The Common Ground of Rivers

PUBLISHED: National Geographic’s Water Currents blog 12.20.16


photo West Howland

words by Chandra Brown / photos by West Howland

 I work summers in the Grand Canyon. This is the ultimate goal for a lot of career river guides; it’s what some consider the best guiding job in the world. I know I’m lucky. In the Grand Canyon, we take people rafting for fifteen days at a time. We try to hide from the summer sun. We tell stories of ancient things, and our own journeys become new stories.

Clients sometimes ask why we row heavy oar boats instead of running trips on motorized rigs. The motor guides make more money, as they can do twice as many trips in a season. Their boats carry more clients and they cover the 225 miles of river in half the time that we do in our oar boats.

Isn’t it obvious? I ask. Those motors talk over the Canyon.


photo West Howland

People also ask about the dams.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado would be different without its dams. The water would be warmer with more suspended sediment. Familiar rapids would be at times flooded, disappeared, washed out by the high water, and at other times impassable for lack of flow. The river would be unpredictable and recreational river running and hiking in the Grand Canyon would perhaps never have become what is today – a thriving $26 billion dollar industry. Also, if damming the Colorado had been left off of the Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-twentieth century to-do list, the River might still reach its delta. The four critically endangered species of warm-water fish endemic to the Canyon might live to see the next decade.

North Americans are connected by the water of the Colorado. It flows through us when we eat the crops it irrigates or the stock that drinks it in; when we splash in its mountain headwaters; when we run through a sprinkler in an anomalous desert green-grass lawn; when we turn on the faucet to our great Western cities’ fountains, drinking water, showers, and gardens. And everyone who floats through the Grand Canyon is connected by a transformative experience, the experience of traveling an occluded capillary in the continent’s struggling vascular system. The Colorado River is held back, controlled, managed, and owned, and yet, for all that manipulation, the water is still powerful and wild. All it takes is a moment or a day in the heart of the Grand Canyon, in the maw of the rapids of the Inner Gorge, to suffer or savor an undeniable truth: the wild spirit of water will not be subdued by humankind. The Colorado’s ecosystems, flood cycles, and intricate sandstone canyons have drowned beneath the impounded river, but the water itself, at its essence, is still very much alive.


photo West Howland

Rivers lend themselves to superlatives.

The most scared I’ve ever been is on a river. Also: the coldest, the hottest, the most awed, most challenged, most exhausted, and the happiest.

I’ve welcomed more wild, far-from-home, sand-in-hair, frost-on-cheek mornings alongside rivers than on mountains, beaches, or trails combined.

My best friends and greatest loves have come from the river world. I’ve felt more connected to people on river trips than in any city, school, project, or party. For me, companionship and trust feel more essential and primitively charged on the river than anywhere else.

Food tastes better. Sleep slumbers deeper.

Dreams flow into and between wakeful moments, tributaries to a big river fed by the magic of our human reality and by magic itself.

I feel more on the river.

I am comforted by the reality that rivers flow in one direction: indecision and hesitation have no place on a river. When you go to the water you let go of control, you succumb to gravity, and you allow the river to carry you away. You merge with the current and with history, with decisions and consequences and the power of ancient forces.

There’s common ground in rivers.

Rivers connect ecosystems, societies, families, memories, stories, and our collective pasts to our global future.

The water teaches, connects, quenches, cools, and washes away the arbitrary order, the illusions of priority and importance. The river reduces us to what matters.

Red Fish / Black Snake

PUBLISHED: National Geographic’s Water Currents blog 12.8.16

words by Chandra Brown / photos by Robin Carleton 

Almost two months after protesters began to gather against the “black snake” – the Dakota Access oil Pipeline – a much smaller protest came to a reservoir on the Snake River, the largest tributary to the Columbia. At the Free the Snake flotilla, kayakers, fishermen, and tribal representatives called for the return of the salmon to the people and waters from which they are rapidly disappearing.

September 17, 2016  /  Snake River, eastern Washington

“Let the salmon lead us home now.” An organizer with a red ponytail and fisherman’s hat coos into his portable PA as the FREE THE SNAKE banner is pulled in, drawn off the surface of dark water. The protesters obediently point their bows upstream. I paddle back quickly, against a barely perceptible downstream current, ahead of the rest of the flotilla, my core chilled.

At the boat ramp at Swallows Park, I carry my little red kayak – one of only a handful of whitewater boats in the flotilla – up the concrete incline and drop it in the grass. Nearby: a folding table where two Indian women in gorgeous colors – rich blues and magenta and crimson – are preparing to serve fry bread and smoked salmon to paddlers soaked in Snake water. Rain still issues intermittently from a cement sky.

“What’s your name?” A surprisingly raspy little voice rises from the sidewalk. He’s on a tiny Radio Flyer tricycle and his name is Jaker. He’s just turned three, he’s barefoot, wearing a black tank top and shorts, and someone has Sharpied #NoDAPL on his forehead. His hair falls in rain-soaked clumps over the tattoo.

“My uncle has a dirt bike.” You don’t say. He puts on a giant full-face helmet to prove it.

I ask him if he’s cold, because I am, and he rattles a definitive “no.” I tell him my name and, curious, I take a seat on the bow of my boat.

He rolls his tricycle backwards toward to the edge of the grass adjacent to the hard-sloping boat ramp. No one says anything or lifts a finger to stop him. He’s not invisible, just free, and I’m transfixed. The women in their colors and long braids, with their salmon and fry bread, all free for the paddlers, all an expression of oneness, solidarity with those who have raised their voices today in opposition of the control, of these old dams, of the slow and quiet death of the Snake River; the women don’t raise an eye now toward Jaker as he slips toward the water. I bite my tongue. His bare feet are muddy with errant green grass clippings and the tiny pebbles that float atop pavement stuck between his toes. He rolls backward and when my eyes get big he lets out a throaty, mischievous giggle. Shaking his head and smiling, he pushes his tricycle back up the hill.

A cousin, possibly the same age as Jaker, wanders toward us and posits that familiar question that should inspire pause: “What are you doing?”

I tell her: right now, I’m being with you. I’m with you.

Two Army Corps park rangers approach, holding a pile of stickers. They are dressed like the park rangers I know, but this isn’t a National Park or State Park or BLM land. This is Lower Granite Lake – a controlled portion of a once wild river, managed and mowed over with parking lots, manicured grass, and corrugated boat ramp – and these bespectacled rangers have U.S. Army Corps of Engineers patches on the shoulders of their buff colored work shirts. The male ranger has sought out the kids and bends down to offer Jaker and his cousin a sticker: “Junior USACE Ranger.” Vaguely reminiscent of the kind you used to get from Smokey the Bear or from a National Park’s visitor center, but unquestionably different. The cousin declines, but Jaker takes a sticker and slaps it squarely upside down in the center of his chest.

Play it safe, Junior Ranger, the sticker says.

“My grandma’s house is green,” Jaker says.

His hand is on his chest, little fingers gingerly tapping that upside down gold foil sticker. The US Army Corps of Engineers: the builders, the managers, the controllers. And Jaker and his cousins, the protectors, the guardians. I watch his eyes: dark, like what lies in the inner folds of the earth; full, I imagine, with sorrowful history, collective memory, and hand-me-down wisdom.

Play it safe, Junior Ranger, get away from that water. It’s controlled, managed, held back and held still, to keep you safe. Flood control, spill control, crowd control. Control of slowly suffocating wild salmon: they’re barged – and safely! – around these dams and unloaded downstream like lumber, like wheat, like oil.

And that oil! It’s safe, Junior Ranger. It’s contained, funneled around your land and along, above, beside your water in one of only a few types of government-approved pipes, enthusiastically endorsed for this very purpose.

Don’t say anything, don’t do anything – don’t dance, pray, gather, or scream – for that will only stir the waters we work so hard to calm. Control the fire, control the flood, and come away from the edge, from that pipe, from that slow and dying river.

But you, Jaker, you’re not fighting. You’re telling me about your grandma’s green house, your uncle’s dirt bike. You’re telling me you’re not cold, when I can’t stop shivering.

Your older cousins from the Kalispel Reservation are freshly returned to eastern Washington from Standing Rock with their dugout canoe – The Boss, it’s called, in the Kalispel dialect of Salish – that sweet cedar, those coiling eddy lines burned into the hull. (“Our boat, it’s the one with the swirls.” The little girl had told me this morning, as she swung her head toward the water, toward her family in their canoe; her twin braids had followed to twirl through the damp and misty air.) The swirls like water, like current, like the deep-down whirling of whispers: don’t push it, play it safe, do your part, step aside. The Boss, with Missouri River water still seeping from the cracks in its floor, cigarette smoke and sage and the tears and songs of the Prairie still awash over its deck. Your Kalispel cousins paddle for cultural, spiritual, and ecological justice, paddling and singing and drumming, when all these slow and stagnant rivers, they seem to flow upstream. From one national artery to another, every pull of the paddle is a prayer.

Every pull a prayer.

Jaker’s trike drifts backward to the river again. He emits another throaty chuckle. His cousin rests her tiny hand on my shoulder, runs her dirty fingers along the contour of my lifejacket. Play it safe. We watch him, together, as he drags his bike back up the incline, only to tumble back down it again.