Voices of the River:For Love of Fish


For Love of Fish: Fisher Poet and Folk Singer

By Alexa Wiley

My soul will crave the fishing. But my heart won’t miss, the killing of fish”
— Fisher Poet, Dave Densmore

Dave Densmore and Alexa Wiley

DAVE AND I seem an unlikely pair. Dave Densmore, a fisher poet originally from Alaska, has been part of the Columbia River fleet fishing salmon and sturgeon since the 60’s. His first poems were written off shore outside Astoria in the 70’s. He writes while steering his boat in the rain, in the night, on the ocean on the land. Dave writes because that is who he is as a fisherman and as a poet. I am a folk singer from Oregon in love with the watershed of the Columbia River. I do not fully comprehend life on a fishing boat or the changes the ocean and river have undergone in this past century. It would be ignorant to say that I do. But together Dave and I make a team. Standing heart to heart, as we speak and sing about our very different lives, we are coming from the same place. This was clear to our Fisher Poet Gathering audience in Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River in March 2009.

Like Dave with his poetry, I make connections with local communities through my songwriting. I’ve learned the salmon feed human and other species, support our commercial fisheries, and nourish the land. Pacific Northwest forests depend on salmon carrying the ocean’s nitrogen upstream to their roots. I have researched the salmon’s keystone role in the health of our shared ecosystems and written lyrics about our connection to this regional species:

Just like when you prayed to catch a fish and a native bit just to tell you, you belong....” — Alexa Wiley

Yellowstone wolf in Lamar Valley. © Alison M. Jones

I have also sung of the impact of the wolf, the elk and the beaver within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an impact scientifically referred to as the trophic cascade of the wolf population.

Without the willow, the river went into a chaotic state, ran crazy lines and flooded her banks. Ecologist came into the forest to see about a river so out of sync. He found the willow, the deer, the wolf – the missing link.” This song “Wolf” is also a metaphor about the loss of wildness within.

Much of my knowledge of watershed issues has been learned while working for powerful stewardship agencies in the Columbia Watershed. From 2006–2008 I developed and produced a project called “Salmon Nation Artist Project” (SNAP) in partnership with Sarah Johnson-Keefer, Ecotrust, and Mississippi Studios. The SNAP project is a multimedia compilation of artists within the bioregion defined by Salmon Nation. The Salmon Nation is a community of caretakers and citizens stretching across arbitrary boundaries and bridging urban-rural divides. Its “citizens” include many tribes, fishermen, farmers, ranchers, loggers, and urban-dwellers committed to improving their communities and watersheds. This nation is defined by the Pacific salmon habitat, which ranges from California’s redwoods up to Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, into Russia and Japan. It runs along the Pacific Coast of North America.

Salmon Nation’s artist rendition of the connection between salmon and other species in its habitat. © Alison M. Jones

Using salmon as an indicator of their regional health, Salmon Nation members note in their website that 137 species depend on salmon as part of their diets, and the landscape itself is nourished by them. “The forest raises the salmon,” writes Richard Manning in his essay The Forests that Fish Built, “but the salmon also raise the forest. This mutual dependence is the very definition of community, and in the end, the heart of the matter.”

The Dalles Dam seen beyond native American fishing platform near the former Celilo Falls. © Alison M. Jones

Salmon Nation, in partnership with Ecotrust in Portland, Oregon, fostered my connection to the regional network of watersheds and taught me that these basins define who we are as people. Celilo Falls, about 80 miles east of Portland, was the largest gathering site for sustenance fishing in the bioregion many decades ago. Tribes from the region gathered in very large numbers to share and harvest the salmon resource. Celilo Falls was inundated in 1957 as part of the Bonneville Dam construction. With the building of numerous dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries for power generation and reclamation, whole tribes of people have been destroyed and salmon are now on the brink of extinction, where they once thrived. Native Fishing Rights are one of the biggest reasons for fighting for these endangered species on the west coast.

Through the process of weaving together the SNAP project, I met people impacted by environmental changes in the bioregion. They know more than I could have imagined. While working on Salmon Nation Artist Project, released in January 2008, I met Dave Densmore and attended my first Fisher Poets Gathering in 2007.

Protest in Columbia Estuary over proposed LNG gas terminals. © Alison M. Jones

Continuing my stewardship of the Columbia River Basin, I worked for Columbia Riverkeeper (CRK) for 6 months in 2008 as an event organizer. A strong advocate working against any project that threatens the big river, CRK, a part of International Riverkeeper founded by Robert Kennedy, works to restore and protect the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it. During my time with CRK, I learned about, and became involved in, the fight against proposed Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in Oregon. CRK almost single-handedly turned the state government around in its approach to LNG legislation.

Sacred cove of the Chinook Nation near Fort Columbia in the Columbia Estuary. © Alison M. Jones

Clips of my anti-LNG song (for Carol Newman) can be heard during the credits of “Crossroads on the Columbia: Oregon Faces America’s Energy Future,” produced by Intercultural Images and chronicle of the long fight in Oregon against proposed liquefied natural gas terminals that threaten the quality and usage of fresh water in the Columbia River Estuary and on upstream.

“They want to dredge the river wide so they can fit their ships inside and leave no place for fish to reside. From there where will it go? California, maybe Mexico. I think that all the locals know this is how hunger grows.” — Alexa Wiley

In March 2009 I attended my second Fisher Poet Gathering in Astoria, OR. Since its beginnings eleven years ago, this gathering has since grown to a sizeable regional event drawing fishermen and women from all up and down the west coast to gather and tell stories, read poems and sing songs. As described by the New York Times on March 5, “Camp converged with oceangoing cred. Old salts dazzled California transplants. Even a bad day of fishing, it seems, can produce a decent rhyme.… The gathering generated … ‘friction,’ a constructive tension between those who have accumulated real experience at sea and those who are drawn to them. Looks can be deceiving. Some participants seem more city than seaworthy but can recount years on deck. Others look the part but mostly like the lore.”

I am incredibly impressed with the Fisher Poet Gathering; however I warn that it takes some “getting used to” for outsiders like me. Going to the FPG is not only for entertainment – it is immersion into a sub culture, a way of life, an experience. You have to be willing to go along for the ride. You have to remain open. Then, like the salmon coming home, you will find yourself returning to the event every year. It is a place of remembering and connection to something more, something like the love of fish. “There’s one thing that I know, if she goes, I go.” — Alexa Wiley

Salmon Trawler in Ilwaco, port in Columbia Estuary. © Alison M. Jones

And Dave Densmore is there. Dave is a fellow steward in the Columbia River Basin who spends his winters in Astoria and his spring and summers fishing in Alaska. He was raised in Alaska on Kodiak and in various Aleutian Island villages. A love of the sea was his motivation to pursue a lifetime career of commercial fishing and diving. By the age of twelve, Dave earned a “full man share” in an industry that paid wages by percentage of fish catch and a man’s ability. He bought his first commercial fishing boat at the age of thirteen. Ten years later, as the youngest “King Crab Skipper” in the Bering Sea, Dave was already well into a career which took him from crab fishing in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor to salmon and tuna trolling along the Pacific west coast from California to Canada. In his full life of commercial fishing, he has long-lined black cod and halibut. He has seined, gillnetted and trolled for salmon and pot-fished for King Tanner, Dungeness crab and true cod.

Seagulls monitoring fish harvest in Ilwaco, in Columbia Estuary. © Alison M. Jones

“A fisherman is what I am. It’s all I ever wanted. Even as a child, my dreams with fishing boats were haunted.” — Dave Densmore

Dave started working seriously with his poetry and storytelling because he felt that the commercial fishing industry was being publicly demonized. Through his writing, Dave works to capture the spirit of a way of life that is being lost. He writes to show the general public that fishermen are simply harvesters of a public resource and not greedy marauders as he feels they have been portrayed. He hopes to acquire a fluent enough voice to influence the perception of those who regulate the industry.

So let this be a lesson, No one ever knows all. And sometimes folks with local knowledge, Should make the final call.” — Dave Densmore

Dave Densmore in his boat

Dave is the voice of a way of life that is fast disappearing. He knows the life and seasons of the ocean and rivers. He understands that the river is about to become corpse of a body that once pulsed with the teaming schools of salmon returning from the sea. His voice is part of a culture we must understand and preserve as much as the fish on which Dave’s way of life depends.

“Yeah, I’ve fished her up and down, both inside and out. It’s been a damn good life, Money was never what it was all about.” — Dave Densmore

When performing with Dave Densmore and hearing his songs and stories of people from the fishing culture, I immerse myself into his worldview. I become a part of a culture of salmon lovers, connected by our love for the region, our love for fish, our varied experience and knowledge of a shared place.

I realize that it is through each other that we have everything to gain and that culture is inseparable from the natural environment that we depend on for survival. So together Dave and I continue to join poetry and music, weaving a tapestry to capture the spirit of our work. We are both artists who love the salmon, the river and the ocean. And we are activists. We are both learning.

Alexa Wiley, 2009