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Originally published October 16, 2010 at 8:00 PM | Page modified October 17, 2010 at 6:50 AM

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Restless Native

For Bruce Brown, going against the current comes naturally

Bruce Brown wrote 1982's "Mountain in the Clouds," the book that helped Northwesterners see for the first time who had done what to their beloved wild salmon.

Seattle Times staff columnist

In his new column, Ron Judd, a third-generation Washingtonian, invites you to come along as he scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons.

Go ahead, sit across a table from Bruce Brown. Watch, listen, learn. Just stay back a little.

When the iconoclastic author gets on a roll about fish, science, public policy or government malfeasance, his passion is such that he cannot sit still. His eyes light up with steely resolve. His body breaks into a frenetic squirm. His head thrusts forward, torso twisting, arms punching home his points.

It's almost as if the man is swimming upstream.

So you start to wonder: Maybe Brown, 59, best known for his 1982 environmental classic, "Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon," didn't just change local history 30 years ago by striking the first match in the dark dungeon of Pacific salmon management.

Maybe somewhere along the way, wading all those riverbanks, he actually became a salmon. Or at least salmonid, in all the best ways.

A century ago, after some geniuses thought it'd be a great idea to erect a concrete dam across the Elwha River, blocking one of Planet Earth's monster salmon streams, those 100-pound chinook kept coming back home to the Olympic Peninsula, anyway. Year after year, guided by primal urge, they bashed their heads against that wall and died.

Almost 70 years later, as a young Bruce Brown set out to write the book that helped Northwesterners see for the first time who had done what to their beloved wild salmon, the wall of ignorance seemed equally impenetrable.

Brown did what came naturally: Threw himself at the dam.

"Why did I write 'Mountain in the Clouds?' There's a two-word answer: sustained indignation," he says. "It rose from the experience of being a journalist, watching these fools dance back and forth across the front page, like this was the best they could do."

The fools were the parties warring over Pacific salmon. Most are still warring, 30 years later, even with some Puget Sound stocks on the endangered species list.

Exposing tragic history

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Righting such wrongs has always been in Brown's blood.

His father, the late Malcolm Brown, a longtime University of Washington English professor, instilled in him the notion it was possible for people not only to understand complex problems, but to solve them. Thus, his son sought not simply to expose the salmon problem, but to show how to actually fix it.

"Being young and foolish," he says, "I set out to make sense of it all."

He was 27. Washington salmon battles had reached the point where a state officer shot a gill-netter who was illegally fishing off the Kitsap Peninsula. "It was like Kent State," he recalls.

Abandoning a Seattle newspaper job, he retreated to family property in tiny Sumas, Whatcom County, and set to work.

To research the book, Brown waded spawning grounds of Peninsula rivers, the last bastion of healthy native stocks. He described, often with poetic grace, what he found there at eye level with spawning salmon too stubborn to go extinct. He sprinkled in all the historical events — logging, dam-building, bribery, overfishing, suburban development, pollution — that had dragged fish to the brink.

The book painted the first complete picture of the systematic snuffing of the silvery fish we call part of our identity — and the nobility of the salmon's struggle to survive. It exposed the tragic history of the Elwha's dams, illegal under state law even in 1910. And it explained why hatchery fish present perhaps even a graver threat to native fish. Still in print almost 30 years later, the book is regarded as an environmental classic — sort of a "Silent Spring" for the people of the big blue tarp.

"It was an awakening kind of book," says Tony Floor, a longtime state recreational salmon-fishing guru who now fills the same role for the Northwest Marine Trade Association.

Changing course

For Brown, the book was a springboard for a planned writing career. But he largely disappeared from mainstream bookshelves as a wave of publishing-house consolidations swept away a lucrative three-book deal with a national publisher.

By the mid-'90s, Brown, then married and the father of two daughters, was in a financial bind. So he chose another stream. Around that time, friends who worked for a certain major software firm in Redmond would gather at parties, get a little loose and joke that the upcoming Windows 95 would go down as "The Mother of All Bugs."

Brown capitalized by launching an online clearinghouse for software glitches. Again, perfect timing. That project, BugNet, grew into one of the first profitable online publications. In 1999, four months before the great dot-com stock-market crash, he sold it and walked away a millionaire.

"It was never a passion of mine," he says. "It was a necessity forced on me by a crushing personal disappointment."

The sale gave him the independence to do what he wanted. And the path of his subsequent "weirdo career" wandered across the map like a meandering stream.

He wrote a number of lesser-known books, with topics as diverse as a murder in Iowa and the global history of corporations.

He spun a comic novel, "Doctor Whacko's Guide to Slowpitch Softball," and at one point played second base for a Ministry of Sport softball team in Cuba.

But Brown's life was transformed even earlier, when he got on a mountain bike in 1997 and headed up Galbraith Mountain, a sprawling, trail-webbed timberland on the outskirts of Bellingham. He had an instant affinity for it, especially (surprise) the part that requires charging ceaselessly uphill. He set a world record for the most elevation gained on a mountain bike in a single year (400,000 vertical feet in the year 2000).

It earned him a nickname, "Mongo," which today is his online persona at www.galbraithmt.com, a Brown-managed website that peddles route guides to out-of-town visitors.

Full circle

So how does The Man Now Called Mongo feel about his role in Northwest natural history?

Pretty good, thanks.

He can't help but see a full circle as earthmovers begin the once-unthinkable dismantling of the Elwha dams, just as the 30th anniversary of his book approaches.

"I can't say I thought I'd live to see the day," he says, although he admits to being "delighted" his book was cited, both as an inspiration and as cold, hard evidence, by the first advocates for dam removal.

Still, he hates to break it to you, but almost all of the challenges laid out in "Mountain" simply have been pushed on up the road a few decades by people unwilling to make hard choices.

"The issues that burned in my heart when I wrote 'Mountain in the Clouds' all burn in the pages of the newspapers, in the news broadcasts of today," he says. "We need to find a way to keep what we love about the Northwest."

Fair warning: Some of his solutions might sound even more radical than dam removal did 30 years ago: Stopping subdivisions cold. Locking the doors of hatcheries and fish farms. "Corporate death penalties" for polluters. And so on.

He is most proud of the fact his book has spanned generations. His advice to the next generation? Buck up. Be as fearless and single-minded as the salmon who literally built the place by giving their spawned-out bodies to the soil. Rethink past decisions, even those set in concrete.

He is not entirely optimistic. Then again, if one bullheaded guy with sustained indignance, a pair of waders and a typewriter could make a big difference before, a few million others, properly equipped, could make a radical one now, Brown reasons.

He smiles, sits back and, finally, holds still.

"Sometimes, over time, you do see benefit," he says, almost as if it pains him to concede it. "What's happening today on the Elwha is a big, shining example of a real public-policy turnaround — one that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. That should not go unnoted."

The point?

"Things change," he says, gathering up his gear for yet-another afternoon mountain-bike charge up, always up, that mountain. "That's worth remembering, as well. Things change."

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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