Saturday, January 20, 2018

21. One Less Water Shrew

William was loading minnow traps into the back of Alan’s Mazda.  The new car smell was losing ground to algae and river clay.  Alan wasn’t putting much effort into keeping it clean. This was not a car with meaning.

“What’s today’s mythical beast?” Alan asked, falling into his seat.

William said, “Our target is the elusive Salish Sucker.”

“Sounds dirty.  What is it?”

“It’s a fish.  It’s small.  It’s ugly.  It’s almost extinct.”

“Oh, a fish version of a Pacific water shrew or coastal giant salamander.  Don’t you ever study anything that isn’t some sort of mucky Quasimodo thing?  Your species are losers.”       

William didn’t respond, because Alan was being facetious.  At the same time, he had made a good point.  It was very difficult to attract public support toward saving little troll species.  Biologists had a name for the species that attracted favourable public opinion and caused people to write ardent but often terribly uninformed letters of concern to local papers — those animals were called “Charismatic Macrofauna.”  The giant panda, logo for the World Wildlife Fund, would be the best example.  If an organization used a Pacific water shrew or a Salish sucker for its logo, that would be a loser organization.  

William directed Alan through traffic toward the Trans-Canada Highway.  Half an hour out into Fraser Valley farmlands they would turn south toward Zero Avenue, where a running jump could send you over a ditch and into America and a world of trouble.  They would stay on this side, however, to search a quiet stream called Pepin Brook for signs of the Salish sucker.  Pepin Brook wriggled through the wetlands of Aldergrove Lake Regional Park, one of the smaller GVRD parks.  True to its name, the park contained a lake, but not connected to the brook.  It was tiny, a flooded, concrete-lined former gravel pit about the size of a hockey rink.  People swam there in summer months.  For anyone who spent a childhood anywhere where there were real lakes in which to swim, Aldergrove Lake was a terribly wanting.  Nevertheless, it served as a spot for young Jasons and Jordons to yell, “Cannonball!” 

It would have been a good day for a swim.  It was sunny and hot.

Alan’s car radio was playing Welcome to the Jungle, a song they had ;listened to many times on Alan’s boom box at Camp Ohmeemaw in the summer of 1989.  In 1989 Alan loved Guns N Roses.  The song made them remember being together, blasting down the road out of camp in the Road Runner, headed to town for beer and mayhem. 

Alan asked, “Why do keep scratching your legs?”  William had been bent double, scratching his lower legs almost incessantly since climbing into the car.  “Poison ivy?  Fleas?”

“Swimmer’s itch,” William said.  He rasped at his ankles.  “From wading in Burnaby Lake.  It’s damn Jesus’s fault.  He was blocking the canoe-launching platform.”

“Really.”  Alan glanced at William’s scrabbling.  “Remind me not to swim in there.”

“You would have to be insane to swim in there.”  William explained that Burnaby Lake, although once a recreational area for early settlers to the Vancouver area, was now so polluted with urban effluent, foreign plants, waterfowl excrement and the skin-burrowing waterfowl parasites that cause swimmer’s itch, that it was unswimmable.  Compared to that enormous sewer, a flooded gravel pit in far-flung Aldergrove was an exquisite aquatic playground.  He was in a professorial mode.  Despite the expectation of an unsympathetic response from Alan, he explained the ecological significance of their target, the Salish sucker.  He said, “The Salish sucker is sometimes referred to as a ‘species in the making.’ It is the sister species of the Long-nosed sucker.  Two populations became separated during the most recent glaciation of the region and were isolated long enough to have become genetically and morphologically different.  Whether or not they are truly different species is still an unanswered question, but in order to study them and hopefully protect a novel evolutionary entity from disappearing before it even achieved the Guilded Badge of Specieshood, we have to find them.”

“And that’s what we’re gonna do,” said Alan.  “Hand out the badges.  What’s our plan?  Where do we look?”

“They like streams and marshy areas that have overhanging vegetation, which provide shade and safety from predatory birds.  They like the bottom to be just so, not too coarse, not too fine.  Their streams can’t be affected by agricultural runoff or roaming livestock.  In urban areas, the streams have to be safe from off-leash dogs and children with dip nets.

“The young Williams.”

William paused.  Alan was correct.  He would have done that.  He continued, “Clearing streamside brush, culverting watercourses, introduction of stolen shopping carts — all add up to a rough time for the Salish sucker.  A species barely in existence, now almost gone.  Welcome to the world, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.”

They parked next to a sign indicating the Pepin Creek Trail.  Alan popped the trunk and waited while William organized himself.

“Here are the minnow traps,” he said, handing two out.  They were cylindrical baskets of coarse metal mesh, a foot and a half long.  There was a cone-shaped entrance on either end that allowed fish to swim in but made it hard for them to find the way back out. 
They carried three traps each, beneath bowed arms.  William, marching ahead, had a pair of chest waders slung over his right shoulder.  Alan had a spool of black nylon cord hitched over his.  Glancing back, explaining loudly, William said that normally in stream surveys you would leave traps overnight, but there was almost always some mortality due to stress, injury, or the ingress of predators into the trap, giant water bugs or red-sided garter snakes.  “Mortality increases the longer the trap is set, so we’re only going to trap for a few hours.  A single dead sucker would be one too many.”  

“Of course,” said Alan, with the traps on the verge of slipping from his grasp.  Pausing to reposition his load, he called out, “Man from La Mancha, what’s the name of the flunky?”

William slowed as his mind took several steps backward to a very divergent data base.  It came to him.  “Sancho Panza?”

They passed several DOGS MUST BE LEASHED signs, and then came to the first of three bridges going across a tributary that fed the brook.  An expensive metal sign was riveted to the post at the end of the handrail.  It said, “Keep out of Stream.  Rare Fish Species Habitat. Salish Sucker.  A Species at Risk.”  The sign looked brand new.  Its presence was a pro-active and optimistic measure by William’s contact, Marilyn, from the Environment Ministry.  It was only suspected or hoped that the fish might be there.  It was William’s assignment to find out.

Alan leaned against the opposite rail, minnow traps at his feet, as William fought his way into his chest waders.  He made unhelpful comments.

“It’s like you’re being birthed by a rubber thing, but in reverse.”

“They’re like old-man gumboots that go up to your nipples.”

“Those would make for extremely safe sex.  Have you tried that?  You probably have.”

“Help me with the straps,” William said.  They went over his shoulders and were criss-crossed at the back.  They had to be at a precise tension: too loose, and the wearer’s foot would pull out in the muck, leading to a fall and a full-body soaker.  Too tight created an unrelenting wedgie.
“Okay,” said William as Alan tugged here and there.  “I think that’s good.”

Even worn correctly, chest waders dramatically limit agility and the body’s ability to thermo-regulate.  On a hot summer day, they were unpleasant.  William picked up two traps and the nylon cord and clumped toward the water. He was having trouble stepping down the bank.

“Wouldn’t it be better just to wade in wearing old shoes?” Alan asked.

“I would,” William said, but I don’t trust the cleanliness of the water and don’t want to infect the swimmer’s itch on my legs.”  He sloshed into the water.  “Maybe I should have done that.  These things make the swimmer’s itch worse, and I can’t even scratch it!”

At each of the first and second bridges, William took two traps and carefully followed the edge of the watercourse to where it entered the marshy area that further-on drained into Pepin Brook.  Dog kibble was meant for dogs to eat, but also made for good minnow bait and the baiting of numerous other creatures.  William had never owned a dog, but had purchased a lot of kibble over the years.  He had pre-loaded it into plastic 35 millimeter film canisters he had perforated with a hand drill.  He wondered what biologists would use for bait containers once film was finally gone.  He tossed each baited trap into dark water beneath overhanging elderberry and willow shrubs and strung the attached cords back to easy access points where he tied them low on tree trunks. 

As they approached the third bridge, a large black dog came galloping around the corner.  It was similar to a standard poodle, but with a larger, blockier head.  Its legs were wet and muddy.  It had obviously been playing in the stream up ahead, in hoped-for Salish sucker habitat.  It swerved around them and galloped on toward the stream William had just carefully stepped from.  Without thinking he dropped his equipment, turned and chased the dog as fast as chest waders allowed.
Alan ditched what he was carrying and chased William.  He quickly caught up.

William and the dog were almost back at the second bridge. The dog had stopped running and had its head tilted in quizzical dog fashion.  As Alan came nearer, William waved him to stop, not to frighten the dog.  “C’mere, Fuckhead,” he said.  It inched forward, its head lowered.  William leaned and grabbed its collar.  It pulled away a bit, but didn’t really resist.  “Now let’s go find your fuckhead owner,” he said, and started dragging it back the way it had come.

“Calm down, William,” said Alan.  “Take it easy, okay?”  The old William had rarely been angry.  Being angry wasn’t something he was good at.  He was swearing again.  He never used to swear.

William said, as he dragged Fuckhead, “Working in Nature Reserves, you quickly learn that off-leash dogs are devastating to wildlife.  They also shit all over the place, and relatively few owners take responsibility for their dog’s poop.  Normally, when I’m wearing a uniform, there’s a set script.  He spoke in an officious voice:

‘I’m sorry, but this is not an off-leash area.  You’ll have to put your dog back on
its leash.’

“Usually they grunt, say nothing, and dutifully re-attach Fuckhead to his lead.  Sometimes they say,”

He spoke in a falsetto lame-brain voice,  

‘He’s such a gentle dog.  He doesn’t bother anything.’ 

“This is usually about the point when the dog jumps on me in an exuberant way, smearing mud on my pants, or, if I’m wearing shorts, scratching my legs. But I say,

‘It doesn’t matter.  All dogs must be leashed, no exceptions.’

“But look at me now.  No uniform.  How liberating.  Plus I’m already in a bad mood.  I want to yell at the moron owner, say what I really want to say.”

“William, let the dog go.  Forget it, okay?  Calm down.”

Fuck no!  I’m wearing chest waders in hot weather, which is miserable, and now I’ve been running in chest waders in hot weather, which is more miserable, and I’m suffering from swimmer’s itch and wearing chest waders and running in hot weather, which is making everything worse, and fuck! Calm down? You are telling me to calm down?  Since when are you the sane voice, Mr. Loose Cannon?”

A tall, slim, grey-haired lady, wearing electric blue spandex pants and a red t-shirt with a silk-screened Mona Lisa rounded the corner.  A lead was dangling from her hand.  When she saw William clutching her dog’s collar, her face changed from benign to cross.  She looked at William, her dog, and Alan.  William should have immediately known when she spoke that this would not go well.                 

“Jasper!” she said (to the dog).  “Why are you holding my dog?” she said (to William).  “Let him go.  Come, Jasper!”  She had an imperious British accent.  There were lots of old people in British Columbia with such accents, and from experience William knew they were the worst.  They thought they still owned everything.

Jasper strained, but William kept hold of his collar.  It was his second mistake.   A third, or in chronological order would have been the first, had been not to shed the chest waders before chasing the dog.

”William said,  “This is a feral dog.  We’re taking it to the SPCA.”

Alan looked at him in surprise.

“No, he’s a Portuguese Water Dog,” the woman said.  “And he’s mine, obviously.”

“Why should we believe you?  It’s big dog, running through wildlife habitat, off leash... so off to the pound we go.  Let’s go,” he said to Alan and he jerked Jasper around and started walking as briskly as his unwieldy rubber pants-boots permitted.  He heard the woman trotting behind, and expected either a wheedling, whining, begging apology or, more likely, angry British umbrage, but instead heard a whistling sound.  It ended abruptly, as the metal clip on the end of the lead smacked into his right cheek bone.  Then the woman grabbed the straps of his chest waders and tried to pull him backward.  There was a lot of give in the straps, so at best she only slowed his forward progress.  A gamer, she smacked him with the lead again, this time the top of his head.  William wheeled to grab the lead from her, but his foot became turned around in the boot and he tumbled off the trail into the salmonberries.  Jasper broke free.

“Horrid little man,” said the woman, which was another way of saying, “twerp.”  Jasper sprinted ahead, leapt into the water beside the second bridge, danced around, churning up the mud, and then leapt back out again.  He bolted joyfully away, back to the parking lot.

Alan helped William to his feet.  “That was very successful,” he said. 

William glared at him.  “You!” he said.  Stupid artists.  They only generated chaos when it was their idea.  “It’s not over yet.”  In his hand was a rock.  He wound up to throw it at the retreating woman, a beautiful throw that even with his wonky eyesight William knew was going to slam perfectly into the back of her head...

“William, No!” Alan shouted, and blocked his arm.  They wrestled for the rock.  Then all the hairs on both of their arms and necks stood on end.  William was looking at Alan’s face.  He was afraid. Alan saw or sensed what was about to happen, let go, and dropped to the ground.  He crouched and looked at the sky, his eyes wide. 

But then, calm.  Alan’s expression — open, afraid, lost — had an effect on William and the feeling went away, like losing a sneeze.  Bent over, hands on his knees, William felt woozy.  “Help me out of these,” he said, pawing ineffectually at the left shoulder-strap of the waders.

Alan stood and helped him escape from the waders.  William kicked them off the trail like half a shed skin, and in sock feet walked to the second bridge.  He flopped face-down onto the boards, which were wet with dog-prints.  He pressed his forehead to the wood, which was warm.  Through cracks between the planks he could see water striders drifting on the water below.  They would jerk their swimming legs now and then to keep in place beneath the bridge.

Alan came and sat next to him, his back against a post.  He said, “You can’t be the policeman for this place.  There will always be idiots with dogs.  Why do you get so angry about them?”

William said, “No matter how much I want to, I can’t undo the fact that the little Quasimodo creatures are going extinct.  The last thing the fish in these streams need — if they’re even there — is a large, destructive dog pulverizing their habitat.”

“Yeah, well, okay.  But you overreacted.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Think if you had reacted this passionately at another time in your life.”

William was leaning against the opposing bridge rail.  “What does that mean?”

Alan smiled sadly.  Then he said, “It means you have dog-issues.”

“Dogs are hell,” William said.  “Dogs are pestilence.  Let’s finish this.”  There were two more traps to set.  

As they drove into the nearby city of Abbotsford for lunch, Alan indicated a passing sign.  He asked, “What’s the big deal about Chilliwack corn?  That’s like the fifth sign.”  This was corn country, and for some reason there was a widely held opinion that Chilliwack corn was exceptionally good.  William had never understood that either.  Toronto is, or was, surrounded by corn fields.  In fact, much of Metropolitan Toronto’s sprawl had been built upon former corn fields.  If you grew up in Toronto when William and Alan did, it was inevitable that each August and September you ate a lot of fresh, delicious corn on the cob.  In William’s experience, Chilliwack corn paled in comparison.  He suspected that Vancouver-area people were easily swayed, and collectively had come to believe that corn from the farms near Chilliwack was the only corn worth eating.  It was okay, but no match for Ontario corn.  Some farming group years ago did some very clever marketing.  They invented a myth about their corn that had never been questioned.

At the next big yellow sign promising Fresh-picked Chilliwack Corn Alan, pulled over.  He got out and walked to the stand.  William stayed in the car and watched with the window down.

“Give me a half-dozen of your finest Chilliwack corn!” Alan said, playing the part of gullible city slicker.

In response, the man behind the table seemed willing to behave more rural than was necessary, and even emitted a bumpkinish “hyuk-hyuk” laugh to something Alan said.  Then he handed Alan a business card, which was incongruously not rural or bumpkinish.

They stopped at a restaurant and ordered burgers.  Alan ordered two large draft beers.  “To soothe your nerves, man,” he said.  “How often do you have these episodes?  When you were 18, you barely had a pulse.  You were Mr. Quiet, Low-Key.  You were as emotional as a drawer of sweaters.” 

William fired him an angry look. 

He held up his hands, “Whoops, forgot, lightning, sorry.”

“Yeah, don’t forget,” William said.

“Maybe you could use some pills.  Anti-depressants.”

“I don’t do pills,” William said.

He said, “Why not? I do.  Lots of pills.  Every category you can name. ”

William looked at him dubiously.  Alan was the last person William would have expected to resort to pills.  He was too pig-headed to let some lab-coat tell him to take trendy and unproven fuzzy-wuzzy, trade-marked pharmaceuticals.

“Honest.  I probably would have killed myself by now if not for pills.”

After lunch they drove around, looking at fields of corn.  “Chilliwack corn,” Alan kept saying, immensely pleased.  They returned to Aldergrove Lake Regional Park three hours after the traps had been set.  At the first bridge, the first trap contained four sticklebacks — spiny little fish found in almost every permanent body of water, no matter how small or distant from other bodies of water.  The second trap contained five sticklebacks, no Salish suckers.

At the second bridge, the first trap contained four more sticklebacks and a giant water bug that was busy consuming what was left of a fifth.  The second trap contained nothing.

As William stepped down to the bank below the third bridge, a young woman’s voice said, “Ah, Excuse me?”  William turned and recognized a robins’ egg blue GVRD uniform shirt and Deborah Nash, one of the East Area interpreters. 

“Hi Deb,” William said.  They knew each other, because they had attended the same training sessions and sometimes worked together on large programs.

“Oh, hi William!”  William considered Deb a very good interpreter.  She knew a lot about nature and was very skilled at explaining things to people who didn’t.  She had applied to work in Central Area, but didn’t get chosen by Ed Daddle.  Deb was about five-foot nine and had a heron-like countenance.  Not cute, not perky, not good enough for Ed.  She was hired in East Area, where the administrative staff were competent.

William started explaining what he was doing, but Deb became star-struck and lost interest when she realized his companion was Alan Lennox.  She also had purchased his books and prints, the whole deal.  

William stopped talking and went back to work.  The first trap at the third bridge contained two more sticklebacks.  The last trap contained a surprise.  He carried it back to the bridge where Alan and Deb were leaning against opposite railings, chatting happily.  Deb looked flushed.  “You won’t believe this,” William said.  Deb peered at the trap.  There was a soggy black blob inside, with a pointy nose, short bristly tail, and little spiky hairs on its pinky-grey feet..  Its v-shaped mouth remained open from its last hopeless gasp.  William unhitched the latch to pull the trap apart, and carefully lifted out the corpse.  He handed it to Alan.

“What is it?” asked Deb.  “A shrew?”

Alan said, “I believe I am holding the dead body of a Pacific water shrew, a highly endangered mammal, which is now even more highly endangered.”  He handed it back to William, and pointed out, “Frustrating isn’t it — you can never tell where one of these things is, only where it was.”                                            
As they walked back to the car, Alan asked Deb, “Do you often have trouble with a spandex-pants British lady walking her Portuguese water dog off leash?”

“Oh God, her.  You ran into her?”

Alan said, “You won’t have to worry about that one anymore.  William kicked her ass.”


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