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Feeling the River All Around

Brett Tallman  /  June 17, 2020  /  4 Min Read  /  Fly Fishing

River snorkeling’s miserable beauty.

If they’re even a little bit lucky, a river snorkeler’s first swim offers voyeuristic glimpses of life beneath the surface—salmon fry flickering in a log jam, trout staged beneath a curtain of bubbles. “At first, that’s all you get,” Russ Ricketts says, “but there’s a point when you lose yourself in the process. Then the magic really starts to happen. Fish don’t stress. They come in close. You’re seeing them feed. You’re seeing them fight to establish dominance. There are complex social structures and species-driven hierarchies. It’s nuanced and precise and beautiful—and it’s kind of savage. What you’re witnessing is life on a primal level.”

People have been snorkeling in rivers for as long as there’ve been masks, snorkels and wetsuits. For every wildlife agency, there are entry-level employees performing snorkel surveys, and for every creek, there’s a kid who puts on a mask to catch crawdads and retrieve lures. Until Ricketts, though, they didn’t know each other half as well. As soon as he created the Facebook page “River Snorkeling,” people he didn’t know—“people in Oregon and Colorado and Tennessee and all over”—began to contact him, and soon, river snorkelers all over the country began sharing what they were seeing and asking each other questions. When someone new found the page, Ricketts was there to connect them. “It was all about getting them stoked,” he said. “About turning them on to this cool, small thing.” The scattered parts began to look like a whole. “It turned into a real roots community,” he said.

Ricketts was raised in Washington state on a tributary of the Stillaguamish River. His father was a steelheader and, through his teens, so was he. At 18, he left home for the first of 11 seasons as a longshoreman on Bristol Bay and quit fishing for sport. The abundance of Alaska’s salmon runs left Ricketts feeling ambivalent about targeting fish from the flagging stocks in the lower 48. Rivers, though, are hard to quit.

In his 30s, a friend invited Ricketts to snorkel Washington’s Wenatchee River. “It completely blew my mind,” he said. “I was in there with a school of big Chinook that had migrated 550 miles from the ocean.” With a fresh way to enjoy them, Ricketts couldn’t get enough of the Pacific Northwest’s rivers, and he wanted to talk about this thing he was doing with anyone who would listen. “But no one really knew what it was,” he said. “Not even us.”

Feeling the River All Around

What river snorkelers are doing is hard to define. It’s clear the pursuit is beneficial—all the river snorkelers I know are passionate conservationists—but it’s about something more than eco-activism. It’s about beauty. A precise purpose is secondary to the pleasures of seeing the riverbed and the life that inhabits it and of feeling the river all around.

As a pastime, river snorkeling begins with Roderick Haig-Brown. In Fisherman’s Fall, the writer, angler and conservationist notes that the invention of the wetsuit, mask and snorkel, “has added an entirely new dimension to my life, and I am eternally grateful to the men who developed the gear and techniques to their present state.” Since its publication in 1964, Fisherman’s Fall has drawn other river lovers, fishheads and conservation-minded anglers to river snorkeling, one and two at a time.

In Fisherman’s Fall, Haig-Brown ponders the ethics of what he is doing. He promises himself, “to kill nothing underwater and to disturb whatever lives there as little as possible.” These are good rules. But he also wonders if he should be allowed to apply to fishing what he learned by snorkeling. Generalizations about fish, he decides, are OK. Specifics, however, are off limits. “It wouldn’t seem right to watch the fish behind the dam through an afternoon,” he writes, “and go out and catch them in the evening.”

For all the joy that river snorkeling has added to his life, Ricketts doesn’t think it’s for everyone.  “It won’t ever be popular,” he said. “It can be cold and miserable, which is hard to sell. But for some people, it can be a life changer.”

Last summer, a few weeks before Ricketts turned 47, his 6-year-old daughter Charlie asked him to take her snorkeling. He chose a pool in a creek that runs into the Stillaguamish—the pool where he learned to fish and swim. It was June. Gravelbacked caddis larvae crept toward shore. Ricketts scooped a handful off the rocks and, with his daughter gripping his arm, dove to where a stump had settled on the bottom. With a silent apology, Ricketts crushed the nymphs, filling the water around them with caddis chum. Fish flooded out of the rootwad. Hundreds of juvenile coho salmon, each the length of his daughter’s finger, swirled around them. For a few minutes, there was only the gentle pull of the current and thrilled squeezing of his daughter’s hands.

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