We Spent the last three days driving from Vancouver to our summer field site in the coastal mountains of Northern California. Normally it takes a day and a half of hard driving to get there, but since we didn't technically have a place to stay at the field station until Monday afternoon we figured we'd do it at a leisurely pace. Needless to say, driving from the Canada border to Northern California means you will cross most of the greatest steelhead rivers in the northwest. One river though stood out in particular and I was glad we had a little time to explore and soak in the surroundings. Being that I've cut my teeth on big rivers like the Big Mighty, Big Trib and the North Fork Pugetropolis, you could say I've got an affinity for big water and this particular river is arguably the grandest of all the steelhead rivers in the Lower 48.
The Great River has seen its fair share, including some bloodiest, most controversial, and longest fought battles over water rights, fishing and native rights. Despite it all, the river continues to produce prodigious runs of fish even if they are a fraction of the its past abundance when it served as a cradle for the modern tradition of steelhead flyfishing. So it goes without saying that when we drove by we had to stop and take a look around. We headed up river, looking for a well known riffle with its own first name and ended up riverside on a gravel bar where a half dozen other rigs were parked. Jet boats ran up and down river while another sat anchored in 4 feet of water pulling spinners for spring chinook. Asking for directions we met a nice retired local named Joe, who having caught his limit on the morning tide graciously offered to give us a tour of the area. What we got was a history lesson, mixed with a sociological study of the local community and a lot of good old fashioned fishing stories.
Afterwards, with hours to kill before sun down and no where to be, we decided to check out the mouth of the river. A short walk past the site of an ancient native village put us on a long sandbar, which backed up the river into a lake like estuary on one side with the pacific on the other. The beauty, history and abundance of life combined to create a real sense of gravity. 300 yards off shore a large group of humpback whales with calves surfaced, apparently in no particular hurry to go anywhere. Pelicans and ospreys dove in after out-migrating juvenile salmon while sea lions crashed through the standing waves of the river mouth chasing adult chinook. Standing at the edge of the Pacific, where one of North America's greatest salmon rivers meets the vastness of the ocean I felt overwhelmed by the sheer power of the river and its ecosystem. Despite years of mismanagement and insult, the spirit of river Orego's remains alive, supporting an unparalleled abundance of life. Despite my normal fishy inclinations I was perfectly happy in that moment to sit in the sand and watch in awe. For now, I'll have to focus on work. But a month from now, when the first bright steelhead of summer slip into the lower river, I will most certainly be back on the banks of the Great River, giddy and energized by the life around me and the hope that I might momentarily feel the spirit of the river connected through 8lb test and 90 feet of fly line.