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Original Issue


The Green was only a little river, a mere capillary of the Columbia River System. It was born in the shadows between steep ridges in the High Cascades in Washington, and all through the long summer it would gently carry away the meltwater from slowly disappearing snow. Winter was a different story, though. Then the river sometimes would flood violently, and the torrents would alter it so that when anglers went back in the spring they were never exactly certain of what they would find. It was a river one had to learn again each season.

There are dozens of Green rivers, perhaps scores. Some are large; some, like this one, small. And only a few of them are actually green. This one wasn't; at least I never saw it so.

Maybe it was once, back before loggers felled the giant firs that grew along its banks. In those days it might have reflected the deep, soft green of the fir boughs that spread across its narrow width. But the big firs were gone by the time I got to know the Green, replaced by maple, cottonwood, alder and a new generation of firs not yet tall enough to be reflected in the stream. I always thought of the river as being silver instead of green anyway, because that is how it looked in the bright summer sunshine.

Despite the Green's diminutive size and location far from the sea, the summer steelhead somehow found their way back to it. Up from the sea they would come, through a vast network of larger rivers and countless smaller ones, bypassing each potential wrong turn until their senses led them unerringly back to the Green to find resting spots in its quiet pools, to await winter and the spawning season. The steelhead made the Green an angler's favorite. My favorite.

It was a generous river, easily waded and easily fished. In most cases it took only a gentle roll cast to cover the most promising water with a fly, and often in the low water of late summer the steelhead would be plainly visible. But a cautious approach was necessary in order to see the fish without first being seen by them. I remember spending what seemed like hours creeping to the edge of the woods through the thick brush on the spongy forest floor. Then I would cautiously raise my head to look over the water.

If a fish were there, the problem then became one of getting a fly over it without being seen. Sometimes the answer was to retreat through the woods, go some distance upstream, wade out cautiously, hunched over, make a sidearmed cast with a long length of sinking line and let the river carry the fly down to the fish. Sometimes the solution was to go downstream, and cast up with a floating line and a big dry fly. Sometimes, despite all the precautions, the fish would see you anyway and vanish so quickly that it would leave you wondering if it had ever been there at all. But just often enough everything would work the way you intended it to, and the fish would rise to the floating fly or take the sunken fly with a jarring strike.

It's hard for a steelhead to display its full strength in a river as small as the Green, but these fish did their best, and frequently that was enough to leave you breathless and trembling, with a broken leader and a lost fly.

On the slope above the river was a clearing in the woods—a grassy spot shaded by alders and vine maples—where we usually camped. It was a short walk to the river down a narrow road, and blackberry vines grew in a tangled thicket along the route. One year the berries were ripe on the Fourth of July and we paused to pick them on the way to the river. That day the Green yielded a fine, 10-pound fish that fought stubbornly in the full flow of the runoff, and that night we had baked steelhead and fresh blackberry pie.

The best part of the Green was the section I called the Long Pool. It began where the river described a right angle and skirted the edge of an old logjam. On the outside of the turn was a big alder. In August, when the sun was behind the tree, its limbs cast a large patch of shade on the river. Usually it wasn't long before a fish would move into the shade.

How vividly I remember the day I discovered that fact. I had fished down half the length of the pool without a touch, and then, as the fly swept into the shade, it was taken savagely by a large fish that ran quickly to the tail of the pool and jumped. Before I could react it changed direction and ran back upstream where it jumped again, high out of the water in a classic arc. I will always remember the sight of it as it lingered over the river for a long moment, its bright sides flashing in the sun. And then it was gone again, all the way up to the head of the pool and back under a tangle of old bleached logs, where it quickly found a snag and snapped the leader.

The Long Pool was generous all that year, but the following winter there was a flood that gnawed away the lower part of it and filled in part of its head. After that it wasn't a long pool anymore. But the big alder survived the flood and still gave its shade on August afternoons, and the steelhead still came to seek shelter there.

Another winter and another flood took all that remained of the Long Pool, including the alder. It was a loss that the river never quite replaced. But there were other pools, and it was seldom that one couldn't find a fish in at least one of them.

I fished the Green often, but now I wish I had fished it even more frequently. Because now it is gone. It vanished in a single flaming moment on the morning of May 18 when Mount St. Helens exploded.

Not long after that cataclysmic blast I went searching for the Green in a light plane. The great, shattered crater of St. Helens steamed sullenly and reeked of sulfur. Its north side had blown away and nearly every familiar landmark had been erased. The tortured land and the incredible rows of toppled trees were uniformly gray, buried under ash that from the air looked almost like velvet. The North Fork of the Toutle River looked like a giant concrete driveway, its whole valley filled with mud as far as I could see. Once the Green had emptied into the North Fork, but the junction pool was gone, buried so deeply under mud that I couldn't tell for certain exactly where it had been.

And there was the little Green itself, its headwaters choked with fallen timber and cloaked with ash. The river still flowed, but no longer was it either green or silver; now the water was a grim grayish-white, thick and sluggish as it oozed past the corpses of a thousand firs that had fallen in its path. It was a dead river.

Someday it will live again. After decades of flood and change, the ash and mud and debris will be flushed away. New growth will shelter the headwaters and keep the river clean, cool and clear. Perhaps someday even the summer steelhead will find their way back to it again. Perhaps my son will live long enough to fish for them, but I won't. For me, the little Green River is only a bright memory.