July 26, 2015
The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Herodotus said you can never walk into the same river twice. He was talking about actual rivers, of course, but also something metaphorical much bigger than rivers. All my life I have been drawn to rivers—more than lakes, oceans, seas, or prairie potholes. I love their linearity, their sinuousness, their purposefulness in carrying their silten loads down towards a faraway sea or gulf. As Herodotus understood, a river is an invitation to philosophize, to muse about the not-same person who wades into the not-same river a second time. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? How does it keep recharging itself? Is it possible to find and bestride its source? If you do, what have you accomplished? Since I was last here, who or what have I become?
We are fortunate to have one of the world’s great rivers running right through our lives in North Dakota. The Missouri River and its tributaries drain the entire Great Plains before being absorbed by the mighty Mississippi at St. Charles, Missouri. The Missouri was America’s first highway to the far west—until replaced by the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century. As he closed in on its source in August 1805, Captain Meriwether Lewis marveled that so extensive a river was navigable so deep into the interior of the continent, more than 2,500 free-flowing miles, he reckoned. Lewis was more accustomed to such rivers as the James, the Potomac, and the Ohio, where the fall lines (waterfalls) cut the river in half and posed a serious impediment to navigation.
Unfortunately, the giant dams between Fort Peck, Montana, and the bottom of South Dakota, have metamorphosed (to use one of Lewis’s words) the wild Missouri into a series of tame flat-water reservoirs, whose purpose is flood control, irrigation, power generation; and to support an entirely unnecessary barge industry between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis. Not very sexy. The dark genius of America has been to transform the new world Garden of Eden into an industrial infrastructure designed to provide us security and comfort and profit rather than adventure and romance.
You can pretend you are visiting the old authentic Missouri up at its confluence with the Yellowstone River southwest of Williston; or by floating the 90 or so “free-flowing” miles of the Missouri between the tailrace of Garrison Dam and the Oahe Reservoir slack water just south of Bismarck. But even in those beautiful places you are not encountering the true Missouri, but rather humankind’s wing-clipped Missouri Valley water management system. There was a proposal in the last thirty years to rip rap the entire stretch between Garrison Dam and Bismarck, just to make sure that the river could never again jump its banks and redesign its course. Thank goodness that weak-souled plan was never fully implemented.
If you want to see the Missouri in something like its natural state, you have to go to Montana. The stretch between Fort Benton and the backwater of Fort Peck Reservoir (hundreds of river miles) bears a very light industrial footprint. Cattle have replaced the buffalo, and dilapidated shacks have replaced tipis, but otherwise the river looks the way Lewis and Clark left it in August 1806. When you turn your canoe into the stretch of river that runs through the White Cliffs (Meriwether Lewis’s “scenes of visionary enchantment”) or the Missouri Breaks and badlands, you are suddenly thrust back into a time before we decided that the Missouri River could no longer be trusted to manage its own destiny. For a few stolen days you find yourself floating through Karl Bodmer’s America rather than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hydraulic corridor.
I float the White Cliffs every year now, with a couple of dozen fellow travelers. It has a kind of “same time next year” feel, except that I am not the same person as last year (or next), and the river is a different creature every time, too. Three days are not a lot of time in so magnificent a place, but even in so brief an encounter the experience is profoundly restorative. Each year I go kicking and screaming—not enough time, too many projects, too much work to do, my body and soul are unprepared, and what about my garden? And each year I am in some sense born again on the second day out when the accumulated crud in my heart and soul slips away into the river and transforms me into a leaner, clearer, happier, more serene, more alive, more present organism, more in tune with what Jefferson called “Nature and Nature’s God.”
By now I’ve canoed the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River southeast of Fort Benton, Montana, a dozen times. We’ve had thunderstorms and punishing headwinds and days so hot that you wind up dipping your baseball cap ten times per hour just to stay cool enough to continue. There have been many whole afternoons when my canoe mate and I just rest the paddles and drift down the continent, letting the river take us where it listeth, dozing, soaking up the hot Montana sun like human zucchini, gazing from time to time at the stunning sandstone outcroppings and the igneous dikes that thrust themselves up between sandstone formations eons ago and now stand like the ruins of some lost pre-Columbian empire.
At the end of the day, we usually jump out of the canoes in our life jackets and just bob down the river like corks. That’s when you feel closest to God and the river god Missouri, and surrender to something much bigger than yourself.
On the last camping night of the journey, I wandered away from the group and found a spot to lie down in underneath a grove of 50 or so lodge pole pines. It was a calm clear night. A very slight breeze wafted through the mountains every few minutes. At ground level the breeze was so slight as to be essentially imperceptible, but up at the top of the trees it created a gentle sway and stir. Lodge pole pines are named from their pencil-like straightness; they were prized by plains Indians for tipi poles. As I took the time to look up at them, I realized that they are almost unbelievably thin, like reeds or tall grass, no more than a foot in diameter, often less, and yet 75-125 feel tall. All praise to the engineer! The subtle dance of the treetops was astonishingly beautiful. It made me ache. About half the trees are now dying from the pine beetle epidemic in the American West. But as I lay there drinking in the pine tree poetry, mesmerized by their grace, I realized that the pine beetles are just doing their job, filling their evolutionary niche, and the trees will come back stronger when that moment comes.
I know this, surely. I will continue to make this odyssey as long as my body holds up—twenty years, I trust—and I will try always to look into the mirror Herodotus holds up before us. We see through the glass darkly, but woe to those who refuse to gaze into the river looking for clues.