Oh, Oso

Columnist Rob Brown talks about anglers he met at Oso – and the warnings they heeded

We continued North on the Arlington-Darrington Highway. The land changed from farm to forests. Just past the Lake Cavanaugh Road we turned south at Oso, the small hamlet that had built up around the Deer Creek confluence. A warm wind riffled the leaves of hardwood trees. In the shade of those trees were a handful of small buildings, bigger than huts but smaller than cabins. There were larger cabins too.

The smaller structures, big enough for a bed, a table, a hot plate, and an ice box, were obviously the seasonal abodes – some rented, others owned – of the anglers who had arrived each summer since the 1920s to fish the fabled steelhead bound for Deer Creek.

Bob must rent one of these places, I said to Karen, referring to the flyfisherman we’d met on the river just above the Cicero Bridge.

Bob, I learned years later after reading his book Steelhead Water, then discussing it with my dear friend, Bob Taylor, was Bob Arnold, an Oso regular, was a central figure in the fight to save Deer Creek from the ravages timber mining.

Walt Johnson lived in Oso year round at that time. I’d read about his exploits with small bamboo rods and floating flies. I spoke to Walt twice. He had a wealth of information and many intriguing theories about the way steelhead react to flies. But, what struck me in particular was his description of how the Deer Creek had declined, a story so similar to the decline of rivers in my backyard.

Fly fishers get up close and deeply personal with their streams. Nobody watched Deer Creek more closely or were more sensitive to its perturbations than Walt Johnson and Bob Arnold. It wasn’t rigorous science, but their catches were probably as good an indicator of the decline of Deer Creek summer steelhead as any. Because they were standing in it day after day, they noticed changes in turbidity, silt deposition, the movement of gravel.

After observing small but troubling changes for more than a decade, the anglers watched the creek turn the colour of mud in the Fall of 1984 and stay muddy for  a long time. Bob alerted the appropriate bureaucrats and as a result Al Zander, a hydrologist in the Washington Forest Service, was dispatched to find the cause of the turbidity. At the confluence of DeForest Creek, Zander discovered a large chunk of old growth forest anchoring unstable soils, so widespread in temperate rain forests, had been removed. The clear cutting was followed by the burning of slash piles, which sterilized soils inhibiting regeneration. Then, the  kind of rain that gives rain forests their name had super saturated the soils causing a catastrophic collapse that deposited tons of silt into both creeks.

Bob organized a public meeting that generated so much outrage it led to the formation of an interagency committee whose mandate was to halt all industrial activity in the Deer Creek drainage and mend the existing damage. Despite considerable effort and a lot of money spent on road stabilization, silt fences, shot rock, and replanting, the latter task proved impossible.

In 1990 there were fewer than 200 summer steelhead in Deer Creek and the native Dolly Varden were probably extinct. All its pools were smaller and shallower, and a higher rate of runoff caused increases in water temperature that were lethal to juvenile fish.

While logging had been halted surrounding Deer Creek, it continued elsewhere. Large cuts were made high above the hill that over looks Oso. In successive years more smaller cuts were made adjacent to the large cut blocks. Tears began to appear as small earth flows began in the land below, then, in 2006 a major slump reached the valley bottom pushing the Stillaguamish toward the village. At 11 in the morning of March 22nd, the rest of the slide buried Oso. The death toll rises in the worst disaster in the history of Washington State.

The Oso tragedy wasn’t an act of God. It was an act of man – specifically poor logging practises on unstable land. The Oso slide was presaged by the DeForest slide. Both slides could have been prevented if the government agencies had managed logging in such a way as to ensure the integrity of every fish bearing stream and the welfare of its denizens. Doing this would have meant careful road building, selective harvesting, significantly reduced cut blocks, no logging on steep slopes, aggressive restocking of sites, and large protected riparian zones. Fish, as Bob and Walt, and the many anglers concerned for the welfare of Deer Creek understood, are at the centre of things; taking care of fish is ecologically and economically sound and doing so can avert disasters. It’s a shame more people didn’t pay the anglers of Deer Creek much heed. If they had, and acted accordingly, the water of Deer Creek would still be clear and as cold as ice, a thousand steelhead would return to it every year, and, Oso wouldn’t be lying under a sea of mud today.