Meandering slowly through the old-growth, footsteps dampened by thick mats of ancient moss, my mind weaves in and out of different worlds as my feet move with their present purpose. The deep wisdom of very old trees sweetens the air, each breath filling me with the kind of knowledge that defies words. We make it to the river as the sun begins to kiss the cold rocks, illuminating clear, pristine pools—the kind with an almost irresistible pull.
My eyes explore as I pull on my wetsuit. Rocks speckled with muted lichen tones, light glinting off silken spider bridges, and little plants clinging heroically to bare rock, hungrily eating sunlight. The river plays a symphony in the background as water moves over rocks in the riffle and swirls endlessly in an eddy. There are so many things to notice when the mind slows, appreciation pours in as the senses stop sifting. One could write an encyclopedia on all the sounds of water.
Sliding clumsily into the shallow pool, the cold water greets me. Welcoming the intensity, the sensations, the vigor—my body and senses adjust to the liquid world around me. Skimming over rocks that have been smoothed into a reflection of the moving water above them, I watch as rays of light hit the surface and then fracture, scattering with chaotic purpose, marbling the gravelly contours of the bottom while slashing across the walls of the submerged canyon.
Riding the current, the mind and body meld with the flow. The mental chatter dissipates, and the world shifts back into focus, eyes no longer lost in the unconscious clutter of everyday life. Dipping into an eddy the flow reverses, defying gravity, the water runs back upriver. Bubbles pulsate wildly from the small waterfall into the main current and with a flick of the fin I pop back into the stream, just another bubble.
The steelhead are behemoths. Their grace and power displayed in tandem with their skittish nature. These fish are no fools. Trial and error over millennia have gifted these creatures with incredible instincts and a tenacity for survival. Sleek and muscular, the bucks and hens mingle in the deep pool, waiting with reserved patience for the perfect moment to coil—torpedoes of potential energy—then release, propelled out of their native element into the air as they engage in wingless flight up and over the cascade. Their elusiveness, beauty and brute strength have elevated them into the realms of mystical legends.
This has been aided in part by declining populations due to causes far beyond their control. Dams, culverts and logging aside, I’ve probably found enough fishing line in pools and banks to wrap halfway around this globe. Engines tossed into the river off bridges, mounds of TP and excrement inches from riverside trails; beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette filters… TVs and every other home appliance imaginable can be found at dead-end roads leading to river accesses in otherwise pristine forests. Oftentimes the reality can be disheartening and overwhelming, a seemingly hopeless battle.
And yet every time I slip back into the water, I find that my perspective broadens in the wake of my own insignificance. These fish remind me that there is an inherent resiliency within these complex ecosystems and that the wisdom and reverence needed to encourage their preservation is untapped by most, yet available to all. Put your hands in the dirt, smell a mushroom, immerse yourself in the icy waters of a river, or nibble some pine needles. It’s all there.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Christian Coxen is a photographer from the Olympic Peninsula who picked up a Minolta in high school and knew from then on out his journey through life would always be accompanied by a silent copilot with a photographic memory. His work portrays his love and devotion to the ocean, mountains, forests and rivers where a never-ending pursuit of new horizons keeps his soul alive.