Contemplative Creek: Remembering Bruce Hill

I have this creek. It’s one of the places I go to when when I want to reflect, or chew on a problem, or need to reconnect with wild places. Over the years it’s provided excellent context for everything from undoing one of those tight, complex gut knots tied by the bony, anxious fingers of quotidian stress to the far larger task of dealing with the death of a good friend.

Today it’s the latter.

The first pool is shallow, as pools go, but it’s a deep one for this creek. Alder arms hang over its far side like they are about to snatch a salmon from the pellucid water below them.

The place has given me a few fish, all of them vivid cutthroat trout, and all of them from an enduring pocket a few feet above the pool’s tailrace.

I cast. Oona watches and waits as I follow the arc of the pale green floating line as it sweeps through the pool. As I do, I think of Bruce Hill, of how audacious he was, how determined he was to do the right thing. I think about how he and Myron, and Bruce’s friend, Rick, sailed to the Kitlope River, and how they were swept up by the beauty of the place. Bruce, who had spent a lot of time letting in light through forest canopies and processing the wood felled by the men who did, was particularly struck by the beauty of the last large pristine watershed in North American’s temperate rainforest, and was particularly galled that flagging was flying from its trees.

“They can’t log this place,” he told Myron. “They just can’t.”

In the same place at the same time, almost anyone else would have sighed in resignation then sailed off to catch another halibut, or fish for salmon.

Not Bruce.

Not knowing that the Haisla Nation and a U.S. environmental enterprise called ECO Trust were also upset by Hank Ketchum’s plans to mine the forests of the Kitlope, Bruce and Myron set out to prevent it. Eventually, there was a confluence of energy that created a synergy that resulted in the protection of a place as magnificent as any in creation.

If a man did nothing else in his life, being a central figure in that victory would have been enough.

Nothing comes to my minnow.

We move downstream through devil’s club then skirt a swamp to the old bridge crossing. I remembered that my friend Eckert shot a grizzly bear near this very spot some 40 years ago. I remembered how Bruce and his Haisla brother, Gerald, were so utterly appalled by the slaughter of the Kilope Grizzlies by the guide outfitters, that they successfully mounted a campaign to convince the Ministry of Environment to bring the barbaric hunt for the great bears to a halt.

It’s raining lightly now. I leave the bridge pool without contacting a fish. The dog lopes ahead, happy to move, and this triggers a memory of the time I visited Bruce in his office when he was working for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He asked me how I was.

“No good,” I said then. I told how my dog had died from the downstream effects of being cuffed by a black bear that fall, and how I’d laid her to rest in the derelict chicken coop in my backyard because it was February and the ground was hard as concrete. Bruce sympathized. I went home. That afternoon, he came up the walk unannounced, with a pick in one hand and a bottle of Scotch in the other. I couldn’t break through the cold ground. Bruce could. When he had, we shared the excavation then buried my pooch and lifted a few glasses to her.

Further downstream there are wide paths through the grass and the deep impressions of big paws and long claws in the slippery estuary mud. The humpbacks are all but done, their ghostly carcasses melting into the creek bottom. We wade to a small island bar all but covered with pink salmon, the head bitten off every one. I feel a shiver.

There are dog salmon, spawned out, aimlessly cruising about in the clear water of the pool on the Island’s far side. After convincing myself there are no trout or char near the calico-sided salmon, I leave the Island of headless humpbacks and walk to where the creek is joined by another and they form a plunge pool, followed by a fast run before fanning out into the estuary.

I let my fly swing through the roily water and I’m into fish hiding under the turbulence. One of those fish, a bull trout, is 25 inches. The sight of it made me remember the even larger char Bruce caught in a similar spot on the Lakelse River. We caught fish after fish – steelhead, char, whitefish, and trout – that afternoon. We had a ball. He talked about it for years afterwards.

I’ll miss big Bruce. He did a lot for me. He did a lot for all of us.

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