United by Water: Headwaters of The Methow River and Flagg Mountain

When you stand on The Bush School Methow  Campus, it takes a moment for your ears to  name the sound you hear, constant and low,  beyond the forest. You may have to unplug  your city filters to realize it’s not the stream of traffic  on I-5, but a literal stream, the steady movement of the  Methow River.
In 2014, a Canadian mining company filed an exploratory  drilling permit for a copper mine near the headwaters of  the Methow River and Flagg Mountain, directly above  Mazama. Concerned about the long-reaching impacts  of open-pit mining, Methow Valley Citizens’ Council  (MVCC), led by Maggie Coon, organized a community  response called the Headwaters Campaign. Maggie  explained to a group of Bush Upper School students,  part of the AMP Geology Rocks, that she knew in order  to unify the community around the cause, the message  had to be positive. The goal was to unite, not to divide.  Rather than focusing on the negative impacts of the  mine, MVCC called on the community to protect what  they loved, declaring the Methow “too special to mine.”  Partnering with local filmmakers Benjamin Drummond  and Sara Steele, they created a quilt of testimonials  that stitched together what makes the Methow vital  and unique: resilience, agriculture, heritage, public  land, fish and wildlife, hunting areas, treaty rights, jobs,  and water. 
Public support was immediate and immense, inspiring  local officials to take the cause up the legislative  ladder. On March 19, 2019, former President Trump  signed the bipartisan-supported Natural Resources  Management Act, which included permanent  protection of 340,000 acres in the Methow  watershed. This protected land comprises not only  the Methow headwaters and Flagg Mountain, but  also the surrounding hillsides and tributaries, as  well as the avalanche chutes and waterfalls. Our  water comes not only from the river, but also from  the mountains that surround us. The watershed is the  community of the river, and the health of one aspect  impacts the health of the whole. 

In Drummond and Steele’s short celebratory film,  Permanently Protected, Maggie explains the  extraordinary success of the MVCC campaign is  noteworthy “because of the unanimity of support.”  With this shared success comes responsibility.  Maggie challenges that it is our job to “tell the stories  of these successes, so that as more and more people  come here, whether to live or to visit, they understand  that the Methow isn’t this way by accident. It has  required a whole community acting on behalf of this  incredible place.” Just like the community relies on  the watershed, so too does the watershed rely on the  community. Or perhaps they are simply two words for  the same thing. Everyone who comes to the Methow,  whether on a Bush alumni weekend or a senior class  retreat, is united. A love of place brings us together  toward collective action. 

Local biologist and educator Amy Fitkin leads a  group of Bush Eighth Grade hikers down Lost River  Road, past their classmates belaying each other on  Fun Rocks, and up the steep path of the Spokane  Gulch Trail. From the ledge high above the valley  floor, students catch their breath and their efforts are  rewarded with a grand view. Below them, the valley  expands and flattens, the path of the river reflecting  the afternoon sun. Amy introduces key landmarks  on the jagged horizon by name: Liberty Bell Spire,  Kangaroo Ridge, Driveway Butte. She leads their  eyes down the canyons to ribbons of smaller  streams, intermittently visible between layers of  green branches. Lost River, Early Winters, Robinson,  Cedar—each winds their way down to join forces  with the Methow River. Each of these confluences is  a union of distinct waters from separate landscapes,  a merging of paths now united in a common journey.  
The town of Winthrop is situated at such a confluence,  where the Chewuch River meets the Methow. Kevin  van Bueren, owner of North Cascades Fly Fishing,  views this spot through the eyes of both a fisherman  and a fish. Because the Chewuch is deeply seated  in the Cascades, it melts earlier and runs higher  first. Kevin explains that “salmon or steelhead will  stage in the Columbia until their watershed is just  the right temperature.” As these big fish make their  way upstream, “they may duck into the mouth of a  smaller river to enjoy cooler waters as they wait to move to their home water.” Fish also benefit from the  introduction of a different perspective, a different  water narrative. 

The Eighth Grade hikers are about to encounter a  confluence of their own. The Bush School is made  up of several of these key points where rivers of  students combine and braid together: Kindergarten,  Sixth Grade, and Ninth Grade. At each of these entry  points, students from distinct backgrounds and  experiences come together, contributing their own  narrative and uniting on their common Bush journey.  
Six hands dunk into the water and work together to  flip a large, flat stone. A quick dip of a net brings  up small bits of debris and several naiad stoneflies,  wriggling in the sunlight. Stonefly are an indicator  species, their presence a sign of good water quality.  They are also a choice snack for trout and salmon.  Learning the habits of the stonefly is key in learning  to fly fish.  
Jonathan Stratman has been teaching students to fly  fish in the Methow for over ten years. His popular  after-school club and summer camp sessions fill quickly with students eager to try their hands  at creating their own flies and learning to think  like a fish. But there’s more to becoming a fly  fisher than casting. Students begin to learn a  perspective beyond themselves, a connection  between self and river. When Jonathan considers  the mindset of fly fishing, he shares that when  he’s “focused on a specific run or a section  of water, I can almost feel the connection. I’m  a part of everything that’s happening around  me.” Jonathan hopes that his students take  much more than science from his fishing clubs:  “Being on the river allows me to be completely  who I am, free from distraction and worry. This  is what I hope students take away from the  experience.” Teaching this awareness at a  young age grows not only a healthy community,  but also a community attuned to the health and  importance of the river.  

When Phil and Cathy Davis purchased a corner of  vacant riverfront along Highway 20 in Winthrop,  they had a vision for a community space that  honored the people, the river, and the fish who  have called this place home. Phil describes both  the goal and the process of creating the park  as a “shared stewardship of land, water, and  each other.” Dynamic metal sculptures by Virgil  “Smoker” Marchand titled “Water is Life” and  “Coming Home” bring to life the Methow people  who fished and lived along these banks for  thousands of years. Now the river’s edges rely  on newcomers for restoration and protection. 

The September heat was no ally to the  group of Bush students wielding shovels and  wheelbarrows at Homestream Park, helping  create the trail that mirrors the homeward path  of the Methow salmon. Punctuated by nine  boulders that represent the dams a salmon  must overcome to return to its home river, the  path invites participation and speculation.  Speculation is more challenging in the heat of  the afternoon, and when Cathy Davis arrived  with boxes of ice cream bars, rakes were quickly  dropped in exchange for a treat and shared  laughter. Behind them, the river echoed in its  own language, and the cottonwoods’ shadows  beckoned with reprieve. Collective work  deserves collective rest, the group stronger  because of their efforts.  
Just a month later, Homestream Park held its  grand opening celebration, a confluence in its  own right of cultures and contributors, united by  a shared support of the park’s purpose. Mark  Miller, whose family has lived in the Methow  for 500 generations, spoke on local radio  station KTRT with host Don Ashford about his  perspective of Homestream Park and why  he chose to be involved. The goals of park,  Mark explains, exemplify “the concept of a  whole valley ecosystem and spiritual system.” 

Homestream Park “represents salmon, it  represents water, but it also represents dirt, the  soil, that environmental wholeness that people  come to the Methow for.” By contributing their  hands and hours, Bush students become part  of that wholeness, carrying the awareness of  purpose on their journeys, carrying the story of  the salmon and the river. 
Back on campus, trails diverge into the dappled  light of the cedar forest. Whether you travel the  beaver pond trail or the ski trail or the snowshoe  trail, you will find the path you chose brings  you eventually to the Methow River. Here, the  sound of water fills your ears and details assert  themselves on your senses. You are here and  nowhere else. When we are in the presence  of water, whether casting a line or dipping a  paddle, we enter a shared narrative of time  and place. This water circling our feet reminds  us to be mindful of the present, grateful for our  surrounding watershed, and thoughtful of what  we bring to the next confluence. 
The Bush School is an independent, coeducational day school located in Seattle, WA enrolling 715 students in grades K–12. The mission of The Bush School is to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.

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