Mount Stuart towers in the distance. Her peak barren of the normal snowcap she wears during the start of August. North Fork Teanaway road straightens out in front of me as I drive towards one of favorite mountain peaks in the world. From her foothills the headwaters of the Teanaway river begins. It flows a torrent of whitewater through granite stones cut deep by her chilling and slicing embrace. Her sound can typically be heard throughout the entire basin if you listen intently on a quiet day in the woods. The waterfalls that seem to fall from the very sky fill the river with some of the most pristine water in the world. The animals that inhabit the Teanaway Rivershed are the epitome of Pacific Northwest Wildlife. With Black Bear, Cougar, Wolf, Wolverine, Samsquanch, Mountain Goats, with hundreds of bird species, deer, elk, skunk, hare, flying squirrel, red fox, and so many more the forest surrounding the river is teeming with life. The river holds some of the most pure species of wild trout in the western states. With Wild Rainbow, Westlope Cutthroat, Steelhead, and Bulltrout, the river system is the last bastion for many species including Wild Steelhead and Bulltrout.
As I see the headwaters of the river before me my heart is heavy. She is but a trickle coming down the granite mountainside. The pool under the waterfall is waist deep and is full of small soon to be starving trout. As I look at the dried up waterfalls that feed the upper most reaches of the North Fork of the Teanaway I am filled with fear. This river has never seen such a drought. This wild place is on the precipice.
I make my way further down river. Checking the water temps the entire time. I am finding normal water temps for this time of year in the upper end of the river however; the flows are a fraction of what they ought to be. When well over 100 cfs is typically coming down this small river in the summer we have less than 30 cfs. I find trout in pools, surprisingly healthy with full bellies. A perfect 10-inch cutthroat decided to say hello and I was reminded of what the term wild really means. These fish, despite the odds, are surviving. By the end of the summer there may only be a handful of breeding fish left to carry on the species. Those trout that they spawn…will be ever stronger. The trout…are doing what they do…being wild and surviving. Life does find a way.
I make my way farther down river. The temps are warming. Feeder creeks and small tributaries such as Jungle Creek, Stafford Creek, Bean Creek, Beverly Creek, are trickles or dried up completely meaning there is no cold influx of water as the river makes its way to the valley below the mountains. I say goodbye to Mt. Stuart and the surrounding behemoths of granite that the Teanaway cuts away at with every spring and summer run off. The granite stones get a respite from her torrent this year.
I stop at the famous sandstone swimming holes near 29 Pines Campground to check the water temp. I find a rock dam blocking flow and chuck rocks onto the bank. The river seems to breath a sigh of relief and I count 3 small fingerling fish make their way up river as if waiting for me to open the door. I find two more small rock dams and break them down wishing a sign about how illegal they are in ESA listed streams were present. A TU project for later. I come to the sandstone chute just past the Teanaway Outpost under the bridge. There is 10 cfs going by. I can literally see 10 milk jugs go by a second…its unfathomable. The place smells of dead fish. The water temp is 70 degrees. I find nothing…not even an aquatic insect. It is devoid of life. I leave quickly not wishing to spend any more time in the tomb.
I come to the valley filled with farmlands. Mt. Stuarts’ gaze hidden back behind the hills and trees. I feel that if the mountain were a mere 2000 feet taller and everyone could see the summit from anywhere in the valley…the state of the Teanaway would be much different. The Sentinel of the Teanaway River has been tricked and the river that it has born has suffered. The farms are still watering their fields. A recent stop on all irrigation came to the valley in an effort to save water. The few fields I see getting water must be on wells or finishing up their last orders. As I look at the river below Red Bridge Road I am appalled. Stagnant pools filled with Dart and Pike Minnow, algae, and 70 degree water. There is no flow; the riverbed is drying up in places, if the heat of summer continues I believe the lower Teanaway will dry up completely.
The Yakima River and Teanaway River Confluence is a stagnant pool of warming water. Typically during this time of year, the trout in the Yakima River receive a shot of cool water for thermal refuge from her sister the Teanaway. Steelhead would have spawned there this spring, as well as trout. Salmon would normally return but they will not have the chance this year. The fish that got trapped in the lower Teanaway have all but perished, those that were able to escape are in the low flow and small cool pools of the upper river farther into the mountains. As the Yakima River water temps increase the wild trout will receive no respite from the Teanaway as they normally would. The Steelhead, Rainbow, and Cutthroat that were spawned this spring are trapped in the headwaters and may not survive the summer and winter to continue the life cycle next season…if the snows come.
The Bulltrout are all but gone now. They have no refuge and have died or hopefully…pushed into the Yakima River and will return to spawn this fall. I have seen a few of those unicorns in the Yakima this season…giving me hope. Visiting the Teanaway today gave me hope. I was reminded of the resilience of nature and wild animals despite the odds and our encroachment. The drought is only one factor in the reason behind the demise of the Teanaway River. The mountains that hold her, the forest that surrounds her, the farmlands that she gives life too…all will suffer as she dries up. The entire valley feels thirsty. A strong rain for days or a wickedly blizzardly winter is needed. But our help is also needed.
If more is not done to preserve and protect the Teanaway River not only will the entire Teanaway Valley and surrounding Forest suffer, the Yakima River below will suffer. As it is a true freestone headwaters to the Yakima River, if it suffers, everything downstream suffers. Headwaters do Matter. More conservation is needed, more efficient irrigation practices, rigorous data collection on the trout required, and some intense habitat restoration is a must if we ever want to see the Teanaway River in her former glory.
Some of my fondest memories of angling are on the Teanaway River. I found an ancient and gnarly Wild Westlope Cutthroat in a deep pool. The old trout was so gargantuan it still dwarfs some of the largest cutthroat I have caught out of the Yakima River. My eldest daughter was introduced to her first trout on the Teanaway. My youngest daughter was introduced to her first trout this year before the drought sunk in on the Teanaway. I have a memory of playing in the sandstone swimming holes one summer when I was very young, collecting cased caddis as they crawled along the rocks at my feet. I met my first Bulltrout on the Teanaway River. A story I haven’t shared with anyone to this day save for Tim Irish. That Bulltrout will haunt me for the rest of my life, especially now knowing that it’s genetics and offspring have not survived the 6 years it has been since we met.
Will I ever meet another Bulltrout in the Teanaway River? Will my grand kids meet any trout in the Teanaway River? Will the community forest that hugs the riverbanks become a desolate dried up place that no one cares about anymore? Will Wild Steelhead ever return? Will the wild trout have a place to reproduce and carry on their life cycle? The fact that I am asking myself, and others, these questions leaves me with hope. Hope that it will return, hope that it will be rescued, hope…because the Teanaway River…is a life force; born from granite mountains and winter snows, cut deep into the hard stone, life teeming within and all around her, Mount Stuart standing guard, and people enjoying all that she bares while keeping a caring eye on her.