There are ocean people; there are lake people; and then there are river people.
I’m a river person.
When I was seven, my parents bought a summer home, an old white frame farmstead nestled in the valley of the St. Croix River, the beautiful, largely unspoiled stream that for its last 125 miles forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There were other kids in our little settlement, and I enjoyed playing, hiking and exploring with them. Among them, a couple of very sweet girls my age infused this mix of fun and adventure with a note of unfamiliar urgency. But it was the river that became my best friend.
In it and along it dwelt all the characters who taught me to be quiet, curious and reverent.
It was out there, on the water, where I escaped from whatever demons might possess a pretty happy, privileged boy. That’s where I did my thinking, or, as became the case more and more for me, turned off my thinking.
The St. Croix defined certain stages of my growth: the first fish I caught; my first unaided swim across to the Wisconsin shore and back (required of all the kids in the village before they were allowed to take a boat out alone); the first time I got up on water skis; the first—and I hope only—time I helped drag for the body of a drowning victim.
The river was also my conveyance, not just to sand bars, fishing holes and meandering sloughs, but also, in a very real sense, to wonder. In it and along it dwelt all the characters who taught me to be quiet, curious and reverent.
POWER THAT MOVES YOU
What is it about rivers that gets into a boy’s blood? Sea lovers talk of the ocean’s power and mystery, its rhythms of swell and surf and tides. Rivers, too, have their rhythms, winding, rising and falling, rushing and slowing, freezing and thawing. But the power that most resonates with me is their constancy, their sheer inevitability.
The sea can take you places, but usually it takes a sail, oars, an engine or some other device to power you. A river is the power that moves you.
At least theoretically, you could fill in a portion of the sea bed and all it would do is to raise the level of the rest of the sea a fraction of a millimeter. But block a portion of a river and, like a channeled tsunami, it just keeps coming. Just ask someone whose home sat this morning a mile from the Red River of the North and just got swept away like so much flotsam.
Perhaps it’s this silent, inexorable power that hooked me as a boy and still moves me today. Part of the fascination, I suppose, is the danger, one I’ve never sensed from any but the biggest, most wind-prone lakes. Along with our amazing Midwest thunderstorms and the occasional tornado, rivers taught me to not just embrace and trust Nature, but to respect her.
Lake waves are like joy suppressed,
slipping out in mere muffled snickers.
NEVER THE SAME RIVER
A river is always new. The water—and everything on or in it—that’s here now will all be 100 miles downstream by this time tomorrow.
The ocean’s too ponderous, too serious, to countenance water’s playful side; a river invites it to frolic, leaping over rocks, dodging deadheads, carving corners, chortling through rapids. And embedded in all these antics are some practical physics lessons, the kind one absorbs best when more aware of the fun than the learning.
On the other hand, for all this repression, the sea does have its breaking point. Then it erupts—overreacting in stormy snits, heavy-handed hurricanes, tsunami tantrums. Here rivers prove the shrewd, resolute adults of the waters family, exerting their influence, their discipline, with deep wisdom and eternal patience.
If the sea is the heart of earth’s weather, rivers are its veins, collecting and channeling the very same molecules of water back to the sea, the clouds and the land, again and again, forever.
There the rivers are, lacing together a patchwork quilt of browns, yellows and greens—quite literally watercolors.
This elemental, nourishing flow is never more evident to me than when I’m flying. I look down and there the rivers are, lacing together a patchwork quilt of browns, yellows and greens—quite literally watercolors.
Perhaps it’s part of the wonder of that timeless flow that, while the sea wages its constant tug-of-war between earth’s and moon’s gravity, a river answers to just one master, its flow so fundamental, so uncontested. It simply takes the shortest path it can find to lower ground, stopping only at the sea, which can only sit and await its constant arrival.
So, what’s your relationship with rivers? Is there one that’s scoured and shaped your life? How does its magic stream over, around and through you? And how do you celebrate its wonders? We’d love to hear your comments...