Ana Maria Spagna's "Spawning in the Mud"

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Institute writing instructor Ana Maria Spagna’s new collection of essays Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness. Join us at Mount Vernon’s Libation Station on May 6 for a free reading and author reception — more information on this and other readings in Seattle, Concrete, Darrington and elsewhere at

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

All summer the threat of a catastrophic wildfire had cast a pall over the valley. Ferns browned up and bowed over. Twigs snapped under Vibram soles, and we winced.  I’d spent so much dread on wildfires that I’d forgotten completely about floods. Besides, after that 100-year flood eight years back, didn’t we have a 92 year hiatus coming?
“Come on,” Laurie said.
She pointed to my boots strewn where I’d left them after my last day of trail work. I pulled them on, and we headed out. The extension cords in the yard were now completely submerged and barely visible. The earth had been too dry for too long, and now it would not accept water, but repelled it, dust-like, so that the whole forest floor was filling up like a series of plastic kiddy pools. Hydrophobic, people would say later: the soil had gone hydrophobic.
Laurie and I splashed on through. As we neared the river, the puddles began moving in rivulets that divided and spread like a crowd racing for their cars after a ball game. We stood on the bank with our camera and waved at neighbors and schoolkids standing on the opposite bank. Laurie jumped up and down and clapped as water sprayed over the top of a small log jam, like surf over tide pools. The kids mimicked her.
I stood still.
The air buzzed with excitement, but I resisted. Sure, as a seasonal laborer on backcountry trail crews, I’d been free to give in to it. We cheered when trail bridges washed out; if it meant more work for us, so be it. Nature wins! we’d say.  And we believed it. The river not only had more might than us, I figured back then, but more right, too. Once, when I worked in Canyonlands in Utah, a visitor had knocked at my door in the middle of the night to tell me about a rattlesnake she’d seen in the backcountry. Someone should do something about it, she said. The park belongs to the rattlesnakes, I said, and I shut the door. For many years I believed something similar about floods. The valley belongs to the river. The difference, of course, was that now that we’d settled down and bought land and built a home, we belonged to the valley too.
On our way back home, a familiar pickup slowed next to us.
“I think it’s gonna get wild,” the driver said.
After he drove off, we walked in silence. If we were a little late catching the hint, we did have an excuse. Experts had explained November floods to us this way: snow comes too early and then melts too fast when the freezing level rises and rain sets in. There’s a fancy name for that, too: a rain-on-snow event. This time there was precious little snow in the mountains, and the rain had only begun the night before. I’d even checked the website: only 6,000 CFS. The fact that the pickup driver, who had lived his whole life in Stehekin and didn’t need expert analysis or Internet numbers to recognize a flood, said it was going to get wild was, well, sobering.
Back at the house, I filled water bottles, thermoses, the bathtub even, preparing for the inevitable power outage. The river continued to rise.  At dusk we ventured out one last time. I still wore shorts, and the fact that it was summer-clothes warm did not seem like a good omen. The water had already reached the bottom log of a vacation home across the road that sits on a three-foot high foundation. By now, it seemed less like a river than the ocean. Swells formed and curled over amongst the trees. A charging persistent roar grew louder and more sea-like by the minute.  With all the displaced fish, would-be spawning salmon, it even smelled like the ocean.
Stehekin salmon are not what you might think. They’re not mighty ocean-farers, but smaller wiry landlocked sockeyes called kokanees, who make a comparatively short trip from the lake upstream to lay eggs. Through most of September and October, Laurie and I, as a rule, try not to stir up too much mud in the shallows of the river, try to give them a little personal space. But late October is, frankly, pretty late in their game. These hangers-on eggs laid, business done, skin flapping, color fading, had apparently hung on just for this one last wild ride. They didn’t stand a chance.
So the flood smelled like the ocean. And, Laurie noted, like a lumber mill. And she was right. All those logs, roots and limbs, freshly torn, needles dangling, careening past or jamming up, straining in the current, then breaking loose, cannon-shot, could have built a thousand homes.
Back at home, the power went out, so we sat in the dark, the room flickering orange from woodstove fire, and we listened to a handheld radio. Some people still had power, and they were watching the numbers on the Internet. Up to 12,000, they reported. Still rising.
“20,000,” Laurie said. “I’ll bet it’s as big as 96!”
“No way,” I said. “Sixteen five max.”
This is not so bad, I thought. Everyone is over-reacting.
Excerpted from the essay “Spawning in the Mud” from Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, Oregon State University Press, 2011.

*  *  *  *  * *  *  *  *  * *  *  *  *  *

North Cascades Institute writing instructor and trail worker Ana Maria Spagna has just published a new book of interconnected essays entitled Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness. Come hear this award-winning writer  — a resident of Stehekin who worked trail crew in Glacier Peak Wilderness and North Cascades National Park for many years — read from her new book on a unique small-town Cascadia book tour.
The Institute will celebrate the book’s release by hosting a free reading at 5 pm on May 6 at Libation Station in Mount Vernon (110B N. First Street) at 5 pm. The evening will feature storytelling, book signing, wine tasting and special hor d’oeuvres prepared by Chef Shelby Slater. The following evening, she’ll venture up the Skagit to read at the library in Concrete (45770 Main Street) at 7 pm.
Ana Maria’s affectionate, wry and wise writings journey from Washington State to Tijuana to a California beach to Utah’s canyon country and back again to the sparsely populated valley in the North Cascades she calls home. She asks the universal question, “What connects us?” and discovers, again and again, the gift of community.
Other stops on the Potluck tour include the Port Angeles Library, May 13, 7 pm; Darrington Library, May 16 6:30 pm; Leavenworth Library, June 24, 7 pm; and Trail’s End Books in Winthrop, July 9, 6 pm.

Leave a Comment