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 second of two parts.
At 3:45 p.m., I received a call from my friend Russell, who lives a few miles east of Oso, along Stillaguamish. “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.”
How did I miss so much in a short window of time? It took me scouring the news to process Russell’s revelation.
Russell and his family have survived, but the fact that so many died and some remain missing is incomprehensible.
I met Russell two years ago while fishing on the Stillaguamish. That day, I approached the river on the opposite side of where Russell was standing hip deep in the water. I asked him, “How’s the fishing?” He replied, “Apparently, I am good luck because people around me have hooked fished all day, but me.” I smiled while making the first cast. Lo and behold, I felt the headshake and eventual run of a powerful steelhead. Every steelhead feels like a folklore encounter (my plumber recently joked that he’s gotten so desperate to catch a steelhead that he’s used a magnet at the end of his line). When you hook a steelhead, it requires your complete attention. A steelhead is magical to catch because they are elusive, and once they are hooked, they hit an acrobatic and powerful switch to snap off the fishing line or throw the hook.
While the steelhead thrashed in the pool, Russell laughed, “What did I tell you? See, I am lucky.” I was beaming, “Yes, you are lucky.” The following three and half hours became my most memorable day on the river. I proceeded to hook as many steelhead as my usual entire season. To put things in perspective, if a fly fisher hooks one steelhead per trip, that is considered a good day. One can go through months of fishing without hooking a steelhead. It took me four years to catch my first steelhead. I asked Russell to help me remember that experience and if anyone ever questioned it, he is to be my living proof.
Another week passed by and I found Russell wading hip deep right where I stood the week before. Immediately, we reintroduced ourselves. Russell is in his mid 20s and has a tall, slender build. When he shared that he’s a Marine, I didn’t think much of it. He proceeds to tell me that he served in the U.S. Marines of Lima Company from Ohio. Then his story becomes more intriguing. Russell enlisted in the Marines in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack. He was 17, and it was from a deep sense of duty and patriotism that he served his country. It is unfathomable to think what he personally endured as a result.
He told me about the Battle of Haditha, in which 21 members of his unit died from insurgent attacks. His platoon was the heaviest hit unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He witnessed fellow soldiers being blown up. On the day he returned from war, his first child was born and he named him Daniel after his close friend and fellow soldier who was killed by enemy fire. Upon his return from service, he and his wife Erin decided to move from Mission Viejo, Calif., to start their lives anew.
Russell’s story moved me. I wanted to help him catch a steelhead. That would be me giving him a small Band-Aid for his heroism and service to our country. I am now the old-timer, possessing more information than I can impart in a day regarding steelhead. I knew that Russell could be a competent fly fisherman if he acquired the right information.
I asked Russ to hand me his rod to assess his setup. I immediately replaced his leader and fly with what I was using.
Then made a cast for him to show him a quality placement of the fly where the fish would be holding. Once I handed him the rod, I told him to repeat that process and to trust his setup. Within 30 minutes, I saw Russell raising his rod for a quick hook set and a steelhead bursts out of the rapids and cart-wheeled on the surface. It is gratifying to share knowledge that can bring so much joy to another person!
Like Marty, Russell found Oso and the Stillaguamish Valley to make a new home. He still suffers from nightmares of war and PTSD is his constant battle. He’s worked hard daily to recover from PTSD and to suppress the anxiety and delusions that confront him, by fishing and gardening in the comforts of his Cascade Mountain home. Oso has become his haven. He had dedicated his life to healing, raising his family, and tending his garden and animals.
The Oso mudslide means there is no long period of recovery for Russell. He flies the same American flag that he flew half-staff in Iraq and at his house in memory of his fallen comrades. That same flag is now flown as tribute to those fallen in Oso. Russell never would have guessed that his veteran experience in dealing with trauma would now be needed to help his community and family at home.
Steelhead Haven near Oso, where the mudslide occurred, is a retreat and a place of small rebellion from the big city life. It’s the kind of place where you can focus on your family, and only the “bare essentials of life” as Henry David Thoreau once said.
The Oso landslide reinforced for me that we are all survivors. There is a pinch in the stomach, a bit of agony that is stirred with sadness by what happened. Any of us could have stood in the path of the mudslide on the North Fork Stillaguamish River. And whether we overcame illness, evaded acts of God or self-inflictions — we are only guaranteed the moment. It is our acts of gratitude and love that define our strong community. This is why we marvel at the unity of the Stillaguamish Valley residents, as they aid each other while coping and recovering from the tragedy.
Undoubtedly, out of the disaster, Oso will rebuild stronger. Steelhead Drive will be cleared again, and I will continue to visit my friends and the river that runs through the revered town. (end)
Thao Tran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.