The Magic of Moving Water
Rediscovering bliss on a wild and scenic river
When you approach a big rapid in a small boat, there’s a moment when everything seems to slow down: the speed of the river’s current, the activity of those at the oars or paddles, the very passage of time itself.
There is a physical core to this phenomenon: The tumult of whitewater into which the river plunges is often preceded by a stretch of calm water, a deceptively placid lagoon backed up by the boulders and other geologic obstacles that create the hydraulic features in the rapid. The raft drifts for a while with this desultory current, and all movement and thought seem to pause. But then the channel constricts, the current accelerates, the river grabs the boat and pulls it inexorably down the tongue of the rapid into the chaos. Anxious anticipation gives way suddenly to exuberance and energetic maneuverings to negotiate rocks, waves, holes and other challenges a living river presents to those who ride it.
And then, downstream — a minute, an hour, a day later — you do it again.
I am utterly addicted to these moments, and to the entire experience that surrounds them. So one of the high points so far of this year’s adventure agenda with Leslie in Next Chapter has been the opportunity to feed that addiction, after 3 years of COVID-imposed abstinence, with a four-day rafting trip on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon.
Messing about in boats
Although camping, hiking and fishing have been part of my outdoor-recreation repertoire since I was practically a toddler, I did not discover the joy of river rafting until relatively late in life.
I hadn’t even been aware that such a means of enjoying the outdoors was possible until I took two semesters of geology in my sophomore year of college from an instructor who each summer hosted a student field trip to the Grand Canyon. The outings involved exploring the canyon’s stratigraphy at river level in large rafts, and he presented entertaining and instructive slide shows drawn from them in the classroom.
The multi-day rafting trips looked like uncommon fun, and when sign-ups for the approaching summer’s trip were announced during spring semester, I made sure I was in line before dawn on the crucial day to secure a spot. Unfortunately, a personal conflict later arose and I had to cancel my reservation. I soon forgot about the river, the rafts and the canyon, or at least allowed them to fade from my immediate concern as I moved on with my academic career.
That unsatisfied desire reawakened nearly two decades later, when a reporting assignment brought me to Arizona’s Marble Canyon, an upstream cousin of the Grand. During an off day, with no scheduled interviews on my agenda, I wandered down to nearby Lee’s Ferry on the shore of the Colorado River.
In addition to being a site of historical interest — in the late 1800s, it was one of the few spots the Colorado River could be crossed in in the Utah-Arizona borderlands region — Lee’s Ferry is the traditional launch point for rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Depending on where you take out, these can traverse more than 200 miles and require a commitment of one to two or more weeks, depending on whether you float it or motor it and how many layover days you schedule to explore the innumerable side canyons. There’s a billion years of geology in there, and it warrants considerable attention.
I remember standing on the shoreline that morning, watching crews rig rafts for commercial trips soon to depart, and feeling the tug of the river. Not far downstream, the Colorado makes a sweeping bend and vanishes from sight, and I felt an irresistible urge to see what lay beyond it.
A few months after my digression to Lee’s Ferry, I wrote a year-end essay for my weekly newspaper column in which I laid out a version of my resolutions for the New Year: I resolved to have interesting experiences, and among those I listed was rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Not long after that column was published, I heard from a geology professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Bill Bilodeau (now a professor emeritus at CLU). He’d read that column, and invited me to join just such a trip, which he was organizing for the coming summer.
I quickly said yes. And so, more than 20 years after my desire to experience the canyon at river level was kindled by one geology professor, I finally had the chance to fulfill it with the help of another. (Thanks, Bill!)
It was everything my 20-year-old self had hoped it would be, and more — a nearly weeklong epic of enormous waves, staggeringly beautiful canyon walls and alcoves, starlit campsites serenaded by the susurration of water slipping along ribs of sandstone or by the booming of waves raised by massive volcanic boulders.
That was in 1999, and since that momentous first trip, which transformed my riverine desire into full-blown addiction, I have been on dozens more. Most have been on rivers throughout the West: California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana. Some, however, have been farther abroad, including Alaska, Maine and Costa Rica. I am never happier or healthier than when I’m on a river, and for the past decade Leslie has been my paddling companion, enthusiastically joining in the pursuit of aquatic bliss.
The experiences are in many ways similar, but each is also unique. When I’m asked about my favorite river trip, my inevitable answer is, “The next one.”
From the mountain to the sea
The Rogue River rises on the slopes of Mount Mazama, the Cascade Range volcano that now cups Crater Lake within its truncated summit, and flows through the Klamath Mountains 215 miles to the Pacific at Gold Beach, Oregon. For our four-day trip in August, we met the guides and the other guests the night before launch at Morrison’s Lodge, a rustic establishment on the bank of the river northwest of the tiny town of Merlin and just east of the even tinier rural hamlet of Galice.
It was a small group, just six guests, three guides and one assistant guide. The guides work for ARTA, the American River Touring Association, a nonprofit commercial rafting company that donates any net proceeds each year to conservation organizations. It’s the best outfitter I have ever worked with.
The next morning, after a short drive to the launch site, we clambered into the boats, pushed off, and — this being summertime in the Pyrocene after all — almost immediately paddled into a wildfire.
The Rum Creek fire had been ignited by lightning five days earlier in the mountains west of the Rogue and north of Galice. At first it moved slowly across the densely forested slopes, but the day before we put in, the fire had picked up momentum and firefighters had stepped up their suppression efforts. As we approached Grave Creek rapid, where the river makes a big bend to the west, we could see water-dropping helicopters circling above the smoke plume, and when we reached Rainey Falls, about 3 miles down river from our launch site, we could see the fire slowly backing down the steep slope directly above us.
We passed without incident, and were relieved that as we moved downstream, an up-canyon breeze carried the smoke away from us. (The fire continued to spread, however. The day after our departure, the Forest Service closed the river to new launches, and the fire eventually burned down to the bank, jumped across the Rogue, and spread upstream and downstream on both sides. It grew to more than 21,000 acres, and is still burning as I write this a month later, although its forward progression has mostly ceased).
The fire was an unusual element of our downstream journey, but the trip otherwise was eventful only in the way that river trips always are: joyous whitewater, abundant wildlife (mink, otters, deer, ospreys, bald eagles, a bear breakfasting on blackberries one morning 50 feet from our tent), gorgeous campsites, the camaraderie of strangers temporarily transformed into something like a family. Days had a routine that was anything but routine: paddling and drifting, eddying out for midday lunch stops and hikes to waterfalls, pulling into a campsite on a gravel bar or bench in late afternoon, setting up camp, dining and then slipping off to sleep under a sky full of stars, rising in the cool of morning for coffee and breakfast as the sun crested the canyon walls, breaking down camp and doing it all again.
All rivers are special, but the Rogue claims two distinctions that matter a great deal to me: It is the only river I have rafted on a private trip with my son and daughter at the oars — both are graduates of ARTA’s guide school, and my son guided commercial trips for the company on the Rogue and the Green — and it is one of the eight original rivers set aside for special protection under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, signed into law by President Lynden Johnson on Oct. 2, 1968.
The WSR Act marked a dramatic philosophical turning point in America’s relationship with flowing water.
For most of the nation’s history, it viewed rivers with almost exclusively utilitarian regard: as transportation arteries, waste-disposal conduits, sources of electrical or mechanical power or — particularly in arid and semi-arid regions — a source of divertible or impoundable fresh water crucial to the survival of towns and farms.
Even before European and American settlement, the indigenous inhabitants of North America relied on moving water to knit together local and continental trading networks, and as a crucial source of protein — a utilitarian relationship in some ways, but also central to many cultural groups’ cosmology and sense of identity. As white settlers began encroaching into indigenous territory in the 18th and 19th centuries, rivers served as the equivalent of interstate highways, which is why so many major cities can be found along their banks or at the confluence where two or more meet.
And in the 20th century, America went on a dam-building spree unprecedented in human history. There are now about 92,000 of them across the country, according to the National Inventory of Dams, ranging from small (6 feet high and impounding as little as 50 acre-feet of water) to the gargantuan: Oroville on Northern California’s Feather River is the tallest (770 feet), Fort Peck on the Missouri in Montana is the widest (4 miles).
They were built for a variety of reasons: hydropower generation, water supply, flood control, navigation, recreation, sometimes all five. But in that decades-long campaign of hydrological manipulation, scant attention was paid to the gifts that undammed rivers deliver, including robust fish populations, rich riparian ecosystems and, in places with the right geology, the music and magic of whitewater.
The WSR Act changed that. It’s a deeply compromised statute, struggling to reconcile the old ethos of manipulation with the new one of preservation. But it represents a moment in time when something fundamental shifted. From the eight rivers originally designated (Middle Fork Clearwater and Middle Fork Salmon in Idaho, Eleven Point in Missouri, Middle Fork Feather in California, Rio Grande in New Mexico, the Rogue, the St. Croix in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Wolf in Wisconsin), the act today protects 13,413 miles of 226 rivers in 41 states and Puerto Rico.
Rivers are a potent metaphor, agents of philosophical transport as well as literal transportation, and across time the great ones of North America have been pressed into service as narrative devices by many authors. I have no particular interest, however, in adding to that anthology. For me, meaning is in the intimately transformative nature of the extended river trip itself. The adrenalin-charged thrash through whitewater is fun, but what matters just as much is the change in mental state wrought by calm-water drifting, sandbar campsites, and the soothing rhythm of a day governed not by the clock but by sunrise, sunset, hunger, and the interaction of rock and moving water.
“River time” is a real thing, a way of experiencing the passage of hours that’s different from the way we do at home, at work — anywhere off the river, really. As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone experiences this; It’s common for guests on multi-day trips to muse forlornly, as takeout approaches, about their impending return to “the real world.”
Hearing that on takeout day, as we paddled toward journey’s end, a guide on one of my trips responded simply, “Isn’t this is the real world?”
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Ahhh, John, thanks again for a great article. I always look forward to an email with your name, that shows up in my inbox!