Sunday, January 24, 2016



March 15 - First day on the job.

I'M SAVING the salmon.

Way out in the boondocks here on the upper part of Canteen Creek River, I am now a field biologist working for the Confederated Tribes of the Yupa Indian Reservation. I live on-site at this juvenile acclimation facility for Spring King Chinook smolts, which are kept in long rectangular enclosures called raceways, or ponds. There are four of those, and a fifth circular station as well containing the ones with the most bacteria. Not quite sure on that. More details to come.

The raceways are about thirty yards long, six feet deep and eight feet wide. Small pine trees float strung with bungee cords along the walls by way of habitat replication so the smolts can hide in shady areas and get the scent of the pine imprinted to help them know where to return a few years from now when it's time for them to spawn. Dead smolts get caught in the needles.

Each mortality, or mort, is very much accounted for. Feeding is based on a formula involving the number of smolts reduced and the temperature of the water. They get protein pellets, and when they each they jump in thick clusters, swarming like piranha. Raceway temperatures and dissolved oxygen readings are recorded several times a day.

The raceways get their water pumped from the river.

Evidently a good deal of maintenance is required to keep the generator generating and the pump pumping. If frazzle ice clogs the filter in the river, the water level will drop and an alarm will sound. There's a whole huge procedure there. I really hope that never happens.

I read the manual into my tape recorder and I'll play it back in a couple of hours so I can brainwash myself while I sleep. I have to get up to speed as fast as I can because I was hired at the last minute. Luckily, someone got hurt on the job. So they thought of me. All of my pestering finally paid off.

Living in a trailer in the compound out here enclosed by its cyclone fence capped with barbed wire is a small price to pay for gainful employ.

March 16 - Day 2

Picked morts, cleaned screens, called in. You have to fiddle with the yagy on its pole outside the trailer door to get the cell phone to work when the 2-way radio doesn't. I fed them yesterday so I don't today. I took all the readings though, and checked the oil on the pump. You have to turn off the alarms, idle down for a couple minutes, flip the circuit breaker on the generator and idle that one down, then go back to the pump, turn it off, and return to the generator to turn that off, wait fifteen minutes, and then check the oil at the pump.

Minutia. One must be exacting.

To turn the generator back on, you have to turn the key to preheat, turn the idle up (RPMs at 1900) and flip the circuit breaker back on. Then you go to the pump, hold the tottle switch in, turn the key to start, and keep the tottle in until the oil gauge gets up to 20 or 30, at which point you let off the tottle and turn the throttle up to 17 or 18. Once the hose is inflated, you can turn the alarms back on.

It's not rocket science. It's salmon science. There are lots of little procedures that you could forget and would be sorry if you did. Each of the hundred and thirty thousand smolts is worth about thirty dollars, considering the billion-plus being spent by the power company whose dams kill the salmon. Gets kinda pricey.

March 17 - Day 3

Erin go bragh.

Today I shored up the sump with a bunch of boulders to deflect debris in the river, then I waded upstream to check the view and was promptly greeted by a big river otter slinking through the snowy timber along the bank. He didn't notice me until he got pretty close, and when he did he didn't seem too impressed. What an office. I get paid to play in the river at my mountain retreat. Instead of a tie around my neck I get neoprene waders. Not around my neck, of course. I wear them the regular way.

I have learned that wild smolts were originally gathered by snorkelers here during the sac fry stage--referred to as such due to the orange yolk sacs under their bellies on which they feed, and were then transported to another facility, where having advanced to the parr stage twenty-five percent receive the invasive surgery of a monitor being inserted in their bellies. After the fingerling stage, they were all then trucked back as smolts here to the acclimation facility, where they will continue to thrive predator-free for another few weeks when they will be released in peak smolt condition through underground pipes at the tail of each raceway directly into the river, thereby standing the best chance of survival possible on their journey to the ocean. Probably only ten percent will make it back. You never know.

The Indians don't consider themselves Indians without salmon. The salmon is as essential to Native Americans as it is in the Celtic world. That aspect helped make me want to keep applying for the job. Restoring the salmon means restoring the river, and restoring the river means restoring the forest. So much restoring. Nice to have a plum. Good to believe in what you do.

Something strange today: I heard a voice, or voices, outside the trailer this morning. It annoyed me because I didn't expect it at all. One of the things I'm supposed to do is guard the facility. It's in the contract that they have to have somebody out here at all times, which is like having a guard on a desert island. I didn't hear what was said, but it was definitely at least one voice and it was right outside the window. I immediately went outside to see who it was, but there was no one to be found.

March 18 - Day 4

Between raceways two and three there's a metal walkway over which I do deep-dip pushups, a hand on the rail of either pond. Builds wide striated slabs of pec. Then there's the bar by the generator missing a portion of cyclone fence to make room for the manifold intake hoses. That's where I get my pullups for my delts and lats, and chinups for my biceps with legs held up perpendicular for the abs. When I cross raceways over the top on the grip strut to brush the screens I alternate going up on one leg, working each quad slow. I never use the wheelbarrow, but walk the feed bags from the shed, and pump a few delt reps for good measure. Buckets of feed serve as dumbbells.

March 19  - Day 5

Snow again.

Clusters of bare branches coated with snow make the river look like the ghost of a giant coral reef. The weight of the snow bends the boughs into claw-like arches beneath which I pass when taking temperature readings from the river.

They say cabin fever tends to strike after a week or so. Mostly because of the typical 2-way call-in:

"Base, this is Acclimation, I couldn't hear you on that. Could you repeat transmission? Over."

" the...I'll...switch to the ...-ver."

"Base, can you repeat that? Over."

And so on. I notice a tone on the 2-way, as though the person on the other end needs to act all put out in order to feel seeming qualified. So far I don't see a whole lot of caring about salmon. No Indians in sight. Working for the Tribes, I find a handful of cliques. Little mini-tribes. Even out here, you can't get away from the grade school games, the perpetual jockeying for circle jerk position.

March 23 - Begin second week.

This four-day shift I spend at the adult acclimation site on lower Canteen Creek. What a piece of cake it is, too. Only half an hour away (less by twenty minutes from the upper location), and unlike the juvenile site with all of its readings and maintenance, often there is absolutely nothing to do here. A lot of what we do is be a warm body. This trailer's bigger, that's swell. Now I can do nothing with a little more space. I've been sitting here at the table drawing circles inside circles inside circles.

The purpose of the adult site is to catch salmon as they travel upriver to spawn, take biological information, and release them. It's not time for that yet, although our ocean-going trout friend the Steelhead will be vacationing up our way soon, so we'll practice on him.

To catch the fish we use a weir.

Aluminum pickets span the river. A weir can be a length of cage rising ten feet out of the water, or it can be a comb of four-foot iron rods which can be raised straight up or lowered flush with the surface of the river. Or it can be a combination thereof. Whatever it takes to divert the fish where you want them to go.

In our case, what we want them to do is go inside a huge concrete trap. This trap is a permanent fixture (well, as permanent as concrete gets) built along the bank. Water runs down the mouth of it, through the bulk of it about twenty yards, and out the downstream end. When we drop a little wooden wall, called stop-blocks, set in the mouth, the river can't get in, so the water level drops inside, maybe knee-deep or lower. Then you can lift the grating, drop a ladder, climb down, wade around and snag a fish.

The fish get in through the fike, which is a metal cone-like fixture which the fish swims through after it flops up a series of little pools at the tail of the trap. The trail of the trap, which is the entrance for a fish moving upstream, seems awfully inviting with the attraction flow of all that water splashing about. They like to hang out in the bubble curtain where they can't be seen. So since they can't get past the weir, and that attraction flow seems like a good place to jump, in they go--up the little pools, in through the fike, and bingo, you got yourself a fish. Supposedly, they're simply not smart enough to go back out the fike. But, just in case, when you know you have one, you drop a picket down the fike and close it off. That's as much as I know so far.
Sure would be nice if some fish were here.

March 26

One thing I notice about this job, there aren't any Indians. We're not on the reservation. I've got about eleven other coworkers, a couple of whom treat me in a welcoming and friendly manner, but most of the rest just depress me. A couple of them are real bad apples, very gossipy. Active fabricators of bullshit abound in places where it's not doing the job that's the job, it's keeping the job that's the job, and the way you do that is suck ass here and stab back.

Damn. Sometimes I can't not think about this crap. My mind keeps going over some pointless forgettable thing that happened. My natural simian primacy puts off so many. I'm often put in the position to respond to some cheap shot taken. Rumblings from me by way of reply are then called acts of aggression. Such playground politics.

April 2 - Acclimation

We opened the raceways today. However, hardly any have gone through. It'll be another week and a half before they get crowded out. For that, somebody gets in the pond with a big screen that fills the raceway side to side, and walks slowly down the head of the pond to the tail. However many are left in each raceway will eventually take the kick in the ass as a hint and flop down the tube that will spill them in the river. No more free meals, suckers. Welcome to the cold hard world.

Something of a little crisis this morning: as the smolts with the tracking gizmo, or pit tag, inserted in the belly pass through the tubes into the river, they are registered by a circular antenna clamped around the pipe, so that each tagged smolt trips a counter, and a statistical percentage of total fish passing into the creek may then be estimated.

Pond One's scum looks like a softball team ate a bunch of pizzas and vomited all over it. Reason being, it actually is vomit. Mixed with the chunky bubbles glint swirling rainbow hues, such as one fins in spilled gasoline. Families taking the grand tour of the facility might well bask in wonder.

"Oh, Honey! Quick kids, come look! Sir, what accounts for all those lovely colors?"

"Well ma'am," I'll say, "that's oil. The fish produce it when they puke."



WHEN THE WORK with the Tribes at the juvenile salmon acclimation facility was done, with the salmon all released at a young enough stage to still be wild, yet with a head start nutritionally and in most ways developmentally, I went to the folks at the office and said, "Alrighty, what now?" And they said unto me, "You shall go to the next site." Whereupon I did, and saw that it was good.

Evidently they liked the way I helped dismantle the old place. Everything at the juvenile site had to go. My coworkers nicknamed me Gunter, for my strength. I was keen to utilize my brawn in the task of moving the big heavy things that impressed people, and made them call me Gunter. The driver of the truck which carried away the long sections of pipe, big flanges and all manner of heavy whatnot wanted to shake my hand before he left. He looked to me like an old Ty Cobb and he thanked me for a job well done, adding that he hoped we worked together again. Somehow, coming from this old guy, it was high praise indeed. It's the middle of May now, and it looks like they want me to stay on until the end of October. After that, we'll see.

I'm at the adult site now. No more smolts. Not even Steelhead. This time, full grown Spring King Chinook. God I love this job. I go four days on and four days off. The time flies. I watch videos, read, listen to music, barbecue and write. I watch Excalibur, read James Joyce and listen to the Chieftains in anticipation of our long-planned trip to United Kingdom. Hannah comes out here to spend the weekend nights with me. All pure vacation. We're so excited. And I get paid for this.

Upper Glen River is far more idyllic than Canteen Creek. We have one piddly trap, which I check a few times every day I'm here. Sunday through Tuesday there were no fish and I did nothing approaching work at all. The trailer runs fine. Everything runs fine. I had a great time at Canteen Creek, and this is ten times better.

Yesterday I snorkeled the trap looking for possible flaws that develop from the current which might allow a Chinook to pass through. Scouring in the sand undermines pickets. While in the wetsuit I also conducted a river survey for about a mile, finding a few salmon downstream. The scenery is fantastic. Steep mountains rising high up the banks, lots of great jagged boulders and crisscrossed timber, sheer forest hills thick with deep green grass, packed with lodge pole and Ponderosa pine. Periodically I paused in thunderous pools and stared up at the trees, then I'd let the current pull me downstream, careful not to get cut on the rocks or caught on the limb of a fallen tamarack.

I hiked back steaming straight up the cliff and found a few morrel along the way, good eating mushrooms, and saw where a bear made a fresh bed high over the river, a safe place with a good view. That bear left a whole lot of hair and crap. The survey, which I cannot in good conscience call work, took three hours. When I returned at noon, I saw we had some salmon. These I quickly worked up according to procedure and let loose in a recovery pond which I had made along the bank a couple days prior. One of the fish caught measured 850 mm. That's pretty hefty, and they'll just keep getting bigger.

Working up the salmon, every first four anyway, is simplicity itself. It's the fifth fish that takes a bit more doing. Ordinarily all you do is use a hole puncher to collect tissue samples from the gill (the right operculum, to be specific) and get a fork length, which is the measurement from the tip of the snout to the forked part of the back at the middle, caudal fin. In the trap I lay the fish on the measuring board while they're in the net. These are feisty fish, and will flap around something nasty while you try to snag them with the net, hoping not to stress them out too much. Ideally, one would dip the net in iodine between each fish, as their skin is sensitive to the net, suffering imperceptible cuts which produce risk of disease transference. However, this is easier said than done to a certain practical extent, and the law of diminishing returns suggests leaning toward getting it all done as quickly and reliably as possible in order to minimize the all-significant stress factor.

The fifth salmon goes in a tank on the back of a truck to the hatchery ninety minutes away. This fish is not worked up "hot" as we say, but deposited in a tub of river water containing an anesthetic called MS222, a carcinogen with unknown effects. The salmon gets loopy. You don't want to keep one in longer than a few minutes, just long enough to inoculate for bacterial kidney disease (they're susceptible to that at the hatchery), inject a pit tag in the meaty portion near the gill in what must be the salmon's cheek, punch the right operc and get a fork length. Efficiency is of the essence. Then you let the 222 degrade in the sun for at least a day before dumping.

Smugly wiggling, the bratty tail ready to wriggle, the salmon leap and bump their bullet heads against the pickets, flopping back down with a dull splash for hours before eventually nosing into the fike. Once in, they're too dumb to know that they could get right back out. Just in case, it's a good idea to drop a couple pickets in the fike to bar them in, hence the frequent checks. I cut some rounds off a tree a few weeks back and chainsaw carved a leaping salmon.


Of the dozen different employees I have to associate with occasionally at work, my favorite is Ned.  He's in his mid-fifties, but looks older. He's stout, benign, and sports a grandfatherly white beard. He also wears overalls. Knowledgeable chap.

Jim seems like a good guy at first. He comes across as quite confidential, like a guy you can really cut loose with. Until you get to know him.

I used to feel kind of sorry for Rich. Such a Baby Huey. Too easy a target, it seems. Then you see how he avoids work, tries to start controversy with letters to the editor soaked in right-wing fanaticism, syrupy with church. And somehow he sits behind a desk for a wildlife project.

Dylan's a scrawny guy with a chip on his shoulder. He's friends with Mark. Mark is one of the higher-up decision-calling non-workers. Dylan is Mark's friend, so it's very important to Dylan that everyone always know that.

Mark pretty much does nothing. Sometimes he floats around and tries to pretend he's the biggest turd in the bowl. Dylan helps him, it's important to always remember.

Prentiss is more of a fair weather friend than most. It all depends on who else is around. If there's nobody else, he's fine. Like a pal! Quietly gathering information to later twist. But when anyone else is there, even though he has a ponytail, his whole friendly act vanishes, poof.

His equivalent is a rather obvious and uninteresting wench whose purpose is to swing her boobs around the way hypnotists use medallions. The problem is, she's got a scrawny butt and the pinched face to match. So those she can't control by her meager means, she treats as enemies.

There are still a few others, none of which I see as much. Tom's all right. Kinda persnickety and prone to hissy fits--like the time he couldn't find the drill bit, or the time somebody accidentally unplugged a cord to a tool he wanted use--but he generally has a sense of humor. Lauren, too, is okay to work with. She seems like your friend, then acts totally different if you see her out of context at the store or wherever. But whatever. Sam is someone sort of lowly I haven't had to deal with much of ever. And then there's the pig.

Billy is an Iago-ish, Gollum-like, repellent creature which we will call a woman, technically, for the sake of convenience. Her conniving face alongside Jack Palance and he winds up looking like Miss America by comparison. That's a fact. It's like life itself kicked it in, that old damn face of Billy. You wanna feel bad for her. Then you catch her rifling through your stuff.

Last night Hannah and I were in the quarters of my trailer marked Private, a sign on the door to the tiny room where I sleep. The sign is entirely superfluous. The trailer itself should be no less private, and would be if Billy weren't around.

She was about half-blotto. She had asked to buy beer off of me. I said no, I didn't have any beer. She was alone in her trailer with nothing to do on one-sixth pay, standby pay. On her own time, like me, waiting for emergency alarms to sound, which could theoretically happen for any number of reasons, requiring initiation of procedural action.

Fortunately, Hannah and I had the door shut and locked, because scummy old Billy broke into my trailer with booze in her belly and started pounding on my bedroom door. I roared something back, then got out there as fast as I could. She'd hustled back outside and croaked at me that I was needed. It was outrageous. There wasn't any emergency, no alarms. She was just drunk and bored and a stupid pig who didn't want me to be alone with my girlfriend.

My beautiful girlfriend Hannah, who means everything to me. She's been my grounding influence so long.

I remember the thought of breaking down items,


squishing it all back out in the form of putrid brown waste, like some kind of bug or tank fish, and that seemed incomprehensible. The concept of time flew right out the window. I could hardly believe there were people all around wasting the night lying on cushy platforms in boxes within boxes and would remain that way in a regenerative condition, like larvae, until the morning season came and they would resume functions until once again they wore down, and all of that was a thing called normal. Only I was awake, and I was alone, trying to remember the concepts of space and time.

Bugs slowly trekked across the living room carpet. What was college again? A picture on the wall had someone called me, and a beautiful reason I could trust called love. My stomach curdled. My legs took me upstairs

(I had to be quiet)

and I knew I could be in trouble if I didn't pound this fist into this hand

(legs locomoting torso back downstairs)

one, two, three, mother, father, sister, brother, Hannah.

I still saw electric JuJu Bees if I closed my eye. Swam in them uncontrolled. If I closed my eyes I wasn't sure I wouldn't die. I was dizzy and my stomach gnurled. What was sleep again?

Bugs. The sagging expanse of flesh sagged when sitting fleshy. Waste.

Consuming flesh seemed bizarre. The concept of college was impossible. The picture on the wall contained the likeness of something called Me, and a reason to be trusted called Love. I had to go upstairs and tell her.

"Hannah," I said on the bed. "Hannah."

Sleepy, she tried to reply.

"I love you," I said.


"I love you."

"What? I love you, too."

"It's okay. Go back to sleep."

"It's after three. Are you all right?"

"I did some mushrooms. I love you."

She brushed back her hair and took my hand. "Are you all right?" She was love.

"I'm fine. I just wanted to tell you I love you. It's okay. Go back to sleep."

She plopped down, sighing. She needed her sleep. I tried to lie down. It felt like the grave.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Sweetie, I have to sleep."

I sighed, heavily. "I'm sorry," I said. I needed to be up where there was light.

After some time, probably moments, I said, sighing heavily, "I'm sorry."

"Stop saying that!"


"Oh, god."

"It's okay. Sorry. I love you. I'm all right. Go back to sleep." I got up.

"Are you sure you're all right?" She needed her sleep.

"I'm fine."

"We can talk in the morning."

"I love you," I said.

"I love you, too," she said.

In the bathroom I looked at myself in the mirror. Eventually I produced vomit and finally felt calm enough to rest.


Today I saw a rattlesnake. Maybe three feet long, about as thick as my wrist, straight and totally motionless on the road. It was brown and white. I was driving a load of water in one of the company rigs and could see through the open window that it was alive. Its rattles were up but didn't shake. Although I was not close enough to count the buckets, I could see it had several. I continued on, then stopped. I could see the rattler in my rear view mirror. Thought about backing up over it. As soon as I did, it slid off into the grass by the side of the road.

Only a few miles after that I saw a badger. Right in broad daylight. This was one busy road. It was a big fat pudgy sucker, silvery gray. Amazing stripes back of the eyes and over the head. I stopped, he stopped. The badger's expression seemed to say, "Eagh, what are you lookin' at?" Then the shimmering lard waddled off into the brush.

Prior to that, before loading up the water, we had another fairly pointless morning meeting. This takes place on a theater stage, literally. The office we work out of is on campus. Supposed to be working for Indians but we never see any. Supposed to be caring about salmon but what we get is carping. When everybody had finally sat down at the table on the stage after a whole lot of "Can we get another chair? Is there another chair? How many of us are there?" followed by at least as much "Is there the thing? Who can find the thing? Has anyone see it?" and then just endless other crap like that, finally, when we were all sitting down, B.J. swiveled, causing the black-hooded skull and arcing scythe of her death breasts to face me. I knew it couldn't be good if she was preparing to say something. Like watching a dog stretch before it farts.

"Pick a number between one and five."


"Oh, we're just trying to decide the order that we're going to do some downstream work tomorrow at UGR."

"I'm not working tomorrow."

"Why not?"

"I'm not scheduled to work tomorrow, that's why. It would put me into overtime." They don't like paying overtime.

"Oh," she said. "Then you shouldn't work today."

"No, I work today, and I don't go over. This is the schedule, it's been up a long time, and I have plans." This whole time I had been trying to pay attention to the discussion concerning what needed to happen in preparation for the next day's project. Now my attention was divided. Could she really have meant she wanted me to switch days at the last minute? Who the hell did she think she was? What a jackass.

B.J. looked a bit bitter at my having shut down her jackassness and pretended to be busy. I could see she was doodling. A couple of the others were talking, wrapped up in their own little theater. The whole operation screws up all the time because what's really going on is a lot of money is being thrown at the salmon studies by the power company so they can point to the studies and absolve the dams of responsibility. We're a small isolated area where jobs are at a premium and this one's a plum because you don't have to wear a hair net.

When the circle jerk was finally just about over, B.J. unleashed her final assault. She pointed at me and brazenly declared, "I think he should have to not work today so that he can work tomorrow."

"No," I said, having stood up to go. "I made plans for tomorrow two weeks ago."

Ha ha, ruined her day. I loved it when stinky hate lines wiggled off of her head. It would have been funny if she had been attacked by a bunch of rattlesnakes or a rabid badger.

Driving out to drop off the water, thoughts of our forthcoming trip to Wales spun. Nearly a year of anticipation bubbled up images of British places Hannah and I planned to visit...



TRIBES will consist of three parts:




Thoughts of an impending trip to Wales loom while working for the Tribes, as do thoughts of working for the Tribes while in Wales. Sundry conflicts recalled, and halcyon days of romance.

And now...

I start my new job with the United States Forest Service


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