The pull of the river

Words and photography by Russ Ricketts

The rain has eased up by the time I make the turn onto the gravel road that will take me far up into the mountains.

Dark clouds still hover around the peaks, a startling counterpoint to the sunbreaks streaming through the clouds to the west. This promise of sun pushes me onward. Driving nearly an hour of rutted roads through dense forest, I pause to throw my old bicycle into the bushes. Further upstream, I park and wander through the ferns and towering cedars to the river’s edge, worried that last night’s rains have muddied the water. Overlooking the deep green pool, my eye catches a hint of movement, a ghostly shadow that glides upstream into the emerald gloom. The game is afoot.

If your car ever breaks down in the woods or you have an emergency and you need help, I recommend the following advice: take off your pants. Somebody will drive past. In these parts, you often don’t see a car all day, but as soon as you are half-naked and trying to squeeze into a wetsuit on the side of the road it’s as if a distant traffic signal has changed and a stream of vehicles pass. Today is no exception. As I struggle to pull my wetsuit on a Forest Service pickup truck rolls around the corner. “Whatchya doing?” the Ranger queries with a mix of curiosity and amusement.

An honest question. I’m river snorkelling of course.

People have enjoyed river snorkelling for years, but it was almost always an afterthought – a mask for the kids to play with or a last-ditch effort to find lost sunglasses or car keys. Maybe a few shadowy fish are sighted, but this is no coral reef. Cold waters discourage serious ventures and visibility in many rivers is often poor. For most, the novelty of taking a mask and snorkel to your local swimming hole is just that – a novelty. River snorkelling, for most, remains a passing fancy.

“What are you, a biologist for the state or something?” the Forest Ranger asks. I’m not a biologist, but the majority of people who enjoy river snorkelling are. Fisheries biologists have snorkelled for decades, often gathering population and distribution data or documenting presence and absence of fish. Field techs swim for miles counting fish, often in the dead of night with lights. Other times they use snerding, a mix of snorkelling and herding fish into seine nets. Here they gently insert tiny tracking tags, collect fish scale or DNA samples among a host of other measurables. This data is taken back to the office and contributes to countless scientific studies and reports that guide natural resource management decision making. But river snorkelling is not only a tool for understanding the natural world, it provides non-scientists a highly engaging, visceral educational experience. This is where I come into the story.

River snorkelling, river photography, underwater photography.
River snorkelling, river photography, underwater photography.
River snorkelling, river photography, underwater photography.

I’m a self-taught underwater filmmaker, a citizen scientist with no formal education, a public speaker who accidently drops the occasional F-bomb when he gets nervous. I’ve posted about ecology, conservation, DIY adventure and all things river snorkelling nearly every day for 10 years. There’s no non-profit, no foundation, no matching hats, no supermodel athletes who have all of those first three things. I’m a regular guy with a family and a job and all the standard 46-year-old, married, family guy responsibilities. I’m not the only one. Surprisingly dads with cameras swimming in freezing water seem to be the dominant contributor group to my platforms. Many are like me – curious people with a serious bent for suffering. Together we form a loose confederation of storytellers committed to documenting the freshwater story.

Few people look below the surface to really understand the complex web of life that these waters host. River snorkelling is simple stuff. You just go swimming and look down. That said, clear river water is nearly universally cold water. A full wetsuit is the single most important tool in the kit bag. It allows you to linger, to slow down, to breathe and finally to see. It allows you to drift and float like a leaf, to hide among the boulders and watch fish without spooking them. It’s not uncommon to spend hours in frigid water laying stock still.

There is a ragtag assortment of unlikely videographers and photographers who, like me, prowl brushy streams, wade forgotten creeks and dive turbid rivers to document the endangered fish, mammal and amphibian species that form the bulk of charismatic freshwater fauna. Curiously, many of these storytellers are lone operators, like wolverines wandering far and wide, rarely meeting up.  Universally, the inspiration of their art stems from a deep passion for the natural world and a desire to protect it. We are telling a different story than the fishing community at large, as our underwater observations starkly contrast the eternal optimism that angling seems to embrace. In short, the news is much worse than most people can imagine.

Today I leave my camera behind, instead choosing to just explore this remote stretch of river, a worthy challenge. “Be careful out there, a guy just drowned this spring,” the Forest Ranger warns. I nod without saying anything and he drives away, dust swirling in his wake. What I don’t tell him is the young man was a friend of mine. A strong, talented kayaker whom my wife and I loved like a son. The power of moving water is absolute. Swimming a remote river by yourself is not ideal, but honestly there are not many people doing this and if you want to go you have to eventually swim by yourself. I never push the boat out farther than I can swim. My swirling thoughts a mix of love and sadness, I gather my kit.

River snorkelling, river photography, underwater photography.
River snorkelling, river photography, underwater photography.

I make my way to the river’s edge, don my kit and slide into the water. Immediately I am in a different plane of existence. The current is modest and the water not too deep. It slowly picks up speed until I am flying past boulders at breakneck speed. Drift dives are calculated, dangerous exercises in the ocean where the safety of the boat is your only concern. Here they are pure joy. Smooth and fast, I’m flying, constantly scanning above the surface like an otter before adjusting my line. This type of snorkelling is all encompassing, utterly mesmerising. Soon all thought ceases. The light is dancing rays, the sound is bass fluid, the water is thick with atmosphere like the moment before a lightning strike. Your primal self knows something is about to happen before your brain realises it.

And then it does.

A small rapid runs into a bedrock cliff as the river makes a sharp turn and the bottom drops to inky green. A breath and then I dive deep, deeper until I’m below the main thrust of the current. A school of chinook salmon appears in front of me. I freeze, drifting through it. My heart slows, the fish seem to realise I’m not a threat and simply part before me until one leviathan, a giant male nearly 30 pounds holds fast, not moving. He simply watches me pass, unafraid. The moment is breath-taking. His mighty yellow eye watches me with distain. Hardly a fin moves. He is a king. The entire encounter lasts perhaps 15 seconds and then it’s time to head for the surface. I do not look back, instead continuing downstream, leaving the fish to recover quickly. More deep holes, shadowy canyons and long slow flats pass, yet they are devoid of the mighty chinook I’ve come to see. Sadly, this is not surprising – this run continues to suffer from a hundred years of overfishing, hydroelectric dams, the introduction of hatchery salmon and widespread development.

I spot my landmark and manoeuvre for the river’s edge. My equilibrium is a little off from swimming nearly five miles. Resting in the sun on a giant flat boulder, the time spent in the water is still fresh, the indelible image of the massive salmon burned into memory. Right now every single wild fish and every mile of healthy river matters in the greater picture. These are things that once gone, never come back. When we talk about restoring fish runs and restoring habitat what we should really be saying is we are fighting extinction. My thought heavy, I hike through the woods and recover my old bike and begin the long ride back to the truck wearing a dripping, dirty wetsuit. If you are ever riding a bike in the woods and you need help…