By Thao Tran
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
The Oso mudslide tragedy caused Thao Tran to reflect upon his connection with the town, and the 20 years he spent with the North Fork Stillaguamish River, which runs through the town. This is the first of two parts.
Mom handed me the phone on the evening of March 17, 1997. It was Susan, the wife of my friend Marty Gray. She called from their home in Oso. She said, “I am sorry to let you know… Marty would want you to know that he died in a boating accident while fishing on the river.”
I was a junior in college. I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I call Marty sooner?” But it was winter. Marty and I only met during the fly fishing summer season on the North Fork Stillaguamish River, which also is endearingly called the “Stilly.” Earlier that week, I was fishing on the Sauk River with David Webb, who worked at Kaufmann’s Streamborn, a high-end fly-fishing shop next to Macy’s in downtown Seattle. I should have told Marty about the epic steelhead that snapped my rod and swam away, leaving me with line wrapped around my body like a man-sized fishing reel.
David would end his own life a few years later. He had suffered from the silent killer of depression. All of his friends were in shock. A colleague just shook his head and explained that perhaps the only sign that David was struggling inside was he turned down requests from his buddy to fish for weeks. How a fly fishing connoisseur with such a rich passion and a loving family could suffer such a fate added to my awareness of life’s struggles.
During college, if I had a day in the week to fish, I drove 60 miles from Seattle to wade the famous pools called Cicero, Hazel, Chinook, The Run, Fortson, C-Post, and Deer Creek. Marty raised his family near the banks of the Stilly, which housed these pools. Marty was a retired veteran and when he wasn’t babysitting his three-year-old daughter, he would be in advance of me to our river.
My fishing religiously was done in part to the sacrifice of school grades, college parties, weekends, and to the chagrin of my Vietnamese parents, who thought I should study more to ensure a prestigious and financially stable future. Though my mom would gladly make Ca Canh Chua (a classic Vietnamese fish soup), or bake, poach, or fry my catch, she scorned that fishing was a waste of time. There were many days when she begrudged a kind of widow experience because my dad also fished a lot. Trolling for salmon in Elliott Bay and Shilshole Bay in Seattle was his passion. I became accustomed to releasing fish in part to avoid detection from home. When I graduated from college, I felt as if I had also obtained an informal fly-fishing degree on the campus of Oso.
Whenever I think of Marty, what I miss the most is his laughter and jokes. He made all the men along the pool roar in laughter with his satire about corrupt politicians, cigars, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and the poachers who thought they were so clever in cheating our river. It was by watching him and his seasoned peers along the banks of the North Fork Stillaguamish River that I grew in my own angling prowess.
I can recount fishing alongside as many as 14 old-timers in a windy stretch of the river. Each practiced the etiquette of taking two steps down stream after several casts to give everyone the opportunity to fish the entire pool. The most productive and desired section of these pools were the tail ends, with large boulders the size of exercise balls, where the steelhead like to rest as they come up from the rapids. Anyone who was “tree stumping” (standing still in a pool) would get called out to move down. I was fortunate to have caught the tail end of that fraternity and what feels like a bygone era. Many of those old-timers have dwindled like the wild steelhead in the river.
I came to the North Fork Stillaguamish River with a simple mind to catch an elusive steelhead on a fly rod. But I was trampling onto a place that has a storied history. The Stilly and its valley possessed a rich history long before it became the first river in America to be designated “fly fishing only” for steelhead during the warm months.
When the Northern Pacific Railroad branched from Arlington near I-5 to Darrington in 1901, it established small timber towns and communities. The town of Oso is almost a midpoint between the two towns. The railroad opened up the timber industry. To this day, the major industry for the region is still timber. There is a tributary on the North Fork Stillaguamish called Deer Creek that flows through Oso. Deer Creek is a fabled steelhead creek that is only opened for fishing at its mouth, which joins the North Fork Stillaguamish near the Oso Fire Station. The small creek once boasted the largest run of wild steelhead in western United States, but now its story is an environmental lesson.
Many legendary and pioneering fly fishers, such as Zane Grey and Roderick Haig-Brown, fished the river in the early 1900s. Other famous fly-fishing anglers — Walt Johnson, Enos Bradner, and Bill McMillan — helped grow the fishing legacy of the Stilly. Mike Kenny, Dennis Dickson, Paul Rosanno, Keith Cirillo, Russ Miller, and so many more contemporary anglers are helping to keep the fishing heritage alive. Unfortunately, the clear-cutting in the mountains of Oso in the 1940s and 1950s through the present day has turned the once pristine Dear Creek to silt and mud from soil erosion. This resulted from the abhorrent, large, quilted patches of cut trees above the hills and Cascade Mountains, where there was once old growth forest. You can see why people have blamed the clear-cutting for the demise of salmon and steelhead in Dear Creek. But it is difficult for me to point fingers when I own a cutting board, a dining table, and a side console that I made from wood that was processed in Oso.
The first time I met Marty, he walked into a pool on the Stillaguamish to look for steelhead. It was the summer before I entered college — July 1994 to be exact. I happened to be fishing there under the hot sun during a low river flow. Many steelhead fishermen are put off by the low water because they know the steelhead show up with the freshets of rain. While Marty was standing on the high bank, I surprised both of us by hooking and eventually landing a beautiful summer steelhead hen. That was the first steelhead he saw caught that summer.
Marty was a Vietnam War vet. When he returned from war, he decided to leave his home state of Florida. He told his family that he was never coming back to Florida, and he didn’t. He had fallen in love with the Northwest greenery and the steelhead fishing while stationed in Washington. He met and married Susan, a member of the Stillaguamish Tribe. I remember Susan walking through the trails in search of Marty on several occasions to remind him of more pressing matters to attend to.
While fishing with Marty, our conversations didn’t delve into the war much. I was conceived the year the Vietnam War ended and my family escaped Communist-controlled Vietnam when I was 5. Yet our war connection was always in the back of my mind, due to its irony. My family’s refugee experience was the impetus for me to study political science and international relations, to help me make sense of history, and show me how to contribute to America and carve my dreams. I valued Marty’s service in defending my birthplace. Now we were fishing together as true-and-true Americans.
He affectionately referred to me as “ the otter” to his friends and fellow anglers because he said I could always locate fish. One memorable day as the river glistened, a fanning breeze blew, the fish gods brought steelhead to our pool, and Marty looked up to the sky as you would do marveling the Sistine Chapel and said, “Isn’t this gorgeous? This is how I would want to go.” The following March, Marty got his wish. But for his family, his community, and me, it came too soon.
For the past 20 years, I’ve continued to fish the North Fork Stillaguamish from June through November for the fly-fishing season, as Marty and his friends would have.
It’s been 17 years since Marty died. And in the afternoon of Saturday, March 22, I received another call near Oso. I was entrenched in replacing the window to my 111-year-old home. It had been a long winter, and record-breaking cold and rain this winter persuaded me to make the improvements. At 3:45 p.m., I received a call from my friend Russell, who lives with his family a few miles east of Oso, along Stillaguamish. Russell said, “Did you hear the news? It’s really bad up here…the mudslide…we are stranded and the highway is buried…keep your prayers for us.” (end)
Next week: My time in Oso, part 2.
Thao Tran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.