PAT NEAL: The tourist’s revenge

IN LAST WEEK’S column, I was making fun of the silly questions that tourists ask.

While it’s fun to have fun with tourists for asking, “Is the weather always like this?” or “Why do loggers wear suspenders?” it should be noted that the tourists are generally a lot smarter than me.

After all, many of these tourists have traveled across the world to get here while I’ve been stuck here my whole life going nowhere fast.

In this age of information, people who choose to spend their vacation on the Olympic Peninsula really do their research.

Our visitors are very much aware of local environmental issues that have made the national news, such as the plight of our Southern Resident orcas and the extinction of our salmon.

That’s when the shoe is on the other foot: When a tourist asks a question that I can’t answer.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it happens, it’s like getting kicked in the guts.

It was like the ultimate tourist’s revenge when one of them asked, “How has the river changed?”

That hurt.

It was like asking how a friend has changed after they died.

The death of the river was a death that took 40 years to achieve.

Forty years ago, the glaciers were much larger and when the spring melt began, the river ran higher, colder and with more volume longer into the summer.

Along about now, the middle of August, the spring chinook — which entered the river in the spring and spent the summer in the river ripening their spawn — were laying their eggs in the gravel and carpeting the shore with their dead, spawned-out bodies.

Bears came down to the river to catch salmon and spread fish remains across the forest floor.

Bears were seen by the Native Americans as the mother of all creatures because they caught more fish than they could eat.

They fed the other creatures that couldn’t catch fish for themselves.

Science has confirmed this relationship by identifying an estimated 137 species of birds and animals that feed on spawned-out salmon.

In the process, the remains of the spawned-out salmon were spread across the forest floor, fertilizing the trees.

The smell was terrific.

The water was alive with salmon thrashing in the shallows making a commotion that sounded like a herd of elk crossing the creek.

As summer turned into fall the biggest runs of salmon came upstream.

The fall rains would flood the river and tributaries, allowing the salmon access to the tiniest little creeks deep into the forest, recycling the nutrients from the ocean to the forest and back again in an ecosystem that had functioned since the last ice age … until now.

These days, the air along the river is fresh and pure. This would normally be a good thing, but it is the smell of death on a salmon stream.

Forty years ago, people were allowed to help the salmon.

They re-introduced fish to streams with no salmon by placing boxes of fertilized salmon eggs in the creeks.

The fish would hatch and migrate out to sea without having to be fed at a hatchery for a year.

Unfortunately, the use of remote hatch boxes to bring back the salmon in our streams is no longer allowed by the powers that be.

Instead, they build log jams with steel I beams and spray herbicides along the river to bring the salmon back.

It is a shameful excuse for environmental stewardship.

The truth hurts.

The fact is I can’t make fun of the questions that tourists ask anymore.

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Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwild [email protected].