On late evenings like this one I’ll collapse into bed still dressed and dirty and too tired to change.
I smell of wood smoke and bamboo and my long sleeves are soaked wet with creek water. Most of the
time, my bedtime stories tell themselves. Nights often end this way after countless days saturated by
water and fire, which together have held an elemental stay over my 41 years. I’ve been weathered by
them both—these two old gods—wrinkled and blistered and polished. In their joint custody they raised
me and brought me up in a wet world that burns.
For quite some time I’ve been a fireman in a big city and a bamboo fly rod maker in a small one. Two
halves of one whole. It is a life lived with both feet always in the water. Sometimes the water is cold and
clear and falling down freestones, and sometimes it’s the boiling blackwater from a fire hose cascading
back down a dark stairwell with flames rolling overhead. The blackwater in the hose first fell from clouds
over the Cascades. It flowed down the Cedar River and into the big city’s water mains before being
pumped from the corner hydrants. Oftentimes after leaving the firehouse I’ll fish this river that flows
into our hydrants. Sometimes I fish it before and it becomes a river I stand in twice.
Sometimes, though, the river itself catches fire and evaporates into the sky and I can never seemingly
stand in it again. This is such a story. Of course, the beginning of any story is arbitrary and tonight’s
bedtime tale is no different. It picks up around the time my two halves became acquainted, years ago,
though at the time I was unaware a storyboard was piecing itself together. It begins when a creek back
home caught fire, in Bellingham, Washington, and a young man was standing in it casting his fly rod. His
name is Liam Wood, and this story is one we should all remember and his river is one we should all try
to stand in twice.
This evening I’m at my rod-making bench looking out past the back of the house. The day’s end is
beginning and I have an audience of evergreens resting behind a creek in the tired light of dusk. A
reprise lingers over the water, perhaps the coda, holding onto the last note of a song. There is an eight-
foot long culm of raw bamboo across my lap soon to become a split-cane fly rod. It will be a totem or
temple or another limb anchored to the heart of whoever holds it with a line drawn deep into the clean
water it reaches toward. This rod I’m making tonight, when it’s complete, will have Liam’s name
inscribed along the spine, handwritten in black india ink that bleeds into the cane fiber and becomes a
part of it.
Within an arm’s reach of me, on the bench, is an old hand-plane, a splitting knife and a file. A book of
wooden matches is in my breast pocket, and all the utilities of the trade are here. Off to my side spools
of thread float in a wine glass of last night’s Malbec, the hair-thin white silk turning the color of blood
not yet at the lungs. This thread will wrap guides onto the rod and telescope to wet world that was all at
once an ocean and a cloud and a raindrop and a tear. Also nearby is a not-forgotten cup of yesterday’s
coffee. A black level ring is haloed above its petroleum sheen as it reflects the days last slights of light.
Spools of silk swim in here too and soak up the oily and cold dark.
In the fire pit just outside I lit some kindling a few moments ago. In another hour, the hemlock I bucked
and split last spring will be a heap of coal hot enough to temper this bamboo for Liam’s fly rod, a rod
that’ll witch out of time and lean in toward wonder.
The walls around my work bench are adorned with hangings that I love, but the window trim in front of
me is left void except for one solitary photograph tacked inside it at eye level. It’s a note from 18-year
old Liam to his parents, one he wrote often and sometimes left on top a worn-out copy of David James
Duncan’s The River Why, a book he’d read eight or nine times.
Liam worked an after-school job at a fly shop in Bellingham. He was born for water and reached out for
the cold and clean and reeled it all back in. Even as a child he tied flies and read water and studied
streams. For his ninth birthday his mom took him to a fly shop and by age fourteen fly fishing enveloped
the world he inhabited and he was as natural to it as the grass that grew in the stream beds he stood in.
His heart beat on the banks of the blue and green that flowed over freestones until the time the note he
wrote his parents was wrong and he was not back before dark. The time he was killed with a fly rod in
his hand. The time 237,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline spilled from a ruptured pipeline into Whatcom
Creek where he was fly fishing, and exploded. It was June 10th, 1999, just a few days after he graduated
from high school. It was just a few days after I popped into the store where he worked to pick up a box
of hooks and some hackle, and hear the hatch report from this always-kind kid standing behind the
Here at my bench and still looking out, it’s not quite dark. The fire outside is laying down and humming
an origin song that will soon draw me into the darkness. This northern latitude and the recent summer
solstice split the days wide open with an almost endless length of light. Twenty feet past the house runs
a small creek which flows from a spring a mile up the mountain. It’s a creek you can’t find on a map. It
winds through the woods to a pond just below our house where frogs and fish mingle and countless
generations of mallards make their first swim. Heron, wood duck and owls frequent this little wetland
puddle. My young boys skip rocks across it. They call it Lost Creek but this is where we always find
them. I once watched my nine-year old hold company here with a horned owl for nearly half an hour
just feet from each other and I wondered which one was there first.
About 3:30 in the afternoon 911 calls started coming in from people reporting a fuel odor in Whatcom
Falls Park. The first firefighters to arrive at the Woburn St. Bridge saw pink and rainbow fuel free flowing
in the creek underneath and gas fumes floating up to the treetops, blurring them in a fog. They began to
evacuate the forested park within 200 feet of the creek, working upstream to find the source of the leak.
The unleaded gasoline spilled from a neglected pipeline and filled 1.5 miles of creek through the
Wooded 241-acre park. Around 5 p.m. it burst into a miles-long fireball. One fireman thought a jet
engine was flying low and loud overhead until he felt heat pressing against his back. The inferno roared
down the creek taking Liam’s life with it and taking the creek with it too.
Liam’s closest friends believe once he noticed the gasoline at his feet, that he followed it upstream to
investigate, instead of run away. The theory fits with his nature, but he was alone and so leaves behind
questions that will never be answered and can’t be. Only the creek knows exactly what happened to
Liam that afternoon, and why. All anyone knows for sure is that he was killed holding a fly rod and was
found face down with his arms outstretched.
I also know that the coroner decided the cause of death was from drowning and not burns from the fire.
From this I also know that the gasoline fumes first would have rendered him unconscious. They would
have made him dizzy and unbalanced and, as if to pray, cause him to drop to his knees. For a moment
after he would have looked around and briefly looked skyward, seeking an orientation and an
explanation, before bowing forward and falling into the water. His final inhalation was a breath of creek
water passing past gills he hadn’t yet acquired with his arms open as if to embrace this place. As he lay
there, his creek flowed over him, and in its final heroic moment the water he loved so much shielded
him from the coming flames.
Liam was discovered by search crews around 9 p.m., lying in what little water remained. Gone was the
blue and green. Gone was the cold, the clear and the clean. Gone was the endlessness of running water
that once fell as rain. The almost dry creek stopped flowing. They found him in the canyon below
Whatcom falls, a favorite spot of his and near where his family told firefighters he’d be.
For nearly three days after he was recovered, wisps of smoke still sent up their ash and signals. It was
three days before the smoldering banks surrendered to the creek flowing again, through charred timber
and past a ghost casting on its banks.
At the firepit it is now dark. Night has arrived. The flames are ebbing to an orange and blue over black
coals. I’m turning the long culm of bamboo in the embers, bringing the cane up to temperature. The
heat drives out the moisture and bakes the sugar inside the fibers to a ligament more tensile than steel.
Scorch marks sear the outer sheath.
By now the bamboo is so hot I have to wear two pairs of leather gloves to handle it. The water content
inside is spitting and spilling out the ends of the culm, boiling up and out of the long cellulous fibers that
run the length in its entirety, fibers that once touched the ground an ocean away and pulled the earth in.
The sweet cane steam smells of fresh candy and it curls in thick with the rising smoke of the fire,
floating all the way up to a sky now full of stars.
Without fire this cane would be just a willowing blade of cut grass, lifeless and incapable. The cane fly
rod needs this kiln or would otherwise lack the resiliency to return from a weighted bend to straight. It
would lack the lever action that allows an eight-foot long, three-ounce split-cane fly rod to deliver a dry
fly over 100 feet of cold water to a rise.
There are other ways to apply heat and temper bamboo for a fly rod but because I’m a big city fireman
with burn and skin graft scars of my own, I choose to do it over an open flame. For nearly twenty years,
I’ve chased fire through the tenements and town homes and warehouses of Seattle. Hundreds of times I
have laid down in Cascade hose water with a river of fire above, ever to remember young Liam who
once did the same. I’ve searched him out and carried others like him out of scorched hallways and burnt
timbered homes; they were all strangers to me with names being screamed out by someone standing
helpless and out of reach on the sidewalk.
I carry Liam’s story with me all the time, hearing it most often with a split-cane fly rod in hand–a
Conduit tying together the someplace he isn’t to the someplace else he is. Part of me believes my own
story might someday be accessed this same way. I can see myself as Liam’s mirrored reflection on the
water surface. It’s an image obscured by raindrops and dimpled from fear and the uncertainty brought
on by too many close calls of my own, wondering too if my final breath will be taken as I lay down in
water. My last will and testament, to be sure, will be writ along the spine of a split-cane fly rod begging
to be held.
This culm of cane I’ve now kept an hour above the fire is tempered. Its resonance, if tapped, has
changed from a dull thud to a tight ting. The metals and minerals soaked up from the ground it grew
from are forged. No longer pale, the culm is bright and light and seasoned.
Gone is the weight of the water it held until I walk a few steps to the creek and submerge the burnished
bamboo completely into the spring. The baptism quenches and cools the cane, infuses it again with cold
water. I’ll leave the culm here to soak till morning to balance out an equation, restore what was lost
while it hovered in the fire and allow it one last breath from the creek.
Tomorrow I’ll split these fibers with a knife and hand plane them a few thousand times. Shaving cane
little by little in measured and tapered strips to laminate back together. Down at its end, at the tip, the
rod will measure only a few hundredths of an inch across. These few fibers of bamboo will cradle the
full pull of a wild fish swimming upstream, an energy that always was will move down a blade of grass
and into the bare palm of a hand that holds it in prayer, and into a story.
This bamboo having become a split-cane fly rod, will never not be. Fire and Water, the world’s oldest
gods, become inseparable and indistinguishable, and so is the spirit of a young man who loved what the
fly rod reaches for. He carries on along in the seams and lives in the pockets and he rises and falls in
answer to the evening hatch. This fly rod with Liam’s name on it will fly as a phoenix from the ashes
along Whatcom Creek and connect to a grab felt first as a subtle tap. The tap will be followed by a force
pulling through the grip with a strain in my forearm that moves over the shoulder and comes to rests
someplace in my chest.
It is late and I am tired but I am not yet ready to go inside. Through an open window upstairs the soft
And low light of our home spills out to the night like love. I hear the warm acoustics of a Jeffrey Foucault
record spinning under the ordinary murmurs of conversation between my wife and our young boys.
Their sounds fall onto the back patio and roll over my shoulders before getting lost and found in the
chorus of a creek and a fire. The limitless starlight above me, I know, shines from suns that extinguished
a billion years ago. The fire in front of me grew from the embryo of a flint strike and shines its light back
to them. So many times I’ve fought a roaring fire that burned the back of my neck and left something
and someone lost.
The answerless question ‘when does the darkness end and the light begin?’ is on my mind, but I lack the
mindspace to feel my way around this. It is impossible to grasp the idea that nothing is ever created or
destroyed, that everything always was and still is and only changes in shape or form or frequency,
travelling on a wave of light and a story that doesn’t end. It rides the crest of Liam’s wave and shines like
a sun in every direction. His fire peels apart the dark and burns bright enough to catch the eye of God.
Once, there was only darkness. Once he swam on the bottom of a freestone creek, under the ink black
smoke of thick hemlock and cedar. In the pocket water, there below the canyon, hatched a billion stars,
and Liam resurrected to the surface, out from the shadows and sipped their sunlight.
As I fall asleep tonight I hear his story like a lullaby over the white noise and static of a lost creek. Its
water is still dripping off my sleeves and lingers like a reprise, perhaps the coda, holding onto the last
note of his song.
This story originally appeared in The Drake.
Jimmy Watts is a fireman in downtown Seattle, the craftsman behind Shuksan Rod Company bamboo fly rods, and a writer. For the past 20 years he’s lived in Bellingham with his wife and their two boys.
20 Years Ago: The Day Whatcom Creek Burned
The sky was blue above Bellingham on the afternoon of June 10, 1999. The temperature was in the mid- 60’s. At 3:25 p.m. a 16-inch pipeline carrying unleaded gasoline from a refinery at Cherry Point to a terminal near Renton ruptured in Whatcom Falls Park, causing the fuel to flow into Whatcom Creek. The gasoline poured into the creek for almost an hour and a half, 237,000 gallons of it, turning the normally crystal clear water a ghastly pink and filling the park with overwhelming toxic fumes. At 5:02 p.m. the gasoline exploded in a massive fireball with temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which roared for 1.5 miles downstream, almost reaching downtown Bellingham. A thick black plume of smoke rose 30,000 feet, forming a mushroom cloud and darkening the sky over Northwest Washington. Three lives were lost: Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, both 10, and Liam Wood, 18.
The Water Treatment plant near the creek was destroyed in the inferno—even the fire extinguishers melted—but miraculously, tanks containing toxic chlorine survived the blast, averting a further catastrophic release of chlorine gas. Bellingham’s mayor Mark Asmundson noted that the fact that the 10-year olds had ignited the gasoline (they were lighting fireworks with a butane lighter) quite likely literally saved Bellingham by causing the ignition of the gas before it reached the downtown core, where it would have claimed many, many more lives.
In 2001, after deliberating on the cause of the explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency charged Olympic Pipeline Company and Equilon Pipeline with a seven-count indictment, including five felony violations. The companies eventually paid $112 million in fines, a record at the time. It was the first conviction ever obtained under the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Act of 1979.