Why We Love Rivers, Our Threads of Wildness and Mystery

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Published on October 1st, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

Updated October 10, 2012

Water has a way of captivating people.

Of course water is essential to our survival, but it inspires us in a way that oxygen doesn’t.  Water is one of the primary forces shaping the surface of the earth, and it’s these watery places—lakes, rivers and streams—that stir reverence, love and sometimes a fierce instinct for protection.

Many of my colleagues in river conservation were drawn to this field through paddling or fishing. While my son — with a love of fishing that could only have been inherited from my ancestors — is tugging me toward angling, and although I certainly enjoy raft trips, I’m not particularly skilled at either. Something else seeped into me at an early age and drew me toward rivers.

I grew up with a creek in my backyard — Sulphur Springs, a tributary to the Chagrin River and one of Ohio’s few coldwater streams. Though I had no idea what a “coldwater stream” was or why it was so rare in my part of the world, the creek captivated my childhood imagination with hooks that, years later, emerged again to lodge deep within my adult brain.

As a child, I loved that my creek was always changing. It was really many different creeks during the course of the year:  the one I forded with ease, its feeble flow wetting nothing but the bottom of my feet; the one that frothed and roared, its tame trickle now transformed into something that posed legitimate danger for an eight-year old. When the rain poured down I would eagerly run down the well-worn path to watch the creek’s brown water rising high against the banks.

I also loved that the creek connected places. It was a corridor of freedom that penetrated the hard boundaries of a childhood world. I wasn’t allowed to cross the “park road” bordering our backyard. But by following the creek, I could go under that road and emerge from a tunnel, blinking, to the mysterious and forbidden other side. Perched above a deep pool, I saw silver flashes of large fish fleeing my shadow.

I could also follow the creek upstream, creeping silently and unseen through neighbors’ backyards, to a miniature Paradise where a waterfall cascaded lyrically into the deepest pool I knew — even during dry summers it was deep enough to wade in and cool off.

Fifteen years later as I prepared to leave an internship in Washington, DC for grad school in California, I visited a library and flipped through ecology journals, seeking areas of research that might interest me. I found a special issue of BioScience dedicated to river floodplains. As I skimmed its pages — and this may sound hard to believe — a paper on the “Flood Pulse Concept” sent a thrill through me. Though a technical term and definition, it resonated and reawakened those memories: yes, rivers change and connect and breathe and live.

Those two hooks that had captured my imagination — the restless, ever-changing river that also connected different worlds — now captivated my brain. Rivers’ variability and connectivity underlay my dissertation research and my current work.

And, of course, they still hold my heart.

Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds. He meant that, when you know what to look for, you see what most others don’t: how tattered and depleted much of our world really is.

Take a flight over the Midwest, California’s Central Valley or the southeast Piedmont and you see a world that is mostly wounds. But when I am suspended over these landscapes, my eyes are drawn to the creeks and rivers, and they reassure me that wildness has not been fully banished from the world.

Though abused themselves, rivers and their fringing forests are bandages over the wounds. While most of the cloth may be rent, the riverine threads do their best to hold the quilt together. They are green corridors of wildness and mystery in otherwise tamed and homogenous landscapes.

A few years ago I moved back to Ohio, and now live overlooking  some other, and as-yet unamed, tributary to the Chagrin River. (I’m sure my kids will give it a name, as they’ve already named some of its features, such as “Cosmo Zooey Island.”)

But I’m only a mile from Sulphur Springs. On Father’s Day, my family spent the afternoon at a wooded picnic area along its banks. I stood high up on its edge, watching my kids wade through its cool gentle current, and I beamed like some sentient ghost of a spawned-out daddy salmon come back to watch his progeny frolicking in his natal stream.

Share Your Thoughts:  Please tell us about a river or lake that’s special to you or share a favorite memory in which water captivated, inspired, renewed or nourished you.

(Top image: Sulphur Springs, Ohio. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC. Second image: Jeff Opperman as a kid. Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC.)

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21 Responses to “Why We Love Rivers, Our Threads of Wildness and Mystery”

  1. Diane says:

    Jeff, what vivid descriptions of your childhood memories; so wonderful that your children are able to experience similar experiences in the same Chagrin River valley. All kids should be so fortunate!

  2. Dave Parmer says:

    Wow, thanks for a great, well-written post really enjoyed it and retweeted it.
    You asked about rivers, here is a post on my blog about
    a river in Tokyo.
    tokyo-green-blog.com/files/e599ebf3fac94a9ab8f5a6acd79ac9da-7.html

  3. William W. Keith says:

    The Sipsey River, part of the Sipsey Wilderness, is my favorite waterway. In the summer it is an ankle deep river with a sandy bottom, clear cool water and small cascades all along a boulder strewn bank. In the winter swollen by rains it can be very challenging to get across. A very serene and peaceful place to be.

  4. My current important place–Middle Cottonwood Creek
    in the Bridger Range of the Gallatin National Forest – I often go just a little way up from the trail head, walk down to the water and sit on a rock in the middle of the creek.
    There are steps of pools, small falls, the forest around it – pines, firs, maples, willows, dogwoods, etc are reflected in the water. Often I see and American Dipper (John Muir’s favorite bird as I have recently learned).

    To find a quiet place beside or on water has always been important to me. Where I have always gone for quiet reflection or restoration, peace, inspiration.

    When I was little I canoed on the Concord River in Concord, Mass.

    Water and the lives it supports, the magic and story telling I feel when I’m there — Life Blood

  5. Mike Durkalec says:

    That is a wonderful account of why you love streams, Jeff, and many of the reasons why you love these moving waters resonate with me, as well. You will be pleased to know that we are in the early stages of several projects which are aimed at restoring the coldwater hydrology and special ecology of, guess where? Sulphur Springs Creek. I am the aquatic biologist for Cleveland Metroparks, and we are working with Chagrin River Watershed Partners, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited as partners. I would love to fill you in on the details if you want to learn more (I left my email when I submitted my comment). It is a small world, isn’t it? Cheers!

  6. Niki McD says:

    One thing I truly love about rivers and creeks is that they are a perfect place to pretend to go fishing while what you’re really doing is spending time watching the world go by on the currents. There is not much of a more noble pursuit.

  7. Kim says:

    My favorite is the Grand River in Eaton Rapids Michigan.

  8. GerneyLee Carter says:

    I love the Susquehanna…’spent most of my life until I moved to State College near it, on it and living more or less on its banks. its moods inform me and often reflect my moods and thoughts…

  9. Nick says:

    Those of us who connect to nature often sometimes have a special place (or places) that we know intimately, including across seasons and between years. Jeff’s story reminds me of those places in my life – rivers, seashores, etc. – that I have visited often enough to feel their various moods: tranquil and stormy, balmy and frigid, peaceful and tempestuous. Even when the changes are more subtle, being able to observe these changes and get to know this piece of nature better can feel like a gift. Something to cherish. Something that keeps hearts alive too.

  10. Bob Stanley says:

    What a great article Jeff! Judging by the comments, your story rings true to widely shared (and under-reported) human experiences.

    My brothers, friends and I have enjoyed many memorable days back in “Hannah’s Creek”. This perennial creek is a fine 1/2 mile hike behind Mom’s house, hidden within a large greenbelt between Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs Tennessee. Like Jeff, we got to know it up close when we were young. The sense of health, densely inter-related life and value offered wonderful formative experiences. I am confident this was part of what led my brother Bill to join the staff of The Nature Conservancy!

    My work in systems biology has also been impacted by that little creek and its rich ecology. Now that I live in California I have come to know the Eel, Russian and American Rivers, among other little creeks struggling to get by and grow in the populous SF Bay Area. I live in the city – but no summer is complete without trips to more than one of these rivers.

  11. brthomas says:

    I also love the way that rivers, streams & creeks are always changing. Mark Twain wrote: “The face of the river … was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.” (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi).

  12. Ken Lobitz says:

    Wonderful. I’m still trying to put into words my love for a stream in Kentucky where I fished as a boy, seventy five years ago. You inspire me to continue writing about Kinniconick.

  13. Megan Sheehan says:

    I spent my summers as a kid in the very same area of Ohio that Jeff calls his childhood home. We used to meander a stream in my grandparents’ backyard, and would get lost for hours in the woods. We came back one summer to find the woods and the stream demolished for a new housing development – it was crushing. These kinds of stories – and experiences – really do remind us how much nature nurtures our souls and how good it feels to be near it. (And how sad it is when it’s gone.)

  14. Don M says:

    I remember not really enjoying fishing as much. I guess I couldn’t wait long enough for the fish to hook on the line. But my Dad used to always take me to the Patuxent River. I remember I used to always still have fun, the smell of freshwater in the air, the way the rocks felt under my feet. There’s something very nostalgic and wistful about the smell of freshwater. I remember it being some of the best times I spent with my dad. I never really caught anything, but I don’t think without that river I would’ve remembered any of it or enjoyed it as much as I did.

  15. Dan R. says:

    This is a great story. One of my favorite memories of The Nature Conservancy is a day spent out on Independence Lake, near Lake Tahoe in Northern California. It is truly a pristine and magnificent place.

    Here is a segment that the Sacramento PBS show “Rob on the Road” did on Independence Lake. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4R4xNi9PQWk

    A hidden gem in California indeed!

  16. Katherine Sather says:

    I grew up near the mighty St. Joe River in northern Idaho, where we fly-fished, floated and swam all summer long. I miss it!

  17. Krystal says:

    One of my favorite memories is swimming by the dock of my grandfather’s house on Lake LBJ in Texas as a child. My siblings and I would dive underwater and look for oyster shells, and catch huge fish right from the dock. I even did a painting in college from a photo of me and my dad holding up one of the biggest fish I’ve ever caught :)

  18. Laura J. says:

    I fell in love with rivers at an early age. I grew up on California’s American River, and learned many important lessons from the river. I learned about the power of water by paddling the American’s rapids, floating in her currents. I learned about theraputic qualities of nature by hanging my head over a water-smoothed rock to listen to the water rushing by and lapping at the banks. I learned about community through river clean-ups after a major flood. These early experiences left an indelible mark on me, shaping my academic and professional trajectory, not to mention my weekend activities and vacation destinations.

  19. Jackie Y. says:

    Favorite water moments… there are too many! I’ve been a little fishy ever since I was a kid – my grandma couldn’t get me out of the pool until I was beyond pruney. Running through the sprinklers on a hot summer day, swim team, beach days in Carmel with the fam, nighttime kayaking adventures in Tomales Bay, 4th of July Lake Tahoe trips with my best girlfriends, taking long walks or bike rides along the Sacramento River, driving through “splashers” (aka the giant puddles that form along the side of the road after a good rain) with my dad and the list goes on and on… :)

  20. Jason T. says:

    … Snorkeling the American River in Sacramento, drinking water right from the source of a spring in the Sierra Nevada and fly fishing Silver Creek in Idaho. Life just seems better when we’re near water.

  21. Misty H says:

    Two great water moments come to mind immediately. My husband and I got married by a spectacularly beautiful waterfall – McWay Falls in Big Sur, CA. McWay Creek drops in an long white ribbon to a perfect sliver of beach and flows into the Pacific.
    The other special moment I think of is Confirmation, when the sprinkle of Holy Water was more moving than I anticipated it would be.

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