About John E. Riutta

Who Am I

Born and raised in the coastal fishing and logging town of Astoria, Oregon before both the fishing and the logging industries there collapsed, I learned early about the cycles of nature – not by studying them from book but from participating in them. As my father was a commercial salmon fisherman and my mother a book-keeper for Bumble Bee Seafoods, everything about the life of my family and all the families we knew revolved around the Spring and Autumn salmon runs on the lower Columbia River and the big Summer one in Bristol Bay, Alaska. In the boat beside my father by the age of eight, I learned first-hand the life cycles of salmon, sturgeon, flounder, and the many other fish that came up in our net and into my hands.

But like so many trades that have suffered under the changes in the modern world, commercial fishing all but disappeared on the lower Columbia by the time I was in my late teens. Hatcheries, hydro-electric dams, and a number of misdirected river management programs that damaged salmon habitat in the upper portions of the river destroyed the natural salmon runs on which we depended. My father sold both our boats to prevent me from trying to stick it out; he saw the future much more clearly than I then did.

“You need to go to college” he said, “learn something else to do the fishing.” Looking back, had I known more of the possibilities of the world, I would have possibly studied marine biology (if our local high school had offered biology), or maybe, as I was handy with a pencil and a sketchpad, even scientific illustration (had I but known such a thing was even something people did back then). But as no one in our family had ever gone to college, I listened to the only teacher who was willing to give me advice and went off to study art – one of the most profound mistakes of my life.

Suffice it to say, I would much rather still be on the river, pulling up salmon and living my life in harmony with the changes of the tides and the seasons. Despite three university degrees, none of which now play much of any role in my life whatsoever, I am still the son and grandson of fishermen. I would rather be near the mouth of the Columbia River than anywhere else in the world. I would rather listen to the gulls cry and the waves lap against the side of the boat than hear the grandest concert ever performed. Though I have now lived more of my life away from the town where I was born than I have lived in it, I have never ceased – every day of my life since – to desire nothing more strongly than simply to take my family and go back home to live out the remainder of my days.