Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sundays with Steve - One Fish, Two Fish

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve” I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in, too, and some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these as attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career, all those years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together


When Cece Andrus blew-up the Lewiston dam with dynamite in the early 1970s, Ted Hamilton lost one of the more interesting jobs in our small town.

Ted’s job was to count fish. Millions of them over the years.

Fish -- salmon and steelhead -- that migrated from the Pacific Ocean up-river 400 miles to the Clearwater, Locsha and Selway rivers to spawn. The fish had to navigate the big Columbia and Snake river dams, and then the small dam at Lewiston. They used fish ladders to climb over the dams.

In retrospect, Ted Hamilton was cool in his own way. I remember him as old, a little short, a little heavy, always wearing coveralls, a brown cap and wire- rimmed glasses. He drove his dark red 1953 Ford pick-up truck every day. He parked that Ford beside his single-car garage out back by the alley each evening, a tiny garage smelling of gasoline and oil, with a dirt floor that barely hard room for his wife’s car to squeeze in. He was married to Marion, a lovely lady who was also tiny, and who was the office manager at the Stonebreaker Insurance agency downtown; she helped our family for decades with our insurance needs. Wally was their only child, a year older than me, and a friend from birth. They lived diagonally across 12th Avenue from us, a good 20-second run at full speed, and a distance frequently covered for years.

Ted’s “office” was at the small Lewiston dam, in a concrete building that had a large window facing the underwater side of the fish ladder. Looking through the window was like looking into an aquarium, except the water was constantly rushing by at great speed, and there were no pretty plants or bobbles for the fish to poke around. The fish ladder was a series of concrete steps leading from the river below to the top of the dam. The fish would swim and jump up that ladder to cross the dam. Ted “office” was half-way up the ladder. Ted would sit at a window all day, looking into the water and recording the steelhead and salmon that would pass by. He would call the results into the Lewiston Tribune each evening. Those tallies would be published in the newspaper the next day. As the runs increased, it told us it was time to go fishing.

An interesting job? Only at first glance. Can you image how boring that would be after about 30 minutes, yet alone for 30 years? Geez, I can’t . Maybe that is why Ted always had kind of a shocked looked to him, a dazed expression that didn’t express much of any other emotion. Some of those daily counts in the off-season would be one fish, maybe two, compared to thousands a day during migration. Can you imagine staring into that window for eight or ten hours a day waiting for one fish to go by?

Ted counted fish, maybe an important job for the Idaho Dept of Fish and Game. The largest fish hatchery in the world was just 40 miles upriver at the Dworshak dam. Dworshak didn’t have a fish ladder, as the dam was too high for a ladder to work. When was built in the 1960s on the North Fork of the Clearwater River, the dam blocked fish access to hundreds of miles of mountain streams up river from it. The Federal government, builder and operator of that dam, built the fish hatchery to replace the natural wild fish runs. The fish count told the Feds how they were doing at operating the hatchery, although Ted and the State counted the fish for decades at the Lewiston dam before the Feds screwed up the runs.

There are a lot of fascinating stories to tell about the operation of that hatchery and the seven or eight down-stream dams that block the Snake and Columbia rivers from Lewiston to the Pacific… a lot of controversies, a lot of weird programs to aid the fish, a lot of proposals to tear out the dams to restore the fish runs, but stories that aren’t going to be told here.

Cece Andrus blew up the little dam in our town of Lewiston. He was the governor of the state at the time, and the dam had lost its reason for being. The dam was built in the 1920’s to create a large pond for logs that floated down river in the annual log drives, to the saw mill at Lewiston. The log drives ended, and so did the need for the dam. So they blew up it, and Ted Hamilton’s job with it.

* * *
A part of the joy of living by the rivers was fishing, going after those big fish Ted Hamilton counted. Steelhead and salmon. Fish that were 15, 20, and maybe up to 30 pounds each. My Dad loved fishing for them, so did my mother, and so did I. Neither of my brothers did.

In those years, the Snake River flowed freely through our town, fast and rapid. The Snake merged with the Clearwater River there, and the confluence of the two rivers was prime fishing ground. Now the free flowing river is gone, backed- up by more down-river dams that turned the Snake into a lake.

To catch steelhead, you had to suffer: The fishing seasons were always in late fall, winter and early spring when the fish were returning from the ocean to spawn. The weather had to be cold, snowing or raining -- you had to be shivering and chilled to your very core to catch those fish.

We would be out on the river in small fiber glass boats, 20-25 foot affairs not noted for their warmth. Dad would bring the boat to the bottom of a set of rapids, then let it drift downstream with the current until we came to the next set of rapids where we would all pull in our lines so that he could motor the boat safely through to the next drift spot. Dad would always bring a little kerosene heater to try to warm the cabin area that was enclosed by canvas, an attempt that was always unsuccessful.

The ladies would complain about the pee can – a three pound coffee can that was brought along so that they could relieve themselves. The men, of course, just peed off the back of the boat.

If it were snowing, if you were shivering, if you were absolutely freezing, the chances were that you were going to catch a fish, a big fish.

My parents, and some of their best friends the Bacharachs, were frequent companions on the winter fishing expeditions. Long johns, gloves, stocking caps, and heavy winter coats were standard, several thermoses full of coffee, a bit of booze to spike that hot drink, a stack of turkey sandwiches bought at a downtown café, and the fish were on! If it was extremely cold, and it often was, it might be just my Dad, Bill Bacharach, and me, with Mom and Vivian Bacharach staying at home.

But many Saturdays on the river were sunny and sort-of-warm, with the trip accompanied perhaps by the University of Idaho football game playing on the radio. And nary a hook would be set into a fish that day. I don’t think my parents and their friends cared too much on those days, the outings at that time were more social than the business of catching fish.

The fish scoffed disdainfully at the purely social expeditions. They stuck stubbornly to their credo…if you weren’t suffering they weren’t going to reward you.

... ... ...

Steve signing off for now. See you next Sunday.


Anonymous said...

this was a very interesting story.
loved the last paragraph!!!
it was like a gOOd movie...oh...i didn't expect it to end that way!

thanx for sharing...


Terra said...

First of all I didn't see any Dr. Seuss in there even though I now have that book stuck in my head, thanks to your post title.

Second, oh poor Mr. Hamilton - he lost what he knew even if it was a sullen and lonely job.

Fishing has always bored me to death however somehow the visions of the fishing trips here played out like a good show, maybe even made me want to be there with you.

Thanks again Steve for the trip to Idaho on this Sunday morning

Green Monkey said...

Jenny - that was great. it went perfectly with my sunday morning coffee... counting fish :) it made me smile. without sounding to cliché that was simple, good, clean fun!

Pondside said...

The Great Dane has fishing stories along the same lines - cold, wet, frustrating, good company and great memories.
While I always enjoy your stories, it's your way with characters that keeps me reading - you make us see them, with few words.

Unknown said...

I don't think I could do that job either. I thought I was coming to read about Seuss.

Unknown said...

I don't think I could do that job either. I thought I was coming to read about Seuss.

Unknown said...

I don't think I could do that job either. I thought I was coming to read about Seuss.

Pat Tillett said...

Fantastic story. Entertaining and educational as a bonus! I agree that the last paragraph is classic.
I also like the part with the 1953 F-100. I had a blue one in my driveway at this very moment...

Lourie said...

I had to look up "fish ladder." Of course if I had just kept reading I would have been schooled! However, I had this image of a LADDER and the little fish climbing up using their little fins all along the way. Yeah, I'm dorky like that.

cj Schlottman said...

It's good to have some insight into your youth.

Poor Mr. Hamilton! Somebody had to count the fish, and weird as it seems to me, he may have actually loved his work. On the other hand, those were days when people did their jobs without belly-aching about them, even if they hated them.

I love the imagery of the fishing trips, and I could feel the cold. (I don't like cold, break out in a rash if I get really cold).

I'm looking forward to more tales from your early life in Northern Idaho. You make two people, now, that I know who grew up there.


Anonymous said...

I would have to have stayed home with your mom and Vivian...too cold for me to fish. I think it is sad what they did to the natural fish habitat. Another great read Steve. Hugs

Unknown said...

We love the Sundays that you write about living here!! Great memories and perfect painting of life in the Lewiston, ID/Clarkston, WA valley.

It's Autumn and the temps are dropping again, the big fish are swimming upstream and the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers is full of boats - but you're right - for most anglers, it's not the rugged affair is used to be. The jet boats have heaters and cushioned seats for starters :)

There are a few die-hards who still fish in drift boats that are open to the bone freezing elements and they do catch some beauties!

You know, the Steelhead Derby is next month. You should come up and fish - yes, you should.


H said...

I can't imagine how mind blowingly boring it must have been, staring at that little window counting fish! It's not even like he had a decent view in the background!