What We See and Don’t See in Nature and Why

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In the natural world, perception and awareness are funny things. How we see and interpret the world makes humans an interesting animal for study.  We can be fooled by many things and are often influenced by things in front of our face and plain sight, yet we never see.  Why is this?

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OK now. Did you see the gorilla?  It’s a great example of how what we put our attention on can influence what we see or don’t see. We may think we are aware of our surroundings, but often miss a lot when we are focused on a specific task and thereby miss things, though within our field of view. Of course,  by  choosing  to use narrow focused vision, it will increase our chance to complete a given task successfully. This is why I don’t like to talk when I am concentrating on making a good run through a difficult rapid.  Why focus matters when running whitewater? What you look at is where you go. If you let fear of a peripheral hole distract you, it will draw you into the maelstrom, like a moth to the light. There may be gorillas in our midst, but sometimes it is best not to see them.

For further example, when trolling for steelhead and one of your rods abruptly goes down, it isn’t always the fish you think it is? Sometimes, your plug snags the bottom as the boat is being pulled upstream. Your immediate thought is a fish, because that is what you expect to see.  But, things just are not always seen for what they really are.  It takes a different perspective to appreciate that what you once thought is, isn’t.

One time, I decided I wanted to learn what it was like to see the river like steelhead do. So I dawned scuba gear and went diving.  Learn to be one with the fish, I thought.  As I got into successionally heavier current, rocks on the bottom suddenly began to fly by me, or so it seemed.  It created the sensation that I was in outer space and flying through an asteroid belt. How weird.

Another time, as I was sitting in my tipi, watching the stars through the smoke flaps, I felt like I was in a conical-shaped space capsule cruising through the Milky Way.  Or on a different day, I was driving on a snowy highway, barely able to see through all the wind-blown snow flying past my windshield. Again, I was mesmerized into an eerie  Twilight Zone-like world, flying through grey space as millions of tiny white orbs raced by me.

Often when we encounter things, we are fooled by our first impressions.  Why? What is going on? What if we believed what our first impressions are trying to tell us? How we react to our encounters with various situations in life, matter.  Is this some sort of  survival mechanism coming out and being played in front of us? What happens if we make a snap judgment, based on our first gut level reaction to something? Is it really in our best interest to react to first impressions? Why do we do this?

Well, people who study people, have a name for this: The Affect Heuristic. It simply says that we humans let our emotions tell us if something is good or bad, that we over-estimate rewards and tend to stick to our first impressions. We tend to make poor decisions in the face of favorable odds when we pay more attention to  our gut level  first impressions of things.   This most likely is a survival mechanism worked out by our ever  evolving human traits.

Paying attention to simple analysis of dangerous situations kept  our ancestors out of the mouths of lions. If you ignore your gut in favor of intellectualizing about the pros and cons, or risk value of good or bad, it often takes too long, and you become food for something else. Our unconscious minds often recognize things our conscious minds don’t.  So first impressions are important. Or at least historically, and early on in the process of evolution.

However, the modern world is more complicated now, and first impressions may or may not keep one out of trouble, or allow correct analysis of a situation.  So when scouting rapids or studying animal tracks, first impressions often lead us astray in our assessments of reality.  At first the hole may look impossible to run, but closer scrutiny reveals a potential soft spot for good potential to get a boat through right side up. Or the track on the ground that looks like a cat, turns out to be a dog, when closer examination reveals toe nails in the snow. Cats walk with claws retracted.

Bottomline: pay attention to your gut, but know that it often tricks you.  Don’t jump too soon to potentially erroneous conclusions. Keeping your boat right side up isn’t always as easy as it may at first seem.

The Monkey In Me Is Really A Fish


Does evolution tell us we come from monkeys? Many people, and often  the highly religious mistakenly believe this is true. But, this is not the case. While we may share a high degree of genetic commonality with other primates, that is not what evolution spells out. Evolution simply describes how change comes about. It defines a process.

When any thing changes from one state to another, in some kind of successional order, that explains real  evolution.  All events are linked together, simply because one thing always leads to something else. Things don’t just happen out of the blue. Something isn’t the result of nothing.  Even lighting, which seems to be  making its appearance out of nothingness or randomality, was caused by some prior  event.  Something else happened before the bolt materialized  in order to  enable it to happen.

That fish didn’t just end up on your line due to random chance. It landed there because you had your line in the water, in the right place at the right time. You may not know when the right time occurs or the right place exists in every moment, but you at least know the chance for catching a fish exists. That is, as opposed to not existing, by virtue of not having a line in the water.  Catching a fish is simply a process of evolution.  One event leads to another and sooner or later the law of probability will eventually lead to success.  Fishing leads to catching. The real question is not to equivocate about the existence of evolution. It does. Rather, the real question is:   to fish, or not to fish? Just ask these kids.

Western Grebes and the Good Samaritan Fallacy

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Several years ago my wife was driving along the Salmon River after dumping me and my steelhead fishing guests off for a day trip. On her way back she spotted a western grebe flailing on the roadside, acting like it had a broken leg.  As a good Samaritan she stopped and scooped it up and took it home with her.  The displaced bird was swimming around in a little tub of water she tried to make it comfortable in, until I returned at the end of my day of guiding.  She wanted my opinion and plan for what to do next.

Though I had seen quite a few of these elegantly feathered birds over the years, while fishing and on refuges, I had never seen one up so close before. What I found most striking was its blood-red eye.  It contrasted well with the black and white plumage and was simply an awesome, most beautiful bird. The red-hot eye seemed to burn a hole of  searing compassion in my heart, too.

I examined it to see if it might have a broken leg or some other problem, but could not find any evidence to support that conclusion. Though I suspected the bird was having trouble walking when Barb found it, I decided to call my brother-in-law (USFWS refuge biologist) who had more experience with the waterfowl world. Sure enough, he confirmed what I suspected. The legs on these birds are set very far on their back-end and is the reason they are so awkward on terra firma.  When on bare ground they struggle to walk and cannot fly without water to get a running launch from. He said that often they mistakenly land in the wrong place, like seeing a sheet of ice as a body of water, or landing in other dangerous places, only to become  stranded and ending up as more potential coyote bait.

So, in reality, though the bird was fine, and I first thought she had made a mistake in picking it up, it turns out that she probably saved it. The grebe was too far from water and would be easy prey for predators, so Barb was indeed most likely its salvation.  The next day I had another steelhead trip so put the bird in a basket before leaving home, then released it when we dumped our boat in the water later. Funny thing, that bird followed us for half a day swimming nearby my boat as we fished various holes, moving when we moved, shadowing us all that time.  It was really cool.

The entire incident also reminded me of a good Samaritan  fallacy us humans often demonstrate in our  thinking,  in what psychologist call the “Bystander Effect.”  There is a misconception that when someone is hurt, people rush to their aid. In reality, the more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person will help.  Had we seen this bird as a group while driving to our put-in, I suspect we would have rationalized that it was ok, just having a bad feather day and would find a way to survive. Someone else, or factor would help this bird get saved.  Instead, when Barb was by herself, she acted swiftly, because no one else was there to enable her to justify abandoning personal responsibility.

That is why your chances of being saved from some kind of catastrophic event is far less on a crowded city street full of people, than it is on a country road with just one car passing by.  In groups, we sub-consciously more readily delegate our own responsibilities off unto others, thinking someone else already has called police or emergency personnel, or soon will.  Moral of the story, when your fishing rod goes down, don’t wait for someone else to grab it.

The Beauty of First Timers

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A few days ago I had a steelhead trip on the Salmon River for two people whom had never been steelhead fishing before.  Often people show up with false expectations, though we do everything to try to paint a realistic picture of what chasing these magnificent fish is all about. It isn’t like trout or bass fishing, where hot fishing sometimes means a fish on every other cast or nearly so. Nope. Steelhead fishing is a test of endurance and patience.

Apparently we are not great painters on the canvas of reality, based on some of the experiences we have on the river with people who show up entertaining wild thoughts  or having delusions of grandeur. Or possibly many folks really don’t listen that well, or only hear what they want to hear. At any rate, steelhead fishing can mean a few hours between bites, or none at all, on a really poor day of pounding water and harassing holes.   However, when contact is made and a steelhead grabs our offerings, all hell breaks loose.  Any semblance of calmness or rational behavior fly out the window.  Emotions explode, just like the fish as it dances across the top of the water kissing sky and ripping line.

On the other end of the line is a human reduced to jelly, trying to keep their wits in order, and shattered nerves under control.  It can even happen to those with lots of fishing experience. So on both ends of the line are two opposite forces acting out against each other. Which will win?  There-in is where all the fun takes place and experiences are made.  It is undiluted excitement in  raw, brute  form.  A part of that consequence of adrenalin surge, is the host of self-defeating behaviors that are birthed in the process. Unplanned mis-steps, tangled lines, missed nettings, fish rolls, people tripping over each other, fish seeking safety under the boat. The list is endless of the number of obstacles that surface to hinder getting a steelhead in the boat and reduced to possession.  In fact, sometimes the fish wins, and endless regrets surface with the wisdom of recollected hindsight replayed over and over again afterwards.

But, the real beauty is that fish, caught or not, becomes a memory scorched  into the mind, leaving a scarred brain forever. Luckily it is a good scar to have and badge of honor to share with any willing human ear ready to listen. It is what makes a fish story a fish story. And it is the story that I really like, because it is always exciting to hear and re-hear, embellished ever more with each telling.

The big fun for me when taking first timers, is that the level of excitement generated by a virgin experience is hard to beat.  That high level of enthusiasm is easily transferred to the observer, too. Do you remember your first time at anything? The unknown holds great mystery and is a never-ending source for anticipation. Like waiting for Santa to come when you were a kid, the anxiety is as good as the final unwrapping of the gift.

I have to chuckle sometimes, as I reverberate scenes of comedic errors across my cerebral theater.  If someone from afar could view some of the antics that have happened over the years, they would think they were watching some past episode  of The Three Stooges or Little Rascals.  Like the time on a trip two days ago, when one fishermen jumped up to grab his buddies rod that was bouncing down wildly as a fish was trying to beat my boat to Riggins.  The other fishermen had another rod in her hands, so ended up with a deer in the headlights look, trying to register the full gravity of the sudden flurry of activity exploding all around her.

The price of  her hesitancy was that she became another casualty of the old saying, if you snooze, you lose. But at least  the fish was caught, and when the dust settled, and we  got a great laugh out of it all.  Such is the rewards of self entertainment.

Oh, how I love my job. Natures  joys are forever endless. It only requires stepping out into it.  Like fishing. If you don’t put a line in the water, you won’t be catching any fish for certain. One must go to know. Fish to potentially catch.

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When Nature Speaks, Are You Listening?

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Nature is like a radio station that has many channels. But to hear different flavored songs or messages you have to change the channel. Just because you don’t hear a  country  western song doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means you don’t hear it.  To do so, you simply must change the tuner to another location where it resides.

What you tune into is greatly influenced by where you live and what kind of distractions draw your attention.  Cities offer different stimulus than rural or country settings. Even global positioning, cultural differences, and political ideologies  can determine our perceptions of the world. But what they all have in common is that none of them can escape the umbrella of nature.  Those cultures that live closer to nature, often have  more compassion for it, as they can feel the changes and patterns of the elements from their simple mode of direct engagement with it.

Often the consumptive nature of industrial nations are so busy going about business they forget about their ecological impacts and footprints. They are too busy establishing  more walls around themselves and building an environment of isolation from nature.  When you can no longer feel something, it is easy to lose compassion for it.

Sometimes nature carries a big stick to let us know Mother Earth is the Whip Woman. When her children become too rambunctious, she uses discipline to rein them in.  Unfortunately, the club sometimes used comes in the form of a tsunami, earthquake, mudslide, volcano, tornado, or hurricane. Violent storms often deliver these various kinds of blows, and  are a wake-up call to those who survive the aftermath.  Lessons learned by the survivors  can help people make better choices about how to  build their dwellings and where to locate them for  the future. Even re-locating ravaged cities to safer zones can be improved when people pay close attention to natures language.

As Hurricane Sandy so rudely reminded us, we have ignored nature and the warnings of our own scientists for too long. Pay back for inattention is  punishing and terribly harsh.  Often ideological policies can be a signficant contributor to our impacts to nature. Some are more harmful to others, especially the ones that ignore or deny the science that lays out measurable evidence that is readily available to those who study and read nature.

The law of the land is not the same as the law of nature. Man made laws are placed to cover human endeavors. Nature’s law is totalitarian and inescapable.  When man’s law ignore nature’s, it  often leads to horrific  consequences.  Climate change is no longer debated, though the reasons for it still are. Is it just another random quirk of nature, or is global warming induced by man? When a majority of scientists from a consortium of disciplines with peer-reviewed evidence that contain the same message, continue to jump on the same band wagon, I want on, too. Contrarians are sometimes right, but the chances are not high enough for me to get on a wagon heading for the edge of the cliff.

When there is an elephant in the room, it would be prudent to pay attention to it, not pretend it isn’t there. It has big feet. They hurt when they land on you. That is, if you live to tell about it, anyway.

Everyone who is not a politician or pundit, seems to recoil and despise politics, but denying its influence is like denying science. Volunteered, willful  ignorance can have serious consequences.  Elephants mean business.  When humans have a chance to participate in a political process, it is important to take that community responsibility seriously and get in the game.  The players in a game, not the bystanders, determine the outcome of the game.

It does make a difference who you vote for.  Policy matters. Climate change, though pitifully ignored during the election campaigning, is a huge elephant ready to make a huge leap.  There is no more denial about our changing climate, though there still is denial about the science that overwhelmingly contains evidence to support that the change is man caused.  Ignoring the math and statistics that fuel the conclusion  the majority of our scientists are telling us, come with a huge price tag.  They could be wrong, as science is not about absolutes.   It is more about ever chasing truth and the pursuit of best case evidence. It only changes when the evidence changes. Pay attention.  The election is over, but the game isn’t.  Every day, dawn reveals a new horizon.  Watch nature. Follow the sun and bird chirp. Listen up.

Crossing The Eddyline


Until you have crossed an eddy line in some kind of boat without proper respect, you won’t appreciate the significance of an eddyline.  Without essential preparation and a skeptical anticipation before traversing that line where upstream and downstream current opposes each other, the inattentive consequence will land you in the water for a  sudden swim.  When negotiating an eddy turn,  the upstream current pushes at the front of your boat, while simultaneously the downstream current pushes on the back of it.  The differential between these two currents generates a powerful force which can spin a boat faster than the blink of an eye, and land you in the water just as fast.

Dancing aimlessly across a seemingly benign eddy fence can catch the uninitiated off guard, but soon  teaches a quick lesson never  to be quickly forgotten.  It is always the consequences of our mistakes, than the mundane routines of our  daily endeavors that make the most lasting impressions.   Boat stability or tippage is an experience something akin to the  difference between an easy trail ride and getting bucked off a horse.  The abrupt experience will be remembered much longer than the tame one.

Paying attention to eddylines is what life is all about.  We are always crossing them, always finding ourselves in various situations that contain conflicting currents.  Knowing which way to lean  before entering an eddyline is key to keeping your boat right side up.  Having a plan in the back of your mind, will increase the odds that you can keep your boat from getting flipped when unexpected circumstances surprise you. This fluid dynamic is a great metaphor for how we deal with any obstacle nature throws us during our time on the planet.

If you don’t know how to start a fire from scratch, then you better be sure to have matches and tinder in your back pack when entering the outdoors in bad weather.  Or, when entering a large forest in unfamiliar territory, you better have a compass, in case you get lost or turned around.  Anticipation is the key to survival. Just knowing which way to lean in a kayak when making an eddy turn can make all the difference between being upside down or right side up.

Life or death situations are often only a step away when  crossing the wrong eddyline and being ill prepared. Reading nature and properly interpreting her language, is the solution to recognizing ways to keep your boat afloat and nasty swims at bay. Like weather prognosticators who study the clouds, river people study water currents. Different clouds mean different things, just as do various currents found on any river. Paying attention to nature’s clues will help keep us from being clueless.

Learning from experience is the best teacher, The old saying  is true:  ” good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.” As it turns out,  experience isn’t so much  of what happens to people,  as it is really  more importantly about what people do  with whatever happens to them.

The best potential for  survival in any adventure or life path, is knowing how to be prepared for anything that might arise.  To refrain from doing anything out of fear of dying, is not really living.  Not crossing eddylines may be safe, but that leads only to a dull and boring life.  It reduces your chances of experiencing some of the lifes most exciting and cherished offerings. True balance is gained only by dancing on the edge. All eddylines of the world are the fulcrum for facilitating potential equilibrium.

If you want to keep your metphorical boat right side up,  pay attention to the eddyline of life  and anticipate which way to lean before crossing it.