Short Arm and the Wood Duck Box

Call it ironic, a twist of fate, or a case of life imitates art. For the past year, I’ve been writing the latest installment in my Nick Drake mystery series. The Demon Skin features a raging river as the principal setting while a deadly whitewater raft trip serves up the action. Shortly after I sent the manuscript to my advance readers and editor in preparation for release, the river I live on began to rage itself.

It all started when back-to-back storms fueled by tropical moisture carried by atmospheric rivers battered California with gale-force winds toppling trees and dumping an estimated 25 trillion gallons of rain, enough to cover the entire state nine inches deep. The relentless deluge turned hillsides into mudslides, destroyed houses, roads, and piers, and so far has tragically killed at least 19 people. Overnight, seasonal creeks and slow, meandering rivers were transformed into torrents. There they remained, including the one I’d always greeted each morning with an appreciative nod while sipping a mug of coffee before sitting down to write.

John Steinbeck once described the Carmel River as “everything a river should be.” It’s not very long and rises in the Santa Lucia Mountains and wraps around boulders and flows through groves of sycamores, white alders, and black cottonwoods on its way to join the Pacific. In summer, sun-dappled pools hold crayfish and trout dart among the riffles. Cool water and leafy trees offer respite from the heat for foxes, deer, mountain lions, and people alike. In winter, the river flashes with short outbursts of fierceness following rainfall. But not this year. The weeks-long tempest fueled by climate change-charged intense weather pushed the Carmel River to the breaking point.

Those who live alongside it were left both wary and in awe of the river’s size, speed, and ferocity. We also rallied to keep each other safe. Sand was hauled in by the truckload and piled in strategic locations on the two-lane that parallels the river. Residents, volunteers, and members of the California Conservation Corps joined forces to shovel, fill, and stack thousands upon thousands of sandbags atop the river’s banks and around houses and businesses. Village restaurants and stores offered free meals. An emergency center was set up at the library.

A nonstop flow of news and calls and texts of what do you know and how can I help traveled up and down the river, trying to keep pace with the hard-charging current that kept rising and was sure to surpass flood stage and trigger an official evacuation order. While we monitored the online network of gauges that measure rainfall, river height, volume, and the speed of the current right down to cubic feet per second that could predict the crest, we also relied on homegrown landmarks to tell us how fast the water was rising in front of our yards and how close it was getting to breaching our sandbag defenses and flooding our homes.

For my wife Annie and me, it was two markers: the stunted bottom limb of a black cottonwood we could see from our kitchen window that we called “Short Arm.” The other was a wood duck box my brother who lives on an Oregon river had given us. I’d fastened it to the trunk of a white alder in hopes of luring a pair of the colorful but elusive waterfowl to take up residence in it and hatch their young.

Short Arm, Annie and I knew, was exactly six feet above the normally lazy gravel river bed. I had to duck my head when walking beneath it. The wood duck box was twice that high. I’d needed a ladder when securing it. As the river rose and started swirling around the trunks of both trees, we kept our eyes on the markers as we stacked sandbags. With rain pounding down, we gritted our teeth and worked faster as Short Arm’s fingers waved a final goodbye before going under. The river kept rising.

With the last sandbag stacked and our go bags packed, we counted down the gap that was quickly shrinking between the top of the river and the bottom of the wood duck box. Five feet. Four feet. Three feet. Two. Our phones were chirping with calls and text messages from Monterey County Emergency Services that the Evacuation Warning had become an Order telling us what we already knew: It was time to get out.

Two single-lane bridges lay between us and the road out. Both were thrumming from the cauldron of whitewater churning inches beneath their steel mesh decks as we crossed over. Heading west on the two-lane, we passed convoys of National Guard trucks and vehicles speeding east carrying emergency responders, heroes all.

We are lucky. We didn’t have far to go to reach a safe and dry place to wait out the storm. Later, when the river had crested just below a historic high set decades ago, we returned home to find the wood duck box had been swept away by the flood, but the top of our sandbag walls that measured a foot higher had held. Our home stayed dry inside. Sadly, we learned, neighbors both upriver and downriver didn’t fare as well. Many homes were flooded, but, fortunately, no lives were lost. The river continued to fall only to rise again as the rains kept coming. Five days later, it reached flood stage for a second time and the order to evacuate sounded once more.

Rain is still falling as I write this, but the forecast calls for a reprieve starting tomorrow. Maybe the storms are over for now. Maybe the sun will break through and shine. If there is solace to be found, it lies in the fact that good comes when a river floods. It washes away deadfall and woody debris. It disperses plants and provides a lift for salmon and steelhead that need to reach the ocean. It primes wetlands and recharges groundwater. And it carries salt from rocks to the sea.

All are good lessons to remember. So is the one Annie and I learned. With a changing climate, intense weather and flooding rivers will certainly continue. As soon as the river is low enough, we’ll shake hands with Short Arm and hang a new wood duck box on the white alder even higher.


Author Talk

Snow, birds, and words were flying on my recent road trip through Harney County, Oregon scouting locations for my next Nick Drake Novel and stopping by the Harney County Library in Burns for a lively conversation with local readers and writers about how I made the transition from nonfiction to fiction, my writing process, and indie publishing. Watch the video here.

Keeping It Real

The facts of life of fiction writing, plus a video with clues about the next Nick Drake novel

I’m rushing to write this because I need to get back to my current work-in-progress. I owe an explanation to readers who’ve asked how could I leave Nick Drake in the equivalent of professional and romantic cliff hangers in the last book while I run off to chase facts in Harney County before finishing the next.

Walking away from a manuscript in midstream is considered a major sin in novel writing circles, but I’d argue not confirming what you’re describing is an even greater transgression. Part of this belief comes from the many years I spent writing newspaper articles, magazine stories, and books on natural history, conservation, and outdoor adventure travel subjects. To me, facts not only matter, they’re sacrosanct.

Spare me the joke that journalism is the world’s second oldest profession and nowhere near as well-compensated as the first. Plenty of creative juice gets spilled reporting the news, whether or not you subscribe to such journalistic techniques as Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing or Mark Twain’s never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Good reportage has its place in good fiction writing too.

Characters, conflicts, and very cool stuff was always to be found in the subjects I covered, and I’ve learned the natural world not only is a source and inspiration for a mystery series set in the high lonesome of southeastern Oregon in the late 1960s, but also helps lend authenticity to time, setting, and dialogue. Wildlife, weather, and landscape all play integral roles in the arcs of my stories and development of my characters. They provide action, motivation, and revelation, be it the mindset of a Vietnam War veteran trying to find inner peace as a wildlife ranger, an old lawman striving to bring justice to a beat as flinty as himself, a fiery and beautiful large animal veterinarian proving her gender is no disqualification for a tough job, or a Paiute elder keeping her people’s traditions and culture from going extinct.

Chiseled on a tablet somewhere is the adage Write about what you know. It’s no mystery why I reach back to my environmental reporting days for subject matter when it came to writing crime fiction. What isn’t carved right alongside that advice is the answer to Why do you write in the first place?

Though I once reported about wildlife genetics, I can’t say for certain if genes are a factor when it comes to writing. The same absence of certainty is also true when it comes to whether or not upbringing plays a role. My grandfather was a story teller, penning Jazz Age romances for weekly magazines before getting the call from Hollywood. My mother raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a father—true life adventures of being chased by bill collectors from one town to the next and waking up in a rented bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with my grandfather and a pack of other Paramount scribes. Is my writing a product of nature or nurture? Who knows?

What I am certain of is, the natural world provides me with the genesis of stories and it’s up to me to listen and give them a voice. That’s what I was doing on my recent road trip in Harney County. I needed to drive every dirt track I’d be putting Nick and Pudge on when they chased bad guys, learn from experts about the challenges of managing public lands, visit with the archivist at the Burns public library’s fantastic western history room to get dates straight, and talk with long-time residents about everything under the high desert sun, from Paiute traditions to haying techniques. Most of all, I needed to stand atop Steens Mountain and in the middle of Diamond Craters and on the edge of Blitzen Valley to feel the wind, watch the birds gather, and admire the grasses and aspens as they flashed autumn colors.

I don’t profess to being the first author to discover the natural world delivers honesty as well as a roundhouse punch to a story. Read my grandfather’s old pal Raymond Chandler’s opener to “Red Wind” to see what I mean:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Okay, I know what you’re thinking by now: “Enough with the navel-twiddling explanations already. Get back to the work-in-progress. Tell us what happens to Nick, Gemma, Pudge, and November.” I will, I promise. In the meantime, here’s a short video of my recent Fall trip through Harney County. I put a couple of clues in it, along with a red herring or two, that reveal plot lines in the next installment which is shaping up to be one heck of a harrowing ride. Everyone likes to be a detective, so let me know what you find. More later.

Click here to watch.

The Tale of a Tiger

Finding inspiration can be as close as home or as far away as the other side of the world. (Video below.)

Before I turned to writing crime fiction novels, I wrote books and magazine articles on wildlife conservation, natural history, and adventure travel. This background has worked its way into my fiction (it’s no coincidence the main character in my Nick Drake Novels is a wildlife ranger). I’ve been fortunate to visit many lands, from the Amazon to Zanzibar, and to spend time with rare and exotic wildlife, including orangutans in Sumatra and great herds of migrating elephants and wildebeest on the Serengeti.

My itch to be in wild places among animals—it’s where I draw inspiration for my work—always needs scratching, and so, when my wife was invited to speak at the World Sustainable Development Summit in India earlier this month, I grabbed my laptop that held my current Nick Drake work-in-progress and buckled up for a 16-hour nonstop flight to Delhi.

When her conference concluded, we drove into Rajasthan, which translates to “Land of Kings.” The largest state by area in India, Rajasthan is in the northwest part of the country and shares a border with Pakistan. It is achingly beautiful with friendly people and a culture steeped in history. It is also home to four national parks and fifteen wildlife sanctuaries.

The first stop on our journey was Keoladeo National Park. Smack dab in the Central Asian Flyway (my Nick Drake readers know he works in a parallel flyway in southeastern Oregon), the park supports more than 360 species of resident birds and many migrants. Among our memorable sightings was an up-close view of one of the world’s highest flying birds, the bar-headed goose whose migration takes it over the Himalayas, and the world’s tallest flying bird (ostriches and emus don’t count), the five-foot tall sarus crane. Incredible.

We concluded our Indian wildlife journey at Ranthambhore National Park. This very special area was once home to palaces and maharajas. Now its king is the endangered Bengal tiger. It also supports leopard, striped hyena, jackal, sloth bear, monkey, and a variety of deer. The sanctuary is a phenomenal conservation success story. Fifteen years ago, only 26 tigers lived here. Through improved management techniques, education, and a crackdown on poaching, the population has reached 75 and is growing.

There was no guarantee we’d see a tiger in the rugged 150 square mile park, but to aid our chances, we befriended a local expert tracker and guide. Did we succeed? Did I find the inspiration I was looking for? See for yourself in the short video below.

Hello, Inspiration. Or, as they say in India, Namaste.

Click Here to Watch