Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Forecast for Taimen

One of the best things about taimen, the world’s largest and most idiosyncratic salmonid, is that they are related to trout. This is a bit like saying that one of the best things about tigers is their kinship with tabby cats, but the connection is undeniable.

When you see one coming full length for the fly—the green jaws, the broad shoulders, the red tail—the conflict between what you think you know about trout and what you are about to learn provides an excruciating tension.

As you might guess, taimen prefer wild rivers and wild country. One of the rivers where I work, in the valley where Genghis Khan was born, is as undomesticated as they come. By long-term agreement with local, provincial, and national governments, there are no hatcheries, no hotels, no dams, no mines, no commercial logging, and no motorized boats along its banks.

In September 2013, when Sage Flyfishing’s technical service manager visited the river, the weather was far from tame. A series of cold fronts had frog-marched across northern Mongolia, and the leaves on the currant bushes gleamed damp and red. Although the once-in-a-generation flooding had mercifully subsided, the water was still high. In fact, a resupply vehicle from the capital Ulaanbaatar had become bogged down many miles from our first camp, while attempting to ford what is usually a shallow tributary.

On the atypically muddy steppe, upland buzzards, saker falcons, and marsh harriers hunted the mice that had fled their soggy burrows. And yet, after the second day of our trip, I wrote this in my journal: “An ordinary day of fishing. Meaning fun—with lots of action.”

Our log for the day shows that eight anglers hooked twenty-seven taimen, landing eleven. (This count does not include missed strikes, which happen more often than many anglers like to admit.) Of the sixteen individuals that escaped a photograph, one extremely large fish fought downstream for at least five bends of the river before the hook pulled. Another taimen, not nearly as large, was landed after the rod exploded into three pieces on the hookset. (Yes—it was a Sage.) We also were graced with a trio of Amur trout—an endemic species with thick, coppery flanks—and a solitary Amur pike.

In the dining ger that night, Handaa, our camp manager, presided over appetizers, dinner, and dessert. Between courses, she instructed us in the ritual style of toasting, in which each invocation is punctuated with a dip of your ring finger in the vodka: one for the sky, one for the earth, one for the winds, and one for yourself.

Later, some of us sipped red wine, while others (who should not remain nameless) indulged in extravagant concoctions like apple-tinis and lemon drops. Out of the din of conversation, I heard this twosome wisely dubbed “a hangover sandwich.”

A few guests at the table had been friends for many years, while some had just met. But the world of international flyfishing is small enough for coincidences to become routine. Because the guy from Sage has worked in Chile, he and two of our Chilean guides had several acquaintances in common. And because his father had been an industry rep, it was no surprise that one of our other guests, a former New England flyshop owner who has come to the river nearly every year since 2004, recognized the family resemblance.

We have a minimum of four guides on every trip and, in the service of fun, each guide tries to fish with every angler at least once during the week. On the day that I rowed for the Sage guy, he cast a 400-plus-grain sinking head and a huge epoxy fly that, together, cut through the wind like a ballpeen hammer and crashed the water like a depth charge. That rig drew strikes from two healthy taimen and we managed to coax both into the net. His fishing partner began with a floating line then changed to an ordinary sinking tip and went without a strike. By the end of the day, the wind was strong enough to drive the boat back upstream and the current lines were filled with willow leaves.

That unpredictability is part of what makes taimen fishing addictive. Like humans, they can be close-mouthed and sulky one minute, then irrationally exuberant the next. No matter what the weather conditions.

And though weather can sometimes feel like it’s happening specifically to us, cruelly and personally, it can also remind us of our collective smallness in the larger and more mysterious world. What does it mean when, on a morning so warm that you sit as far as possible from the woodstove, someone else says that he can feel snow coming?

Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, that season’s unusual weather will be a net positive. The surge of water tumbled many willows and poplars from the banks. More wood in the water means more nursery habitat. And more nursery habit could eventually mean more trout and more taimen.

To put it in geek terms, the flood was an outlier: a stray point in an expansive data set. As the planet warms, the resulting effects on individual drainages can vary considerably; given our current failure to foresee the bigger picture, I plan to devote myself to further close observation. The river is ancient and ever-changing. All I can say after ten seasons in Mongolia is this: it never gets old.

On the final afternoon of the trip, six days and many dozens of miles downstream, a harrier stooped on a mouse pattern just as the leader unrolled on the forward cast. The bird stuttered above the river, attempting to snatch the fly from the air. The angler exclaimed with surprise and I shouted with delight. Neither of us really wanted to hook a harrier, but we needn’t have worried—the bird made one last, half-hearted stab as the mouse hit the water, then wished itself back into the sky.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People

Fivescore and forty-four years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone National Park. Way back then, the citizens of those thirty-seven United States lived without electric motors, zippers, or Coca-Cola. The invention of the typewriter was many months away; the plague of the videogame still a century off. In that same year, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting.

At least some of the credit for the bill’s relatively smooth passage through Congress must go to Thomas Moran, a member of the 1871 Hayden Expedition, whose field sketches provided Eastern lawmakers with their first color images of Yellowstone. If you’ve seen Moran’s work, you know that his paintings are as grand as the actual landscape—although not in precisely the same way. Moran’s brush reveals a wonderful eye for details, and a romantic’s disdain for fact. “My general scope is not realistic,” he declared. “All my tendencies are toward idealization.”

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872,  Smithsonian American Art Museum

This statement seems an apt description of my own attitude toward Yellowstone. I love everything I see there, but take occasional pains not to see everything. One hundred and twenty-three years after Moran’s first visit, I curated an exhibit of sepia-tone photographs, historical letters, and turn-of-the-century writing tools at the Madison Museum. I also conducted workshops on letter writing, and wrote a daily letter myself, which I hung in the museum, as if it were just another artifact. Depending on my relationship with the intended recipient, the letter might have been chatty, nostalgic, or confessional. Some of the tourists ignored my efforts, some expressed interest, and some stole the paper off the wall. (I took that as a compliment.)

That summer, the museum docent was Naomi Olson. The two of us spent a lot of time considering the disparate motives of park visitors. On some days, the population split comfortably into two groups: spectators and participants. For example, one August afternoon we met a family from Massachusetts who flew to Billings because their first-choice destinations (unmentioned) were “already booked up.”

They rented a van, and in five days visited Helena (the museum and the capitol), Great Falls, East and West Glacier (they didn’t mention the park), Polson (both little museums), the National Bison Range (closed due to fire), Missoula, Butte (the Big Pit), and Bozeman. They planned to spend the next four days in a comparatively sedate tour of Yellowstone and the Tetons.

According to their eldest daughter, Montana was nothing but casinos and pawn shops, suitable only for such rural pursuits as cow-tipping, a thrill she remembered with some fondness from a recent trip to Vermont. These folks were definitely spectators. They didn’t hike or fish, and had no particular interest in Western history or ecology, so it was no wonder they found the state lacking in entertainment value.

The next morning, I was in West Yellowstone doing laundry, buying groceries, and pondering the general nature of entertainment when I suddenly felt duty-bound to visit the grizzly theme park and IMAX theater. That was a frequently asked question at the museum—“Hey, where’s the IMAX theater?”—and most folks seemed a little put out to discover that it was run by a private concern, outside the park, another fourteen miles away, and that neither Naomi nor I had ever paid to see it. “Since Yellowstone is right here,” I would ask, pointing out the picture window to the confluence of the Gibbon and the Firehole, “why watch the movie?” But they usually just shrugged in response, or glared at me like I was some sort of smart-aleck, before climbing back into their cars.

Considering the West Entrance with a stranger’s eye, I could sympathize with their confusion of theme park and national park. When you drive into town from the north, the principal four-lane highway dead-ends in the Grizzly Discovery Center’s ample parking lot. If you aren’t paying attention, you might miss the innocuous little sign that points left, to Yellowstone, and end up watching a couple of neutered, declawed black bears pace behind a partition of plate glass.

But I was only just beginning to understand that, to many visitors, such manufactured scenes are more comprehensible than the reality of wild animals in their more-or-less wild habitat. I had been asked what time we let the elk and bison out—as if park employees were nothing more than a bunch of zookeepers in funny hats. I also had been badgered by a Swiss man for a printed copy of the geyser schedule. When I explained to him that only a very few of Yellowstone’s geysers erupted in a predictable fashion, and that even then the rangers’ predictions were simply rough estimates, he glowered at me as if I had just said that Mickey Mouse was long dead and Donald Duck with him.

In order to help myself understand and interpret these encounters, I felt that I should face the theme park myself, observe it with a detached and critical eye, take notes, imagine that I was a teenager from Massachusetts, try to have fun, and become a better person for the experience. But as I drove back along the main thoroughfare from the laundromat, past the mini-mall and the shirt shops and the antler boutiques, I couldn’t make myself do it. The pickup drifted into the left lane, my left hand hit the blinker, and before I knew it, I was accelerating toward the genuine gates of Yellowstone.

I salvaged the rest of that day fishing, of course, mostly in the Madison, where the water temperature had dipped into the low sixties and the first pods of big brown trout had started upstream from Hebgen Lake to spawn. Those lake-run browns were beautiful fish, sleek and solid, with dark backs and golden bellies. A few of them hit so hard that the bones in my wrist ached, and the first jump often sent the fish sailing flat over the water, like a performing porpoise. As you can imagine, I found this immensely entertaining.

Eventually, I learned not to take it personally when vacationers declined our offers to participate in the Yellowstone that existed outside their cars or beyond their videocameras. On some occasions, I even found myself shifting focus, away from wildlife and waterfalls, and onto the other mammals like myself. For instance, there was a fiftyish man from Idaho who told me former superintendent Bob Barbee should be shot, then described his bible-camp counselor playing “How Great Thou Art” from a tinny, battery-powered tape deck balanced on the Tetons’ Table Rock. 

And there was another two-legged specimen, dressed all in purple—except for an orange handbag—who carried a bottle of spring water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She claimed that we would all live longer if we each drank six gallons of water daily. Not six cups, six pints, or even six quarts, but six gallon jugs between sunup and sundown. Naomi drew her portrait, an image as compelling as that of any sow grizzly or bull elk.

Truth be told, the wildest of Yellowstone’s migratory inhabitants are human. One of my favorites: a woman with sharp elbows and expansive hips dallying by the bar in Old Faithful’s Bear Pit Lounge, clutching an unopened bottle of champagne by the neck. 

“Can we buy more of this stuff in the restaurant?” She wanted to know. 

“Sure,” said the bartender, “we can even serve champagne with your breakfast, if you like.” 

“That‘s good,” nodded the woman, “because when I drink champagne, I don’t like to run out.” 

“Hell,” one of her two companions grumbled, “she’ll drink champagne until she foams at the mouth.” 

Her other sidekick laughed out loud. “Or at least,” said that one, “until the bubbles come out her nose.”

I had to hand it to her. The woman knew how to have fun. None of us can watch the world go by all the time—even the radiant and rarefied world of Yellowstone.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pretty in Print

Two recent publications that can’t be read online: the first in Gray’s Sporting Journal’s fortieth anniversary issue, the next in Songs of Ourselves, from Blue Heron Book Works.

If you can’t get to a newsstand, here’s what the opening spread of the Gray’s story looks like on an iPad.

The painting is by Alberto Rey and—in case you were hoping to add it to your collection—is already owned by the University of Virginia.

The story itself is set in Mexico and Montana. Although it’s absolutely fiction, the narrative roughly chronicles the puzzlement I feel both when stalking bonefish on the flats and trying to understand the so-called new economy. (Remember Touch America?)

My contribution to Songs of Ourselves, on the other hand, feels like a big departure from my usual work. Subtitled America’s Interior Landscape, the book wants to identify an idea that I’ve been searching for from Morocco to Mongolia: “the thing that makes us American.” As I was telling my sister today, my bit—which I called “The Journal of Infectious Diseases”—is “basically a memoir in the form of a collage.”
According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the most common reason for travel among tourists who contract cholera is—you guessed it—a visit with the relatives.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The River in Books, Books on the River

Following on the spate of media coverage inspired by the 2013 Nobody’s River Project, the Amur basin and its headwaters have now found their way to National Public Radio, which reviewed Dominic Zeigler’s Black Dragon River this past weekend.

This isn’t the first book to chronicle a long journey down the Amur. I’ve read at least two others—one was published in 1860, the other in 2005.

NPR’s review was a bit garbled on the topic of fish: “The river’s waters swarm with life. The Amur is home to a hundred-twenty fish specimens, ‘a primal soup, thick with wanton life and death. Myriad fish gorge on the tapioca pears of fish eggs caught up and down by the current.’”

My guess is that they meant species, not specimens, and pearls, not pears. But who knows about “caught up and down”?

For more on Amur fish and fishing, I recommend two books available free online: Fishes of Mongolia, underwritten by the World Bank, and Amur Fish: Wealth and Crisis, published by the World Wildlife Fund.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

More Things We Can Learn from the Bottle

While preparing lunch one day on the river, I couldn’t help but notice the desire of these moths for our bottle of wine. (An imported Argentinian red but, then again, all wines in Mongolia are imported.)

Turns out that a technique called wine-roping is well known among moth enthusiasts. If any of you are reading this, would you kindly confirm that these specimens are Red Underwings?

Monday, August 10, 2015

The View from Tangier

Since moving to Morocco last month, we have spent many hours contemplating the view from our third-floor perch. White storks often fly above the clay-tiled roofs, sometimes landing on nearby television antennas, where they exhibit a remarkable sense of balance in the fickle winds.

Like some fortunate humans, they are migrants, able to cross between Europe and Africa at will.

According to James Edward Budgett-Meakin, author of Land of the Moors: A Comprehensive Description (1901), “As a slayer of serpents the stork is held sacred, and if he fails to return any year to his accustomed haunt, some evil is feared.”

In The Land of an African Sultan: Travels in Morocco (1889), Walter B. Harris wrote this about storks:  “They are men, say the Moors, who have come from islands far away to the west, to see Morocco. Like all the world, they know there is no other land to compare to it, and so they even abandon their outward form of men to come and see it.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why I Haven't Quit My Day Job

Whenever I’m away from my desk, it seems that the world is determined to show me strange and beautiful things. An albino sea turtle, for one, gleaming like white gold beneath the blue water. And a brown booby, who nabbed a flying fish off a wave-crest as I watched from the kayak.

When a juvenile frigate bird tried to steal the booby’s fish away, I paddled over to offer support. The frigate fled, and then the booby enjoyed its meal, as well as (apparently) my company, eventually settling on this buoy to pose and preen.

A few days later, doubting my vision of the gilded turtle in the middle of copyediting a book about J. Alden Weir, the American Impressionist, I took the time for a quick search online (our family calls it, “consulting the oracle”). As it turns out, albino turtles, while uncommon, are not unheard of, although it’s more likely that the one I saw was leucistic. That’s one of my favorite things about the Web: what you might, in some less enlightened age, have been tempted to call hallucination can now be labeled as probable sighting.

Another of the fun things about the Web is that it brings nonstop news of success: the glad tidings of friends and acquaintances, as well as the exploits of impossibly lucky or talented humans who you will never meet.

On the other hand, if you are one of the untold millions striving to find a voice (and a paycheck), the continuous awareness of other folks’ book deals and movie options might leave you feeling like a chronic underachiever. At those moments, it can help to remember that the mere attempt to create carries its own rewards (sometimes long deferred, sometimes completely unfathomable).

Though it’s scant consolation, I try to remind myself that each rejection letter means that I now have one more reader than I did a minute ago. Not a satisfied reader, but hey, you can’t please everybody. The important thing—for my own sense of being a person among other people—is to keep plugging away. I don’t insist on becoming Meb Keflezighi every time I set out on a morning run, so why feel unhappy about not being Jim Harrison whenever I sit down at the keyboard?

The fact is that only a rare few get paid to play. The rest of us, as Gillian Welch sings, “do it anyway.”  Here are links for a handful of stories that found publication this spring, none of them in print, and none for pay . . .

• a few thoughts on aspirational flyfishing photography at Tail magazine

• tips for making the most of a trip to Mongolia at On the Fly magazine

• an update on our conservation work in Orvis News

• humor for proofreaders or mathematicians (your choice) at the Science Creative Quarterly

• and a brief meditation on zen and the art of nonrefundable airfares at We Said Go Travel.