BELLINGHAM, WASH. — The other day, I walked — or tried to walk — along the Samish River, I place I hadn’t been in more than 50 years.
The Samish starts in the hills of northwestern Washington, winds past houses and farms and ends up in Samish Bay, Puget Sound. Compared to streams on the Kenai Peninsula, it’s about the size of the Anchor River. By most any other measure, there’s no comparison.
I have fond memories of the Samish. As a young boy, fishing the upper part of it with a line tied to a stick, I caught what seemed at the time to be a very large cutthroat trout, my first fish on a fly. As an older boy, I played along and fished in Thomas Creek, one of many small tributaries of the Samish. When I was old enough to drive, I drove to the mouth of the Samish and caught a 20-inch sea-run cutthroat, dime-bright and freshly arrived from Puget Sound.
I didn’t see much of the Samish on this walk, just parts of its lower few miles, where it quietly flows through farmlands as flat as a tabletop. My first stop was the bridge on the Bayview-Edison Road. Nary a fisherman was in sight, but footprints in the muddy bank upstream from the bridge told me that hordes had been there recently, fishing for king salmon. Kings run through September, here. As on the Kenai, they attract anglers. The river is bounded almost entirely by private lands, and the lack of public access leads to fishing of the combat kind.
Looking downstream from the bridge, I beheld a large house on the right bank, smack-dab in the estuary floodplain. A sign beside its driveway warned: “PRIVATE DRIVEWAY, PROPERTY OWNERS AND INVITED GUESTS ONLY, VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” The left bank lay hidden behind an ugly collection of old vehicles and buildings with the ubiquitous “Keep Out” signs. Upstream, the river was no more inviting. A sign on one side said, “Access by Permit Only, Day Permit $2, Season Permit $50.” The other side was open to “members” only. I felt glad to be only looking, not trying to fish.
My next stop was less than a mile upstream. Seeing five cars parked beside the road near a portable latrine, I figured there was fishing nearby, and there was. Walking on the edge of a cultivated field, I climbed to the top of the dike that hems in the river and walked along it. The few anglers fishing weren’t having any luck. Two who were leaving had a pair of kings, maybe 15-pounders, dark-colored from having been in the river for a while, probably waiting for a freshet before continuing upstream.
At my third stop, a bridge a little further upstream, I was met with barbed wire fencing and more “No Trespassing” signs. No entry, there. Period.
Besides a serious lack of access, the Samish has other problems. It floods. The banks of its lower reaches are dikes. Its drainage is infested with Japanese Knotweed, a plant that takes over the natural ecology of a stream to the detriment of fish and wildlife. The state is threatening to close the Samish River Hatchery, responsible for an annual return to the river of up to 15,000 king salmon.
The worst problem — and the hardest to solve — is that the river’s habitat and water quality have been degraded due to alternation and loss of riparian area, sedimentation, elevated temperature and fecal contamination. The effects of the polluted water extend beyond the river to Samish Bay, host to major shellfish beds. The shellfish harvest has been closed many times in recent years due to high numbers of fecal coliform—bacteria from the digestive systems of all warm-blooded animals.
When I set out on this outing, I knew full well what people are capable of doing to rivers, so my expectations were low. Unfortunately, they were realized.
(Next week: Efforts now under way to improve the habitat and water quality of the Samish River.)
Les Palmer is spending his first winter as a snowbird in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at email@example.com.