Closer To The Ground: An outdoor family’s year on the water, in the woods and at the table
By Dylan Tomine, foreword by Thomas McGuane
Published by Patagonia Books
Paperback, 264 pages
$17.95 US|$22.95 CAN
Ironically I received a copy of Dylan Tomine’s book, Closer To The Ground, just as my least favorite time of year was approaching: w#nter. In chapter one, Tomine paints a painfully accurate description of the gloomiest season of the year in the Pacific Northwest:
“There’s no question winter here can really take a chunk out of you. Not like the extreme cold of the upper Midwest or the round-the-clock darkness of Alaska might, but rather the opposite. Here, it’s the general lack of severity–monotonous flat gray days and constant drip-drip of misty rain–that erodes the spirit.”
With that, I was intrigued. I felt as though perhaps I’d discovered someone who understands why, despite being a lifelong resident of western Washington, I have never become mentally acclimated to our long, dreary winters. I live about 25 miles by overland travel, plus a 30 minute ferry crossing, from the author’s home on Bainbridge Island. Despite the Puget Sound region being one of many microclimates, we endure essentially the same winter gloom, and it’s during this time of year that I bitch and moan and become a considerably less dangerous version of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. Perhaps, in Dylan Tomine, I had found my kindred Seattle-winter-loathing spirit.
I quickly learned, however, that the author is not condoning that we give in to the temptations of Seasonal Affective Disorder and become reclusive, bitter shut-ins. Au contraire. While admittedly not an optimist, Tomine points out that hope is not lost during the bleak winter months. Take, for example, digging for razor clams on the ocean beach. In the face of a raging winter storm. In what would be the pitch blackness of night if not for a lantern (which only required 90 matches to light thanks to cold, wet hands). What’s not to enjoy about that, right? The book goes on to show that each of the 4 seasons offer something new and different when it comes to outdoor pursuits that involve harvesting Earth’s bounty. Each season provides something to look forward to.
Most anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest—who is involved in recreational fishing and pays any mind to the conservation issues as pertaining to wild anadromous fish—has likely heard of Dylan Tomine. While his activism on conservation matters is well known among certain circles, this book is not a pulpit from which the author preaches. That said, as an advocate for conservation, Tomine would be remiss if he did not offer some commentary on environmental issues facing the Pacific Northwest. And THAT said, the chapter titled, “Prius Envy”, does touch on some weighty matters. But this book isn’t so much, or overtly, about conservation. Although it may be, but perhaps not necessarily.
Closer To The Ground is Tomine’s journal of time spent with his family throughout the seasons of the year; living a more naturally-grounded life as they explore the forest in search of mushrooms, grow their own produce and fish for salmon. They also harvest shrimp and Dungeness crab, and gather oysters and uncover clams at low tide along the beaches of Puget Sound. Anyone who has ever dug geoducks (non-intuitively pronounced ‘gooey-ducks’) can appreciate Tomine’s reference to these giant bivalves as being offensive in appearance to all but perhaps a female horse. I don’t care who you are—that’s good, sophomoric stuff right there—and there’s enough subtle humor woven into each chapter of the book to keep things entertaining and fun. There is also some underlying, deeply personal stuff that is revealed from time to time.
Speaking of wood, in more than one chapter Tomine reveals his self-professed obsession with firewood that makes me wish I heated my own home in this manner. Heck, I even have access to Tomine’s favorite tree species for firewood: madrona. Then again the gathering, splitting, stacking, drying, moving, and re-stacking of firewood, not to mention the anxiety that accompanies a rapidly-depleting inventory, makes me glad that I’m not a slave to this sort of fuel.
The chapter in which Tomine goes hunting for Chantrelle mushrooms with his then 3 year-old son will make readers wish for a 3 foot 2 inch tall partner—one who is agile, enthusiastic, and energetic—with whom to go forth into the woods in search of these delicacies.
While we’re on the topic of delicacies, I don’t recommend reading Closer To The Ground on an empty stomach as the included recipes, such as Chantrelle Pizza, Mom’s Blackberry Pie, Vine-Maple Smoked Salmon, and Crispy Panko Razor Clams, to name a few, will leave you salivating (and reaching for a bag of chips as a distant consolation prize).
We live in an age where kids (and adults) are ever more disconnected from the natural world. Through Tomine’s words we see that spending time outdoors with kids, in pursuit of the wild things, does more than just allow kids (and adults) to have fun getting wet and dirty: it creates a sense of gratitude for the natural resources. This heightened understanding leads to stewardship. It’s all connected. Overall, kids today don’t have the same opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural world as previous generations did. Tomine offers ways in which parents can address that, and combat what is called the Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s fairly simple: take kids outside, spend time with them exploring and foraging for consumable treasures that they will be thrilled to discover, and curious to eat. Involve them in the entire process. Create memories.
We also live in a world where many parents are so busy running kids around from one activity to another that the concept of a family dinner is often lost. After each harvest, the Tomine family gathers ’round the table to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Aside from the invaluable family together-time, the author’s kids learn to appreciate that, thanks to their active involvement in the gathering process, food doesn’t just grow on the grocery store shelves. And nature’s treats are just that—delicious and healthy (not that kids care about the latter). These lessons are a result of making a conscious effort to seek out that which is around us, often times just a short ways off the beaten path.
Closer To The Ground is an easy, enjoyable read thanks to Tomine’s sense of humor and casual story telling that is neither fraught with nor obfuscated by the supererogative use of sesquipedalian verbiage. The author writes in a comfortable manner that is masterful without being fancy. He presents compelling and enjoyable reasons for us all to spend more time outside in search of nature’s gifts: gifts which may be food for the table, or our souls.
Perhaps worthy of note: The book isn’t exactly new—it was first published in hardback 2012. However, this is the second printing, in paperback, and it has 30% new content. And speaking of new content, I’m hoping that since the book was written the author has replaced his old Montero with a proper firewood-hauling F250, and added a heat source to his office.
Take a moment to visit DylanTomine.com and watch the short trailer for the book.
The Yakima River.
I don’t fish it enough to be any sort of an authority, but I fish it often enough to know that the Yakima is a finicky temptress. I suppose I could accept the challenge and spend more time figuring out what the Yakima likes and what she doesn’t, but frankly, who wants to work that hard? I’d rather spend that time in Idaho or Montana. Unlike rivers in those states— where, when you see water that looks like it should hold fish, it does hold fish—the Yakima does not. At least not very often.
From my standpoint, as an a angler of little prowess, it’s a fairly common occurrence to get skunked on the Central Washington seductress. And is it not uncommon to catch a scant few fish under 10 inches and nothing larger. Because of this I’ve come to refer to a 12 in fish caught on the Yakima as a “Yakima 14”. By doing so I’m not exaggerating the size of the fish, but rather I am merely adding some commentary. A 12 inch fish on the Yakima would be like a 14 inch fish on a normal river: something an angler would be glad to catch. A 12 inch fish on another river might be common, as is a 10 inch fish on the Yakima. Actually 8 inch fish more more common on the Yakima than a 10 inch fish, so a Yakima 10. I realize that may not make much sense to you, but the Yakima drives me bat shit crazy.
It’s not a normal river.
But every few years the Yakima offers up a nice fish—a fish that is considerably larger than anything one may have caught in years. In August of 2014 I was fishing with Morris and Marck. I happened to be in the front of the boat, while Morris was on the oars and Marck occupied the Rear Admiral position. We were fishing the Yakima Canyon, below Red’s, and I had been treated with typical disrespect by the river all day long. I finally managed to hook into a real solid fish that was a good 20 inches. And I almost landed it. It had been 7 years since I’d last caught a fish that size on the Yakima, and I almost scratched that 7 year itch. That was a year ago, at the time of this writing, so I figure I’ve now only got 9 more years before I hook a fish in the 20 inch range. I’m on the 10 year plan.
Meanwhile, in September of this year, I was fishing with my wee lad, Schpanky, on the day before we would take part in a river cleanup (a joint effort by the Yakima and the Yakima Headwaters chapters of Trout Unlimited). I’d spent the day mostly rowing, and admittedly it’s hard to catch fish with both hands on the sticks, so I can’t complain too much about how slow the fishing had been for me, personally. We stopped at a gravel bar to angle on foot, but that didn’t produce any hookups. Nor did anchoring up so that we could both fish from the boat. Catching had been typically pretty slow for Schpanky, too, although he had managed a “Yakima 12” (a 10 inch fish) earlier in the day, as well as a smaller fish or two. Dry fly fishing had been an exercise in futility so we spent most of the time with double nymph rigs. In the afternoon I put him on the oars so I could have a chance at not catching a fish from the front of boat. My plan seemed to be working without fail and the musky scent of skunk began to set in.
As we rounded a bend somewhere between Lmuma (Squaw Creek) and Big Pines (The Slab), Schpanky said, with casual conviction, “You’re going to catch a fish before the end of the day. I feel it.” I raised and eyebrow and chortled at the boy’s ignorant optimism. The take-out was less than a mile away and I never fish better under the pressure of a deadline.
Shortly after that, while fishing the right bank, my indicator disappeared. Then line began peeling off the 4 weight reel like it was going out of style. Downstream 20 yards in front of the boat the fish leapt far out of water. I let it run (as if I had any other choice on 5X tippet). The fish turned on a dime and ran upstream as I madly stripped line in hopes of not losing it (‘it’ being my composure, and the fish). The fish jumped again, and while I may not have seen things exactly the way they were, I could swear that it tail-walked in a manner that would have made a steelhead proud. When the big trout wasn’t running or jumping it shook it’s head fiercely. I dared not utter the word ‘steelhead’ but the thought crossed my mind because I don’t remember a single previous Yakima trout that fought this hard. I commanded Schpanky to take the boat to the far bank so that I might better fight the fish from terra firma. And I would need a well-grounded net man, too. This was a good fish.
It took a fair amount of time to turn the trout, and when Schpanky finally netted the fish it became immediately obvious that it was no 20 incher, and thus not a steelhead (local opinion suggests that Yakima rainbows over 20 inches are steelhead). What it was, however, was a thick trout every bit of 16 inches (a Yakima 18). I was actually surprised that the trout was as small as it was, which is not to say that I was disappointed—not in the least. The last Yakima fish of this size I’d caught had been 5 years earlier, and it hadn’t put up nearly this good of a fight.
With that, I know it will be 2020 before I catch another fish of this size. And in 2024 I’ll be due for an even bigger fish. Those are going to be great years for me on the Yakima River. All I have to do until then is maintain sanity, and fish the Yakima with zero expectations. The latter shan’t be a problem.
The next day we fished from Umtanum to The Slab (a longer float than the previous day). Admittedly the point of our float on this day was to pick up trash, which we did. But we had a line in the water between stops to patrol the shoreline for refuse. Given the 8 river miles covered, and the amount of trash we extracted from alongside the river, we should have been rewarded with a karma fish—at least a Yakima 8.
We were not.
The clock is ticking.
This is Part 6 in a 6 part series of Weekly Drivel®, which you’ve all been anticipating, if for no other reason than it finally means an end to the series. Last week in Part 5 I left you hanging; wondering what it was really going to be like fishing with Trout TV’s own Hilary Hutcheson. Wait no more.
The Rangers horked down a hearty breakfast comprised of raw meat and black coffee, did some one-armed pushups and put on our game faces: it was time to meet up with our guides at Glacier Anglers for the long anticipated day on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. We were pumped.
We pulled into the parking lot at Glacier Outdoor Center, rolled out of the Ranger carriers and stormed into the shop. “Uh…may I help you?” inquired a pleasant young employee who was clearly taken aback by our assertive entrance. “Where is Hilary?” I demanded. The employee’s reply was unexpected, “I’m sorry, there’s nobody here by that name. Are you sure you have the right place?”
OK, it wasn’t quite like that.
We entered the shop and looked casually around. A few people milled about and we were greeted by a pleasant young person. “Top of morning,” I said, “We’re fishing with Hilary today. Might she be present?”
“Oh, right. She’s expecting you,” said the pleasant young employee. Almost instantaneously a short woman, sporting a camo Patagonia cap atop a mane of long black hair, materialized and blurted out a greeting that might have been better understood had I drank a couple more cups of coffee. The first thing you notice about Hilary is her energy—we half expected to see her perform a cartwheel right there in the shop (she didn’t, but would later). The next thing you notice about her is her height—at least that’s what I noticed. It’s not often I encounter adults upon whom I can look down. They say that TV adds 10 pounds to a person, and while I would never suggest that to be the case with Hilary, she does look much taller on Trout TV.
The introduction felt more like greeting an old friend than meeting a new one. Hilary quickly introduced the other two guides for the day,
Darrell and his other brother Darrell brothers Jake and Tate. Both were considerably younger than Hilary, and considerably taller. Based on initial impressions they seemed like good dudes—typical young bucks living the life of a fly fishing guide in Montana; sleeping in tents pitched atop pallets (to stay drier) and eating canned beans, fishing on their days off. Soft-spoken but confident, these are the types of guys you want as guides: they have hungry eyes; probably because they haven’t eaten a good meal in a couple days, but also because they live to hunt for fish. Hilary, on the other hand, lives comfortably with two Hutchlings and her husband, Shane, in an actual house. With heat and indoor plumbing. I wouldn’t suggest that she’s a ‘hobby guide’ like my buddy Joe Willauer, but guiding isn’t her main source of livelihood. I wondered for a half second if maybe I might trade up for one of the Brothers. I quickly dismissed the idea—I had to see this through. After all, the auction I’d won was for a float trip with Hilary.
We piled into the Glacier Anglers shop rigs and headed upriver toward our launch site at Moccasin Creek. The rafts were launched (no hard boats as we would be fishing the whitewater section of the Middle Fork) and Hilary and the Brothers rigged up rods. As the hired hands prepared to get underway the Rangers stood awkwardly by, doing nothing and feeling rather worthless. When you consider yourself a fairly avid fisherman, it’s always a little odd to be coddled.
The Rangers were divided into teams of 2 and given their boat assignments. Marck had offered the highest bribe and would be spending the day in Hilary’s boat with me. As she selected flies to start the day our guide offered a narrative on what we would expect. The first part of the day would involve mostly slow and flat water, followed later in the day by a series of pools separated by whitewater. The river was low so the whitewater wouldn’t be huge, but we could expect some bumps and fast water. Hilary assured us that she hadn’t dumped a boat in several weeks as she strapped down all loose gear. We set off downstream, eagerly anticipating the first fish and thinking about what Hilary had said about dumping her boat. I was prepared to swim and had everything of value tucked safely into my waterproof pack. Personal Flotation Device. Check. Buckled and secured. Check.
The conversation came easily as Hilary explained a bit about the Middle Fork and surrounding area. She began her career at Glacier Anglers running whitewater rafts as a teenager (when Brothers Jake and Tate were still in diapers). Eventually she began working as a fly fishing guide which she has done on and off since she was 17. So she knows the water and knows how to put clients on fish. It was a beautiful and sunny start the day. The catching began slowly but we did get the skunk off the boat early enough that neither Marck nor I worried incessantly. While we did toss dries and pulled a streamer or two, nymphing produced first and most often as we landed several cutthroats that were feisty if not terribly large.
Each fish was met with great enthusiasm by the
oarsman girl rowing person on the oars. You see, Hilary loves fish and fishing. She clearly loves guiding, too, and her enthusiasm can be infectious. It should be noted that Marck is a fairly stoic fellow when he’s fishing—all business. And so it came as a great surprise that Hilary was able to charm Marck into actually kissing a whitefish.
Throughout the day, Hilary would sporadically blurt out, in an almost Tourrette-like manner, random proclamations of unbridled joy: “This is the best day ever!”
and “You guys are the best anglers I’ve ever had in my boat!” It’s hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind of energy when you’re a guest in Hilary’s boat. Even when the fishing got slow, and it did (because it always does), she offered hope with every new piece of water. A good guide keeps it positive and blends instruction with good humor. Hilary is a worthy opponent when it comes to verbal jousting and we traded more than a few good-natured jabs. We also made time for some meaningful, adult-like conversation about conservation issues on her home waters. When I asked Hilary about some of the biggest challenges facing the area she pointed to the train that was passing by above the south bank of the river.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad follows the Middle Fork Flathead and several trains rolled past us during the day. As soon as the loud drone of the train subsided Hilary explained that some of westbound trains are tankers carrying oil from North Dakota and Eastern Montana: antiquated tankers that are vulnerable to punctures and ruptures. Hilary is the first to admit that we need oil but that we also need railroads to address the very threats that they present. Until all the tankers carrying crude oil are updated the Middle Fork is one derailment away from disaster. While they might seem strange bedfellows, trains and rivers seem to go hand in hand because trains follow the relatively easy path through rugged country carved by flowing water. Speaking of rugged country, the Middle Fork is a crown jewel that forms the souther boundary to Glacier National Park. This beautiful, clear, and cold-running river is, in fact, designated a National Wild & Scenic River and thereby protected by law. It’s healthy now and I hope it stays that way. The Fall 2014 issue of the Fly Fish Journal featured an article by Hilary titled, “The Wrong Track: Oil Trains are a Threat to Rivers”. It’s a great read, and a great magazine overall. I recommend you pick up a copy of it HERE.
As people who love rivers and fish are prone to be, Hilary is passionate about her home water and is involved in efforts to make sure those waters remain pristine. Through Trout TV she is directly involved with American Rivers. An American Rivers episode was shot in July (2015) on the Middle Fork to bring awareness to the Flathead River system, its Wild & Scenic designation and the potential threats to this resource. The episode will be aired next Spring (2016) and all online proceeds from the episode will be donated to American Rivers. As an ambassador of American Rivers, Hilary considers herself a “boots on the ground go-between” linking the national organization to her local river.
In addition to the beauty of the Middle Fork Flathead, another thing that stood out to me was the solitude. We saw a couple recreational rafts filled with tourists but no other boats carrying anglers. It was as though we had the entire river all to ourselves, except of course for the other two boats in our flotilla.
We broke for lunch, and as the hired help set up for the midday meal, Marck and I had a chance to compare notes with the other Rangers. Under the guidance of Brother Jake, Goose and Nash had been keeping busy by catching a bunch of fish. Jimmy and Morris were fishing with Brother Tate and were also catching a lot of fish, including a trophy whitefish that had their young guide giddy with delight (although I don’t believe the fish was kissed). We may not have been catching quite as many fish, but we were having more fun, which is saying a lot because I think everyone was having a grand old time thus far.
As we waited for lunch to be served, Goose grabbed his rod and plied the nearby waters, hoping to land just one more fish. He may have lost his footing in the shallow water and I may have made a snarky comment about his resulting wet shorts. The ensuing single digit salute was something I’ve come to expect from him on nearly every trip.
Lunch was served and it was quite good despite lacking a key ingredient. Seriously—when you travel several hundred miles and pay good money to fish with professional guides—is it too much to expect mustard for the sandwiches? Mustard isn’t something one should even have to ask for—it should just be standard sandwich equipment. I made a note of the infraction, adding it to my penalty list that included earlier comments by Hilary about my advanced age and failing eyesight.
After consuming our sans-mustard sandwiches we resumed our downstream trek. Clouds had begun to blow in on a w#nd that ranged from annoying to downright ridiculous at times. Long, slow pools were separated by steep narrow chutes with names such as Tunnel Rapid (aptly named because it was like a w#nd tunnel as we approached), Bonecrusher, Washboard
(named for my ads), Screaming Right Hand Turn and others, including Could Be Trouble.
With the w#nd blowing upstream, at a much quicker pace than the current that carried us downstream, rowing became an arduous task and setting up the raft for the proper line through the fast water involved a great deal of physical effort. From the back of the boat I
asked if perhaps Hilary wanted some help on the oars cheered Hilary on. We made it through each set of rapids without so much as a single dumping of the boat.
As we neared our termination point at West Glacier Hilary erupted, “I don’t want this day to end!” A gullible fool might have been lured into believing her; a naysayer likely would have thought she was merely bucking for a good tip. But after you’ve spent a day with Hilary you realize she means it: she has a seemingly insatiable thirst for fun. In the end our boat may not have won the Most Fish competition, but I think it’s safe to say that our boat had the most fun. Over the course of 10 river miles, and 9 or so hours (according to the ginormous white watch on Hilary’s left wrist), it was as though we had become the three best friends that anyone could have.
Hilarious. A hoot to fish with. Genuinely a nice person. I might even be inclined to fish with Hilary again some day. As long as she promises not to forget one key ingredient.
To hear more you might consider listening to The Open Fly Podcast, on which Hilary was a recent guest. The conversation is lively, as one might expect.