I first read a review of this book in early January. Published by Frank Amato Press, the father/son team of Bill & John McMillan have combined their conservation (father) and science (son) backgrounds into one manuscript. I was intrigued by the links between this book and Roderick Haig-Brown, a well known conservationist on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I was also drawn by the fact that the book contained a unique mix of art, nature, science, history and family narratives. I ordered my copy right away, and it arrived last week.
For some odd reason I’d imagined it to be a paperback in tight print with minimal pictures, to be tucked away on a home bookshelf for private perusal. However, it’s a substantial hardcover, with glossy pages and beautiful pictures of coastal landscapes, salmonids, and fly fishing gear. Just as comfortable on your coffee table as a conversation starter as it would be on your private bookshelf.
What makes this book special is that the pictures are just the beginning, rather than the entire substance, of the book. Dig into the text – which is divided by months (much like Rick Bass’ “Wild Marsh”, another of my favourites) – and you’re treated to a detailed snapshot in time of the coastal river environment. The inclusion of a wide range of topics relating to fish & rivers paints compelling mental images of these rivers through the seasons.
The book starts with a tribute to Haig-Brown, the angler turned conservationist who lived in the Campbell River area of central Vancouver Island in the early 20th century, and saw the changes in salmonids on that river system wrought by dam-building and urbanization. As per the title, which links to Haig-Brown’s “A River Never Sleeps”, the McMillans live Haig-Brown’s belief in the responsibility of anglers to also be conservationists. They outline this belief in the beginning history section of the book, particularly a story about their visit to the iconic Megin Shelter at Megin Lake, Vancouver Island (I was dying to know more about what was in the shelter logbook, but unfortunately that wasn’t revealed…).
What I like best about the book is that it’s strongly rooted in the landscapes and culture of the Pacific Northwest (PNW). The writing is lyrical and vibrant, and successfully avoids becoming drily technical:
Twenty feet below me, the once gentle stream of summer roared through a steep boulder alley in a series of dense, brown rolling waves. It was raining so hard that I could barely see 100 feet – dependent on sound and smell more than sight. Cobbles and boulders rolled downstream rattling like hollow bowling balls through a concrete tube, and the dense air held the pungent, piney-sweet fragrance of freshly splintered trees devoured by the flood.
The authors introduce a whole series of ideas that you can explore more deeply on your own:
- The changes in salmon populations as beavers were harvested from the region, which reminded me of an upcoming University of Saskatchewan expedition to Tierra del Fuego to examine the effects of rampant beaver activity on hydroecosystems.
- The geologic history of the Columbia River, which affected salmonid populations throughout that basin – and helped me unearth some interesting pre-colonial history on salmon in the Columbia that’s been compiled by the USGS.
- The effect of hatcheries and dam building – and the effects of dam removal, including images of the Elwha Dam deconstruction.
- Even the ephemeral nature of human memory via Daniel Pauly’s concept of ‘shifting baselines’, which affect our understanding of salmon stocks over time. In a small bit of synchroneity, as soon as I read about it here it popped up in another piece I was reading on the importance of ‘long data’ over ‘big data’.
By situating the book so strongly in the PNW, these complex ideas move from the realm of abstract examples and theoretical impacts to the concrete, tangible and observable. We’re able to apply them through the seasons on a coastal river.
There are a few scientific missteps – for example, mixing up glacier-fed and snowmelt-fed rivers, which aren’t quite the same thing. But overall the book provides an excellent – and excellently illustrated – overview of the history and current status of PNW rivers and fish. Although I’m not an angler myself, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to digging into the works of Roderick Haig-Brown in the near future.
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