My neighbor, Gene Greer, long-time walnut farmer from Templeton, was suspicious when I asked him to meet a guy who believes the Salinas River could one day support steelhead runs again. Devin Best, director of the Upper Salinas Resource Conservation District in Templeton, is that someone.
Devin is a guy with a mission. Gene is a guy with local history. I’m just a busybody in the middle. We set a date at the local donut shop, where all the local farmers hang out.
Gene grew up at the confluence of Jack Creek and Santa Rita Creek, a few miles above the Salinas River. He knows the watershed like the back of his hard-working hand. In a recent conversation, Gene spoke passionately about the demise of the steelhead:
“When I was 14, I could see 30 trout every 100 feet up the South Fork of Santa Rita Creek. Before the Margarita dam went in, a six inch storm would send a big surge of water down the Salinas and cut the sandbar and let the fish up. The steelhead would be here in seven days. The Salinas is close to 175 miles long. They could travel about a mile an hour. Steelhead are the most beautiful fish there are. It’s a shame what’s happened to them.”
Gene called the day before our meeting and gruffly announced he couldn’t come. He had to pick up his walnut trees at the American Legion Hall at that time. Well, shoot. I thought fast.
“How about we meet you there? I’ll bring coffee and donuts.”
“I guess that’s alright. I’ll be in the parking lot.” (gruffer still)
The morning of the meeting, the clock raced ahead of me. There wasn’t time to swing by the donut shop and still be on time. I brewed coffee at home, threw muffins in the oven to bake while I finished my chores and got ready
Alas—the mufins were slower than I hoped and I was still running late. I sped into town, coffee cups rattling, muffins still cooling in the pan. I pictured two annoyed strangers, awkwardly waiting to hear why on earth they were freezing to death in an empty parking lot– but I needn’t have worried. They were already deep in animated conversation
I set up my coffee shop on my Gene’s tailgate, and listened as these two, separated by generations and experience, shared a river of stories and information about fish and watersheds. Older hands and young, gesturing across the back of a pickup, bridging gaps of information and imagination.
After an hour I had to leave. Gene and Devin were still talking. As I drove away, I glimpsed something bright in my rear view mirror: a glimmer of hope for the future of the Salinas.