Source to Sea

8/20/2016 Denver Airport

I am currently removed; separated from loss and water by two hours of air travel. Buckle up and be prepared to use your seat cushion as a life jacket as if drowning is on my short list of concerns riding in an airplane at 35,000 feet. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the thought but the stark reality of an “emergency water landing” seems to dwarf the life saving capacity of 4 square feet of what I can only imagine is a highly compressed and marginally buoyant type 4 PFD that was probably designed to float as well as it was to be comfortable to sit on. What I’d appreciate more would be a parachute, a parachute that should someone in the airline industry be so inventive could be designed to also include a PFD. Call me crazy but I’d rather not hit the water going 200 miles per hour in a steel tube full of highly explosive jet fuel regardless of the quality of the seat cushion flotation device.

The airplane seat cushion reminds of the old cold war classroom videos (showing my youth here) that I have seen (and not lived through despite that waitress who thought my dad and I were brothers) where little kids were taught to duck and cover under their school desks in the event of a nuclear strike from the Russians. Call me ignorant to the structural integrity of steel and wood school desks…Why do we take comfort in such ridiculously inadequate solutions to horrifically tragic events? Perhaps in the event of an emergency water landing or a nuclear attack the worst thing, assuming we make it out in one piece, is chaos and fear. So does a seat cushion PFD have the capacity to save you, maybe maybe not, but it will do one thing: keep passengers from freaking the “F” out thinking they are going to drown and distracting the flight attendants from doing whatever they are supposed to be doing at that moment. Duck and cover, kiss your ass goodbye and hang on to that seat cushion.

While I sit here benched waiting out my obligatory airport delay I am catching up on breaking news coming from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the unprecedented closing of the Yellowstone River and all its tributaries from the gates of Yellowstone National Park downstream for 183 miles. For those not in the know this vast watershed represents one of the greatest cold water fisheries in Montana if not the nation and hydrates most of south central Montana, land that already seems to be only an inch or two of rain away from drying up into the Gobi Desert and that fuels the cattle ranching, water recreation and its share of the $8 billion fishing industry in Montana. On Friday the 19th of August MFWP reacted to a parasite found in the Yellowstone that has been known to cause 20-100% mortality in fish populations in the US and Canada and that has been plaguing the upper Snake River for the last 5 years. The gruesome details are online, but to me it’s the meta issues that are important to consider here like our (sometimes) arbitrary and placating solutions to big problems (think seat cushion PFD’s), our cultures unwillingness to conserve/preserve/protect any wild entity unless it has a cute, cuddly and marketable face, and our habit of confusing the delicate and precarious nature of, well, Nature with the plastic durability of synthetic or man- made ecosystems like Disneyland, state parks or zoos.

At the first sign of trouble on the Yellowstone when thousands of mountain whitefish washed up dead, the MFWP responded by setting up boat cleaning stations at a few of the more heavily used boats launches in order to clean incoming and outgoing boats of any invasive nasty. This idea of stream side inspection is not new.  For years to stop the spread of the New Zealand mud snail and other cold water invasive species organizations have been installing similar, but smaller in scale, boot and gear cleaning stations. While there is some benefit to such cleaning, like cleaner gear, to assume it will stem the flow of invasive species is to assume hiding under your school desk will keep the effects of nuclear war at bay. All it takes is a single drop of water to infect a watershed and once the chaos of that drop is released there is little we can do to stop the spread of its inhabitants.

It’s ok though, Nature is fueled by chaos, chaos builds durability and encourages diversity, just not always in predictable ways or in ways that are good for our or any other single species tenure on this planet.  The biggest mistake people make in regard to ecological preservation is inherent in the word preservation, to preserve.  More times than not that is taken to mean ‘keep things the way they are rights now’ as though the reality we see is somehow the final form of how things are supposed to be just as some think humans are at a point of inevitable conclusion, but our little parasite in the Yellowstone is here to prove our notion of ecological stability is a myth  What is worth preserving is life, but that definition has to be as dynamic as the system it intends on preserving.  Life isn’t done evolving and it sure as hell isn’t static.  We are an agent of that chaos and our time here will only lead to good things for the health of life on Earth, there is just no guarantee that the change will be good for our species and there in lies a source for concern.  Life on Earth for trout, well, I happen to like the way the rivers look, feel, sound and fish right now and those trout are worth fighting for if you’re into that kinda thing, but the rivers will change so will we. Life for humans, well, I happen to think that is something that we all should be willing to fight for, so to speak, in whatever way we can.

The future of the Yellowstone fishery is in the hands of time now, time that will see snow melt flood the valley and cool the water allowing the fish to recoup and recover. But as long as water is siphoned out of the river for agricultural growth without an eye on the long term health of the fishery the river will be at risk, especially mid summer as the water heats up, loses volume and get clogged with silt and mud allowing the parasite to overpower and kill the weakened fish. I guess this is a too-be-continued kinda story…


Recently I paddled 350 miles from rural northern Maine to the ocean at Passamaquaddy Bay. Along the way we passed in and out of rural America and Canada, through some wilderness-esque lakes and rivers and around a few mill towns. When you paddle a long expedition you become very close to the water, both physically and emotionally. The water we drank, the water we floated, the water we read and ran, the water eternal. Two times the water we mourned.

On the St. John river in New Brunswick there is a McCain’s potato factory where I can only assume tater-tots are born. All along the St. John we were warned not to drink the water, even after boiling or chemically treating due to industry, a suggestion echoed by the wife of a McCain worker who has seen first hand the pools of green sludge hidden behind barbed wire that her husband called the “clean stuff.” The “clean stuff” was deemed safe and emptied directly into the St. John but I can only assume that the “unclean stuff” finds its way into the river from time to time as well. As we passed the sprawling factory we talked about how this type of pollution goes on everyday in most watersheds right under the noses of the folks who call those wooded banks home. Folks who fish that water. Folks whose kids swim in that water. Why then do we let industry pollute a public resource so flagrantly? The water is ours right?  Have we fully accepted the idea that progress comes with some nasty side effects but that ultimately the ends justify the means? Why do we allow, as a recent statistic shows, 90% of our water to become polluted? I’m not cheer leading for the closure of all factories, I need tater tots as much as the next guy, but can we not expect and demand accountability and environmental responsibility without compromise? A lot of question marks for sure.

The second was below the city of Woodland Maine. The St. Croix winds from Spednic Lake to Passamaquaddy Bay through beautifully classic Maine woods complete with moose, beaver, bald eagles, trout, and more recently predator drones monitoring the US/Canada border. As we approached Woodland large metal monsters loomed out of the woods, carriers of bundles of logs on their way to the enormous industrial complex that dominated the shoreline and plugged the St. Croix wall to wall with cement and rail lines. The paper mill damned the river and necessitated a 3 mile portage around the facility, through a border patrol checkpoint, from one end of town to the other. I will skip over the air pollution that caused us to don bandannas over our mouths and noses and the mist that fell with the toxic air downwind of the stacks, but if you’ve ever smelled a paper mill you know how caustic they are. A young guy we met on the portage trail claimed to “just get used to it” which is scary, scary that someone could get so used to such an offensive level of air pollution that it was no longer perceived. I mean, I’ll eventually get used to the pain of a knife in the back of my hand if I stab myself a few times a day, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for me. South of the mill the water was black, it smelled and the rocks were covered in a rusty red goo. The water looked sick. The land felt toxic. We decided the two guys in our group with knee high rubber boots were going to load the boats as the rest of us did out best reenacting the “hot lava” game we played as kids trying to avoid any contact with the water. Once loaded we paddle fast to separate ourselves from that disaster as fast as possible, but the ruin was not lost on us. A few days prior we had been eating fish from the St. Croix, swimming, drinking and appreciating the water, now we looked at it as merely a necessary means to meet our trip’s goal of the salt water downstream.

Poach a moose and you’re behind bars. Poach a river and you’re a job creator. We can live without moose (probably) but we won’t see the end of the month without water. All of our great civilization is built around water and access to fresh clean drinking water but we don’t act like it. We are acting like our water supply is a durable resource immune from depletion, pollution and isolated from global climate change. The water in Montana is heating up. The water in Lake Superior is heating up. When it does it changes. Even the most remote mountain stream is not safe from this change. I too took that water for granted, but as more hands enter that water the more water leaves and returns warmer and full of hitchhikers. Finger pointing happens when this change occurs, anger results, the commons are fought over, the tragedy is replayed.

What the water needs is not ownership but for all of us to own the idea that any positive change begins when we realize that all we have- Life, Love and Land is perishable, not plastic; if it’s perishable it becomes precious and that which is precious is protected. If the precarious state of our global ecosystem has come about by a thousand cuts then it may take a thousand solutions to heal the whole instead of praying for our school desks to save us from the horrors of nuclear war. Can I help, Can you help? These are not the questions to ask, we need more how can I help, how can you help?

To end on a cheery note. Our wilderness camp in Norther Maine, where we started our canoe expedition sits 75 miles downstream from the headwaters of the Aroostook River and the water that rolls by our camp at 1500 CFS is drinkable, for the most part, well, maybe it wouldn’t be a great choice to drink it all the time due to animal poopy but it is as clean as can be expected. Sure the St. John is funky but all along its length it is recharged by spring creeks pumping in cold clean water. The Yellowstone will fill and cool again after the snow melts next spring. And even the poor lower St. Croix is only one mill dam away from cleaning up its act and becoming a top notch waterway start to finish, which for our ‘source to sea’ canoe expedition was the town of Eastport, Maine where the St. Croix dissolves into the salt water full of minke whales, great white sharks and memories of fresh water 100 miles upstream.

Need more cheering? There is a lot of fresh water out there. I’ve seen it. I’ve drank straight from the Earth more times than I can remember but I remember the first time I did like it was yesterday even though I am separated from that water by a few thousand miles and dozen years. Halfway up the Bridger Mountains outside of Bozeman Montana you can hike along little cold water brooks rushing to get down out of the mountains and hydrate the sprawl of life in the Gallatin Valley. These brooks begin high up in the mountains, high above any cattle and humanity and are only sullied by the occasional mountain goat and grizzly bear. On a long hot hike up Cottonwood Creek I watched a friend kneel down and drink like a thirsty elk from one such brook. He encouraged me to do so as well, less from a spiritual angle and more from the fact we were both out of water, but regardless of the motivation I can still feel the “rightness” of that act. The primal drink. Water dripping off your face and back into the brook while you look around like a spooked deer to see if that twig you heard snap was from the heavy paw of a bear or from your provocation of the local red squirrel. On a basic human level that simple act changed my life. Water can do that.


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