|My Winter Steelhead Ritual above Carver Boat Launch donated to White Wolf Sanctuary in Tidewater, OR.|
I made the above clay art with bones of a steelhead I caught and ate from the Clackamas.
The Clackamas was Rudyard Kipling's favorite river. The Noble Prize-winning author caught his first salmon here though some say it was a steelhead. Regardless, he wrote, "“I was up the bank lying full length on the sweet-scented grass and gasping in company with my first salmon caught, played and landed on an eight-ounce rod. My hands were cut and bleeding, I was dripping with sweat, spangled like a harlequin with scales, water from my waist down, nose peeled by the sun, but utterly, supremely, and consummately happy.” I know what he meant. I imagine 10 seconds before my death, I will be thinking about this river instead of all the volumes of chicken-scratch ink marks on pages meant to transfer others' ideas to my restless want-to-be-fishing mind.
Most composition students, creative writing students, and literature students would have benefited from floating part of this 83-mile river with me, and fishing for winter steelhead, spring chinook, summer steelhead, and coho. Like Kipling, they would have real-world experiences to write about, and to relate to famous works of literature. Looking across years of composition students, some were gifted or excited to write, but far too many eyes and hearts were so glazed that if they were pastries the blockage would be the size of Texas donuts.There is probably no better medicine for this than a glacier-fed wild river.
The Clackamas, like many damaged rivers in Northern California, had her heyday before troubles. Salmon and Steelhead Runs and Related Events of the Clackamas River Basin -- a Historical Perspective notes, "One avid fisherman, Charles Mack, clearly recalls a particular fishing season in the late 1930s when he caught 68 spring chinook, weighing an average of 19 pounds each." The document also notes, "Livingston Stone [ . . . wrote in] 1877 that 'probably no tributary of the Columbia has abounded so profusely with salmon in past years as this river (the Clackamas)' (US Commission of Fish and Fisheries 1877)." Unfortunately, “Records show that upstream salmon migration was restricted as early as 1868 after a dam was built on the Clackamas River near Gladstone. This dam, or another near it, continued to impede passage until a fish ladder was provided in 1895.” and “In 1917 the ladder at Cazadero Dam washed out and was not reconstructed until 1939.” I guess there were so many salmon in those days that, like in northern California, the supply seemed inexhaustible.
I hiked the headwaters near Olallie Butte, about 10 miles north of Mt. Jefferson, all the way to where the Clackamas enters the Willamette near Oregon City, imagining ripe old old days before white settlers, or scouting for fish to catch in modern times.
In my book River Walker, I wrote about a childhood river experience that has stayed with me:
Clackamas River Mermaids
At age 7 when I saw a man and woman making love
waist-deep in the Clackamas River above Barton Park
I thought mermaids were swimming upriver
like they did every thousand years or so
to spawn with lucky fishermen
and die in pine grottos
of their Pacific ancestors.
It was 1970 and, according to many sources, about 35,000 anti-Vietnam War music lovers were gathered for seven days of outdoor concerts upriver at McIver State Park near Estacada, with snow capped Mt. Hood in the background and August's bright sun reflecting off pure crystal waters.
However, quiet moments on the Clackamas are what I remember best. The finest spoon fisherman I knew, Ken Bogle, taught me to fish a Krocodile, and showed the importance of pausing it at the end of a swing to entice a strike. Clayton Timothy taught how to drift fish with just enough lead to keep my corky near the bottom, but not enough to slow it much. Later, I taught 15-year-old Jake to spinner fish. I caught my largest winter steelhead here, an 18 and a half pound buck that showed the silver-sided reward of patience and deep listening.