Travel breeds curiosity. On the road, we find ourselves waking early, wandering unfamiliar streets, watching foreign cities creak to life as the sun rises. We poke around corners, eat exotic dishes and pour over maps. We are alive to the possibilities of the world around us.
Yet the more I travel, the more I chide myself for not maintaining such curiosity at home, a point made clear by a recent obsession: swimming the rivers and creeks right outside my back door.
It started when a neighbour, who spent years shepherding rehabilitation of a small creek that runs near my B.C. home, asked if I would join her as she poked around its shallow waters – in a mask and snorkel. Our goal: to spot the elusive westslope cutthroat trout, a population decimated during the 1960s and 1970s by toxic effluent from the world's largest lead/zinc mine. With the mine closed for more than a decade, Mark Creek no longer runs red and sterile. But would the cutthroat return?
We yanked on sticky wetsuits in a city park. The first pool was no larger than a bathtub, and barely a foot deep. I didn't expect to see a thing, and felt rather silly, in the Jacques Cousteau get-up, crawling about on hands and knees.
But no sooner had I stuck my head under water than five good-size fish materialized. They were brook trout – not cutthroats – but each close to a foot long. Yanking my head from the water, I spat out the snorkel and hollered for my neighbour. Excitedly, we peered into the clear water. From above, the pool appeared barren. Confused, I plunged my head back under, and all five fish were still there, inches from my eyes. Pulling my head out again, they disappeared. Their camouflage was uncanny. You had to get beneath the surface if you hoped to spot anything.
The current carried us onward over smoothed rocks and occasional dregs of garbage. We counted 74 fish – including several western slope cutthroat trout – in the next three hours.
Some months later I received a call from Gerry Nellestijn, a fisheries technologist. Nellestijn had once taken me to a hidden creek not far from the highway. Leaping from cliffs, we plunged into the smooth, serpentine course, carved through bedrock. Its emerald waters were less than a metre wide but apparently bottomless. When four large bull trout rose from the depths – a threatened species that lives only in the coldest, cleanest and most secluded waters – I was ecstatic, but Nellestijn laughed. I'd missed the real spectacle that spring, he insisted, when the same pools were crammed with fish preparing for upstream migration.
Now, with fall approaching, the bull trout were preparing to mate and Nellestijn had stumbled on a few distinctive "redds" (gravel nests) that morning. Did I want to join him the next day, and see if we could find more?
We met near the creek's alpine headwaters, and after donning wetsuits, slipped into its icy waters. Within seconds Nellestijn tapped my arm and pointed to a pair lurking beneath a car-sized boulder. In my rush to take a photograph, I spooked the fish. Despite a long wait, they never returned. Had I blown it? Such worry was wasted, for Nellestijn was already moving upstream. He discovered five bull trout in the next pool. Before long he whistled again; another pair. Wading toward him, I almost stepped on a trout, as long as a baseball bat and emblazoned with the brilliant red and orange of spawn. It tore off like a missile toward the gravel shallows. Lunkers were everywhere; behind most rocks, under logs, in every deep pool. Before long we lost count.
One frisky female developed an unaccountable attraction to my underwater camera, returning again and again to rub directly against its glass dome. Inches away, I barely breathed, for fear of scaring her, while clicking image after image, not sure if any would be in focus. Meanwhile her massive partner, a metre-long male, kept charging with mouth agape in an intimidating territorial display.
The experience felt every bit as powerful as migrations and congregations I had witnessed elsewhere in the world. Yet this was less than an hour from home. If Nellestijn hadn't dragged me here, I would have missed it.
For travellers, the globe can seem limitless, the possibilities inexhaustible and at times overwhelming. After two decades of nomadic wanderings, I now have a home to return to, and with each passing day, that anchor provides a gentle but strong reminder that the same possibilities lie outside our front doors, if we'd only look.
Special to The Globe and Mail