Ăcĭpenser: I. a fish very highly esteemed in the age of the greatest luxury of the Romans, perhaps the sturgeon, Cicero Tusc. 3, 18; id. Fin. 2, 8; Horatio. S. 2, 2, 47; Ovid Hal. 132.
A very kind man asked me accompany him sturgeon fishing the other day. We went to a spot he had only recently learned the existence of. Although he is an avid fisherman and has been a resident here for half a decade, this little secret had managed to elude us both. It is a place I pass often, indeed maybe several times a week. I have stood on the old bridge over the Fraser and heard mighty splashes off in the distance without knowing what fish made the noise. Once, I caught a glimpse of a large fish just disappearing under the khaki-colored water after the sound reached my ears. All I could discern was that it was a very pale color.
Within an hour of being in place that morning, I saw the mystery revealed. White sturgeon of all sizes leaped, swirled and sounded in a stretch of smooth water just upstream of a large sandbar dividing the main channel from a shallow, gravelly side channel. We were alone there for three or four hours and I watched my friend reel in two specimens of at least three feet each plus a squaw fish. My partner told me to let him take my picture with one of his fish, which I did although I felt silly. I fished for trout for the next while. Later, I put more weight on my leader and began to try for a sturgeon.
In a short while, my friend had hooked into a big fish. He insisted that I take the rod and try to learn to reel in a fish of substance. I have never caught a fish in excess of four pounds thus far in my life. I took the rod and tried to keep tension on the barb-less hook. It was akin to pulling a water-soaked mattress through the river on a piece of string. Until the beast jumped, then rushed forward, I honestly couldn't tell that there was anything alive connected to the line. After a while the sturgeon took off up-river and I lost some yardage on the drag. As I strove to make up this paid-out line, I tugged til the rod started to creak and I reeled with purpose. After one little feint shoreward, the big fellow, which my friend had estimated as being seven feet long, turned away. I tugged hard and snapped off the line.
My friend was jolly in spite of this turn of events and immediately began to tie on new tackle as he asked me if I was hooked on the feeling yet. I saw his hands trembling as he worked his knots and didn't know how to tell him that I had felt dead calm and had experienced no adrenaline rush whatsoever during the playing of the sturgeon. I felt that to say so would have been impolite to such a generous person. I tried to explain that if I were catching food to eat, I would be very excited and emotional if it got away. I looked up-river no more than a hundred yards where the traditional fishing rocks of the St'at'imc began. I said something about how we were in reality just annoying a noble, ancient fish.
After several casts with my own gear, I caught a submerged snag and had to part my line. While I was tying on new tackle, a couple appeared on the beach. The man asked many questions as he set up. I landed a nice squaw fish and released it. The fellow had a very expensive rod and reel and had driven many miles to come to this spot. The Fraser River is home to the largest fish in all of North America and these white sturgeon were them. He was using 180 lb. test line. His woman sat on a rock and played with her cell phone while he caught his very first sturgeon. It was a three to four footer and the woman snapped his picture immediately. He released the little one and heaved a mighty cast out to the best ground to try for a big one. My friend caught a little one and then we packed it in as we had come at five AM that morning.
If you saw that picture of me holding that sturgeon or a picture of one of them airborne in that beautiful rugged canyon setting, you would no doubt experience a variety of your own emotions and feelings, which in turn would give impetus to the bent of your thoughts for the time you pondered that picture. In my opinion, the most important aspect of this exercise in terms of your interpretation of it would be that of the frame of the picture. The frame of reference.
Your eyes may light upon different elements such as the railroad trestle, the highway or the wooden bridge built to better access the Bralorne Gold Mine back in the day. You may see the fishing shacks and drying racks of the St'at'imc nearby. You also might take note of my clothes, my face, the size of the sturgeon and the quality of the water. Nevertheless, your biggest initial picture is contained within the frame chosen by the photographer. These limits may be superseded to the degree that you possess learning, imagination and local knowledge.
In my mind's eye I see the Fraser River which has flowed in its present drainage pattern for about 8,900 years. This was after the Cordilleran Ice Sheet separated from the Laurentian Ice Sheet and they both began to melt. The river is much older than that. It was around during the last of the dinosaurs and its age is reckoned to be four million years. The relatives of the people who today are called First Nations appeared with the melting of all that ice. Their arrival and semi-nomadic settlement preceded the Koran, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the pyramids of Egypt, the Sumerian civilization and all the Great Empires. Less than two hundred years ago, came the people who would see the railroads and highways built, although others passed the river mouth in ships at least three hundred years prior to the formation of the Province of B. C. One hundred and forty-seven years ago, gold fever encompassed this entire region.
Men advertised in China for cheap laborers and workers came in droves. They scratched out roads, railways, tunnels and built bridges. When the major pay dirt was exhausted some of the Chinese stayed behind to rework the tailings around here, particularly on Cayoosh Creek before returning to China or setting off for other work places. The rocks they piled neatly beside the watercourse are still gathering lichens, mostly undisturbed and featured in local tourist brochures.
There is a small graveyard just at the southern extremity of the Lillooet Cemetery that was recently “discovered” by a man with a dowsing rod. It was researched and proved to be a Chinese Only burial site. The town wanted to construct a picnic rest stop area on this ground and were stymied by protests from a Chinese Heritage Organization from Vancouver. The heritage people suggested the making of a raised platform of decking over the small site so that the remains wouldn't have to be disinterred, but I cannot imagine anyone wanting to knowingly have a picnic on top of unmarked graves, IE. a picnic with ghosts. I know for sure the First Nations people would not attempt such a thing. I can't think of many Chinese who would want that either. The debate smolders on.
When I first became aware of this site and spoke to various people about it, all the dialogue was studded with the racial issues. Chinese were upset why the graveyard was sequestered in the first place back when it was being used. Non-Chinese were wondering why it was unmarked and untended by the very race of people who were trying to protect it now. I wasn't there and I do not know the answers to these two interesting and valid points of inquiry. To complicate the matter further, the property has been owned by the railroad and by private owners since the Gold Rush Days yet it sits on land disputed to be Traditional Land reserved for the St'at'imc. I remember being shocked when I first saw the sequestered Chinese and Jewish sections in a big cemetery in Vancouver off 41st Ave. and I mused that perhaps people behaved no better in the hereafter than they do in the here and now.
If we walked a few kilometers from the sturgeon beach to take a picture of the Chinese Graveyard and framed our picture properly, we could encompass an area that used to house Japanese Canadians who had been detained in camps during World War II after their property had been confiscated and their families broken up. This was shortly before my birth and the time-line back to those days is measured in decades. Some stayed behind after the war was over and a few went on to be rich lumbermen.
Back on the sturgeon beach, I see an invisible line that runs across the rocks, the sand, the gravel, the water and clear up the far bank. It is the dividing line put in place by the Queen to isolate the land reserved for the St'at'imc fishers. A few hundred yards from there, upriver I see a young St'at'imc man reading a Stephen King novel and glancing into binoculars once in a awhile before writing on a clipboard. He is collecting data and enforcing rules that are now being applied to his own people after the model of the Queen's way. He speaks of friction among his people. It strikes me as strange that his people's ancient salmon management program worked for close to ten thousand years and now is being replaced with one designed by people with a proven bad track record. The non-native gentlemen on the sturgeon beach speak of friction also. They speak of salmon turned into units of illicit currency for the purchase of alcohol, contravening the rules laid down by the Royalty, while it is their non-fishing relatives who purchase the fish.
These men are sport fishermen. I am not a sport fisherman. Not long ago, neither were their European ancestors, be they German, French, Italian, Polish, Greek or Swedish. The sport of fishing could only have come about in a time and place of domination, subjugation and the ensuing surplus and wastage by those dominant. To hunt is in every man's DNA. To take a life is sanctioned in two clear cases all throughout man's sojourn as I see it. One is to feed oneself and ones family. The other is to protect the life of oneself and ones family.
In the historical record, I don't recall hearing about recreational or trophy hunting except in thoroughly civilized environments where such pursuits were restricted to the Elite class. To catch an edible fish of appropriate size and age to eat and subsequently release that animal can only be of the most modern coinage as far as human practices go and could only then be practiced by domesticated men with very full stomachs and strong bosses, in my considered opinion.
Practice is a valid excuse but the techniques in the taking of fish for food were perfected all over the world long, long ago and are not hard to learn and practice even with home-made tools. I see black and white photos pass before my mind's eye of acres of rotting salmon in Burrard Inlet where there was a fish fertilizer trade for awhile. I see the fish bucket-wheels at New Westminster scooping tons for commercial purposes. I see the clay tablet fragments from Sumer where city dwellers complained about all the fees and licenses and taxes to be rendered to the government for each basket of fish a man caught.
I see many sportsmen inculcated with conservation rhetoric and philosophy which they have learned at the feet of the Institutions who are owned by men who have exploited every resource with an iron fist and an unquenchable thirst for profit and control. In the not too distant future, measured perhaps in decades, I see fish with antennas, transponders, implants and eventually bar codes tattooed to their foreheads. If you catch one, there is an App for that and your fees will be automatically deducted from your digital account. The App will tell you who caught it before you and take you to their Facebook pages to join a Group of all those souls who shared the magic of catching that particular water beastie. At home you can then follow your fish in real time for a fee and see it feeding, mating or being caught again.
The Chinese coolies who probably fished on this beach after work in the 1860s eventually returned home with stories of Gold Mountain. With the guidance and patronage of certain especially groomed local leaders who had been educated by Europeans, particularly by English men and women, they were led to glorious revolution and liberation from the homegrown tyrants of their land. Then the real troubles began for many of them. After the murder of multiple millions had taken place and the survivors had been thoroughly re-educated by their new bosses, the population was brought back to high male numbers over the next five decades.
I can see the rails they built carrying off raw materials down the Fraser River to be shipped to factories in China. I see money change hands from East to West. I see those same rails and highways bringing in the Chinese manufactured sturgeon rods and reels and cell phones and cameras and thermoses and backpacks and folding chairs. I see the money again changing hands, this time from West to East. I see the newly enriched Chinese descendants of the coolies paying unprecedented prices for Vancouver real estate and the money sloshing back from East to West. It puts me in mind of the exchange of British gold for Chinese tea and the subsequent exchange of British Indian opium for Chinese gold.
The game is old indeed. Each part of this talk that seems to you to be a point of racial contention, I assure you, is not. In fact, it is this illusion that is itself manipulated with care and precision by men who make sport of their fellow men in order to move old plans along their corduroy roads. We are all played like fish across the planet, yet we persist just as the sturgeon has. Men figured out long ago how to frame pictures to elicit a particular response from the same basic background. Your body is a frame as are your convictions and beliefs. Both draw attention away from your mind itself and your spirit at large. As I have pointed out in another essay, the frames of Chess, for example, are the rules of play and without them the game couldn't be played. Every man is a uniquely framed tiny portion of the God which he worships.
Finally, I regard the sturgeon. A fish called the “Royal Fish” in Wales and legally considered to be the sole property of the Crown. A fish highly esteemed in Ancient Rome. An extremely slow growing and long lived fish. An animal that can reach 12 feet in length and weigh in excess of 1000 lbs. A fish unchanged in its present form for the last 100 million years. These life forms are twenty-five times older than the river of their current refuge. A seemingly listless bottom feeder prone to aerial displays for reasons not yet fully understood. The largest fresh-water fish on the continent of North America. For me, at this point in my life, a perfect symbol of the ennui I endure as the glaciers within me slowly melt and reveal the true landscape of the dream in which I have lived. I was honored to meet the sturgeons but I feel no call to disturb them any further. I may go to watch them jump and splash now that we have been introduced.
I was surfing the net before writing this essay and came across a picture of a town called Nysa in present day Turkey. Caught my eye because my wife's nickname is Nisa. It used to be in the Roman Province of Phrygia. It is situated near the Meander River and if one meanders upriver not very far one will come to the ancient city of Laodicea. The place is mentioned in Revelation and was chided for being luke-warm and was advised to be either hot or cold, as most Christians will probably recall. Well, it was a nice town in it's days and people loved it so much that once when it was damaged by an earthquake during the time of Nero, the locals refused any outside financial help and ponied up their own cash to fix things up. Nysa had a beautiful library and theater and the mountains behind the library look very much like Fountain Ridge behind the library here in Lillooet. Just swap the chokecherry trees for olives and keep the pines
These places resonated with me as I too feel lukewarm. I, however am not convinced that this is a bad thing for my stage in life. A stage, I have dubbed the “Great Inbetweenium.” The time in a man's life when he is neither hot nor cold. To me being hot means being either angry or dissatisfied. Being cold means being aloof and uncaring. I was hot all my life and it only served me good during those few times I harnessed it and used the energy to drive me where I needed to go. I have never been a cold person and although I am a solitary man, I feel for all my fellows even if I don't seek their company.
I have read accounts of ancient rich men unhappy at the tedium they experienced as a symptom of luxury. I have read accounts of the barbarians who came in to ruin it all at the height of their excess. Conversely, I have read very little written by the men and women of history who were satisfied with their lot. They were there all through history. They are the ones on their front porches driving everyone else crazy by minding their own business and knowing that every moments peace was an anomaly and a blessing. I am not rich enough to suffer the malaise of a Roman or Greek citizen nor am I poor enough to burn with the anger of their slaves. Nor yet am I a skin-clad barbarian attracted to the smell of their decadence. Nay, I am a retiree from the Queen's service, not yet 60 years old and just able to pay all my bills on time if I don't live in a wasteful manner. In the big picture, probably a creature as ubiquitous as the sturgeon. You could call me homo saturabiter .
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.