Pilgrim at Johnson Creek
Edited by Toby Lester
© Bill Donahue
WHEN THE BLACK CLOUDS TURNED GRAY AND THE HAIL SUBSIDED, giving way to a dull pounding rain, we climbed back into our raft, my friend Liz and I, and continued downstream, past a filthy old mattress mildewing in the weeds on the shore, past a dented pipe trickling brown water into the creek, and past the parking lot of Budget Motor & Brakes. We squeezed through a narrow channel littered with shopping carts and ducked our way under a cedar that had fallen down onto the creek bed. Then we rounded a bend and found- aaah! —a wide carpet of riffling white water that plunged west with glorious haste, obstructed only by a discarded green couch that sat low in the water.
We coasted past that couch. We held our paddles high and rode the fast-moving creek. We felt like Lewis and Clark. Here we were, on the very creek that cuts through my hardscrabble Portland, Oregon, neighborhood, attempting what I believed was a pioneer voyage.
As far as I know, no one had ever rafted all twenty-six miles of Johnson Creek before we put our rubber inflatable, bought for $49.95 at the G.I. Joe’s department store near my home, into the water on that stormy morning last May. People had paddled short stretches of the stream, certainly. Long ago, there was an annual festival, the Gilbertson Roundup, during which local residents raced downstream in half-barrels for a little more than a mile. But a full-scale expedition? Never. Oregon’s storied fleece-clad outdoorsmen would never even consider so tawdry a mission.
JOHNSON CREEK IS-let us face facts-one of the earth’s least fashionable bodies of water. If the Ganges of India sings with an exotic spirituality, and the River Liffey of Ireland sparkles through its association with its wittiest celebrant, James Joyce, then Johnson Creek has a serious grease-monkey aura. It is the ’73 Chevy Impala of rivers.
Originating in tiny, unincorporated Cottrell, Oregon, and flowing primarily west-through rural tree farms and dairy pastures, into the ugly condominium sprawl of suburban Gresham, through a culvert beneath Interstate 205, and on into the broad Willamette River-the measly Johnson Creek is rarely more than twenty feet wide. It is fed almost entirely by storm-water runoff, which gushes in off roads and roofs. It runs several miles south of Portland’s renowned organic-food stores, and a good portion of the 170,000 people who live in the creek’s watershed are troubled, low-income whites. Indeed, Lents, the community that sits on the most flood-prone stretch of Johnson Creek, is also known as “Felony Flats.” Lents is 92 percent white; in 1998 it led all ninety-four of Portland’s residential neighborhoods in aggravated assaults, burglary, and arson.
Still, I was out there, paddling the sixteen-mile stretch of creek between Gresham and the Willamette, on a mission of hope. I was probing a creek that is, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, clinging to life. Johnson Creek has salmon in it-roughly two dozen mating pairs of that shimmering silver icon of the rugged Northwest. In March of 1999 the NMFS ruled that these fish, which represent a tiny fraction of the salmon population that flourished in the pre-Motor & Brakes days, should be protected and encouraged to multiply. Johnson Creek was one of the hundreds of streams that became protected habitat.
Even before the ruling, Johnson Creek had garnered coverage on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”. The news was that, for the first time in the twenty-six-year history of the Endangered Species Act, urban habitat was being protected-and that urbanites would be urged to change their lifestyles to accommodate imperiled wildlife. Portlanders like me-and residents of Seattle, where three watersheds also became federally protected-were suddenly required to rethink the sad story of the region’s salmon, whose numbers have been declining precipitously for more than a century. (Before 1900, ten to sixteen million salmon swam up the Northwest’s mightiest river, the Columbia, each year; now fewer than 500,000 make the journey.) No longer could we blame the salmon tragedy primarily on the Bonneville Power Administration, whose eleven Columbia River dams use turbines that chew salmon to bits; or on loggers, who denude hillsides of roots and send silt into streams; or on ranchers, whose cattle tromp dirt into spawning beds. No, the NMFS asked us to shut up and honor our own groundwater-by using less pesticide on our lawns, for instance, or by taking public transportation rather than driving and spewing pollutants into the air and streams.
I took the Feds’ decree as a call to move past abstractions. Like so many Portlanders, I’d been drawn to Oregon by the myth of the place. I’d come out from Connecticut because of the trees and because I’d read, in a magazine somewhere, of a wild silver fish that could leap over waterfalls. I’d come because I believed the Pacific Northwest to be a sort of living wildlife calendar, and I’d endeavored, in my dozen years in Portland, to live ensconced in that fiction. I’d skied on the splendid Mount Hood and rafted through the Oregon desert on the breathtaking Rogue River. Now, I reckoned, it was time to look beyond such wonder zones. It was time to study the waters closest to home.
And those waters can be very chilly. On that dank morning in May, Liz and I were shivering as we twisted away from the rapids, paddling hard. We floated under a concrete bridge, and then, in a swift, rocky stretch, we collided with a blackberry bramble hanging down into the water. Our raft punctured, emitting a horrible, bubbling hiss. We paddled ashore.
Liz tried to patch the hole, but we had nothing to dry the spot that needed glue; our clothes were soaked. We found a smoldering pile of trash in someone’s back yard and hovered over it for a few minutes, waiting for our shirts to dry and watching Johnson Creek rise over the roots of the firs on the shore. The whole creek was mud-brown now, and turgid. Our lunch, sandwiches double-wrapped in Ziploc freezer bags, had turned into mush.
“Do you want to keep going?” I asked Liz. It was a stupid question. All good expeditions acquire their own crazy momentum. We kept going. We portaged through a grassy field, lugging the raft a full quarter mile where the creek was too debris-choked and narrow. A few minutes later we slammed into a rock, and Liz bruised her shin. We saw a great blue heron, a raccoon, a muskrat. We carried on without speaking, absorbed in the labor of paddling, and eventually got sucked toward a fallen branch clogging the stream. “Left!” I shouted. “Left!” We went straight, and the branch gashed me right between the eyes, then yanked me out of the raft and into the water. I was swimming now amid traces of battery acid and motor oil and nickel and copper and raw human sewage, and the current was strong. My head got sucked under, and for maybe five seconds in the gushing brown creek I underwent a cold and frightening baptism.
IF I HAD BEEN ABLE TO THINK STRAIGHT UNDERWATER, as I groped for the raft, I might have apprehended the land all around me as a green bed creased with watery veins. For that is what it once was. Before white settlers began arriving in the mid nineteenth century, the fifty-four-square-mile Johnson Creek watershed was largely forested and was endowed with scores of tributaries, among them a small nameless stream that drained the one-tenth of an acre on which I currently live before spilling east-southeast for roughly two miles to meet Johnson Creek in what is today known as the Lents neighborhood.
The Clackamas Indians fished these waters. Archaeologists believe the Clackamas spanned Johnson Creek with small, makeshift weirs-slab fences of cedar and fir that funneled fish into nearby willow nets. They harvested salmon each spring, summer, and fall, and celebrated the snaring of the spring’s first chinook with a ritual feast on a boulder, now known as “Indian Rock,” overlooking the creek in current-day Lents. A shaman would burn off the fish’s head. The body would be baked in a pit, and the bones would be placed back in the creek, in the hope that they would again attract a bountiful catch.
There have almost certainly been no salmon rituals on Johnson Creek for more than sixty years: Indian Rock was dynamited by the Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s. The stream by my house has been encased in a metal pipe, and Johnson Creek itself is frequently regarded as a nuisance.
The creek often slows to a soap-foamy trickle during Portland’s dry summer months, and it floods with notorious frequency in the winter. Whenever it rains hard and the runoff gushes over parking lots and into the creek, there’s havoc in Lents. In February of 1996, for example, flooding from the creek ruined $375,000 worth of property in the neighborhood. The afflicted homeowners showed up on the five o’clock news, wringing their hands. Nouveaux Portlanders, sprawled on their mauve futon couches in front of their TVs, snickered and wondered aloud, “Why do those idiots live there?”
People have never really accorded Johnson Creek the reverence they accord Balch and Tryon Creeks, which meander through Portland’s wooded and affluent west hills. Indeed, in the 1970s, when Oregon’s governor, Tom McCall, was waging a celebrated campaign to clean up the Willamette River, the now-defunct Last Chance Tavern, in Lents, got away with flushing its raw sewage right into the creek. “You could see the ‘nures floating by in the water with little pieces of toilet paper,” recalls Jerry DePaul, who still lives in Lents. “It was gross.”
Johnson Creek received its first hit from pollution, arguably, in 1848, when Lot Whitcomb, a pioneer from Illinois, built a sawmill along the creek’s banks. His mill, and the many more that would be built along Johnson Creek in the ensuing decades, diverted water into warm, shallow log-holding ponds. Early farmers augmented the abuse by filling and planting acres and acres of wetlands in which salmon had always spawned.
Perhaps the biggest insult to Johnson Creek came in the 1930s, when the WPA sought to tame the creek’s flood rage for all time. Pick-and-ax crews spent two years lining every inch of the lower fifteen miles of the creek with volcanic stone, much of which came from Indian Rock. The stone coating was supposed to wick storm water away from the floodplain quickly, before it caused problems. But instead it provided the torrents with a slick runway to nearby property, and also disrupted fish habitat by making the flow of the creek highly erratic.
Today, most of the stone has been washed away or buried by creek-borne silt. Only a few hundred moss-covered blocks remain visible, standing as sad testaments to misguided toil. Surrounding them, for miles and miles on the bank, the blackberries intertwine like coiled barbed wire. Gary Gilmore, the murderer who famously welcomed his execution in Utah, in 1977, grew up playing by these brambles. As a teen, he drank whiskey and shot a semiautomatic at tin cans beside his favorite Johnson Creek swimming hole. It would be easy to say that the creek is like the young Gilmore-that it just carries on grimly, bound for more and more trouble. But it’s not that simple.
For one thing, in light of the endangered-species listing, the creek has become the Good Liberal’s burden. There is now a group, the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, whose two-hundred-plus affiliates advocate for salmon habitat, plant native willow and dogwood, and join together to pull rusty license plates and refrigerator doors and Safeway gill nets-that is, shopping carts-out of the creek. U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat, supports the council. This past fall he helped coordinate a Johnson Creek Summit Conference, attended by two hundred people; he has called the creek “salmon’s best chance in Portland.” Meanwhile, the city of Portland has bought seventy-one acres from willing sellers along the creek. It tears down the houses on this land to lay bare the soft ground that absorbs flood water and thereby stabilizes creek flow.
I was heartened to learn of such work, but to truly understand the creek, I decided, I had to see it as a vein running through a particular place, sustaining a certain irascible world. I had to meet folks like Emil Guldenzopf, who has lived by the creek ever since his brother-in-law bought a two-room shack and an acre in Lents for six hundred dollars, in 1926. Guldenzopf, eighty-seven, is a retired logger and miner who has a wild white goatee and carries a battered cane wrapped in duct tape. One evening, after meeting me on his porch, he turned down the TV and told me that he’d worked at Dwyer’s Sawmill, on Johnson Creek in Lents, in his youth. He had fished in the creek. “My brother-in-law’s brother,” he said, “would set out a gill net at night, in the forties and fifties. He got a couple steelhead every morning.” When Guldenzopf walks to the grocery store now, he looks for the muddy chutes that beavers carve by sliding into the creek. “I run across them every once in a while,” he said, shrugging.
Guldenzopf’s gesture suggested that he could take or leave Johnson Creek. But when I asked him if he might sell the shack-now expanded into a basic ranch house-to the city for flood control, he squinted at me as though I was insane. “Aw, no,” he said. “I guess I like it here good enough.”
LIZ AND I TOOK OUR RAFT OUT, finally, in a parking lot just a half mile downstream from Emil Guldenzopf’s house. With night falling, we carried the limp, thorn-ravaged beast on our shoulders into the center of Lents, where we checked out the vacant storefronts and the dingy furniture shops and a fiercely impersonal singles bar called the New Copper Penny. We were only a five-minute drive from my home, but it felt like we were far away, in a rough country town. Many of the roads in Lents are gravel. Chickens roam the patchy yards, and residents tend to stay put for generations. I’d spent time in Lents only once before, in 1994, when I was reporting on that forlorn, disgraced Olympic ice skater, Tonya Harding, for People. Tonya is the cigarette-smoking bad girl who enlisted bungling hit men to bash the knee of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Her sad sack of a bodyguard, the portly Shawn Eckhardt, lived in Lents with his parents, watching Star Trek reruns and fiddling with his computer, and we reporters would gather at the edge of his driveway and wait, hungry to snag Shawn when he stepped out for a six-pack of RC.
Our presence in 1994 was an invasion, and Lents has endured many invasions. In the 1970s, when the state routed I-205 over Johnson Creek, it vacated more than three hundred houses and allowed firefighters to practice on many of them. Former owners stood watching as their houses were torched. Soon afterward, in 1980, greater Portland’s regional government, Metro, swept in, aiming to make Johnson Creek’s neighbors pay for a flood-control project. The neighbors were incensed. “We’ll see your soul in hell and your back broken first,” an Episcopal minister, Clifford Goold, declared at a public hearing. Five hundred people gave him a standing ovation.
Almost certainly, no neighborhood in Portland massacres politicians better than Lents. “The crowds out there are like professional-wrestling crowds-they want blood,” Portland city commissioner Erik Sten told me when we met on the creek bank one morning. “They act like assholes, but”-Sten gave me a warm, lopsided grin-“it comes from the heart.”
Sten is thirty-two and a native of Portland. He has mainly advocated for low-income housing but now heads the city’s salmon-recovery efforts. He made his first foray into eco-politics three years ago, when he drafted a mild set of zoning laws aimed at reducing floods in Lents-and, secondarily, at improving salmon habitat. The laws limit development in the Johnson Creek floodplain; they forbid, among other things, extensive paving and new construction. But what’s remarkable about them is that they are the product of collaboration between Lents residents and the city; they evolved at a series of bruising public meetings. “At the first one,” Sten recalled, “this guy got up and said, ‘You people are buying up land by Johnson Creek, but you’re not even maintaining it. The lawns are a mess!’ ”
Sten had the lawns cut within forty-eight hours. Later, one of his aides, Marshall Runkel, spent an evening removing garbage from one of the lawns. Runkel also brought a batch of home-baked chocolate-chip cookies to a pivotal meeting. “I broke out the Julia Child,” Runkel, a gangly poet, told me one night over beers. “I made some good cookies!”
It struck me that Runkel’s ragged conviction could aid the creek by bridging the gap between earnest liberals and Johnson Creek’s working-class neighbors. I hoped that the folks in Lents shared his and Sten’s vision of harmony, and one Sunday I went out there-to SE 106th, the heart of the floodplain-to see if they did.
“ERIK STEN’S A SMART YOUNG FELLOW,” said the machinist Gary Zytniowski, the first person I approached. “He wants Portland to be nationally recognized for salmon recovery, so he’s playing the political game. He’s saying, ‘I want to involve neighbors.’ But he doesn’t listen. We’ve asked the city to come out here and clean the sticks and leaves out of the storm drains on 106th, to prevent flooding on Foster. They don’t. We have to clean those drains ourselves.”
Across the narrow, potholed street, Mike DePaul, a roofer, was visiting his mom and his sister in their jade-colored ranch house when I found him. Mike was convinced, somewhat inexplicably, that the city’s “willing seller” program would soon spiral out of control, and that bureaucrats would force his frail mother out of the house she’s occupied for four decades. “This is what my dad left my mom when he died,” he said. “They don’t understand how something could mean so much to someone.”
A few doors to the north, on an acre lot hugging a curve in the creek, was a green tar-shingled house on whose lawn there was a defunct refrigerator, eight or ten broken lawnmowers, five old cars, a wood chipper, a rusty shock absorber, a bucket of tar, a milk crate, and a jumble of muddy kids’ toys. Curiosity compelled me to knock on the door. Mary Stockwell, a heavyset fiftyish woman wearing denim shorts and missing a few lower teeth, answered. “I’d let you in,” she said, “but I’ve got a cat in here who has to stay in. She’s in heat.”
Stockwell stood on the porch, barefoot, and served me miscellaneous factoids. Her great-aunt and great-uncle moved into that very house, in 1905, to begin a farm on the floodplain’s rich soil. She herself had lived on the creek all her life, and had spent much of the past thirty years doing research on it, for a book that will, if it ever gets written, breathe new life into the term magnum opus. She had relations in Arkansas and California who were combing their local newspaper archives for stories on Johnson Creek floods. She could produce from memory the exact flow of the stream, in cubic feet per second, on a specific day in 1941, and she could recall, verbatim, the wordings of various relevant Supreme Court decisions. Her outlook was essentially skeptical. She believed that when it came to Johnson Creek, the city was as callous and ruthless as, well, Adolf Hitler himself. “I got an aunt who married into the family,” she said. “She came here from Poland, to get away from Hitler, and she’d be real glad to see what’s going on now. Oh yeah! She’s seen it before.”
When at last I was allowed inside the Stockwells’ house, a couple of weeks later, Mary and her husband, Vern, a roofer, were sitting side by side in the dining room. Vern had a trim silver beard, and wore a pair of half-glasses that dangled on a chain. A knit ski cap sat rakishly high over his eyebrows, which danced when he spoke. There was a velvet painting of a unicorn on the wall beside the Stockwells, and spread on the table before them was a vast array of arcane documents: yellowing newspaper clips; weather records that told, in minute type, how much it rained on every single day in the 1930s; and a map of the Johnson Creek watershed circa 1928.
“I’ve already talked to him,” Mary said, referring to me. “You talk.” She stomped off toward the TV, and Vern, whom I took to be a sort of research assistant, wrinkled his brow as he pondered the staggering intricacy of the tale he was about to tell. “There are so many things wrong with Johnson Creek,” he said. He pronounced it “Johhn-son Crick,” dwelling on the first word and snapping the second, as if he aimed to make the waters seem both mythic and homey.
Why don’t you start with the three big problems?” Mary bellowed from the other room. “The DDT and the E. coli and silt?”
What I heard instead was the Stockwells’ most frequent argument: that the city of Portland is, unbeknownst to federal officials, violating the Clean Water Act by continuing to channel more and more storm water, and thus oil and pesticide, into a creek that already violates federal water-quality standards. The city needs to filter the water, Vern added, by building upstream filter ponds. A few such ponds already exist; more would stabilize creek flow. “They know this,” Vern said. “But they don’t care. You see, they benefit from the flooding, because when it floods, the water filters through the rugs in people’s homes and then it flows out, and by the time it gets to the Willamette it’s clean.”
“Yeah, we filter the creek for them,” Mary said from behind the TV. “They’re using private property to do the city’s job.” Mary was back in the dining room now, by the furnace, her bare feet scuffing against the linoleum floor. She was disgusted. When she was a girl Johnson Creek was so clean she swam in it safely. “The summer I was nine,” she said, “we built a dam when school got out. Twenty kids. It only took us a weekend, and then we had a swimming hole two blocks long, all the way up to 108th. It lasted till Labor Day.”
A summer or two later, when the creek almost went dry, Mary and her friends embarked on a noble campaign to save the creek’s crawdads. “We rounded up hundreds and put them in a dried-out pool in the creek which was piled with layers and layers of rock,” she said. “We covered the rocks with tree branches, so the crawdads stayed cool. Our parents thought we were crazy, but we kept that hole watered. We’d haul the water from the spigot to the creek in milk buckets-an assembly line of kids-and we saved our crawdads!”
“We moved into this house in ’72, the year the Clean Water Act was signed,” Mary continued. “We didn’t count on all the pollution.”
But pollution is now a reality that the Stockwells live with, bitterly. In a bleak moment they told me that what they wanted, ultimately, was to see the creek relined with rock. They harbored no hope for the salmon; they wanted the demon water chuted out of their lives. And Mary added that Metro was all but obliged to remove it. Her explanation was a little complex. Between 1960 and 1964, she said, a now-defunct agency, the Johnson Creek Water District, purchased from creek neighbors the right to repeat the WPA’s work-that is, to re-line and re-widen the creek. They procured more than four hundred easements for a dollar apiece, and Mary believes the documents are still valid. (Metro believes otherwise.) Indeed, she deems them so crucial that, years ago, she bought copies of 105 of the easements, for $1.50, at a yard sale.
“Can I see them?” I asked.
“Sorry,” Vern said, “but they’re in safety.”
“We keep them off premises,” Mary said, “where they can’t be stolen.”
“In a storage shed?”
“It’s a little more than that,” Vern said.
“We have an off-premise security person who keeps them for us,” Mary said.
“A friend. Because if those easements were here, somebody’d probably burn the house down. There are some very powerful interests who’d like to see those things disappear.”
I got out of there, eventually, but not before the Stockwells’ eight-year-old grandson, Matt, showed up and began sprinting about in the yard. Matt had been visiting the house almost daily (there was strife between his mother and father), and watching him, Mary seemed weary. He ran madly on top of the cars, onto the hoods, up the windshields, and—slam! slam! slam!—over the roofs. Then he wove toward us, his fingers bent into claws as he imitated a monster. Mary endeavored to calm and engage him. “How does it feel,” she asked him quietly, “not being able to swim in the creek?”
“Bummer!” Matt said. He thrust out his lip and poked his bony frame into his grandmother’s arm. She held him close and smiled, and I could see all the gaps between her teeth.
I KEPT EXPLORING. One evening I walked along a gravel path adjoining the creek and heard tree frogs singing in the reed canary grass. I stood by the Dumpster outside the Acropolis topless bar and saw blackbirds twittering over the water. I rafted under a bridge near the Acropolis, past a homeless camp scattered with soot-blackened blankets, and a guy stumbled toward me in slow motion over the rocky shore, his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his eyes glazed. I said nothing and glided away. I met another homeless man, Leo, in a grove of trees in Lents, where he was drinking a forty-ouncer with his buds. Leo said he had been living within twenty feet of Johnson Creek for six months. “I watch the water all the time,” he told me, offering me a hit of his Colt 45. “I sit on the banks by myself and I’m at peace. I’ve seen deer down there, pheasants, quail, and rabbits.” He was forty-one, but with his thickly creased face and pallid gray eyes he looked sixty. There was a woman hunched beside him on the concrete, slurring her speech, and she wore a leg cast wrapped in a plastic shopping bag. “She broke her leg,” Leo said. “And she broke his heart,” a friend chimed in, “because now she can’t wrap her legs around him.”
Leo was from Reno, where he said he’d worked full time in a steel mill. He’d been in Portland four years, and he planned to stay. “I got tired of Reno,” he explained. “Most of my family died. Whenever I looked at a different part of town, it brought back an old memory. But that’s where my kids are, Reno, and I can’t help but miss it.”
When Leo spoke of his kids, the woman reached over to him and clasped her dirty, callused hands in his. I wanted to ask more, but a friend of Leo’s interrupted. “I’ve been to prison,” he told me. “I don’t like this. It’s the same old fucking twenty questions. Leave now. Will you leave?”
I left, and a few days later, on a hot afternoon, I rafted the bottom third of the creek with Liz. Rounding a bend, we saw a flash of white skin: three kids swimming in a deep pool. “You shouldn’t swim here,” shouted Liz, who’s a nurse. “It’s toxic!” She was sitting in our leaky raft, shin-deep in murky brown water. The kids kept swimming.
I walked upstream from Gresham and its condos one morning, along a creek bed too narrow to paddle, and sneaked onto a cow pasture where an electric fence crossed the water. I continued all the way to the source of the stream. The last visible trace of Johnson Creek ran rope-thin through a corrugated-metal pipe by a chain-link fence surrounding the dirt parking lot of Cascade Precision, Inc., a shop that makes socket wrenches. “The headwaters!” I said to a guy who was smoking in the lot by an orange pickup. “I didn’t know it was a creek or nothing,” he said, “but it sure does run pretty good in the winter.” The guy stubbed out his cigarette and went back into the shop. I stooped to the stream, cupping my hands, and took a ceremonial sip of the water. It tasted metallic.
AROUND THE TIME OF MY TRIP TO THE HEADWATERS, Portland’s daily paper, The Oregonian, ran an encouraging story: biologists had found two healthy coho salmon smolts in a tiny tributary near Johnson Creek’s terminus. The news was not earth-shattering-juvenile cohos still show up from time to time among the rocks in the creek-but the photo the paper ran, of one smolt in a scientist’s palm, was transfixing. The fish was the size of a child’s finger, and sheeny. Its little black bead of an eye made it look both terrified and awesome. If it lived until adolescence, a year or so into its life, this fish would swim out to the ocean and then eventually turn around and journey all the way home-against the current, without feeding-to spawn and die in the same foot-wide stream in which it was born. It belonged to one of only a few species in the world that can thrive in both freshwater and the sea.
I never saw a single smolt in Johnson Creek, though. By the time I got down to where the Oregonian photos had been taken, the smolts were in hiding, so I decided my best chance for seeing life in my watershed was on another stream, Kelly Creek, which flows through a quiet forest in a low-rent section of Portland, way out toward the city’s border with Gresham. Kelly Creek is the prettiest of all the Johnson Creek tributaries, and one afternoon I hiked out to its confluence with Johnson Creek and began weaving through people’s back yards, peering hopefully into the black ribbon of water. Soon I was stopped. “I’d appreciate it,” came a deep male voice, “if you didn’t trespass.”
Mike Dixon, a well-built fortyish man in a plaid flannel shirt and worn jeans, stared at me icily, as though I were a miscreant teen in need of being escorted off the property. His arms were crossed.
But when I said I was writing about salmon, all tension melted away. Dixon told me that he was a landscaper by trade and a fisherman by avocation, and that, in the seven years he’d been living at the mouth of Kelly Creek, he’d worked steadily to improve salmon habitat. He showed me the twenty or so small trees he’d planted along Kelly Creek to give the fish shade. Then he showed me the small pools he’d built for the fish, and the riffles, which consisted of thin lines of rock that spanned each of the creeks and threw sheets of water momentarily into the air.
On February 18, 1994, Dixon said, he saw a mating pair of steelheads in one of the pools dug out by his riffles. “The female was beating her tail against the rocks on the bottom,” he added, “making a nest.” A week later, on Kelly Creek, Dixon saw another steelhead, a female, heading downstream in low water. “I followed her,” he said. “She’d stop in a pool and rest and flop up against the rocks-the creek was that dry. I must have followed her a good eighth of a mile. Then I ran for my wife; I got my neighbor. It felt like I was in wilderness. A lot of people have written Johnson Creek off, you know. They just see the garbage, the blackberries. If they knew something was here, they’d care.”
We went into his garage, and there, over the workbench, was a Polaroid snapshot: a pair of olive-green lamprey eels, cigar-fat and eighteen inches long, that Dixon had seen beneath a Kelly Creek bridge on April 15, 1999. Dixon brings such pictures to local meetings and argues that the salmon can come back to Kelly Creek in large numbers. His biggest triumph came in 1998, when his photos helped persuade Portland’s city council to replace a decrepit culvert-a corrugated pipe that restricts water flow and migrating fish-with a dirt-bottomed tunnel that will offer salmon deep pools in which to rest and hide from predators. Funding for the $600,000 tunnel has not yet been secured, but Dixon wanted to show me the stretch of creek his efforts could make wild again, so he pulled a pair of hip waders down off the wall and loaned them to me.
We began hiking upstream. We cut through the yard of a neighbor who’d endowed the creek with a miniature waterfall, and then, stooping, we made our way through the ridged, ancient pipe. On the other side were the woods. The creek, dappled by sunlight, ran through a maze of moss-covered rocks, and there were no houses in sight. Dixon’s voice hushed, as though we had at last left the hubbub of the world and had arrived at a tranquil fishing spot where we could crack out the beers and talk about manly things. “Smell the air,” he said. “You can smell the coolness of the water, and you can smell the skunk cabbage. And just listen a minute.”
We were silent. The water trickled over the rocks.
“An Oregon stream,” Dixon declared. He has been walking Oregon streams ever since his dad, a longshoreman, bought him his first rod, when he was four. “A lot of people don’t understand what that means,” he said. “You’re involved, fishing. You’re watching every movement in the creek.” Dixon told me how once, when he was eleven, he saw hundreds of salmon migrating upstream on the Nehalem River, near the Oregon coast. “I could see the fish coming out of the white water of the rapids,” he said. “They’d enter into this glassy calm stretch going with such force that they’d bob up like porpoises, their tails flashing out of the water. They just kept coming, one right after another, and then they’d sit in the deep pool and rest. A sight like that is too complex to be random, I think. There are forces beyond our comprehension that put things together. I believe in God, the God of Christianity.” Dixon brushed against the bough of a cedar, then stopped and held it in place so it wouldn’t whack me in the chest. “I’ve always felt the Northwest is God’s country,” he continued. “The weather here is gentle and there are no tornadoes, no hurricanes. There are no poisonous snakes.”
It was dusk now, and even as he used a televangelist’s rhetoric, Dixon spoke with a ruminative warmth. It felt good to walk with him, and to hear the creek. We hiked a few minutes more, and then Dixon told me that when he was a kid he had “this romantic notion that we could bring back all the buffalo.” He paused. “This hope that lots of salmon can return to Kelly Creek,” he went on, “it’s kind of like that. It’s a dream, kind of, but everybody has dreams. Mankind’s whole quest, I think, is to get back to a time when we had contentment. We all want to get back to the Garden of Eden.”
We climbed over a few more rocks in the water and cut through some ferns. Then we veered away from the stream and scratched our way up a bank onto a black patch of new asphalt. Above us was a spanking-new subdivision Lexington Hills. The hillside, recently a tree-speckled pasture, was now stripped of vegetation and dotted with 296 mini-mansions selling for $300,000 or so apiece. Beneath and amid the houses and their steep, winding driveways was an expanse of bare soil that promised, come winter, to slide into Kelly Creek as a torrent of mud.
The developers of Lexington Hills are Eric Bryant and Sotiris Kolokotronis, both of California. As this article went to press, they were appealing a $39,600 fine for violations of Oregon’s clean-water laws. Neither man would comment for this story. “I’m not the one you need to talk to,” Bryant told me before referring me to an aide who also turned out to be mum. Listening, I imagined real salmon dying, only to be replaced by framed prints of the shimmering fish, affixed to the walls of gleaming new houses.
Over the next quarter century the Johnson Creek watershed’s population is expected to grow by twenty thousand, as Portland sprawls eastward. There will be more roads, more strip malls, more cars dripping oil into the creek. Politicians tend to regard the growth with optimism and cheer. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, for instance, speaks of “building the human infrastructure to rethink what’s possible for an urban creek.” It’s his job to be publicly sunny, but the word on the ground is that the future looks rough for Johnson Creek salmon. I remember when I bought my raft. The clerk asked me where I was paddling, and when I told him, he looked up from the cash register. “They’ll never bring the salmon back,” he said.
I WISH I COULD SAY that bounties of fish will one day return to Johnson Creek; I cannot. But I still regard the creek as vital. It’s inviolable, really. I learned this one morning last September, when I took the bus out toward Gresham, to walk the banks one final time. I hopped off and then bounded along a small tributary that meandered downhill. The brook met Johnson Creek in a wide-open meadow, and there I turned west, downstream, and scrambled on-over fences, past sheds and patios and satellite dishes. When the creek’s ravine afforded no other passage, I tromped into the blackberries. I got in deep. My shins got crosshatched with cuts that bled down onto my socks, but I kept crashing on toward a hole in the bush that gave way to a sloping, scraggly lawn. I’ll admit it: I was having a blast. I savored the press of the prickers as they tore into my skin.
But when I emerged onto the lawn, there, beside a rusting truck up on blocks, was a dog snarling and barking-a German shepherd, with no leash. It lunged in my direction. I froze. For a second I just stood there, aware of a cold sensation in my chest.
I thought of escaping by water, of diving into the creek and splashing away, out of sight, but then I realized that if I went near the water at all, the dog was liable to tear me to bits. It was his creek, not mine, and there was only one thing I could do. “Good boy!” I sang, in a sort of falsetto. “Good boy!” The dog growled again, but a little less vigorously. I retreated a step or two.
“Good boy!” I sang as I backed away. “Good boy!” The dog followed and growled. We inched up the hill. We danced all the way across the lawn, that dog and I, and then I hit the pavement and ran, back to where I came from.