In The House Of The Bull Trout

Yesterday I took a long walk up a cold stream in search of bull trout. I didn't really expect to see fish. Instead, I'd come to see redds—the gravel nests in which fish lay eggs—because I'd been trying to write a story about salmon and realized I knew nothing whatsoever about them. So I called the Forest Service, and next thing you know I was standing at a trailhead, with waders in my pack and a broomstick in my hand.

"Fall feels like stream survey season," one companion announced as four of us, all women, cinched pack straps and retied boots. "Doesn't it?"

I didn't know, I replied. I'd never done one. She told me she was, like me, a volunteer. Normally, she worked as a biologist for another agency. Today, however, she'd taken the day off.

"You're in for a treat," she said.

This much I know about federal land managers: They're often desk-shackled, mired in paperwork and politics, an endless cycle of public meetings and setbacks and revisions. But they're heroes to my mind, or she-roes in this case. I've long suspected that our most reliable bulwark against the exploitation of forests or deserts or rivers isn't monkey-wrenchers or tree-sitters; it's these stalwart government employees whose careers, over time, grow less and less like Aldo Leopold's and more and more like the title character in Kurosawa's Ikiru, the desperate entrenched bureaucrat trying to find meaning in a life of repetition. One way to make that meaning, or at least find some relief, is to get the heck outside. These women had done so.

So I was impressed. I was also concerned. When I signed up, I pictured a stroll along a stream bank. The waders, the broomstick—striped with colored depth markers—and the overstuffed daypacks disabused me of that notion. We'll walk how far? I asked. A couple miles? Perhaps an hour?

"Hours," another volunteer replied. "We'll be in the water for four or five hours."

The group leader, Cindy, paired up with me and announced that we'd take a lower, easier stretch of creek. We hiked at a steady clip, then stopped at a small side channel.

"This is us," she said.

We dropped down through devil's club, over downed cedars, through deep pools. Should a zoo or a nature preserve try to recreate a healthy mid-elevation forest like this, they'd never get it right. Moss so thick, logs this weathered and wedged: You can't fake it. As we walked, Cindy explained the surveys. They do them each fall on three tributaries—"tribs" she calls them—and she's been doing them for 20 years.

"Twenty years?"

She nodded and kept moving.

Bull trout, she explained, are less romanticized than salmon—maybe it's the name?—but they're the choosiest of salmonid species. They want the coldest, cleanest water, the least manipulated stream banks, the most intact forests. Prima donnas, you might say, or else savvy customers.

We reached the main trib, and Cindy forged ahead, never breaking stride. I stumbled behind through thigh-deep water, leaning hard on the now-essential broomstick.

The rocks on the bottom ranged in earth tones from rust to orange, with quartz veins shimmering white. Where they were polished clean—no dirt, no algae—that's where we looked. There the fish dig a shallow depression, lay eggs, then cover them with rocks the size of a toddler's fist: the redd. After an hour or so, at last, I began to see redds clearly. We'd hang a flag on a nearby limb and label them: possible, probable, definite.

Then the fish appeared: A spawning pair in a wide shallow swath. The male eased beside the female, more snuggle than thrust, and the female flipped on her back to expose a silver belly and writhed. I gasped. What part of the sex act, I wondered, was this?

"She's working," Cindy said, grinning. "That's how she cleans the rocks."

On cue, the male joined the frenzy, and together they did a little housework.

Cindy sat watching, nearly giddy but utterly silent.

There are days that make work worth it: When a teacher hears a kid spell correctly out loud, when a mason fits a corner tight, when a musician hits the right note. Back home when I'll try, animated and desperate, to describe the scene in the creek—like prayer, I'll say—I'll picture Cindy, too, and the way, when we caught up with the others, they buzzed with excitement. They'd seen more than 40 redds. Definite. And they'd seen fish, far more than we had, and even though they'd seen them before—plenty of times—they described them doing what they do, over and over again, with wonder.

On the way back down the trail, no one talked about ecology or interconnectedness. No one discussed the effects of dams or logging. Like people anywhere who do their jobs well, my companions were busy doing it. They didn't need to get philosophical. When I asked where, exactly, the wilderness boundary might be—that arbitrary hard-fought line on the land—none of them knew for sure.

"Around here somewhere," one said with a shrug. "The fish can't tell. They just know when they've got it good."

Ana Maria Spagna's latest book, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, was a finalist for the 2012 Washington State Book Award.

This story first appeared in High Country News.