The Clark Fork in Montana is part of the Columbia River watershed. | Photography by Pascal Shirley
Without looking at a map, I want to show you where I went fishing. Then I will tell you what I learned, leaving out all the parts about fishing
My grandfather and I are in a small fishing boat on the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s early morning, the fog is lifting off the water. I am five years old. He is 65 years old, a short man with a cigar in his mouth. He’s teaching me how to fish.
For bait he uses dog chow soaked in a bucket of coagulated cow’s blood.
The unspoken agreement is I can hang out with him, follow him around, as long as I don’t ask any questions because he doesn’t like to talk. He likes to keep the cigar in his mouth. Talking involves taking the cigar away from the mouth, holding it in a hand, rendering that hand useless. His hands make things. His hands do things, like when he catches a catfish he kills it by running a coat hanger up its spine to the brain.
He doesn’t need to talk. I can figure it out. The hands must go into the bucket of blood and be covered in blood. The bait must go on the hook. The hook must go in the water. The cigar must stay in the mouth. This is how you become a fisherman. Or so I thought when I was five.
Later, as a Boy Scout, I learned to fish in another way — no cigar, no bucket of blood. Our scoutmaster taught us how to cast a fly line. He showed us how to tie our own flies and build our own fly rods, and in the summer he took us to the mountains in Wyoming to catch big trout. I don’t want to say the name of the mountains (my fishing hole is a secret), but I’ve been going back there pretty much every summer of my life. Like last summer, at the height of the pandemic.
Without looking at a map, I want to show you where I went fishing. Then I will tell you what I learned, leaving out all the parts about fishing.
There’s a mountain about 250 miles north of my house in Salt Lake City, near the Yellowstone Plateau, an area with a lot of mountains and mountain ranges. There’s one peak, not as tall as some of the others and somewhat hidden from view. Most people have never heard of it. It’s a mountain with three sides or three faces, like a pyramid only with three sides instead of four, 11,700 feet above sea level.
Most of the year the faces are covered with snow, but in the summer the snow melts and the water runs downhill in three directions. One side slopes to the east and the water finds the Missouri River, which finds the Mississippi, which finds the Gulf of Mexico. One side goes to the Snake, to the west, to the Columbia, which empties into the Pacific Ocean. And the other side runs south to the Green, which becomes the Colorado, which used to run into the Sea of Cortez but now gets sucked dry, pretty much, before it gets there.
So water that falls as snow on this one mountain ends up in the bodies of people in New Orleans, Portland and Yuma. That’s an enormous area to hold in your head without looking at a map — most of the western United States. So here’s another way to think about it, using a tree as a basic shape.
“Without looking at a map, I want to show you where I went fishing. Then I will tell you what I learned, leaving out all the parts about fishing.”
A river system or watershed is shaped like a tree with its trunk in the ocean and the upper branches reaching to the highest ridge lines and peaks in the mountains far away. There’s the tree of the Mississippi watershed — one side of its canopy is in upstate New York and the other side reaches western Montana, the Yellowstone Plateau. Then there’s the tree of the Columbia, spreading out mostly in British Columbia but reaching south to Yellowstone. And the tree of the Colorado, skinny and tall in comparison, squeezing through the southwestern deserts to reach up almost to Yellowstone — where the upper branches of the three trees nearly come together, almost touching on top of the three-sided mountain.
And so I went fishing there, in the top branches of these three trees, circumnavigating the mountain with my friend and my dog and a canoe tied on top of the car.
The first thing I want to report is flowers, wildflowers, lots of them in green alpine meadows at 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. They were small flowers, but their colors spoke loudly in the grass. They were making a statement, mainly for the bees, or maybe for the birds and the bees — it’s OK to fall in love.
But seriously now: High alpine meadows have rivers flowing through them, and in the rivers there are fish. I was in the meadow and I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through the grass to approach the water. Fish in these rivers are skittish by nature, sitting in clear shallow water for all the ospreys to see, so they’ve got to be always looking up and quick as lightning. And then these fish are extra anxious these days because the water is getting warmer every year and new species are moving in, old species are disappearing. The water is warmer and there is less of it. The glaciers up high are shrinking and snowfields that used to stay all summer are now gone by the end of June. Lakes are drying up. They’re on the map but they no longer exist on the ground. So the fish here are somewhat traumatized and if they see you they just freak out.
I crawled to the bank of the river and stared down into the water. The coloring of the fish makes them nearly invisible among the sand and pebbles and rocks along the river bottom, so I looked for a shadow, a shape that moves, and I saw them, little ones, five to six inches, in the shallow water. Usually this means there are bigger fish, much bigger fish, lying low in the deeper pools where the current is not strong and the food comes by like on a conveyor belt. I would come back later and catch them, for sure.
I stood up and looked around across the meadow to the mountains beyond and had a Hemingway moment when I thought, “This is good.” There were sandhill cranes in the distance trumpeting in agreement.
Sandhill cranes stand four feet tall and have seven-foot wingspans. Every year they travel round trip between Mexico and Siberia. Many of them stop along the Platte River in Nebraska, but some prefer these meadows and marshes around the three-sided mountain, and I think they have the more discriminating taste. They are artists, modern dance magicians. I saw two of them perform once at a spring. I had a front-row seat, and it was like they were tying knots in the air using explosives. It scared me.
We went higher, moving closer to the top of the three-sided mountain, and the rivers became loud and white, falling through rapids and waterfalls, bending around house-sized boulders that had fallen from thousand-foot walls of white granite. There were no trails. We walked on rock, climbed on rock, up canyons carved out by glaciers. This elevation — 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level — is the home, or the biome, of my favorite tree, the whitebark pine, which sometimes grows straight out of the rock.
These trees are shaped more like tall bushes than the stereotypical pointed pine tree. They have multiple trunks and grow up to 60 feet. Their skin is white, or silver in the bright daylight and golden as the sun goes down. And their pine boughs throw off rainbows in the shape of fireballs, or so it seemed to me in a certain state of mind.
Whitebark pine trees came to America from Siberia, their seeds carried by birds, corvids, crossing the Bering Strait, following the ice-free corridor to the south. The trees were followed by grizzly bears who feasted on the seeds or pine nuts before hibernating. And the bears were followed by humans.
The whitebark pines live in the finest locations on the mountain, places with the best views of the clouds coming in over the Yellowstone Plateau, like a soft quilt of alto cumulus, or a thunderhead loaded with lightning that tries to break the canyon walls and scares the living heck out of you. The white pines like it on top of the high ridgelines where the wind and the weather are most harsh, their branches like cilia or nerve fibers reaching up and touching the clouds, telling them to drop their water here.
Now, unfortunately, more than half of the white pines are dead, a devastation brought on by an infestation of pine beetles. The winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill the beetles, so they hole up in the pine trees, boring into the trunks where they release hitchhiking fungus that blocks the trees’ veins and arteries, killing the trees so the beetles can safely hatch their babies ... which fly off with hitchhiking fungus to kill other trees, especially the old ones, born long before any European stepped on the continent.
When whitebark pines die like this, they don’t fall down; they keep standing. Their bark falls off in sheets and their limbs turn into skeletons. Now the clouds passing by hold their water tight rather than drop it on a ghost forest. Or that’s the way it felt up there.
In the evening I used some of the dead limbs to build a fire and cook the fish I caught. Then we watched the full moon come up with Jupiter and Saturn, and a comet flaring above the western horizon.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Round River. It’s a myth from Paul Bunyan folklore about a river that runs back into itself. Aldo Leopold wrote that the myth is a metaphor for the circle of life. But the Round River is also a real thing, not just a myth or a metaphor. Water runs down the three-sided mountain in rivers that carry it to the ocean, where water evaporates into clouds that carry it back to the mountain. In this way, all rivers are round rivers.
We live on the third rock from the sun, the only rock in the universe that we know of that’s wrapped in a living skin, a biosphere, where everything is interconnected — rocks, trees, fish, birds, clouds, people — it’s one big room, or simmering pot, and we’re all in it together.
Think about the coronavirus. It’s microscopic, maybe not even alive. It has no legs or wings, and yet it spread around the world in a couple of months, crossing international borders, ignoring the lines between race and class and religion. We tried to stop it by self-isolating, becoming biospheres unto ourselves, which at least in the United States only made us hate and fear one another all the more. For sure there’s a strong scientific argument for social distancing and wearing face masks, but the only way we are going to beat the virus or get a grip on climate change is to start caring about each other as if we are all part of the same family — rocks, trees, fish, birds, clouds and people. The borders and lines we draw exist only in our minds.
That was easy to see and believe in when we were up on the mountain. We had hope that things could change for the better. But when we came home, back down to the city, the news was full of horrors and unspeakable things, everybody at each other’s throats and scared about what’s going to happen next.
I’m standing in my yard, watering the grass by hand, holding the hose in full command. I can see the mountains where the water comes from and I can see the lake, the Great Salt Lake, where the water ends up with nowhere to go but back into the air as clouds that carry it back up to the mountains.
I don’t know what’s going to happen — nobody does — and I’m not sure what I’m going to do today, or tomorrow. For now I just want to hold the hose and say hello to my neighbors and not be the old man who says get off my lawn.
So, hello neighbor. I hope you’re doing well.
Scott Carrier is a Peabody award-winning radio producer, author and educator based in Salt Lake City.
This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.