“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast … a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
Why should we all speak up to restore our river’s natural habitat in the face of redevelopment plans that put everything but the endangered southern steelhead first?
Perhaps, because of the recent shrinkage of two treasured national monuments, despite an outcry by millions of concerned outdoorsmen (and women). For an eye-opening read, check out What Would Theodore Roosevelt Do?
Perhaps, because of goverment-mandated cutting of the two most important words of this century — “climate change” — from documents produced by the beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency and other federal authorities.
Perhaps, because of the devastating climate-fueled conflagration we all recently witnessed here in our own city, to our north, to our south and to thousands of acres all over California.
Or, perhaps, because it is simply the right thing to do.
When does the misuse of what we’ve been freely given end? A former wild river now encased in concrete is as good a place as any to take a stand. Today, when I wade the soft-bottomed sections that remain, fly rod in hand, birds overhead, I feel that fragile sense of hope return. Hope begins as a small thing, like a faint cry you can’t quite make out. But, given time, and especially nurtured by like minds and hearts, it grows and spreads. Hope becomes a powerful force.
In these depressing times, we all need sources of inspiration to nurture that hope.
Consider the 1946 masterpiece, “A River Never Sleeps.” Its author Roderick Haig-Brown lays out his best-known book’s chapters by months. January is reserved for steelhead.
The English Haig-Brown included in this chapter drawn from his experiences in a logging camp in Mount Vernon, Washington, his praise for American openness to immigrants because we are a nation of immigrants:
“When I had been in camp only a week or two, a little old Irishman whom we called Frank Skagway showed me the strength and passion with which America grips her immigrants. In the bunkhouse one evening a few of us were talking of Europe and America and the differences of the life of the two continents.
Probably I said my say for Old England — I don’t remember now — but being only two or three months away from her, I must have. Frank had been listening without offering a word, but suddenly he looked over at me, his lined and long-jawed Irish face serious as I had never seen it.
‘Lad,’ he asked, ‘do you know what country this is?’
‘No,’ I said doubtfully.
‘It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ “
See you on the river, Jim Burns
Reading through “Life in the Open” on this rainy SoCal afternoon makes me wish I’d lived at the turn of last century. I’d trade my IPhone 6 Plus for a 100-trout day in the mountains some 20 minutes from my house. That was not an unusual catch in 1906 when outdoorsman extraordinaire Charles F. Holder wrote about all manner of fishing and hunting, right here.
Between the drought and our recent depressing search for Arroyo Seco trout, I needed to remind myself that this region has always thrived on cycles, that boom or bust goes beyond the local economy straight to nature.
A memorable Holder quote, written about our spring:
“On the mountain slopes the green heteromeles are spangled with white blossoms and the sage-covered mesa waves in masses of gray and green spires. Along the foothills a little wash is covered with wild roses that are now in bloom, filling the air with fragrance. The Arroyo Seco, the San Gabriel, the Santa Ana and the Los Angeles rivers have in the centre of the gravelly waste a silvery stream of water; and so by many tokens the angler in Southern California knows that winter has waned, and April, the month of anglers, when the rod may be plied,has come.
“If the winter has been very rainy, if 30 or 40 inches have fallen, about the annual
fall of New York, the canon streams will be running full, and the angler will have to
wait for the falling of the waters, but if the fall has been normal (18 or 20 inches),
good sport may be had in all the streams from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.”
The very good news for LA River carpers is that the fish are positioning themselves in the Glendale Narrows for the spring spawn. Lots of large brooders, up to 10 pounds, are getting ready to put on the show of the year. Fishing prespawn pays big dividends, so don’t miss it. Once the actual spawn hits, you can pretty much feggitaboutit, as they’ve got more important things than eating on their minds.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
Bradley John Monsma’s “The Sepse Wild” ponders all of the good stuff about being outdoors — land, creatures and water — in such a way that you find yourself dreaming of exactly when you can adventure in his footsteps. In this book, written in 2004, he traces the history of what he terms “Southern California’s last free river,” an area north of Ojai and Fillmore that includes the 80-plus-square-mile Sespe Condor Sanctuary.
According to the Sespe Fly Fishers, the long drought has made the area unfishable for the past three seasons.
Here, Monsma remembers some of his thoughts during church in Los Angeles:
“In this place, in the company of people diverse in every way imaginable, in the heart of a city occasionally torn by natural disasters, police corruption and racial tension, I found myself thinking of salmon. Over and over, salmon would swim up the stream of my consciousness and spawn thoughts of themselves. I would will chinook smolts safely downstream through the turbines of hydroelectric dams. In the ocean, I would evade orcas, sea lions and fishermen.
“I would imagine the cold mountain headwaters calling us home, and with the rest I would strain against the current over fish ladders and waterfalls and through too-warm reservoirs infused with the chemicals of farms and factories. For years, I filled Sunday silences with prayers for fish. This was the closest thing to a spiritual discipline I’ve ever been able to maintain, other than walking or paddling.”
See you on the river, Jim Burns
Back in the day, Dick Roraback represented the journalist I wanted to become: after being graduated from The Sorbonne, he’d worked on the Herald Tribune in Paris (While on assignment in Africa, he’d somehow bamboozled the desk into publishing his story with the byline “By Ghana Rehah,” which got him suspended.); he was worldly, snide, grouchy, looked very old, and ripped through my fledgling restaurant reviews in a torrent of computer red ink. He seemed to me a refugee on the Los Angeles Times copy desk, a bit of the lion in winter. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be like him — bold, intelligent and brash, thumbing his nose at the world and having a great time doing it.
I did wonder how this talented writer landed on the copy desk, reading the works of others, but no longer producing himself. Maybe “be brash in moderation,” I thought to myself.
By the time he’d again taken up ink and plume, I’d moved across town to become the travel editor for the Herald Examiner, and I didn’t read his series “In Search of the L.A. River,” published between 1985 and 1986.
In a recent paper entitled “Writing a river: how journalism helped restore the Los Angeles River,” academic Tilly Hinton argues a strong case for Roraback’s contribution to raising awareness about the river, and how this awareness helped to create the political will for change. She credits him alongside poet and FOLAR founder Lewis MacAdams as two pillars of the event.
I think Roraback would feel peeved to think of himself as a pillar of anything, and from what I’ve read MacAdams was none too pleased with the snarky tone Roraback used in his pieces. (For that matter, MacAdams also seems a wholly unlikely pillar, yet that he is, with a recent riverside plaque to prove it.)
For the series, which began at the river’s mouth in Long Beach and moved up to the headwaters, Roraback invented a character named “The Explorer.” At one point, The Explorer visited a man who kept an aquarium of fish captured from the river:
“Up in Atwater Glen on the other side of the channel, Tom Babel, manager of the riverside Port of Call apartments, allows as his community is a peaceful enough place to live –“You just gotta watch your back.” Just north, it seems, is “Toonerville, where anything goes.”
Even so, Babel likes living by the river, though he keeps his RV primed for a quick exit. “There’s been occasions when the rain got heavy and the river got two feet from the top of the bank,” he says. “I’d already started packing my important papers in the RV, ready to head for the high ground. . . . “
Larry Wickline, Babel’s stepson, takes a kinder view of riparian life.
“After the rains,” he says, “there’s rainbow trout this big! Keepers! You get catfish, carp, crayfish. Come up to my apartment. I have something to show you.”
Indeed he does. In Wickline’s flat is an illuminated fish tank holding an amazing variety of fish — gold, brown, white — all taken, he says, from the Los Angeles River.
“Good fishing when the river comes up,” Wickline says, “Except sometimes you can’t take a step for all those tiny snakes.
“It’s not so much the snakes, though, as the gangs. I wouldn’t go down there without a gun. At night, I wouldn’t go down there at all. . . . “
What I find particularly interesting about this passage is that, if true, rainbow trout were still in the river in the mid-80s, contrary to everything I’ve read about their disappearance from the river decades earlier.
The series certainly sparked interesting letters, including this one from Gene Lippert of Hacienda Heights:
“Just a note of appreciation for all the hard work Dick Roraback put in to bring us his fascinating story of the present Los Angeles River (‘In Search of the L.A. River,’ an occasional series.) I am following his tale with great interest.
“You see I lived my Tom Sawyer youth on the Los Angeles River in the area of the Imperial Highway bridge. That was before the ‘big paving extravaganza.’ We skinny-dipped in the pools, caught crawdads by the dozen and boiled them in an old can filled with river water and a dash of vinegar. We always kept supplies such as salt, pepper, coffee, cigarette butts (good for a couple of more puffs) in tin cans buried in the river bank. Small-sized trout were plentiful and easy to catch on a bent pin (had to jerk the fish out of the water and onto the bank the first time he nibbled or away went your bait). We slept overnight in the river bed most of the summers (dry, clean white sand). We were almost ridden over by a bunch of horses one night while sleeping. We had made camp in weeds four or five feet high and the fire had gone out.
“One time we stole redwood from an irrigation flume and built a boat. We got our caulking by digging the tar from between the expansion joints in Imperial Highway and melting it over a bonfire. The boat was a bust — it kept tipping over.”
So now I find Dick’s shadow once again moving across my writing life. Sometimes unlikely people follow you through time in the most unexpected ways.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
Written as an afterword 20 years later to his successful “The River Why,” David James Duncan ponders our environmental future. The reference to Thomas Mann’s classic “Buddenbrooks” is appropriately obscure, but when you realize that book is about the decline in health of four generations — each less healthy than the last — it gives this warning, written in 2003, even more poignancy today.
“Our legacy as Americans, like that of Hanno Buddenbrooks, is too powerful to escape. That the world is small, that its so-called ‘resources’ are not a boundless economic bonanza but finite parts of a fragile and holy web of life, that humanity is part of the same web, that the web’s health and ours are as closely connected as a child’s life and its heartbeat — these God-given links and limits will, I feel certain, be the scalding revelations of coming decades. Because they will scald, I pray for other revelations that soothe like love and water — and I believe we’ll get them. As wrongheaded and deadly as humans can be, we haven’t eradicated love or water yet.”
See you on the river, Jim Burns
The best — and possibly the saddest — way to know what you’ve missed is by delving into the past. It seems almost nihilistic to look too closely, yet we must.
I remember years ago interviewing an old professor in Madrid who transported me back to a time when single, young men drank coffee and women, hot chocolate, both sexes beautifully dressed for the flirtation that naturally followed. As I listened with my tin ear for castilian Spanish, at first I thought how “modern” I was, and how silly, how sexist, it was to confine the sexes to different hot beverages. But as I walked home, a certain nostalgia overcame me to a point that my footsteps eventually just sort of scuffed along the pavement as I wondered at the clothes, the conversations, the intrigue that happened in those early years of the last century.
That day I became a true believer in remembering what we’ve lost, if for no other reason than to preserve that which deserves preserving today. Sure, this time, right now, remains a special one, full of hope and promise I believe outweigh all of the impending zombie apocalypses. Yet, reading Charles McDemand made me pine for a Sierra now vanished, for he wrote his classic “Waters of the Golden Trout Country” in 1944. McDermand penned his trampings along ranges few will travel, bringing his seven-foot fly rod, seven-and-a-half foot leader and “pack board” to dozens of rivers, streams and lakes. Here’s a sample:
“While ichthyologists have long argued over whether steelhead trout are a separate species or not, I had always considered them to be any rainbow trout which had gone out to sea and returned. Fresh from the plentiful food and the colorless habitat of the sea, they were always silvery, energetic fighters when re-entering fresh water. It had been my belief, and the belief of many a seasoned steelhead fisherman, that any of these trout, if landlocked in fresh water for a few months, would return to their usual brilliant coloration.
Now, at Lake Italy, I found my opinions shattered by the squirming, silvery evidence before me. This was a steelhead; there was no doubt about it in my mind. By no possible chance, short of wings, could it have journeyed from the seas through the miles of cataracts and actual falls descending from the Sierra. Obviously, someone had planted steelhead fry in Lake Italy. They had grown and remained silvery instead of reverting to a rainbow coloration. Accordingly, to me steelhead must be a separate and distinct species, not just any rainbow that has gone out to sea and returned.”
See you on the river, Jim Burns