Rivers of a Lost Coast
Rivers of a Lost Coast
- By: Seth Norman
A documentary narrated by Tom Skerritt
Directed and produced by Justin Coupe & Palmer Taylor
There’s much to ponder in Rivers of a Lost Coast, an award-winning documentary about a minor apocalypse—make that major for West Coast salmon, with many runs already extinct or on the verge; and catastrophic for California’s steelhead, now so diminished that conditions call for a new word or one I don’t know yet. If decimation means taking one of 10, how do we describe a process that leaves roughly that? And when so much of what’s left is spawned hatchery product returning from the Pacific for factory-pool reunions?
That’s where Lost Coast comes in. But this is not a simple story or another dire tale. The film is visual ballad and ethnography, an “I’m telling you” drama describing a brief-lived culture of passionate fly-fishing fanatics who pioneered, popularized, sometimes exploited and now watch die one of the greatest sport-fisheries anytime, anywhere, bar none. It’s a treasury of historical materials and first-person testimony presented at a professional level traditionally reserved for political movements, historical eras and medium-sized wars. New technology made that possible—but Lost Coast only emerges from labor of love.
I testify: It’s too late to film the hunter who shot the last Golden State grizzly (you know, that symbol on the state flag); so many, many credits to Palmer Taylor, Justin Coupe and crew for capturing perspectives of a generation who knew it best. The voices of these men, their faces…aged now—a cadre of younger steelhead bucks don’t show up here—you can see their eyes light, hear tone and timbre change as they describe awesome battles, days of relentless excitement, camaraderie and conflicts among an eclectic collection of the hard-core group…all this illustrated by old film footage and photos of salmon and steelhead anglers that confirm their glories and reveal smiles as wide as river mouths.
Then you watch their faces fall, describing today. Some look truly stunned. Or haunted.
Let’s not call it slaughter, and the lumbering-dam truth is more complicated than a few tens of thousands of fishers killing limits of salmon and steelhead tens of thousands of times. If “silver ghosts” once described their quarry, now the phrase fits rivers like California’s Russian and Eel—still achingly lovely to the eye, if almost empty most years of the fish that offered so much, early in most of our own lifetimes.
A national audience will recognize a few names among this cast of 30—Russ Chatham, Hal Jensen and Lani Waller, for example—West Coasters and Californians many more, including Jim Adams, Smith River salmon savant and primary architect of the Hat Creek restoration. (Give thanks to the producer-directors for a 40-page booklet that accompanies the DVD, with brief bios of the players.)
But region and reputation are irrelevant listening to those who speak with such passion, candor and aching regret. These are men who loved a fish and pursuit without constraint, way beyond “reason”; and who with almost absent exception failed to see the extent of ruin just upstream. They had excellent reasons, of course: natural vagaries of anadromous cycles, the poorly understood or deliberately unacknowledged effects of over-harvest, lumbering in watersheds, mining, dams—the disbelief that such abundance could ever end. And perhaps they were consumed by the moment, year to year. “We were stupid,” Russ Chatham insists, and not just once.
Much of the movie examines and contrasts two men, Art Lindner and Bill Shaadt, icons of that age and place and enemies for decades. It’s the human-interest angle, and it plays because of the characters’ characters and skills.
Lindner was the more conventional of the two, closer to familiar archetypes, a man who preferred the relative solitude of fishing with a few friends, and certainly resented the circus created by his fisheries’ increasing fame. “Morals” prompted Lindner’s animas toward Schaadt, declares one of Lindner's friends, who then leaves it at that.
As to Schaadt…he performed in that circus’ center ring, thriving on the competition crowds provided…also the competitive values of a society in which many considered fish counts the measure of a man.
While declared by more than one the “The best fly-caster ever” and “best fly-fisher alive,” Schaadt still seemed an unlikely object of such wide attention. Single for life, he eked out a living as a sign painter, bartering salmon and steelhead for gas and God knows what else.
One way or the other, if Schaadt was not the founder of what should be called Steelhead Protocol—an etiquette conspicuous to an outsider by the lack of any apparent etiquette—he was surely among the more notorious practitioners, aggressive enough to employ a bladed fly designed to cut the lines of other anglers crowding him (or perceived to be), and to occasionally oil shore-side boulders to prevent intrusion by bank fishers.
No way was he a lone rogue, however. In the worst of the best of times, line-ups on the Russian River’s premier runs resembled a Mumbai bus queue, elbow-to-elbow fish gauntlets where the inexpert would quickly learn they had no place, competent newcomers must still pay dues and insiders abided by hierarchies of the sort reported by Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall.
All that said…the man was a fanatic genius, the fisher who found fish—more fish, bigger fish—than almost anybody else, and some days more than everybody around him put together. “You might not like him”—and many did—“but you had to admire Bill,” is the common theme, speaking to his skills and his single-minded intensity.
Lindner's legacy also lives, not in Schaadt's shadow, but on a far shore, in patterns books and magazine archives, and the memories of those who knew him. But the fish and their rivers? There are valiants today who fight for them, who rightly reject any suggestion of surrender. They would resent anything like an epitaph.
And that’s not quite what Lost Coast is about. The production is professional, the research impressive—staggering, really—the images gorgeous, including those echoed often as a visual chorus. Tom Skerritt’s narration is refined even when melancholy, absent melodrama to my ear. Even better, the edits of interviews allow people to profile others while providing subtle vignettes of themselves.
In the end, Lost Coast resembles nothing so much as wistful and wrenching as mist disappearing from a deep green run of bordering redwoods two-men-thick through their trunks, each wrapped with a bright ribbon, all abutting a clear cut. How does that go? “O, Babylon, we sat by the waters and wept for thee.” I presume we will see something like Lost Coast someday soon, about the Black Gulf.
Seth Norman is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman and other books.