The Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Deep Evolutionary Time

There is a place high in the Rockies in Wyoming where waters part. Two-Ocean Pass is a national landmark. Here, a small stream called North Two Ocean Creak splits into two waterways on the Continental Divide. The waters of one branch, Pacific Creek, are destined for the Pacific Ocean. The other, Altantic Creek, for the Atlantic Ocean.

This geographic peculiarity, called a distributary (the opposite of a tributary), probably allowed the ancestors of today’s Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout to spread into waters on both sides of the Continental Divide. Long ago a few enterprising young trout explored up what we now call Pacific Creek and somehow ended up on the other side of the hill, in Atlantic Creek. From there they reproduced and a new species was propagated into a new territory.

It is the peculiarities of nature that enable the “butterfly effect” in deep evolutionary time. A landslide changes the course of a creek drainage and isolates a population. Over many thousands of years that population evolves into a distinct sub-species of the original. Two ponds separated by a few feet of flat mud. A fish with extra strong fins manages to flipper its way across that mud into the other pond. Its mutant DNA is passed down to its offspring, and a few million years down the road, the fins morph into legs and the gills turn to lungs.

We can put a number on an immense time scale and claim to understand it. But we as humans cannot actually comprehend the immensity of deep evolutionary time. We try. We do visual exercises where we draw time out on a road. Where a mile of roadway represents the life of Earth, at 4.6 billion years, one million years on that scale is about one foot. Recorded human history (5,000 years) is about one millimeter of that one-mile track.

These visualizations are interesting, but they still don’t really change our brains to perceive a million years of time or more. I hold a rock in my hand and say to my second-grade daughter, “this rock right here might be 500 MILLION years old! Can you believe that?” She seems interested and curious, but she has no personal point of reference to relate, and neither do I.

The trout is a species that seems to easily morph into subspecies based on its environment. Isolated populations living in waterways with light-colored bottoms may evolve lighter colors and fewer spots. Natural selection favors the slightest variation in color between individual trout—the lighter ones ever so slightly more likely to survive predation and pass on their genes.

Humans are in the process of replacing natural evolution with artificial evolution. Gene editing, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality may be the more obvious affronts to nature’s designs. But, what about cars, genetically modified foods (which is almost all food modern humans consume), and medicines that prevent otherwise natural causes of death? Will our evolutionary path be technological? And, if so, what will be our connection to nature as our species increasingly becomes one of human design?

 

The Whisper

September 17, 2018 – DSG

The keyboard clattered away like windblown rain on a tin roof.  The words and phrases flowed, letters dancing onto the screen, line by line.  Instrumental hip hop, set on low, was on point.

A strange whisper.  It was soft at first, almost imperceptible.  He thought he imagined it and kept typing.  There it was again… a female voice.  He stopped typing and glared down at his headphones on the cluttered desktop.

“Help me, please,” the headphones whispered. “Please… I need help.”

What the…

He pushed his chair back a bit and rubbed his eyes.  He’d been working too hard.

“Please, David…”

Huh?  No, that wasn’t in my damn head.

He sat still and quiet staring at the headphones on his desk.  They spoke again.

“David, I need your help.”

The voice was fearful but controlled, like its owner was a caged hostage pleading for the help of a passing stranger.

“Uh, hello there?” David asked. “Can you hear me?” David looked around the room as if expecting a ghost.

“Yes, David, I hear you,” said the girl. “I need you.  Please don’t leave… please!”

 “Um… Who are you?”

“I can’t explain it,” said the whisper. “But, I really need your help.”

“Well, I need to know who you are and how it is that you’re talking to me through my goddamn twenty dollar Walmart headphones!”

Irritated, he held his mouth slightly open and nodded his head with authority like he meant business.  It was his mustache alpha look, like a 1970’s beer commercial actor looking for a fight.

“David, please know that you cannot understand or comprehend me. But, know that helping me could save you from a lot of trouble.”

No, I’m losing itThis isn’t possibleMy headphones?

David tried to ignore the voice.  He got up, went to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face.

“David!” the voice called out.

He heard the harsh whisper-yell from the bathroom.  Peeking around the corner toward his desk, he pinched his arm to see if he could feel it.

That was dumb.  Of course a dream can simulate pain.  I’ve known that ever since that weird mini-crocodile bit my hand in that dream a long time ago… It fucking hurt, then I woke up.

David walked back and stood behind his desk.

“Tell me who you are,” he said.

“I can’t do that, David.”

“What do you want?”

“I need your help.”

“Help with what?”

There was a long pause and what sounded possibly like a held back snicker.

“Help with what?” David asked again.

“I’m hungry,” whispered the voice. “Make me a sandwich.”

Now, David was really confused.  A sandwich?

“What?” said David.

“A sandwich! Make me a sandwich, bitch, I’m hungry over here.”

Okay, what the hell is going on? 

David picked up the headphones and looked them over.  He held them up to the light and shook them.  There was nothing unusual.  He put them on.

“Okay, well, what the crap kind of sandwich you want, then?” Alpha mustache look again.

A pause and then, “roast beef… pepper jack cheese… light mayo… pickle.  Make that two pickles.”

That’s what my stupid sister eats all the time.  Wait a minute…

“Sandy!” David yelled. “How the hell are you doing this, you stupid fart nugget?”

“Fart nugget?” the voice replied. “You can do better than that.  Where’s my damn sandwich?”

“Well, where the hell am I supposed to take your stupid sandwich?”

David was fed up now.  He took his key chain pocket knife and ripped into the soft part of the earphones, his twenty dollars be damned.  Out dropped a little silver cylinder into his hand.  David spoke into it.

“I said, where am I supposed to bring your sandwich?”

“Bring it out to the back yard,” the voice blared from the device. “Set it on the patio table.”

That bitch!  Oh, this was a good one.

David smiled as he walked down the stairs and towards the back of the house.  There she was, standing by the pool, facing away from the door like an evil mastermind.

Oh, she’s in her swimsuit…

David hatched a plan.  He put the little microphone on his desk and turned up the instrumental hip hop a bit.  Then he went into the kitchen and slathered a gob of guacamole between two slices of bread.  He sneaked slowly through the patio door with his guac bomb in hand and took cover behind the cottonwood tree.  His sister looked around and then said something else into her little mic.

Yeah, that little byotch is gettin’ it.

As she turned back away, he crept up behind her like a hunting tiger, his protruding mustache flittering in the breeze and his wide eyes glued to his little 19-year-old sister’s sun-tanned back.  Crouching, he inched forward probing with his left foot and hand, holding the guac bomb behind him in his right hand.

This is your guac sandwich weggie, sister…

Just as his left hand grasped the back of his sister’s bikini bottom, she shrieked and wheeled around.  Her mic flew into the air and the strap on her bikini bottom snapped as she stepped back towards the pool.

David’s guac bomb dropped from his right hand onto the patio in a green plop while his left hand held the skimpy fabric of a pink and yellow polka dotted bikini bottom.  Sandy’s arms flailed like dual windmills as she fought a losing battle to maintain her balance.  She finally timbered, bottomless, into the deep end of the pool.

Oh crap! That didn’t go to plan.

David ran to the side of the pool to help his sister out.

“I can swim, you dumbass!” Yelled Sandy. “Just go get me a towel.  You ripped my bottoms off!”

David laughed as he ran inside to get a towel.  The weggie guac bomb plot had failed, but the end result might have been better.

David handed her the towel as she climbed out of the pool.

“And, you owe me twenty bucks for tampering with my headphones,” said David.

“Call it even since you ripped my bathing suit!”

They both started laughing and shook on the deal.  Just another day of pranks in the house, no harm done.  David went into the kitchen to make them both a sandwich.

Half way around the world a greasy man in a basement got busy uploading the files fed to his computer from the backyard home security camera that just captured the whole event.  He picked up the phone.

The man answered the phone with a grunt.

“Yvgenny!” said Sergei. “We just hit a big one in the States.  Girl falls into a pool with no swimsuit bottoms.”

“Security camera hack?” asked Yvgenny.  He knew the answer to his own question.  “Good, good.  Upload and post now.  I’ll take a look.”

A few minutes later Sergei had loaded five minutes of video and hundreds of stills onto the dark web for the viewing pleasure of disgusting creeps from around the world.  A dollar for each image, ten for the video.  Business was good.

Exponential Technology and the Nature-Tech Balance

9-13-18 – DSG

Moore’s Law contends that technological computing power doubles about every 18 months.  The theory was first established by Gordon Moore in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every year.  Although it was later revised to 18 months Moore’s Law has been remarkably consistent.

Consider the Cray-2 supercomputer released in 1985 (nicknamed “bubbles” for its innovative liquid cooling system).  The Cray-2 required a large room to house it and cost many millions of dollars.  By comparison the iPhone 5 (already an antiquated device) has 2.7 times the processing power of the Cray-2, fits in your palm, weighs a few ounces and, when new, cost just a few hundred dollars.

So, where does this take us?  Many so-called “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil, contend that this exponential trend will continue into perpetuity until we reach what they call “The Singularity.” The Singularity will happen, they say, when technological cognitive ability surpasses the human brain.  If this occurs, what may happen next is runaway technological advancement self-perpetuated by artificial intelligence that quickly moves beyond human comprehension and then continues to accelerate at exponential rates.

That prospect, of course, raises all kinds of questions.  The scariness factor of it depends on how you look at it.  On the one hand, it could be the catalyst that allows the human race to finally achieve its glorious destiny: No more wars; quick solutions to global climate change; everlasting life in perpetual bliss; opportunities for fulfillment that cannot even be imagined today.  On the other hand, it could also mean the total extinction of our species as we essentially become absorbed or consumed by the new super-intelligent machines that we have no ability to control or even understand.

While this may still be in the science fiction realm today, many technology gurus are taking it quite seriously.  In 2017 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, warned of an existential threat to human existence posed by artificial intelligence.

There are also many skeptics, including highly credible tech gurus such as Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.  However, even the skeptics don’t necessarily suggest that The Singularity won’t happen, they just believe it will take a much longer period of time to get there.  Kurzweil predicts the singularity will occur in 2045 (in most of our lifetimes!) while others suggest that it will take hundreds of years.  So, it’s just a matter of time!

How does this relate to nature?  I believe the reason people today find such a connection to nature is because our daily lives are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and this has everything to do with technology.  When people get out into the wilderness they often use terms like “reconnecting” with the wild or “unplugging” from the world.

This is no coincidence.  In the days of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, environmental visionaries like them were eccentrics.  Those guys were way ahead of their time.  They had some sort of enhanced connection to the natural world that was uncommon then.  Most people in those days did not have a concept for “wilderness” as having its own intrinsic value.  The wilderness was a forbidding and unwelcoming place that was to be exploited and controlled by man.  The ideal was a cultivated landscape shaped by the plow and industry.

These days, while there are still those who have little appreciation for, or interest in, the wilderness, most people seem to appreciate natural places for what they are—natural.  Why has this changed?  I believe it’s partly because industry and technology have worked to detach humans from nature, and by doing so, humans are becoming increasingly nostalgic for natural experiences and immersion into nature.

I work in a technology field and I’m passionate about it.  Technology has provided humanity with great solutions to massive problems.  It has directly contributed to reductions in global hunger and infectious diseases, increases in life span, improvements in quality of life and much more.  But, I’m also keenly aware that technology increasingly separates us from nature and that creates a psychological and sociological conflict.  This conflict will only become more pronounced as technology marches on.

My personal philosophy for dealing with this is what I call nature-tech balance.  I have a professional “foot” and a nature “foot.” I keep one foot (my professional one) in the technology world.  Things are changing incredibly fast, and linking my career to leading technological trends helps ensure that, as these things continue to change our lives in ways we can’t always predict, I will be less likely to be left behind and bewildered by technological innovation.  My other foot (my nature one) is firmly planted in the natural world.  I make sure to “unplug” and step into the wilderness where my smartphone is no longer connected to the web, I can’t read my email, and I can’t talk to Alexa.

I know when I’m in the wilderness that I’m ultimately human and my survival depends on human behavior and traits.  How do I get to my destination one step at a time?  How do I keep warm and dry?  How do I avoid falling off a cliff?  How do I avoid getting mauled by a bear?  And, while I’m doing all this I stop to take in the view.  That beautiful red rock cliff face has been warmed by a hundred million sunrises and will be lit by a hundred million more. That Bristlecone Pine over there is real, and it was a sapling in the days of the Roman Empire.  Contemplation of nature, detached from technology, will keep us grounded and humble.  It will remind us of our origins and will restore our mental equilibrium.

When technological advancement surpasses our ability to comprehend what is happening, those who keep one foot in technology and one foot in nature will be the most likely to be able to cope if things go sour, and thrive if things go well.  Now, it’s time for me to plan my next adventure into the woods.

A Bug on the Bank

September 12, 2018 – DSG

Mike just about had enough of those two morons talking about him behind his back.  He hid behind the moss rock listening to their crap for too long.

“Then I says to Mike, ‘hey I think that’s a giant beaver up there,’” said Bortle. “’Yeah, look at the size of its butt.  That thing is huge!’”

“Oh my bugs,” responded Clarice. “So, did Mike actually believe you?”

“Heck yeah he did!  You know Mike,” chuckled Bortle. “Anyway, I got him to go check it out seeing as the big beaver was ‘sleepin’’ and all.  So, he swims right on up there to take a look.”

“Oh my bugs, then what happened?” asked Clarice.

“So, he goes up there sort of swimming casually along the bank pretending to follow a dragonfly, or some shit,” Bortle laughed.  “So, he swims up there and the cow sort of shifts position.  Mike, he stops in his place, I guess still thinking it was some damn giant beaver.  Then, all of the sudden this cow just blew ass in the water!  I mean it was a total explosion of cow shit.”

Clarice lost it and started swimming in circles while laughing hysterically, her fins quivering with excitement.

“But, wait, that’s not the best part,” said Bortle, pausing for effect. “Mike, he couldn’t get outta the freakin’ way!  So, he’s totally enveloped in the shit-cloud.  For a minute I got a bit worried.  I mean I couldn’t see him in there.  I’m just hangin’ back lookin’ upstream into the cloud of shit that was spreading across the whole pool.  Finally, here comes Mike, slowly swimmin’ out into the clear.  Oh my bugs, the look on his face, I thought he was gonna kill me.  But, I couldn’t stop laughin’, I mean he was a true brown trout, covered in all that crap!”

“Gross!” exclaimed Clarice. “What did he do next?”

“Oh, he just moped on passed me down to his little hiding spot under that log with this little contrail of cow dung behind him.” Bortle shook his head. “It was really kind of pathetic.  I would’a felt a little sorry for him if it wasn’t so hilarious.”

“Come on Bortle,” sighed Clarice. “We’re talking about Mike here.  I mean he’s got nothin’ to offer.  Dumb as a mayfly larva; no talent; ugly as a… cow turd!”

Mike hid behind the moss rock just downstream listening to these two jerks go on and on at his expense.  No talent?  If only Clarice knew about my thin air training, he thought.  But, as he gazed upstream beyond Bortle’s and Clarice’s hangout, up farther past the grassy bank to the dirt shore, he saw his chance to rock their world.  It was a grasshopper—a nice green one just sitting there in that dirt within leaping distance of the water.

Mike eased over to the side of the moss rock into the bending current then darted ahead to Clarice’s and Bortle’s riffle.

“Hey, you jerks,” sneered Mike.

Bortle and Clarice whipped around to see a grinning Mike coming up behind them.

“Oh, uh… Hey Mike!” said Bortle. “We were, uh, just talking about you, and…”

“Shut it, Bort,” interrupted Mike. “I heard it all.  You think you’re a big shot just because I got shit on once?  And, you, Clarice…”

“Oh, my bugs…” Clarice stammered. “Mike, I… I, we were just…”

“Can it, bitch!” Mike yelled. “I know all about you, impressed by anything, no ideas of your own, just flittering around like the dumb-ass brook trout you are.”

Clarice frowned and fluttered her fins in the gravel.

“No talent, huh?” Asked Mike. “Watch this, dummies.”

Mike glided ahead, along the grassy bank, his eye on that green hopper in the dirt just off the water.  He held close to the edge for a stealth attack.

“What the heck’s he wantin’ us to watch?” asked Bortle. “Looks like he’s tryin’ to sneak up on something, but I don’t see what it is.”

Clarice nudged Bortle in the gill with a fin. “Maybe he’s fixin’ to get pooped on again!”

They both laughed heartily as they continued to watch Mike ease up the stream along the bank.

When Mike got close enough to the hopper he broke smoothly away from the bank towards mid-stream.  Then he turned back and made a b-line for the hopper, leaped from the water right up onto the bank, and scarfed that juicy grasshopper straight from the land!  He then flopped himself around a couple times straight on that beach before he let gravity do the rest and rolled back into the water.

Clarice and Bortle couldn’t believe what they just saw.

“OH, MY BUGS!!!!” Clarice finally belted.

“Holy crabapple, Mike!” Exclaimed Bortle. “You just completed the fabled ‘land leap of terror!’”

“Wait, what?!” Exclaimed Clarice. “How the heck did you just jump onto land, kill and eat a hopper, and flop back down into the world without drowning yourself in air?”

“Yep, I did that,” said Mike as he casually swam back downstream into Clarice’s and Bortle’s riffle.  “I did that right there and I can do it again.  And, that green grasshopper was a tastier meal than you screw ups will get in weeks.”

Mike continued his swim back down behind the moss rock, with a big grin and a full belly.

Clarice and Bortle were dumbfounded.  Then all three of them felt a movement in the water—something big!

“Oh, my bugs, what the heck is that?” Asked Clarice with fear in her voice.

A big, dark shape emerged from deep under the grassy bank.  Bortle shivered when he realized that he was looking at the legendary King Nightfeeder!  The King was rarely seen and was said to only venture out at night to feed on mice and birds.  Many even claimed he was a myth.  But, no, he was real, alright, and he was headed straight for Clarice and Bortle.  His huge, gaping mouth was slightly open, his lower jaw disfigured from some past battle.  A big scar traced from the corner of his mouth, up and around one eye, and then across his massive flat head.  He cast a big shade across the whole riffle.

“Uuuhhh… Behold the King,” stammered Bortle.

King Nightfeeder stopped and looked sideways at Bortle and Clarice.

“Shut up, you douchebag,” dismissed the King. “I’ve sat under that bank and listened to you two losers talk about young Mike over there for too long?  While you two idiots waste your time on nonsense, Mike over there’s been practicing.  And, now he’s accomplished something that you lickspittles could never do.  That’s right, the land leap of terror.  You’re lookin’ at the only other trout in this place to ever pull that one off and it almost killed me.”

The old King snorted some disdainful bubbles towards the two cowardly fish and then drifted down to the moss rock where Mike stared in awe at the big king.

“Mike,” said the King softly. “I’ve waited years to see another of our kind show the courage, the tenacity, and the skill to one day take my place in this world.”

Mike tentatively flicked his tail to move a bit closer to the King.  He was real! And, he was totally awesome.

“Mike,” continued the King. “I.. I’m not much longer for this world.  I’ve lived my time.  I’ve fought my battles.  This place needs a new King.”

The King then reached out a meaty fin and anointed Mike as his heir.

“You, Mike, will be the new king of our world,” said the King with dramatic effect. “You will be known as… King Land Leaper.”

King Nightfeeder then drifted away, back under his bank.  He was never seen again.  Bortle and Clarice moved upstream to a new riffle, too ashamed to stick around.  Over the years King Land Leaper grew to colossal proportions, feasting on land hoppers ,dragonflies, and even mice like the old king.  Most of all he enjoyed teaching his craft to the young fry coming up in the world.

Fish of Paradise

September 8, 2018 – DSG

What is it about the trout that is so alluring?  Many have pondered this question, but I know the answer.  It’s simple.  The trout is a beautiful fish that lives in beautiful places.  There are better tasting fish.  There are those that fight harder.  There are bigger, rarer and more elusive fish.  But, no fish can match the mystique of the mountain trout.  This is especially true of the western backcountry trout.

In summer the western trout glides happily over freestones that give colorful texture to creek beds under a sheen of moving air-water like liquid sunshine.  In fall the trout’s haven may also be adorned with gold as the aspens drop their leaves over the riffles.  Winter conceals silent water sanctuaries under a veil of snow where trout wait in darkness for the coming roar of spring snowmelt, when the creek swells into foaming cataracts under high peaks still clothed in white.

Let me tell you a little story about one of my favorite experiences with a native western backcountry trout.  There was a small lake—a high mountain lake graced on one end by a peaceful dark green conifer forest and on the other by gray-white rockfall fields tumbling steeply down to the water’s edge.  Above and beyond the boulder slopes was a mountain, 14,000 foot plus.  This mountain, from this angle, formed a classic alpine profile.  It had rugged ridges, snowfields, cliff faces and sloping meadows of wildflowers.  It had spiky false peaks and an airy summit that gave it the appearance of a cathedral.

On an early evening in mid-summer the air was calm and the lake surface was flat.  The forested end of the lake looked almost rain-dappled from the rings of many top-feeding trout.  The water was fairly shallow in this area with some submerged logs visible.  Big high-country spruce trees graced the shoreline among the columbines and Indian paint brushes. I cast my attractor pattern a few times but these fish weren’t going to be fooled quite so easily.  Once or twice a twelve-incher moseyed over to take a peek at my presentation only to glide arrogantly away.  No thanks, not good enough. 

I left the serenity of the forest and walked up the shoreline to where the trees ended and the sun-brightened boulders spilled straight into the water.  Here the lake became immediately deep from the shore, the talus continuing its steep slope uninterrupted beneath the water line.

My attractor pattern failed again.  I sat down on a flat whitish boulder and tied two feet of tippet to the hook of my dry fly.  On the end of this tippet went a tiny little nymph or midge–not sure which–but it was small and red.  I stood up and began to false cast, getting some line out, until I could get a good 30 or 40-foot try.  A very slight ripple appeared on the water from a new breeze.

It almost caught me daydreaming when my dry fly blipped underwater.  I gave it a half-second and then, with a smooth motion, raised my rod up to set the hook.  The fish was on, but it didn’t seem like one of those 10-12 inchers I saw in the shallows.  This one had weight.  My rod tip doubled over and line briefly began stripping from my reel as this fish went very deep.  Then there was the unmistakable slow but strong pulse of a heavy fish’s head shake.  The fish then took for the shore straight towards me, as if attacking the source of its sudden struggle.  I reeled fast now to keep the line taut and in moments the fish was almost right under me.  Still, I could see nothing in the dark water—only my strained leader cutting a stiff zigzag at the point of entry.  Finally, a deep red blur appeared dimly from the darkness.  It’s form, colors and size materialized as I pulled it up to the surface and reigned it into my net.

A beauty!  It was a native Colorado River Cutthroat, about 18 inches long and fat, with the brightest red splash down it’s flanks.  I briefly held that jewel of a trout in my hands with the cathedral mountain behind.  Then I eased it back into the lake to watch the glow of red fade back into the watery darkness.  This trout was a privilege to hold and to behold—and to release back into its spectacular home high in the Rockies.