BELLINGHAM - Ten years after his death, Liam Wood's spirit lives on in the school created to honor his passion for fly-fishing and his deep love of the natural world.
Since 2004, the Liam Wood Flyfishing and River Guardian School in Bellingham has used the art of fly-fishing to connect students to the ecology of fish, rivers and watersheds in the hope that getting them outdoors will spawn a connection to nature and a desire to protect it. There's also a school in Missoula, Mont.
It's a legacy that grew from an idea by Montana writer David James Duncan, whose book "The River Why" - about fly-fishing, the wildness of rivers and the mysticism of both - was a favorite of Liam's, whose love of fly-fishing began when he was 9.
The 18-year-old Sehome High School graduate and budding writer drowned while fishing in a favorite watering hole at Whatcom Creek. He was overcome by fumes from 237,000 gallons of gasoline that had leaked from a ruptured pipeline in Whatcom Falls Park on June 10, 1999.
Two other Bellingham boys, Wade King and Stephen Tsiorvas, also died when they were burned by a fireball that came roaring down Whatcom Creek as they played on its banks near Hannah Creek. They were 10.
The river of fire scorched 11/2 miles of Whatcom Creek and decimated fish, insects and wildlife in the area, and raised the water temperature in the creek, important to salmon, to 90 degrees in seconds. Hannah Creek, where it met Whatcom Creek, also was burned.
Duncan, whose other books include "The Brothers K" and "River Teeth," proposed the idea to Liam's parents - his mother Marlene Robinson and stepfather Bruce Brabec - when he came to Bellingham in 2001 on a tour for his collection of essays, ""My Story As Told by Water."
The hope was for "something positive to come out of the tragedy. Bruce and Marlene were all for it," said Bret Simmons, a family friend and one of a group of people who helped start the school.
Liam's parents no longer live in Bellingham. They have moved to Bonaire in the Caribbean. They declined to be interviewed for an article as part of The Bellingham Herald's coverage of the 10th anniversary of the pipeline explosion.
Duncan learned about Liam's death when friend Mart Stewart, a history professor at Western Washington University, sent him the June 11 edition of The Bellingham Herald, which carried a photo of a mushrooming black plume of smoke over Bellingham, and stories of the boys' deaths.
"Liam's death made me heartsick for many reasons," Duncan wrote in an account of the schools' creation. "I have twice stood in urban creeks at the moment effluent was causing their fish to turn belly up. Both times I headed upstream to try to find the source of the damage. Several of Liam's friends believe Liam did the same and that his allegiance to the creek may have cost him his life."
In an interview, Duncan said no one really knows what happened that day as Liam fly-fished for trout in Whatcom Creek, which has been described as a favorite spot that was his home away from home.
But he believed that Liam may have tried to figure out what was happening to the creek.
"When he first smelled the gas, he should have run like hell. Almost any fisherman, -woman, who loves their home stream would be divided between horror and curiosity," he said.
It is Liam's love for rivers that Simmons evokes when recalling the teen, with whom he went fly-fishing.
"He cared deeply about rivers and other wild places and recognized our collective responsibility of protecting them," Simmons said.
Simmons also talked about the deep places of Liam's heart, the wisdom in one so young, the outdoors lover who wrote about his adventures.
"He had perceptive eyes and an openness that invited the subtleties and wonder of the natural world into his soul," Simmons said. "He was wise, loyal, fun, full of humility and kindness, and excited about life and the days to come."
Most of all, he was an excellent fisherman, Simmons said.
The Liam Wood Flyfishing and River Guardian School works to pass on Liam's love of fishing to youths, students and other members of the community through sessions taught by Leo Bodensteiner, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at WWU. Bodensteiner has studied fish, habitats and stream ecology for about 30 years.
Liam's parents donate time and money to the school.
In addition to sessions through WWU, the school has taught younger students about fly-fishing and river ecosystems in compressed versions of the college courses at alternative schools, Home Port Learning Center in Bellingham and Timber Ridge Center just north of Bellingham. This year, they'll do programs in Ferndale and Squalicum high schools.
Duncan, an advocate for fly-fishing, fish and river ecosystems, also comes to the class from time to time, as does Brabec, who tells students about Liam.
"Every time, it's heart-rending to hear him speak," Bodensteiner said.
"He's such a wonderful guy, and he speaks gently and lovingly," Duncan said. "It's usually a moment that destroys his entire faculty. Some wounds don't go away."
But if there's sadness, there are also lives being changed, eyes being opened, and a coming together of the community, including partners WWU, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Fourth Corner Fly Fishers and Northwest Women Flyfishers.
Duncan talks about at-risk youth who normally have problems focusing in the classroom concentrating as they learn about fly-fishing, about students grappling with the subtleties and complexities of it, and new fishers getting the sense of how to read water and absorb biology, entomology and physics. And bringing kids out into nature and having them be filled with wonder by something larger than themselves, as Liam was.
"It's not just hands-on but it's worlds-on," he said. "You're standing in the midst of the thing itself. The environment, what surrounds you, is so alive and delightful and complex."
A Sept. 25 celebration in the Performing Arts Center at Western Washington University will raise money for the nonprofit Liam Wood Flyfishing and River Guardian School. Details are still being worked out, but performers at the literary and music event will be writers David James Duncan and Sherman Alexie, and singer/songwriter Jeffrey Foucault.
For more information about the school, click here.