Island of Rivers
by Tim McNulty

The snowmelt stream rippled brightly beneath the mossy trunks of fallen trees, paused in a rock-walled pool, then riffled over a gallery of polished boulders into sunlight. The quick splashes of silver in a side channel across the river were hard to see in all that light. But following my pointing arm, my five-year-old daughter gave a shout when she saw them. "Salmon!"

We spent the rest of the afternoon wading in bouldery shadows near the shore as the Graywolf River pinks made the summer climb to their spawning gravels in the deep, unbroken forests of Washington's Olympic Mountains. The Graywolf pinks are unique among the wild swimmers, returning earlier and climbing higher than any other pink-salmon runs in the Northwest. Because they spawn only in odd-numbered years, I was anxious for my daughter to see them. Caitlin was too young to pay them much attention on their last visit, and another cycle seemed too long to wait. We camped that night beneath valley-bottom trees and listened as the stream whispered its news.

More than a dozen rivers rise in the glaciers and snowfields that mantle the mountainous heart of the Olympic Peninsula, radiating outward like the silvery spokes of a wheel. Each river has its own character, its own mix of forest and wildlife communities, and its distinctive races of wild salmon.

Salmon are the bearers of gifts to these islandlike mountains and forests. In the downhill flow of rain and snow from the Pacific, they alone return valuable nutrients leached from the soil and flushed out to sea. Returning salmon meant survival for the original inhabitants of these coastal valleys. Upon ascending the rivers of their birth, salmon spawn, laying and fertilizing their eggs in clean-washed river gravels before they die. Not only does this heroic expenditure ensure the continuance of their kind, but their spent carcasses remain to feed a host of terrestrial wildlife. Bald eagles, black bears, river otters, mink, even the diminutive winter wren and deer mouse share in this seasonal banquet that will help see them through the critical months of winter.

Of the many rivers that drain this range, the Graywolf holds a special magic for me. One of the last unroaded low-elevation valleys, its steep, rugged slopes were a refuge for gray wolves before they were hunted and trapped to extinction in the 1920s. The valley was still unscarred by logging a half-century later when I first came to the peninsula to live.

Before long, I had plunged into a prolonged effort to help save the Graywolf Valley -- and several others here -- from the designs of a cadre of road engineers and timber-sales specialists in the employ of the U.S. Forest Service. A decade of letters, articles, meetings, public hearings, and the support of countless individuals saw the lower Graywolf Valley protected as part of the national wilderness system. (The upper watershed, along with close to a million acres of the mountainous interior of the Olympic Peninsula, was already protected as part of Olympic National Park.)

That fall my partner, Mary, and I hiked to a favorite spot in the canyon where the river spills its light around a garden of mossy boulders. There, in the company of some close friends, we were married. This past fall those same friends joined us on the river for our tenth anniversary. We read poems and raised cups of hot sake as moonlight crept down the canyon wall.

Tonight the moon is a thin crescent. From our porch in the foothills, I look out over a low, timbered ridge to a gap that drops into Graywolf canyon. Beyond it, the snowy summits of Graywolf Ridge ripple off into the interior mountains. Caitlin still gets the names of the peaks mixed up, and she sometimes confuses one river we've hiked with another. It's understandable. There are so many ribboning their way down to the coast, and their names, taken from the native people who still live at their mouths, are hard for her to remember: Skokomish, Queets, Quillayute, Quinault.

But memories enfold the heart like rings of a tree, and our roots deepen with each winter rain. Each year, Caitlin is able to backpack a little farther into these mountains, and this summer we reached a milestone. From High Divide we looked across the upper Hoh River to Mount Olympus, the highest central peak. It's glaciers gleamed ice-blue in the afternoon light, and the soft rumble of their gathered meltwaters reached us from a mile below.

Earlier this fall, I accompanied Caitlin's first-grade class to the Dungeness River, into which the Graywolf flows. We talked about the chinook salmon, Tyee or "Chief" to the coast people. Development pressures, irrigation withdrawals, and erosion from logging in the foothills have taken a toll on the lower river, and chinook are not faring well. Fewer than twenty returned this year to spawn. As we searched among river stones for caddis-fly and stone-fly larvae, Caitlin spotted some wintering coho salmon fry in the shallows. Like the children, these small salmon spend their formative time in their home watersheds before swimming out to explore their North Pacific world. In two years, the indelible imprint of these waters will lead them precisely back.

It's this kind of connection I try to nurture in my daughter. Not to lead her back to this place necessarily -- though I'd be thrilled if she chose to live here -- but to help her find her home ground wherever she lives. I want her to know these islands of her childhood as part of a larger island, and the rivers that drain them as the arms of a single sea. Like salmon, our children's gift will be to bring their gathered riches back to a land made poor by taking and plant them among the winter wrens and newly greening trees.


From The Earth at Our Doorstep, Contemporary Writers and the Landscapes of Home,
edited by Annie Stine, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.