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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
(Seattle & Northern 1890)
Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered:
Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated
to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness

Noel V. Bourasaw, editor 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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How Marv Olsen's dad leash-trained a salmon
Honest to God!

      Marv Olsen has been a loyal reader of these pages for a long time and he has provided many historical details about the Monte Cristo region and Bennettville, where his family lived for a long spell. He is also a trader in cameras and he shared a scan from Darius Kinsey for our recent Subscribers Edition story about the old Sauk Prairie region. Marv lost his dad this year and unfortunately we did not post this story in time for his dad to read it. But you can bet your last lead sinker that his dad is still fishing in that big river up yonder and he is most likely fitting another salmon to his leash.

By Marv Olsen, in his dad's honor, unedited and unvarnished
(Leash training salmon)
Dad, fishing, 1978

      I was born on December 22, 1944, on the first day of winter, at Mount Vernon, Washington. But this is not about me. It is about my father. He was born on April 22, 1913, on the Sauk River Prairie, near Darrington, Washington. If you were to look at a map, you would see that these two locations are not thirty miles apart as the crow flies, the assumption being that crows fly in a straight line, which they undoubtedly do not, for crows must contend with the limitations of mountain ranges and weather, to somewhat the same extent as do we pedestrian humans. And, as my father and I have neither one of us strayed very far from our ancestral home, so too have our memories somewhat conjoined. Things that happened in his life-time, to the extent that they have been related by him to me, as so many of them have been, have become my memories too, and it has often been the case that what began as my father's experience has been lost from his memory, even though it continues on in mine.
      It is also true that I spent the first few years of my life living in a home that was no more than half a mile from the home in which my father spent the first few years of HIS life. He and I walked the same fields as individual youngsters, saw the same streams, and explored the same forests, though it was perhaps not until our individual later years that we each marveled at the continuity of life and at how we were but examples of that continuity. When I was old enough to become both observant and contemplative, I was amazed at the abundance of salmon that would return in the fall of each year to spawn in their stream of birth, the Sauk River, which is a tributary of the Washington's Skagit River. It would be no exaggeration for me to tell you that I used to skip flat stones across the rolling waters of the Sauk, and that in the fall of the year, if my aim was good, and my thoughts of wildlife not especially considerate, I would also skip flat stones off the backs of fish, laboring as they were in their last efforts to reach the river's headwaters to deposit their eggs and then to die as their final gesture to nature's grand design. It WOULD be an exaggeration, however, for me to claim that upon occasion, when I was quick and sure-footed, I could get from one riparian shore to another without getting my feet wet, by leaping from the back of one fish to another, even though in viewing the scene as I did back then as a small child, I nevertheless contemplated the possibility of such act.
      But I have digressed, for this is my father's story. In my father's day, it was easy to wonder and at the same time take for granted the bounty that was provided by the Sauk's waters. In my father's time, the river was so filled with salmon that there was seldom enough room for the water, let alone the fish, and the salmon would take turns sitting it out on the banks of what would have been a flowing river had there actually been less fish and therefore room for more water. It was a simple matter for a child to catch his limit, for there were no limits. There were no boundaries to the number of fish that would return to the river each year.
      One October afternoon, after my father had gotten out of school for the day, he ran down to the graveled banks where the Sauk River flowed behind his home and proceeded to fish, using a pole that his father had made for him out of a cedar bean pole and using an old cast-off reel that his uncle had provided him. A distant dog gently barked, and from the other side of the river drifted the campfire smoke of another fisherman. My father proceeded to catch three or four fish in short order, which were enough to provide my father's extended family with food for the evening meal, with enough left over for sandwiches for the following lunch, and probably even enough left over to take care of the cats out in the barn, although providing the cats with a meal or two of salmon tended to guaranty a more than proportionate increase of the barn's rat population. When my father ended his afternoon of fishing and stooped to gather up his fish to take them home, he noted that one of the fish — in fact one that had been out of the water for more than an hour, was more than just alive. In fact he was in good health and spirits, not seeming at all bothered by the fact that he had been out of the water for such an extended period of time. Curious, but only idly so, my father withheld this particular fish from the evening meal and put the salmon in the farm pond.
      The following morning, my father ran down to the farm pond to see if he could see the fish. More than just being able to see the fish, my father was surprised to see that the fish had brought himself up out of the water, and, from observing the marks in the mud, my father could see that the salmon had traversed the entire perimeter of the farm pond, and had managed to do so outside of the confines of the water. Although the spoken histories of the indigenous Native Americans talked of such things as a walking salmon, the immigrant Whites had always thought of this as being nothing more than native folklore. Nevertheless, here before my father's eyes, was proof of the existence of such phenomenon as a salmon that could not only survive outside the confines of his watery world, but who also became ambulatory in a terrestrial one with no apparent effort.
      It was a matter of the briefest period of time before the salmon became my father's almost constant companion. Although totally unnecessary to assure that the fish remained at my father's side, my father nevertheless saw the possible humor in removing the farm collie's collar from a dog that was most willing to give it up and to install it on the fish, who seemed totally ambivalent to the restraining presence of the collar. And then it was, the next obvious step, to tie a string to the collar, so that boy and salmon could walk though the neighborhood together, taking turns one leading the other, as is so often the case when a pet is on leash, it often becoming unclear which organism is leading the other.
      It became well known around the community that my father had successfully leash-broken a salmon. As fall's days shortened, it was common for the denizens of the neighborhood to observe my father walking his salmon along the roads and paths of the neighborhood, and on occasion taking the salmon over to the school yard where the playing school children could marvel at the salmon that thrived outside of the water and at the obvious close bond that had formed between a boy and his fish.
      I wish I could provide you with a happy ending to this story, but I simply cannot. I am bound to relate to you the truth of what actually happened. As fall's days grew blustery and rainy, and as winter approached, one early evening my father and his salmon were walking from the house in the direction of the neighborhood store. They came to the creek that was traversed by a wooden bridge over which they had already walked numerous times before. All would have been well on this occasion too, except that the cedar boards of the bridge had grown slick with the rain, and there were blustery gusts blowing across the stream's rising waters that made unsteady one's efforts to maintain a foothold. Fish and human reached mid-span without incident, but at the exact moment that the two arrived at the mid-point over the creek, the fish lost his finning, fell into the rushing waters, and drowned.
      I would be most pleased for you to share that story with your readers. Like I say, the punch line of a leash broken fish is probably not original, but the writing is all mine, and the places and dates, etc. are original.

Obituary for Rolf Gustav Olsen
      Rolf Gustav Olsen age 90 of Arlington passed away April 29, 2003. He was born April 22, 1913 at Sauk Prairie, Darrington, WA. Rolf attended high school in Darrington and Stanwood, attended business school in Seattle, and served as a navigating officer in the Coast Guard during WWII. He worked in the lumber and farming industries and enjoyed the outdoors, fishing, reading and his family. He was an environmentalist before the word became popular. He was a quiet and honorable man who left people and things better than he found them. Rolf was preceded in death by his wife Ferne (Maxwell), daughter Sandra, and granddaughter Betsy; brothers: Irving Olson, Martin Olson, George Johnson, sisters: June Countryman, Lillian Atterberry, and Helen Martindale.
      He is survived by son and daughter-in-law Marvin (Skip) and Yong Olsen of Tacoma, son and daughter-in-law Norman and Liliana Olsen of Federal Way, "honorary" son Lee Maxwell; and grandsons James Perryman and Martin Olsen. Arrangements under the direction of Weller Funeral Home, Arlington, WA. Special thanks to everyone, especially Ken and Shirley Countryman, for looking after Rolf these past few years.

Story posted on June 20, 2003 and updated on March 10, 2004
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