Last July I returned to my beloved Missoula after a period of forced exile in Canada. A Canadian by birth, I had made the mistake of returning to the Great White North on a business trip in the middle of my immigration application, and the boys at the border would not let me return home again until they had sorted out a glitch in my paperwork. It's a long story, but the border and the bulwark of its bureaucracy had become a dam of sorts, and it would not let me return to the place I absolutely, definitely had to be—where I was to wed my American lover in less than a month's time.
After 29 days of anxious, whiskey-drenched waiting, the dam finally disappeared two days before our ceremony, thanks in large part to the Promethean efforts of Senator John Tester and his helpful staff. When I got home, I found waiting for me Steven Hawley's new book, Recovering a Lost River: Removing Dams, Rewilding Salmon, Revitalizing Communities (Beacon Press, $26.95). My experience with the concrete thoroughness of U.S. immigration had created a great sense of empathy for the Pacific Northwest's endangered salmon, so I put everything but my impending wedding on hold and dove into Hawley's impassioned cri de coeur for the Snake River.
What a gift. There are already several books about the damnable impacts of the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers, but Recovering a Lost River is a worthwhile addition to this library. Not only is it well-researched and chock-full of historical information and scientific fact, it is also a rollicking good read, the narrative equivalent of a barebones rafting trip through Hell's Canyon in high water.
Hawley spares no time or space to make clear what's at stake. After a scatological prologue that would have made Jonathan Swift proud, he travels to Alaska to see what the residents of "the last frontier state" are smoking. Turns out, it's salmon, and lots of it, in large part because they have refused to dam their rivers the way their West Coast cousins have to the south, in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.
Returning home to the Pacific Northwest, Hawley recounts the now-familiar story of how human ingenuity and resourcefulness—and a whole lot of skulduggery involving a carefully constructed web of "lies, dam lies and statistics"—have turned the lower 48 states's great salmon rivers into sickly shadows of their former selves.
What makes Recovering a Lost River different is its optimism. In a world run down by innumerable stories of environmental degradation, Hawley, like the Gospels, tells tales of resurrection. He takes us to California and Maine to introduce us to the people and places that have had the temerity to remove dams for the higher purpose of serving those gods of the freshwater world: anadromous fish.
There's Allen Harthorn, a bipedal champion as tireless as his finned brothers and sisters. Harthorn looks after Butte Creek "as if it were part of his family," helping to bring thousands of salmon back from the brink in a tiny tributary of California's Sacramento River that, almost unbelievably today, was once thick with salmon.
It's clear from the beginning that Hawley has a specific purpose in mind, and that's to have the lower four dams on the Snake River removed to restore wild runs of endangered salmon. But the airtight case he makes in Recovering a Lost River indicates he has been able to maintain his journalistic integrity in the process. When the facts and lies he has uncovered during a decade of research coalesce into a conclusion as pellucid as a pool on the Clearwater River, there is little to do but cast it all down on the page and let readers decide the obvious for themselves.
This is clearly a book about substance, but like all good nonfiction these days, it includes all the makings of a good story: compelling narrative, effective pacing and what David James Duncan calls an "antic tone." Indeed, readers familiar with Duncan's work will find a similar voice in Recovering a Lost River. Hawley doesn't wield it as precisely and consistently as Duncan does—he sometimes overdoes it a tad, and ends up with the literary equivalent of casting into the huckleberry bushes on the far bank—but it is a tremendous read nonetheless. Once the snow hits, put your rod away, grab a copy and revel in the magic of a passionate river rat singing his heart out for the place—and fish—he loves.