In June 1999, 18-year-old Liam Wood was fishing on Whatcom Creek just outside of Bellingham, Wash. a few days after his high school graduation when a pipeline burst upstream, pouring 230,000 gallons of gasoline into the creek. Liam suffocated on the fumes, passed out, then drowned in the creek.
Two years after Liam’s death, Missoula author David James Duncan went to Bellingham for a book signing where he learned that his writings had been a source of inspiration for Liam, a budding conservationist and aspiring writer. Duncan, in conjunction with Liam’s parents, came up with the idea of starting a school in Bellingham that would use flyfishing as a vehicle for teaching river ecology, ecosystem dynamics and conservation.
Now Duncan, along with the Missoula-based Watershed Education Network, is bringing the Liam Wood Fly Fishers and River Guardians Program to Missoula.
“We want to help kids move away from the [video] screens and realize the dynamic living systems that are the source of all of our lives,” Duncan says of the goal of the program, which will introduce a dozen ninth-through-eleventh-graders to fly-tying, conservation and river literature.
Local flyfishing guide and creative writing professor Chris Dombrowski is the program’s lead instructor. He says he plans to teach the students flyfishing with the hope that their experiences will engender respect for the natural world. The students will explore literature as a way of “getting to know the river and its environs in a deeper way.”
“Fishing, writing and conservation all require observation, reflection and then action,” Dombrowski says.
Duncan says literature plays a historic and critical role in watershed conservation.
“I think the only reason we don’t have a cyanide heap-leach gold mine…on the Blackfoot River, is because of Norman MacLean’s novel A River Runs Through It,” Duncan relates. “All those people [who read the book and watched the movie] were central to the massive movement that successfully stopped that debacle.”
Duncan hopes this program will inspire a new generation of young anglers to become passionate river advocates who will in turn fight to prevent future disasters like the one that claimed Liam.