. Because even starting late, there’s plenty of time.

Favorite Birthday Card Ever

One of my coworkers decided my departmental birthday card was too cutie-pie for me, so he upgraded it with a fly rod. I love how the sweet little bluebird bearing birthday greetings is being totally ignored in favor of the fish on the line. Pretty decent bend in the rod...

May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

“Have fun, honey! Don’t get dirty!” I knew plenty of little girls whose moms sent them outside to play with those parting words, and I was luckily not one of them. Once I changed into official play clothes, all bets were off. I could come home covered in oxide-red dirt, pockets full of rocks or anything else I found, and get a warm motherly welcome. Early days, “helping” my dad dig in the garden and climbing the cottonwood tree in the front yard were adventure enough. Then came a bike, and my radius increased. Then I was old enough to walk to school on my own, and the afternoon walk home took longer and longer as I found more detours through arroyos and open spaces. I came home with all kinds of grimy detritus, bugs, wilted wildflowers, and once a hand stuck full of cactus spines.

My mom let me explore on my own terms, appreciated the treasures I brought home, and generally let me have the run of the neighborhood. She taught me the usual things about staying safe, but she never made me fearful. In short, she gave me the freedom that most boys had. I remember one summer when she imposed a moratorium on shorts because my skinned knees kept getting re-skinned – I generally looked everywhere except where I was going. At the time, this seemed incredibly strict. However, a couple of years ago a bramble of blackberries saved me from a swim in the Green River when I was looking more at a bird than where my bike was pointed. In retrospect, I think Mom made the right call about shorts that summer.

My stepmom, who quickly became “Ma,” met my dad when I was sixteen. As a mother of four kids older than me, former Navy nurse, hospital nurse, then school nurse, she had seen pretty much everything. She wasn’t cynical; quite the reverse, but she was unflappable and always knew what to do. Strained back on a camping trip, sprained ankle on a trail run, allergy attack on a bike ride, bumped head, blistered sunburn – Ma was the person who could help. Teenage dramas, school, friends, boyfriends, first years of college – she saw me through all of it. She had taken her kids camping and fishing and was comfortable in the woods, which made me feel comfortable anytime she was there. She carried humor and calm with her in all situations, and helped me develop a sense of perspective. She also taught me something I always suspected as a little girl: wearing a nylon slip under a summer cotton dress is ridiculous. “People already know I have legs," she said, "it's too darn hot to wear a slip!"

I sprained my ankle last spring on the last day of a fishing trip; the night before heading home was spent with my dad and stepmom. I’ve sprained enough things over the years that I know pretty much what to do, but it felt great to have Ma take a look at it and give me some advice and TLC.

I’m fortunate in many ways, not least in feeling that the world around me is a good place, wide and welcoming, and that exploring it often requires one to come home a bit grubby. I’m fortunate to have been raised by these two wonderful women whose words and lessons to me complemented each other so well. And I'm deeply grateful that as the years have passed, we’ve become true friends. Mom and Ma, thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day.

May 1, 2010

198-Fish Night

The fish in question were kokanee salmon fry, recently hatched in Lewis Creek and making their way into Lake Sammamish. The Bellevue-Issaquah chapter of Trout Unlimited, along with other groups and agencies, is on a mission to save these native fish in the lake they've inhabited since the last ice age and restore their numbers to a self-sustaining population. Part of the work is counting the fry as they swim down to the lake and the adult fish as they return to spawn. The photos show the counting trap and some fry swimming in the pen before we gently scooped them out to count them and release them back into the stream. Dedicated TU members do this task three nights a week from 8:30 til midnight or later, for several weeks as the fish emerge and swim to the lake. The trap is lowered into the stream, "fished" for about 45 minutes, fry counted and released, then the process repeats until the count starts dropping, as the fish begin their journey downstream after sunset.

I've seen fry swimming in sheltered areas of rivers but never looked really closely; these tiny creatures, not much bigger than the fir needles floating in the pen with them, already look so much like the fish they'll become. Bright golden eyes, huge compared to the rest of the body, silver bellies, green backs with tiny dark speckles. Some, more recently hatched, still have pink yolk sacs attached to their bodies. Some are visibly more vigorous than others. It's amazing to think of something so tiny swimming straight from a shallow rocky little stream into a huge lake and making its life there, and yet carrying within itself the imprint of this particular place all its life and returning here to spawn.

Lewis Creek runs through a suburb of large lakeside homes; it's narrower than most of the dining rooms in these houses. It feels surreal to be wearing waders and a headlamp, counting tiny little fish, while standing in a thin strip of darkness cut into the land and surrounded by orange-lit streetlamps, glowing windows, and passing headlights. This small hidden piece of wilderness within a thoroughly domesticated landscape is the future of a wild fish striving to live in its native waters.

April 18, 2010

Snoqualmie Point Trail

A favorite close-to-city trail, which winds through the woods along a ridgeline and feels more foresty than other trails near Seattle. There are moments where the trees open up, framing views of the Snoqualmie River valley on the north side of the ridge and Mount Rainier on the south side, and moments when the trees enclose you in a mossy, ferny, quiet space. First photo is from a hike in April, after a welcome late-spring snow dump. The snow turned slushy by mid-morning, but it's a pleasure to slog through Gore-Tex-defeating wet snow on a sunny spring day when you're on your way back down the trail with dry shoes and socks back in the car. Second photo is from February, when ice crystals like blades of grass formed at the side of the trail where water collects. Each little stone and piece of soil had its own miniature column of ice suspending it, and the whole phenomenon was completely camouflaged until you stepped to the side of the trail and heard the most delicate crunching sound. I also like this trail because it's a little quieter and less traveled than others on the I-90 corridor. Much as I enjoy my fellow humans in general, any hike on an empty trail is delicious.

April 8, 2010

Picnic Point, Lynnwood WA

There are a lot of spots around Seattle where little streams enter Puget Sound, including this one. Sketch is from a photo I took in December; air temps in the high 20's, windy, generally a toe-freezer, and not a sea-run cutthroat to be found. I tried to capture the wintry blue-ness. Apparently in the winter the fish are either in or out, and they were out. Repeat a few times in January and February. Now I've seen this water in different moods and different tides, and watched this stream meet the currents of the Sound in different conditions. Now the fickle Northwest spring advances, the stream will swell, and the cutthroat will be in.

April 3, 2010


Spring! Sandal weather's almost here!

March 30, 2010

Steelhead Water

Queets River, 7 am, about 38 degrees, utterly quiet spring morning. A deep breath and a silent moment of gratitude for being right there, right then. The Queets is a nameless veiled color, blue and brown at the same time, suspended glacial silt clouds the water but also gives it a backlit intensity.

This was my first time fishing for steelhead, so I was glad to be with a guide, as well as a fellow angler who'd fished here before. Our guide specializes in this river, and he knows it like a you know your favorite story. Every run, slot, and riffle has a memory attached to it -- who's caught fish and when and how in every spot. He was unfailingly patient with a steelhead rookie -- fish behavior, fly choice, how to cast an 8-weight with sink tip, how to cover the water.

We waded on the bar side of the river and our guide rowed us over to the bank side, at the edges of the faster current, deep slots boiling slowly, the spots where you know in the bones of your feet there's a fish.

One steelhead rolled in front of the boat, but couldn't be tempted with anything. We tried swinging a fly and drifting an indicator setup; my indicator took a two-foot sideways journey once, but I saw and didn't feel the take, so didn't react quickly enough. "One grab is a good day," several veteran steelheaders told me, so by definition it was a good day. I briefly hooked a couple of small non-steelhead, and that was it for nearly 10 hours of solid fishing.

Veterans also warned me it would be better not to catch a steelhead my first time, because the unlikely (and even undeserved!) success would only lead to later grief. I haven't yet earned the "fish of a thousand casts," so I'm content. There are many experiences available immediately and easily in our world; the older I get, the more I appreciate the ones that are rare and difficult.

March 20, 2010

Schlitz Streamer

If you've been fly-fishing and/or tying flies longer than 2 weeks, you've heard the expression "There are flies that catch fish, and flies that catch fishermen." This, I believe, is one of the latter.

Happy New Year

Here at 47 degrees north latitude, the equinox feels more like the start of a new year than the calendar new year does. Seattle isn't all that cold, and the snow generally stays politely in the mountains all winter. But January first falls within the dark period of the year, and the long nights continue untroubled by humans changing their calendars. The sun at noontime continues anemic and watery on the few days it isn't shrouded in fog or clouds. I start longing for snow in October, I start longing for sun in January, and to me all of winter belongs in the previous year. This photo is from the last snowshoe of the year, mid-March. The sun was a burning pearl, turning the fresh snow slushy by early afternoon, and the clouds waved and circled all day. Beautiful day to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring.
The equinox also seems like an auspicious time to start this blog about being outdoors (mostly) in the Northwest. It's the official changing of the gear, when the snowshoes are put in their box, and the bike gets a tune-up. So, happy new year. See you outside!