Wednesday, May 19, 2010

God bless the Gulf Coast...

I’ve put off writing this, largely because I’ve been wrestling with my emotions stemming from the BP disaster off the coast of Louisiana. Maybe that’s not the correct phrasing—I’ve been, more or less, battling fits of extreme anger over what I believe to be an avoidable catastrophe, the corporate response to it, and the typical bureaucratic approach to holding those responsible accountable.

I was in South Texas last month, just a few days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, and a few days before we all realized the gusher at the ocean floor would eventually trash the Gulf of Mexico. I was chasing redfish and other saltwater critters with my fly rod for a couple of days, and I got the chance to dip my toes in the salt—one of my favorite things to do.

Fishing was largely uneventful, save for one Spanish mackerel that crushed a shrimp pattern off the jetty at Port Aransas and darted off toward the Yucatan. I cranked the drag on my heavy-duty reel, and, after a good fight, landed the toothy fish that, miraculously, didn’t slice my 20-pound bite tippet with its fangs. It was an idyllic coastal Texas evening, and as the sun set behind the little fishing community, I paused and soaked it all in—the next day, I’d be back on a plane, where more snow awaited me at home in Idaho. The water buzzed with baitfish and Atlantic bunker (these little guys would be a kick on a 3-weight). Brown pelicans speared the water, porpoises patrolled the water so close to the rocks that I could touch them with the tip of my rod and sea turtles cruised the riprap shore without a care in the world. As Jimmy Buffett would say, “This part of Texas is all new to me.”

The day before, I’d ventured to some remote redfish flats at the advice of a good friend of mine who grew up fly fishing these waters for reds and specks. The day was clear and still, and the water, upon first glance, was calm and nearly transparent. Green patches of turtle grass pocked the sandy flat, and mullet skipped across the surface. I stood ankle deep in the water, eyeing the expanse of green water before me for any sign of feeding reds. Finding none, but anxious to work the kinks out of my saltwater cast, I waded out into the sun-warmed water and began to stretch some fly line.

As I noted, the fishing was uneventful. But, as most fly fishers will tell you, casting in new water to generally unfamiliar quarry is exciting in itself. I’d fished for reds, with some success, in southeast Louisiana a few times before, but I am by no means an expert. Couple that with my insistence on doing this from a “self-guided” perspective, and I’m fairly certain my chances for success were limited to begin with.

I waded the flat for a good two hours, with no fish to show for my efforts. Days like these, my grandfather used to say, were days spent in deep thought. Meditation, if you will.

Feeling a bit hungry, and remembering the selection of restaurants ranging from good old Texas barbecue to golden-fried seafood that was swimming in the Gulf the day before, I turned my back on the expanse of green water and began to work my way back to shore, which, when I turned to face it, was a hell of a lot farther than I expected. Meditation, indeed.

Up to my waist in warm, brackish water, the walk back to the oyster-shelled bank took some effort, and I couldn’t help but stop and cast whenever I noticed a school of baitfish busting from the water ahead. Still no luck. I kept moving toward terra firma, not exactly frustrated, but a bit disappointed in the results, especially considering the quality of the day—light breezes, clear skies and temperatures somewhere in the 70s. I’d have bet on at least a fish or two.

As I got a little closer to the bank, I noticed what looked like a floating log, but, given my experiences as a kid tromping through the Big Thicket of East Texas, there was something eerily familiar about that shape in the water. Only when the log actually turned and started swimming toward me did it register. Alligator.

Now, I’ve seen my share of gators while casting for reds along the Gulf Coast. But I’ve never been standing up to my junk in the water, and generally sharing the same expanse of brackish flat with a reptile that, while generally non-aggressive, has been known to sprout an attitude.

Suffice it to say that, after a little harmless repositioning on both of our parts, the gator and I did not tangle on the redfish flat outside of Rockport, Texas. But it’s also safe to assume that the experience, while memorable, was not exactly comfortable. I managed to work my way carefully away from the reptile and hit dry land with nothing more than what I perceived to be a careful once-over from the predator. I even managed to shoot a few photos of the beast that probably pushed eight feet and, despite its rather calm demeanor, looked pretty damned menacing to me.

Later that evening, over a plate of pulled pork and an ice-cold High Life, something else registered to me. This little slice of the world is pretty special—it teems with life, despite the best efforts of industry and the generally boorish behavior of the tourist ilk who leave the beach littered with plastic Wal Mart bags and the like. That sea turtles and dolphins and Spanish mackerel will venture within reach of the land-locked visitor is a miracle in itself.

Now I realize the fragile resources of the Texas coast aren’t in imminent danger from the hemorrhaging pipe that once rested beneath the Deepwater Horizon rig a few hundred miles to the southeast, but I also know that the resources that “light, sweet crude” threatens are much the same as those I was fortunate enough to visit in mid-April.

I also realize that much of the Gulf Coast economy rests on two economic drivers—the natural resources in the water, and the natural resources buried under the sea floor. To date, they have coexisted remarkably well, with a few exceptions. The unfortunate reality, however, is that accidents happen, and the scope and scale of those accidents determine the severity of the impact. The ongoing crisis in the Gulf is a tragedy of the highest order—even the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd would concede that.

But it’s more than that. It’s a demonstrative reminder of the devastating footprint we can leave behind when we cut corners, when we don’t respect the resources we’re sure to impact should something terrible happen. I would hope this disaster encourages all Americans, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, Blue Dogs or Tea Partyers, blue-collar laborers or white-collar office-dwellers, to reconsider the ugly and bad that comes with the good as it’s pumped into our fuel tanks. As a nation, we must move away from petroleum, not just as a source of fuel, but as the preferred source for plastics and other materials that, once they’re created, just don’t go away. Ever.

The Gulf will never be the same, at least not in our lifetimes. Let this be our difficult lesson. Let this be our greatest sacrifice in our search for alternative energy sources. Let this be the constant reminder of our folly when we fail to do things correctly.
God bless the Gulf Coast.


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