Footsteps & Paddle Strokes
Imagining A Future for Van Duzen River Summer Steelhead
When I moved to the Van Duzen River seven years ago, I knew very little of its fishes. I had spent many hours the previous winter studying a relief map of the Eel in my supervisor’s office at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in Fort Bragg. I was mystified by its many forks and confluences and the northernmost fork especially, which was not a fork at all but the Van Duzen River. By mid-winter I had a mental picture of the watershed. I knew which tributaries entered where, where those tributaries originated and how the river grew as it marched north toward the sea. But soon I realized I could go no further standing in an office staring at a colorful wall hanging.
That summer I took a field job in the upper Eel. Monitoring steelhead and surveying streams for CDFW, I was finally putting footsteps and paddle strokes in the river I had been imagining. Not long after my first plunge into the chert-lined, emerald pools of the Middle Fork of the Eel to count summer steelhead, I learned that the Van Duzen River was home to these rare fish as well. CDFW’s records, which date back to the 1970s, show numbers ranging from 0 to 58, with an average of 29. But a young local man told us he had seen hundreds of steelhead the previous summer. He guided us on the Van Duzen over two long days, but we were unable to penetrate to the core of their holding habitat and we decided to abandon the project until we could return better prepared. We came back the following summer and have returned every summer since. Some years we see hundreds of sleek, silver fish, many of them upwards of 40 inches. They keep pulling us back.
Over seven years, our counts on the Van Duzen average 150 adult summer steelhead. These numbers pale in comparison to the thousands of fish that once returned here, but they give us something to point to. They compel us to question how the land surrounding the river is managed.
The Eel River has two extant runs of summer steelhead – in the Middle Fork and the Van Duzen. Coupled with the runs in the Mad and Mattole Rivers, these fish represent the southernmost extent of this rare life history. No one who swims with these fish in a clear river on a hot day can deny their majesty. But they risk being extirpated from this place. They face the same threats as native fish around the world - water diversions, a century and a half of bad land use, overfishing, competition with non-native species, a warming climate and pollution from agriculture, industrial forestry and development. The most recent threat to summer steelhead on the Van Duzen is the marijuana boom in Northern California. Land prices in the area have spiked and landowners are under pressure to subdivide the large ranches that surround the middle and upper watershed. Cold springs and creeks flow through these ranches with few diversions, feeding deep pools with the cold water these fish need to survive the summer.Subdivision would mean a dramatic rise in summertime diversions.
We are all complicit in the loss of our native fishes. I live on twenty acres halfway up the Van Duzen River - land that was once part of a large ranch. Prior to that it was part of an unbroken landscape maintained by native people for millennia. I water my garden with a spring flowing off the north slope of a forested ridge and share bounty with my neighbors. Peaches, melons, tomatoes and the return of Van Duzen steelhead represent summer to me. It is possible for Humboldt County and the rest of Northern California to make land-management decisions that favor the long-term health of our ecosystems and communities rather than short-term profits. But it requires us to slow down. We must ask ourselves what we value and what we want to leave behind after we are gone.