Reflecting on Water

A river guide’s thoughts on the occasion of Earth Day.

A lovely camp awaits me on an elevated gravel bar lush with fireweed and the bustle of shuttling bees briefly docking at blossoms. It’s riverfront property, with the Noatak ten yards away. I can rest assured that it will still be there when I wake up after tonight, that it is not just a mirage. “He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. On this, my 1000-mile traverse, distance and space have tamped down my despair, making it manageable, with the world’s affairs largely forgotten.

rafting on the Canning River in ANWR

The author guiding clients on the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Rich Wilkins.

Here by this river in the western Brooks Range, I reflect on good water again, a luxury for most of the world. I fill my bottle anywhere without thinking twice or filtering it. Guiding arctic float trips, I sometimes just dip a cup in it, drinking straight from the source. It is water so cold it induces ice-cream headaches, so clear it magnifies bottom cobbles as it slides over graveled beds. Ricocheting off bluffs, it braids and unbraids. Once in a while, it feathers into riffles or crests into rapids.

A clutch of small cirque glaciers in the Schwatka Mountains births the Noatak, one of Alaska’s longest designated wild and scenic rivers. Except for far-flung homesteads and fish camps and a few tundra landing strips, no human construction impacts its 425-mile length. That’s a little shorter than the proposed $5.9 billion gas pipeline from Prudhoe to Fairbanks, but the Noatak snakes more and bites not at all — quite the contrary. Its mountain-ringed basin is the nation’s largest undammed watershed. Six distinct ecosystems, from the alpine tundra to the delta, form a UN International Biosphere Reserve monitored as a baseline for environmental changes worldwide. About four-fifths of the river unspool within the Noatak National Preserve, beyond Gates of the Arctic National Park. Simply marked “Inland River” on late-nineteenth-century maps, it has served for thousands of years as a highway between the Bering Sea coast and North America’s northernmost mountain range.

On my journey through this land of snowfield milk and honey I don’t even carry a purifier. I’m careful at popular camp sites, like airstrips and the put-ins for river trips, wary of human pollution. We are in serious trouble as a society though, if we can no longer drink the water in a wildlife refuge or national park.

Droning bees and the river’s babbling almost put me to sleep. It’s been a long, hard day.

Three lakes squatting on the Continental Divide, which I cross again the next day, and likely supplying two different seas, make me think of watersheds and their protection — and the importance of potable water. Mined like fossil fuels from aquifers or captured in withering reservoirs, it is a precious commodity in the drought-choked West. You cannot tell where city water originates, beyond a spigot or reservoir. Waterborne diseases in human, animal, and chemical waste account for 80 percent of illnesses in developing countries. One-fifth of the world drinks water that kills or gives people the runs, while another fifth sells water in designer bottles labeled Fountain of Youth for four bucks a pop or hawks thousand-year-old “100 percent natural” glacier cubes for your cocktails — get them while you can. Record droughts now also rack central Europe, depleting rivers and exposing “hunger stones,” engraved hydrological markers warning of bad harvests and famines. “If you see me, cry,” one from 1616 on the banks of the Elbe reads. “When this stone sinks,” a more optimistic one promises, “life will become more colorful again.” They were bulletins addressed to the future. What words will we carve for the yet unborn?

“Ever since the idea of compromise was embraced, every power under the sun has been used to ensure that the rights of people are protected and the rights of every other creature are compromised,” fellow arctic traveler Robert Perkins writes in Into the Great Solitude. It is high time we give rivers and mountains their due.

The current already has started to shift: Now, some non-Indigenous people too regard Australia’s Yarra, New Zealand’s Whanganui, and Quebec’s Magpie River or Muteshekau-shipu as living entities, and they have been granted legal personhood. Which means they can be claimants against governments or corporations in court, a really big deal.

In my other spirit home, the desert Southwest, rivers run ruddy, not grayed by glacial flour.

“The river is so dirty,” people in my raft sometimes complain. I tell them it’s the sediment that gave the Colorado its name. And that “humus” and “human” have the same root (Latin humi: “on the ground”) and that in creation myths throughout the world original people were shaped from clay. I tell them how, once we’ve used up the tap water we carry on trips, we’ll let river water settle in five-gallon buckets overnight, and then decant and filter it. We should not worry about dirt but giardia, I say, a parasite hiding in cow pies and human crap, a waterborne bug you don’t wish upon your worst enemy. And, “I’d be more concerned about what you cannot see”: traces of radioactivity from the Atlas Mine tailings piles or that company’s brazen, we-dare-to-rub-it-in-your face “Pandora” Mine, both near Moab, upstream; or from naturally occurring uranium in the Grand Canyon’s Horn Creek drainage or the mines near both rims; or petrochemicals from the boaters recreating on Lake Powell; plus, wastewater from the reservation.

“It’s not dirty enough,” I say when I feel especially pesky, downstream from Glen Canyon dam, referring to the good kind of dirt. Without replenishing sediment, beaches erode and the streamside vegetation and backwaters for the fry of threatened fish species also change. By the end of each trip, with the sun having done its dehydrating work, clients swig the Colorado as if it were forty-buck bubbly. With that drinking water, the river courses inside us, its restlessness ours, causing some of us ever to return to its silky bosom.

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