Soundings: Capital grad finds passion in speaking for steelhead

jdodge@theolympian.comApril 13, 2014 

Filmaker and Capital High School graduate Shane Anderson traded in his fly rod for a cameray in an effort to protect steelhead.

JOHN MCMILLLAN — Courtesy photo

Wild steelhead have a tireless and passionate advocate in Olympia filmmaker Shane Anderson.

Evidence of Anderson’s devotion to this iconic, imperiled West Coast species will be on display at 6:30 p.m. April 19 at the Olympia Film Society’s Environmental Film Festival at the Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia.

That’s when Anderson will premiere his sober yet hopeful film: “Wild Reverence: The Wild Steelhead’s Last Stand.”

Anderson, 36, hopes his film raises public awareness of the precarious plight of this unique Pacific species, a fish that, unlike other salmonids, doesn’t die when it spawns. It’s capable of going back to sea and returning to its natal river to reproduce multiple times.

But throughout much of the West Coast range of this feisty, resilient fish, the “four H’s” of habitat, harvest, hydroelectric dams and hatcheries have led to population declines that have placed wild steelhead on the brink of extinction.

“There needs to be a realization that these wild runs are bottoming out,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sacrifice by everyone if we’re going to move forward and see change.”

Anderson, a Capital High School graduate, grew up loving to fish, especially on the wild and scenic rivers of the Olympic Peninsula.

But he set that hobby aside in his young adult years to pursue the thrill of extreme snow skiing, including participation in the 2000 Winter X Games at Mount Snow, Vt. Things didn’t go well, to say the least.

During a practice run for the Big Air competition, a sudden tail wind sent Anderson sailing twice as far as he intended, landing him flat on his back on an icy surface beyond the landing slope.

Anderson suffered broken ribs, a bruised pancreas and compression fractures to two vertebrae. The force of the impact robbed him of more than one inch of his 6-foot-2-inch frame.

Anderson narrowly avoided paralysis, but the accident cost him his professional skiing career.

“I lost who I was,” he recalled. “Fishing became my therapy, my purpose, my passion.”

Working and living in California, Anderson made a pilgrimage to the Olympic Peninsula — his boyhood stomping grounds — in November of 2012. He fished for 40 days and never caught a steelhead. He discovered the species was in decline. He met fisheries biologists, anglers and conservationists working to save steelhead. He listened, did his own research and came to the conclusion he needed to tell the story of the steelhead through a film documentary.

He cashed in his life savings, raised another $21,400 on Kickstarter, bought a Sony FS700 camera and hit the road in a camper pickup truck with his rescue dog, Boz.

In February of 2013, he visited Malibu Creek near Los Angeles, which was once a hot spot for steelhead fishing that attracted Hollywood movie stars such as Clark Gable. Anderson donned a wet suit and snorkeling gear and, after three days of searching, found a solitary steelhead in the creek.

Traveling north, he filmed the story of wild steelhead recovery in the Eel River in Northern California, shot footage of the ravages of poor logging practices along the banks of the Siletz River on the Oregon coast and interviewed former Oregon Game Commissioner Frank Moore, 91, whose advocacy work on the north fork of the Umpqua River helped bring back steelhead runs there.

His odyssey took him all the way north to the Skeena River in northern British Columbia, where wild steelhead still are abundant and revered, but threatened by the specter of natural gas pipelines and fracking.

Back to the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula for another 50 days of fruitless fishing that ended with the catch and release of a wild steelhead on the last day of the fishing season in the last hour of daylight.

Without a late course correction, Anderson and others fear that the wild fish of the Olympic Peninsula in the next 10 years will meet a fate similar to the wild steelhead that once populated the rivers of Puget Sound.

“There’s a huge myth that the Olympic Peninsula is a bountiful wilderness with huge populations of fish,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

A former film editor and off-and-on college student — he last majored in fisheries biology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. — Anderson compiled more than 300 hours of film footage in his one-year journey. He pared it down to a 77-minute film that debuts Saturday night in his hometown.

After the premiere, he hopes to team up with wild steelhead advocacy and conservation groups to show the film all over the country.

“I’ll consider the film successful if I see positive change in the rivers,” he said.

One thing that has already changed is the way Anderson interacts with steelhead. He’s traded in his fly fishing rod for snorkeling gear. He swims with the fish, rather than catching them.

For news about the film and an upcoming DVD release, go to northforkstudios.net.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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