Casting into deep water…..a West Vancouver Streamkeepers perspective

Casting Into Deep Water
by Joseph McDaniel

If you look into a stream, what you see is shaped by what has shaped you. Maybe all you see is decaying natural and man-made debris scattered among the stones, reflecting the clutter of weary memories and unpleasant tasks that fill your consciousness. Maybe your gaze is absorbed by the weathered rocks, like your own life pounded and worn into shape by forces beyond an individual’s control. But maybe, at this time of year, if you look closely, you will see something more. You will see a relentless, passionate struggle for life, that pulses valiantly like the gills of a mature coho: returning Pacific salmon. In their exhausting yet exhilarating journey from gravel nurseries, to the depths of the open ocean, and back to the cascading streams of their youth, we may see something of our own.

“Salmon are sacred” has become a rallying cry echoed by conservationists along the West Coast. To urbanites in many other regions of North America, such a statement could seem nonsensical or hyperbolic: why single out one peculiar species of fish for such mystique? But for those of who’ve put out into deep waters to experience and protect this species, it is a statement as self-evident as the tug of a chinook at the end of one’s line.

I was raised a block away from the rocky beaches of the North Shore; some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a log and watching my father wade out into the surf with his spinning rod, his silhouette framed by the glow of summer sunset. He soon taught me how to “cast a few,” as he would say, and to catch a few as well. As a student at West Vancouver Secondary, I developed a passion for salmon stewardship under the mentorship of the West Vancouver Streamkeepers. While studies have since taken me across the continent to the northeast US, I try to remain connected with those working to preserve the North Shore’s precious aquatic resources, for I’ve learned that if you tie the right knots, the line connecting your reel to your lure also connects you permanently with what dwells within the waters, and the people who work to renew them.

During my visits home last year, I had the opportunity to converse with several North Shore leaders in salmon stewardship about what motivates their continued work. For Rob Bell-Irving, retired DFO Community Advisor for West Vancouver and Howe Sound, his passion for salmon began at an early age. Recalling his days as an energetic young boy with a fishing pole and then as a youthful fishing guide in Campbell River, Bell-Irving reflected, “It’s a transcendent experience. The experience of being totally absorbed in what you’re doing, it goes beyond anything you’ll experience anywhere else.”

This sentiment was echoed by John Barker, President of West Vancouver Streamkeepers, who before a successful career in BC’s marine industry and a busy retirement dedicated to the mission of Streamkeepers, worked as a guide at the same lodge as Bell-Irving. He recounted a guest from Detroit, who even when “the bite” was on, and fish were surfacing on all sides, would calmly take out his pipe and sit down on the boat, saying, “just look around you, this is a magical experience.”

This awe into which you are immersed when beholding the peaceful rhythm of waves lapping up against the high tide line, the magnificence of salmonid acrobatic routines as they feed in safe harbors or leap from one river pool to the next, leads also to a profound sense of gratitude, and a desire to protect the resource which first drew you to the water in the first place.

“The more you pursue it the more you enjoy it, the more you want to last, and the more you spot various dangers to it,” remarked Bell-Irving. “Conservation becomes more important than fishing. It’s more important to see fish returning than catching them yourself.”

Just as fishing cannot be undertaken without the bonds between rod and reel, hook and line, and the fibres of a net, stewardship requires the making of connections. It requires linking people not only to the land, water, and air that we all inhabit, but also to each other.

“It works through invitation,” said Zo-Ann Morton, founder of the Pacific Streamkeepers Federation, which seeks to coordinate efforts between various local Streamkeeper groups. In Morton’s perspective, ties woven between human beings in turn deepen appreciation of our common natural heritage. “Each person you go out into watershed with sees it through a different lens. The more people bring, the more wonder and awe you have. You see what the landscape is telling you, because someone is interpreting what it means.”

For the indigenous peoples who have inhabited the coast for thousands of years, this interrelatedness takes on a truly cosmic dimension. Randall W. Lewis, Environmental Advisor for the Skwxw’u7mish Uxwumixw (Squamish) Nation, explained that every utterance of his given ancestral name, Ta’haxwtn, “high spirit of the land,” is a symbol of such universal unity. His name invokes that “we are all connected” and is an all-encompassing meditation on the relatedness of all being, from the material level to the spiritual level, from the Big Bang to the salmon which return each year to their ancient watersheds. For Lewis, to say that “salmon are in our DNA,” is not a mere locution of poesy, it is an incontrovertible fact of the spiritual heritage of indigenous people, ingrained in their material and genetic makeup, sustained for thousands of years of relying on salmon for sustenance, and calling for a spirit of reverence.

Squamish tradition insists that all harvesting of salmon be accompanied by a sacred ceremony and blessing of gratitude, and that the people return to the watershed three-fold from what they have taken, an attitude that is encapsulated in the practice of potlatch, a communal celebration of all the life forms that together are integral to the flourishing of the ecosystem. In Lewis’ words, “the sacred pulse of the land is heard in every ceremony drum beat, reminding us that our ancestors’ wisdom that we inherited must be embraced in continuity for future generations.”

As Lewis related the beauty of the ancestral practices of his own people surrounding salmon, I asked him about how those of us who are not indigenous could seek to incorporate a similar spiritual vision into our own traditions. His response to me was simple but striking, “we are all indigenous from somewhere.”

When a salmon begins its sojourn home after a lifetime wandering the depths of the North Pacific, it has no conscious recollection of its origins. It has only an imprint, a memory of a memory, embedded deep within its scales, its flesh, its veins, that guides it like a lodestar to the place where it first knew existence.

As each of us navigates the currents and tides of our own lives, we search our minds for some remembrance of a place to call home. Perhaps it is a scent, like the pungent aroma of a fresh catch of fish, a touch like the grains of a sandbar blown upon your brow, or an image like the horizon of the Salish Sea, where sea, sky, and salmon meet. Some of us, like those salmon presently battling upstream in their native waterways, have the blessing of being able to return to these places, and for others, we spend the length of our days at sea, our mental souvenirs slowly swept away by the rolling waves of time.

In our quest for origins, we realize that beneath the placid surfaces of our youth, above the soaring mountains of our dreams, deep within the forests of our thoughts, there is an unseen unity that beckons us even more deeply than the images of where we first put out our nets…a spirit that hovers over the waters of our lives, calming even the fiercest storms, uniting the scattered branches of our stories into one.

“We are all indigenous from somewhere.” We all come from somewhere, and whatever comes to us comes from somewhere. That’s why salmon are sacred; their annual return from beyond the seas’ horizon reminds us that our very being and everything precious we hold comes to us from something beyond ourselves. And the proper response to that is a life of gratitude: to cast into deep water, not only to take, but to give.

Joseph McDaniel is a member of West Vancouver Streamkeepers and participated in the first years of the EPN Salmon Survey program while a student at West Vancouver Secondary School. He is currently a graduate student in theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, he always looks forward to his visits home to West Vancouver.