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On the Water

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Reflections on the Pond

I walk onto the dock and look out over the great lake of my youth with wonderment. It’s been some time since I was here. The boats on Pend Oreille are different now, more numerous certainly, faster and more diverse. The jet skis are new, replacing the water skiers somehow. There are also more sails flying across the surface in the big open, beyond the islands, vertical wings cutting the wind, driving froth. And the shoreline across the bay at Hope has more cabins, more color.

The lake is changing, I note as I strain to see beneath its surface to the bottom below. I drift into the reflection. 

It’s 1964. I’m a sophomore in high school, fishing with Eddie Eitzman from his dad’s 14’ aluminum boat. We’re anchored in deep water off the rocks along the shoreline opposite Sunnyside, near Anderson Point. We’re hand lining for blue backs. 

Now these freshwater, sockeye salmon are commonly called kokanee, but everyone back then referred to them as blue backs, for their dark-colored dorsal, or silvers, for their highly shined glistening sides. They were great eating no matter how you cooked them, their orange-pink meat a true delicacy when smoked. You could keep 50 a day because they were more than plentiful. Now the population is in danger of collapse. Though a careful grid work of acoustic soundings this spring yielded estimates that the lake currently holds a little more than nine million, that figure is down nearly five points from last year’s estimate of 14 million kokanee. 

Urgency is being put to task as biologists try to understand exactly what is happening and why, what the real culprit is and whether or not the downward spiraling trend can be reversed before a final collapse.

But lakes, influenced as they are by the various using populations of man, with all the good intentions that accompany each faction, do change. I tell myself that. But then I remind myself that this is the lake of my youth, that it’s part of my identity and that if I’m going to understand the changes taking place in my own being, I’m going to somehow have to understand better the changes taking place on this water. I resolve to investigate, to go beyond supposition and conjecture to see what I can learn.

From the Internet I verify some of my suspicions. Some of my conclusions are correct, at least apparently, but many are weak, poorly informed, lacking data. Wishful memory and opinion have tainted my view. I have not held, nor known, all of the facts and factors affecting this changing body of water. Neither have I understood many of the political motivations that hover around its potential demise like unseen predators beneath the surface. 

Turns out a number of very capable people have been working on the problem of the kokanee decline, and solutions toward reversing it, for a very long time, their primary objective being to isolate the true cause. To me, potential collapse of the kokanee population is a model representing other changes on the lake. Sometimes we learn the facts, the causes and effects, just too late.

Investigating shows every onlooker that conflicts among various user groups of the lake have created obstacles for every side. Consider each point of view and you realize there’s enough weather here for a good storm any time of year. You’ve got the biologists, the fishers, recreational users, shoreline inhabitants, Corps of Engineers, electric companies, even the U.S. Navy involved. You’ve got interests in mining, interests in logging. You’ve got city, county and state politicians all concerned for their various constituencies—even some in other states. What can you do but chuckle?

I’m back in the boat with Eddie. We’ve landed maybe 25 or 30 fish each and we’re heading back to shore with our boatload of accomplishment. There’s a certain pride in a good catch like that. You’re sure to enjoy the feast to come, but young men in particular like the reward of showing off as well, the accolades of friends and mothers. I’m certain we both concluded there’d be no end to such good fishing. How could we know otherwise? All of life was in front of us where thoughts of change had not yet occurred.  

That’s what we thought back then, in 1964. But it did change. It’s changed a lot, like our lives, like the influences that shape us. It’s changed as much as our dreams and the separate realities we’ve lived through.

I strain as wavelets interrupt my perception of the bottom. A breeze has kicked up. A cloud passes between the sun and my view. The bottom, like the truth, is hidden again in shadow. All I have is reflection. 

In the reflection, I wonder if we’ll ever really understand this wonderful lake and others like it, why they are important to us, how to manage them in the most beneficial ways, how to sustain their life forms. I wonder if we’ll turn them over to the following generations in as good a condition as they are in now, as full of life and as clean. We’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve done pretty well, too. Maybe there’s a chance we’ll learn something in time.

Like many of the scientists, users and inhabitants of this lake, I want to know what’s really happening to it and why. I want to see it managed for the greatest benefit to all concerned. I want it to stay alive. I know now that change is the inevitable impact and consequence of increasing human numbers. But I want this lake to remain some of what it is to me: a wonderment of serenity, a mystical body that’s somehow home base and a great place for adventure.

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Dwayne Parsons Dwayne Parsons

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Lake Pend Oreille, kokanee

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