Bound by Blood and a Love of Wild Rivers

May the Rivers Never Sleep – Living with North Pacific Rivers as Calendars in the Footsteps of Roderick Haig-Brown.

By Bill & John McMillan. Frank Amato Publications. $49.95

Bill and John McMillan are bound by more than blood. The father and son are also tied together by their mutual love of rivers and the wild fish that swim in them.

At times, they have been like fish themselves, immersing themselves in the water for so long on some snorkel surveys that their bodies went numb.

In May the Rivers Never Sleep they pay tribute both to the rivers and to Roderick Haig-Brown, the late author and naturalist who lived, and died, on the banks of the Campbell River on Vancouver Island. And who inspired them.

Haig-Brown was a skilled and dedicated fly fisher, but like the McMillan’s, he also had a deep fascination for how rivers work, and how fish work within the rivers. He was one of the early advocates of getting into the water with a face mask and snorkel, so as to better understand the natural lives of salmon, steelhead and trout. He used his skills as a writer to try to influence the direction of society, hoping that we could all recognize the miracle of wild rivers and wild fish, and that we could work together to protect them.

A steelhead, making its way home to a tributary of the Elwha River. Photography by John McMillan

The McMillans embraced that approach as anglers, naturalists, photographers and scientists – and now, lucky for us, they have compressed their deep knowledge into a beautiful coffee table book.

May the Rivers Never Sleep follows the unfolding life of Pacific Northwest rivers throughout the calendar months of a single year. But the book, of course, draws on the lifetime experiences of the McMillans.  It contains scientific observation, fly fishing anecdotes and the story of their family. It is a tribute to the beauty of fish and rivers. And it is a love story, really, because to the McMillans, the connection to rivers and the landscape through which they run is that profound.

A dipper savors a coho egg foraged in a tributary of the Elwha. Photography John McMillan

“We have come to love rivers, heart and soul, and we hope the photos stir something of what we have felt along North Pacific Rim rivers and what salmon, trout and char have taught us about their restless wakefulness that is ever-shifting nature,” they write. “It is our song of thanks to Roderick Haig-Brown as one man who showed the way – an answering refrain to his songs of rivers that don’t sleep.”

The book looks back at the history of wild rivers, and casts into the future – which, as all fly fishermen know, sometimes looks incredibly bleak for wild salmon and steelhead – and it makes a plea for better management.

John, a salmon ecologist, learned about fish and fishing at the elbow of his father, Bill, one of the founders of the Wild Fish Conservancy. And one senses from reading this book that the son has brought his own perspective to the waterfront, allowing both of them to expand their understanding of nature in a way that they would not have done, working alone. They make a fabulous team.

“The passing of information through generations from father to son has been and remains a staple of the human culture,” they write. “In my family’s case, the river has always been the location of such lessons. And in many ways that is the goal of this book, to pay tribute to one of the fathers of conservation – Roderick Haig-Brown – and pass our observations of rivers and fish from one clan to the next.”

They have succeeded admirably on all fronts.  And for that we can all be thankful.