Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two Gates, One Gate and the Gates of Hell

By Bob Ferris

A 1908 postcard depicting the outflow of Lake Tahoe.
For at least three generations my family has judged the extent of the Sierra snowpack by looking at a simple measure: The number of open and discharging gates on the dam upstream from Fanny Bridge in Tahoe City.  We watched because the number told us how rough or rocky the raft ride down the Truckee would be as we traveled to River Ranch for lunch or what our prospects would be fishing. This year that number was zero.  Zero as in nothing flowing from the fabled 22-mile long lake into this river that runs by Reno.  Not as dramatic as what is happening in the Marshall Islands  due to climate change, but significant.

The same basic shot of the Lake Tahoe outflow to the Truckee River in 2013. 
The reason for this happenstance above was that the outflow from the lake was nearly bone dry and as Carlene and I walked across what was once a raging waterway separating Tahoe City from points south, I could not help but shake my head and feel great loss.  But it was more than that.  As we stepped past lawns still being watered and leaf blowers blasting detritus, disappointment and regret crept in as well.  And yes some of that was directed at ourselves as we took into account our own 10-hour drive.  Much as we walk, ride our bikes, rock our rain barrels and compost like crazy we are still responsible and I felt obligated to apologize personally to the four last-of-the-big-fish in the diminishing and increasingly algae-fied pool.  I felt for the fish suffering below the no longer tourist-worthy Fanny Bridge—particularly the one that seemed to be staring at me.

That same outflow in 2015.
The pool with its sluggish, heat-stressed fish acting more like koi than trout and steadily pumping water over gills madly searching for oxygen seemed simultaneously a metaphor and a portent to our own condition now and in the future.  I wish I were more sanguine but the barrier between willful and wimpy wait-and-see and climate action is substantial in this country and built wholly from greed wrapped in childish, groundless arguments and reinforced by an embarrassingly prideful ignorance. Unfortunately, this is not something casually knocked over by the strength of kind logic or the sense of sound science.
Looking out over the outflow above the Tahoe City dam in 2015 (Photo by Carlene Marie Ramus).
I have seen many images of climate change but seeing the pulsing operculum (gill cover) and bulging eye of that big Truckee trout staring off into the murk stands out among many as it reflects change that I have observed and experienced.  These dam gate observances are simple but meaningful much like the phenological observances of Aldo Leopold and his daughter Nina in Baraboo, Wisconsin noting that the first butterflies of the season have been coming earlier and earlier each year.

If you click on the picture and look closely you will see the remaining four fish.
The above are concrete manifestations of climate change unsullied by the purposeful muddying of the waters by “think tanks” like the Heartland Institute that would have you confuse the variability of future predictions in mathematical models with the certitude of present peril and our clear role.  It is hard to credit Heartland’s protestations when standing in front of an interpretive display of the species of trout found in the pool upstream of Fanny Bridge when those fish are mostly missing and the natural theater once filled with the sound of rushing water scented with invigorating ozone is now much like an abandoned and nearly drained swimming pool.

All Dressed Up with No Place to Go: the interpretive fish signing with no fish and no crowd looking
over the bridge on 4th of July weekend 2015.  With no fannies is it still Fanny Bridge?
Admittedly there is nostalgia involved.  I pine and grieve for Tahoe as it once was—a place of cold water and abundance.  In this I cannot help reaching back and longing for past states or experiences like watching my father’s worry when a beaver nearly swam between his bluing legs south of the old Tahoe lumber yard as he wadded barefoot and cast a line in the willow-lined channels.  Or remembering a Memorial Day after working non-stop for more time than I want to recall and casting flies in a late season snow storm, because I was on vacation damn it and I was going to fish regardless of the likelihood of success.  And calmer times of skinny dipping in Aloha Lake and floating above the trees submerged by the dam that were just as naked.  Certainly there are those in the beer, bikini and tubing crowd that welcome the warmer waters, but I do not.

The dock at Tavern Shores in Tahoe City showing the boat landing too high for anybody to use.
The tragedy of Fanny Bridge may or may not reverse itself to some extent in the coming years with changes to ocean currents and some lucky snow years.  Even if it does come back we are still stuck with the greater issues of climate change and the related phenomenon of ocean acidification as well as the more troubling issue of anti-intellectualism in this country (1,2 ).  This latter phenomenon, not coincidentally and un-purposefully, has allowed the whole denial machine to confuse and confound these important issues in the first place.


As I write and talk with my wife about what I am writing, the strains of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children” run through my mind because while this is about climate change, it is also about educating our young, resetting our path, and in doing both recapturing our future from those few who would rather gorge themselves on riches than see trout where they should be and the country filled with brains that drive us forward rather than hold us back from a bright future and healthy planet.

(This post is dedicated to my father William Ramsay Ferris Sr. (1920-2015) who passed away on July 3. He taught me well.) 

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