WHEN THE FISH CAN’T BREATHE
I have always had a creek in my life. It seems like a soul necessity. Everyday life then becomes woven with the life of the creek and conversations are interspersed with creek references: “the creek is high,” or “let’s go down to the creek” or “the salmon are running.” When I was a child, the creek in my life was “the Old House Creek” on my grandfather’s land. I can still remember how it smelled– the sweetness of Cottonwoods and the damp green smell of fish. It amuses me how creeks get their names—bits of history fixed in time. That creek was, of course, named after an old house that used to be there, but no one I knew could actually remember seeing it.
For the past 30 years I have lived with a creek in the Upper Nehalem Watershed called West Coal Creek because of the shiny bits of coal that were found among the cobble. At one time, in the early thirties, there was speculation about developing a coal mine on the main stem of Coal Creek to fuel the logging trains that were then hauling huge old growth trees out of the Coal Creek Valley.
When I first started walking along the creek, I made a trail along its edge. In the spring, a proliferation of wildflowers—yellow violets, lily of the valley, trillium, bugbane grew along the bank. Alder and large conifer lined the creek, some 2 or 3 feet in diameter. Often I would see schools of cut throat trout, multitudes of crawdads, and, in the spring and fall, runs of coho and chum salmon. The creek was alive but always changing.
In the past few years as the clear cuts in the hills above me increase leaving nothing to absorb the rain and slow the flow of water, the velocity of the water rushing through my land has also increased. The wildflower banks disappeared; next the trees near the stream were uprooted; more banks disappeared. A yurt we optimistically put creekside had a fifteen foot buffer; this year we closed off the entrance path which is now straight over the edge and a ten foot drop. One section of the creek simply blew out from the force and the debris. It became a standing, brown lake in high water. In low water, large islands of silt were formed.
The coastal watersheds are very soft and erosion is part of the natural change we live with. Still as I have walked the creek these last few years and witnessed the erosion and siltation, I have also witnessed the disappearance of life. I have not seen crawdads for several years; there are no more schools of cut throat trout; this year, I saw no salmon. The fine gravel of their spawning beds is covered in silt. The silt and debris, of course, travel on down to the Nehalem and people have discussions about what can be done about a river filling with silt.