Living on Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

from: Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I grew up along bodies of water, all flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico. I knew Papio Creek, and the Elkhorn, the Platte, and the big muddy Missouri, mightiest of the plains rivers. I’ve lived on the Rhine and the Chattahoochee, the Big Sioux, Arkansas, and Canadian, and the Red River of the North. I’ve dipped my toe in the Mississippi, followed the North Platte and Colorado and Bighorn and Green, the Rio Grande and Pecos and Rio de las Animas Perditas and el Rio de las Animas en Purgatorio, the Snake and Salmon and Columbia, The Loire, the Thames and Cam, the Inn and Salzach, Elbe/Moldau/Vltava, Mur, Drau/Drava, and the long, quiet Danube. My history work focuses on rivers, sometimes wet, sometimes dry, sometimes seemingly more imagined than real. I’ve heard the sound of explosions as the Army Corps of Engineers tried to shatter the ice on the Elkhorn in order to save the bridges downstream, and have watched chunks of ice the size of small houses race south and east, hurtled along by a river that seemed untamed.

The sea has never called to me. It is too flat and soft seeming, unless it is places like the coast of Oregon and Washington and British Columbia where the war between land and sea snarls and hisses with each lap of wave and crash of ocean. I’ve brushed the Atlantic at Omaha, Utah, and Sword beaches, waved at the English Channel, and taken a catamaran out to the region of the Coral Sea. I’ve seen the Antarctic Ocean off of Wilson’s Prom and waved to Tasmania, touched the Pacific at Melbourne, swam in the Gulf and waded the Atlantic. But the sea never touched me, never inspired me, never called me back. Rivers do. There’s too much depth in the ocean, pun intended, too much you must learn, the scale is too vast. Rivers are manageable, at least some of the time.

My parents made a big deal of noting every time we crossed the Continental Divide when we took vacations in the West in the 1980s-90s. South Pass, other places where you can stand on one side and water flows east into the Gulf, the other side and it goes to the Pacific, or arctic. I’ve stood as close as possible to the divide between the Gulf and Hudson’s Bay, and splashed in the headwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri (the water is COLD at Three Forks. And the trout are sneaky.)

I don’t fish, I don’t canoe, kayak, or sail. I can barely swim. It’s a bit of a running joke that I’m one of a vanishing few hydrology of rivers types who doesn’t recreate in or around water. I love watching water, I love studying rivers and the plants and animals around them and the geology under them, but being wet is no fun. And I’ve seen a flash flood in an arroyo in Canyon de Chelley, thank you. I know what those hydro curves mean, and what the force of confined fluids can do. I remember the terrible floods on the Mississippi-Missouri, the perfectly horrible sequence of hydrological events that drowned Grand Forks and the Canadian towns downstream. I’ve seen photos of what even “dry” rivers like the Dry Cimarron, Arkansas, Platte, and Canadian can do. I respect rivers.

Rivers go places. Rivers have the potential to take your imagination from a small town in Minnesota down the long distance, past the ancient Indian animal mounds tucked into the bluffs of Iowa and the great lost cities of Cahokia, to the ghosts of battles at Vicksburg and the legendary lawless, proud, sweep of New Orleans. Led by Stanley Vestal I’ve ascended the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, meeting French trappers and Mandan Indians, half-mad steamboat captains, and cavalry soldiers, Blackfeet and Paigan and Shoshone peoples, past the Great Falls that stop all navigation, then up to near the great massif wall of the Yellowstone Caldera to three forks, the Madison, Gallatin, and westernmost Jefferson. It was late afternoon, on a partly cloudy October day, and about 50 degrees or so. The sun threw shafts of light down to the mountains, and I remember reeds and tall-to-me grasses, and a little, clear, cold as ice stream with darting silver minnow-glints. Here, my parents announced, began the Missouri that I knew as a mighty brown king, the ruler of the city where I was growing up.

Today I live in the Red River watershed, half a mile or so from the Canadian River watershed. The rivers hide, sneaking through breaks and canyons, not proclaiming their presence like the lower Mississippi or the Rhine.

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