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Fall 2006, Volume 23.1

Essay

 

Andrew WingfieldPhoto of Andrew Wingfield.

Many Rivers Run Through their Friendship


Andrew Wingfield’s novel, Hear Him Roar (Utah State University Press), deals with human-mountain lion interactions in the northern California region where he was raised. He teaches in New Century College, the integrative studies program at George Mason University. His work has appeared in Wild Earth, Resurgence, ISLE, and other magazines.

 

Ask Roderick Nash his favorite river, and he’ll waste no time telling you: "The one I’m on right now."

Right now Nash is on the Missouri River, paddling a canoe with his friend Verne Huser. To the best of their recollection, this is the 18th river trip Nash and Huser have shared in a water-borne friendship that spans over 1500 river-miles and thirty-five years. This two-day trip down a genial stretch of the Middle Missouri, below Fort Randall Dam, is child’s play for a pair of paddlers who have come through some of the American West’s fiercest whitewater together. But both men are too busy making observations and chasing down associations to be bored. Anyhow, it’s a matter of principle for them to take each river on its own terms. "Hey," Nash quips, "love the one you’re with."

That’s easy to do on a clear, calm October afternoon that’s warmer than any of us could have hoped when we left Omaha before dawn, driving northwest across fields of frosted corn stubble on the way to meet our guide at Running Water, South Dakota. In pre-trip emails the outfitter had advised us to come prepared for low temperatures and bitter winds. But twenty minutes after the launch I’m already down to my T-shirt and wondering where I stowed my water bottle. Behind me, Alan Weltzien works to master the steering of the two-person sea kayak we share. Similar adjustments are taking place in the three kayaks propelled by the half-dozen students I’ve brought with me from George Mason University in Virginia. Meanwhile out ahead of everyone, their red canoe going at a good clip, Nash and Huser lead the way.

They will continue to set the pace throughout this trip, though they are much the oldest members of the expedition. In his early seventies, Huser is recovering from his second knee replacement in as many years. Others in his situation might avoid long days on the bow bench of a canoe. To Huser, this is therapy. The longer he paddles, the more ebullient he becomes. Huser’s flowing white hair, white beard, and weathered brow conjure thoughts of old-time mountain men, but the passion for rivers is what defines and drives him. He did all the leg-work to organize this trip. Last night in Omaha, when we met in the hotel bar to hatch our plan for this morning, he played the garrulous host, cracking jokes and spooling out stories while Nash bent over his notebook, copying out the details of our itinerary.

Nash’s intense blue eyes seem specially tuned to hone in on essentials. He is a wiry, compact man with a dense growth of charcoal-gray hair and a serious set to his jaw. He speaks well, but not frequently. He is friendly, but not chummy. Like his words, his movements are chosen for maximum efficiency and impact. Watch him paddle a boat for a while and you won’t be surprised to learn that he skis his age annually—one day on the slopes for each of his sixty-plus years.

I haven’t brought it up with my boat mate, but I’m sure he would share my preference for paddling in the wake of our group’s senior members even if we could muster enough speed to pass them. It’s only fitting that we follow.

"I hope your students realize who’s in that canoe," Weltzien says.

"I keep telling them," I answer, shaking my head.

It’s hard to gauge if the message is sinking in. At this early stage of the journey, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that these Virginia twenty-year-olds aren’t much different from the vast majority of Americans who like to run rivers: they follow unwittingly in the wake of Verne Huser and Rod Nash.

When this pair started out as trainee guides on the Snake River in the late nineteen-fifties, they numbered among the handful of people who were waking up to the tremendous potential rivers held as a recreational resource. Theirs was a new way of valuing North American rivers. Many of this continent’s waterways had long functioned as centers of culture, sources of food, and avenues of transport for Native Americans by the time Europeans began using them as corridors of exploration and trade. The principal cities of our nation’s youth all sat on rivers. As providers of water and energy—and as receptacles of waste—rivers played an integral role in the United States’ transformation into the agricultural, industrial, and military powerhouse it had become by the mid-twentieth century. But Nash, Huser, and other early enthusiasts knew that free-flowing waterways could also act as a powerful antidote to the discontents produced by an ever-expanding American civilization. They saw that rivers could offer skilled amateurs and paying tourists with gateways to undisturbed natural landscapes and exhilarating physical adventure. Again and again over the past several decades, they have renewed their conviction that time spent on rivers forms powerful bonds between people who share the passion to experience, understand, and protect them.

"The river has brought Rod and me together," Huser explains. The first river trip they shared was the Grand Canyon in 1968. Since then they have lived separate lives in separate places for three seasons of each year, while trying their best to run rivers together every summer. They have crisscrossed the entire American West in their quest for running water, their shared experience reflecting the diversity of western rivers. In addition to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, they have teamed up on other famous stretches of whitewater such as the Selway and the middle fork of the Salmon in Idaho. They have run the Snake in Wyoming; the Rio Grande and Rio Chama in New Mexico; the Dolores, Gunnison, and Rio Grande in Colorado; the Tuolomne in California; the San Juan in Utah; the Sauk and Skagit in Washington; and the Columbia between Washington and Oregon. They have shared a wide range of craft—open canoes, various kayaks, Nash’s wooden dory, rubber rafts of many sizes, and, on their trip up the Columbia, Nash’s 28 foot Nordic tugboat, Forevergreen.

Respect flows two ways in this relationship. Huser ardently admires Nash’s prowess in "technical" water, while Nash is quick to call attention to Huser’s accomplishments as a naturalist and all-around river sage. "Verne reads the landscape as well as anyone," he says. "He makes every mile fascinating from a natural history standpoint. He’s taught me to slow down, savor, cherish the small things—find the birds, look at the light on the canyon walls. Life is in the journey, not the destination. Verne has helped me learn this."

Huser has also impressed his friend with his use of rivers as setting and subject for environmental education. "Verne Huser is a master teacher," Nash writes in the preface to the second edition of Huser’s River Running, "and rivers are his classroom. I have watched him guide groups on the Snake River in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park…. Within minutes after the put-in, Verne’s raft became a floating seminar. His guests came away with a sense of the history, complexity and fragility of the river environment and a passion for its protection."

Huser is a prolific writer whose guidebooks have introduced thousands of novice river runners to the sport and inspired them to appreciate and defend the rivers they use. When he’s not paddling or writing, this self-described river rat pursues his longstanding mission to track down every worthwhile thing that’s ever been written about rivers. The best fruits of his bibliographic labors he has collected in the anthology River Reflections. Nash correctly calls his friend "one of the nation’s most important interpreters and chroniclers of the river experience."

Until his recent retirement, Huser supported his river habit—and kept his summers free—by teaching high school. Nash taught college. A renowned scholar and educator, Nash chaired the environmental studies program at UC Santa Barbara before his retirement in 1993. But he is best known as the author of Wilderness and the American Mind, a seminal work of intellectual history that explicates the meaning of wilderness—as physical space and symbol—in our country’s history and cultural identity. Nash says rivers played an important role in his preparation for writing a book that has become Yale University Press’s all-time best-seller since its publication in 1967. "Just as a scholar of the Italian Renaissance might want to go to Italy, I felt I needed to go out and do the trips, experience the wild rivers and the wilderness, and then I could write about it more effectively."

If rivers helped support his scholarly work, the reverse was also true. Nash got started in river advocacy not long after he began running rivers. He was called to the barricades in the 1960s to help the Sierra Club fight a plan for damming his beloved Grand Canyon in two places. In that successful campaign he began to see the relevance that scholarship could have for river protection. "Scholarship gives you the ammunition," he explains, "the ideas to back up your assertions about the river’s importance. When people said, ‘Why save the Grand Canyon?’ you could answer the question. You could say, ‘Look, the Grand Canyon was vital to Americans’ sense of character, culture, and nationality.’ You could talk about its role in inspiring literature and art and photography, its importance as a source of spiritual renewal. This is stuff that has some real power."

Nash’s one book that deals directly with river running, The Big Drops, includes Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls among the ten most daunting rapids in the American West. When he wrote the book in 1978, he was the only person who had taken on all ten of those feared drops—and lived to write about it! He suspects that fear is actually one of the main attractions whitewater holds for people. "Perhaps the basic reason is that our kind evolved in an atmosphere of almost constant fear," he reasons. "Civilization has changed this, but it hasn’t obviated the deeply rooted human need for ultimate challenge. Rapids help us reenter the grooves of ancient experience."

Huser has, of course, come through his share of whitewater, but he says the "ambience" of rivers is what attracts him most. "I use rivers as a way to get into wild country," he says, "to appreciate solitude, listen to the sounds of the flowing water, and feel the flow of the current."

Communion with nature and ultimate challenge have proven powerful lures to the public in the days since Nash and Huser started running rivers. Their sport’s explosive rise in popularity has forced them, at times, to question the roles they have played in promoting it—and to get involved in trying to regulate its growth. In the early days, all you needed to run the Grand Canyon or any of the West’s other wild rivers was a boat and the courage—or foolishness—to launch it. Now, you must either pay a professional guide several thousand dollars to run you down the river, or be prepared to wait as long as twenty years for a private permit. "As a result," Nash says, "a lot of us are running the smaller rivers where permits are not required. It’s not the big dramatic Grand Canyon, but you’re still on a river. Any time you’re on flowing water, you’re on a river. Here’s a part of the planet that’s moving. To feel yourself picked up and moved by a part of the earth, that makes the river special—and it can be any river."

***

Nash, the wilderness historian, uses a wry comparison to sum up the changes between running the big rivers now and running them in the old days, when he and Huser got their start: "There were three things you could do in the old wilderness: you could cook over an open fire, you could drink the water right out of the stream, and you could relieve yourself wherever you wanted. In the new wilderness, you can’t do any of that."

The Middle Missouri may not offer much in the way of wilderness, old or new, but our fully outfitted two-day trip is costing us less than a night in the hotel back in Omaha. And we’ve got the river to ourselves. The landscape—open and undulating, the main evidence of people coming in the form of power lines and cultivated earth—is a bit short on drama, unless one takes into account the enormity of the Great Plains sky. Several of my students have never traveled west of the Appalachians before this. All morning I noticed them gazing into the distance, fishing for a horizon. Of course what we’re all fishing for now, out here on Big Muddy, is some sense of connection with that other pair of distinguished friends in whose wake we paddle, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Huser arranged this trip to do some scouting for his book On the River with Lewis and Clark (Texas A&M Press). Two days from now, back in Omaha, he will share the podium with Nash and Weltzien when the trio presents papers on Lewis and Clark at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association. My students and I have ventured out here to enrich a recently completed unit on Lewis and Clark in a literature and history course I teach called Roads and Rivers.

Most of these young Virginians actually woke up and appeared to care early this morning when we drove through Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City is the site of the monument to Sergeant Floyd, the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die (apparently of appendicitis) during the trip. Out on the water this afternoon, we all nod eagerly when our guide Chad Caldwell points to a knoll above the riverbank and tells us that’s the place where the men caught the prairie dog that they sent (alive) to the scientists back East.

Chad is a wild-eyed South Dakota twenty-something who’s cultivating a healthy crop of strawberry blond dredlocks. He is a skilled paddler, a fine camp cook, and a rich source of information on the local flora, fauna, and history. Sometimes he offers more information than is strictly necessary. On the upriver drive from the take-out to the put-in, he told us about a harrowing trip he led last year. It seems a few drunk Yankton Sioux took pot shots at Chad and a group of church kids as they paddled past tribal lands on the same stretch of the Missouri we’re on now. No one was hurt, Chad assured us. And there haven’t been any more incidents since he reported that one to the authorities. Nothing to worry about.

And yet we worry a little about the Indians, as did the Corps of Discovery. All of our connections with Lewis and Clark seem to have this attenuated quality. They come refracted through time—filtered, diluted, sweetened by nostalgia or, as with the Indian threat, peppered with irony. True, the Corps of Discovery traveled this very stretch of river, twice. But I keep wondering: is this the same stretch of river they experienced? In the fields beyond the banks, wheat and soybeans and alfalfa have long since supplanted buffalo grass. The Missouri, long infamous for its unruly ways, is now a managed river. A chain of concrete dams controls the rate of flow and generates power for the citizens on shore. Wing-dams stud the river’s sides at regular intervals to keep it on a steady course.

Curiously, the sense of connection doesn’t really begin to build in me until we beach the boats at the end of this first afternoon. Our home for the night is a slender mile-long island that snuggles up close to the Nebraska shore, half a mile downstream from the tribal land. After pulling our vessels safely up onto the sand we begin a sequence of activities that help diminish some of the distance between centuries. We haul our gear up onto higher ground and set about establishing a camp. We assemble tents and create our kitchen. Joey and Richard head off to fish from the point of the island, Devon and P.J. plunge into the brushy interior to gather firewood, Christine and Brian set about capturing some visual impressions of the place. I pull out a pen and open my journal. Nash and Weltzien wander off to see some more of the island while Huser scurries about botanizing, taking note of beaver gnawings and questioning Chad about the abundant growth of cannabis hereabouts.

"You noticed the ganja," Chad nods. During World War II, the government encouraged farmers in the area to help the war effort by growing hemp to make rope. "It grows wild all over the area now."

The sun dips behind an upstream stand of cottonwoods, the intricate web of trunks and branches silhouetted by a rich flood of late-day light. The layers of clothing shed this afternoon begin to emerge from people’s packs. I help Devon and P.J. build a rock ring for their fire and pull a couple of drift logs over for benches. We light the stack of tumbleweeds they’ve gathered for kindling, toss some deadfall limbs into the flames, and pretty soon the fire is a going concern. Everyone is half-wild from food aromas and hovering close about the stove when Chad at last brandishes the serving spoon. We take our heaped, steaming plates down to the drift logs and eat side-by-side in the fire’s warm circle, quiet and intent as we shovel this savory fuel into our spent bodies.

The mood changes once we’re fed. It’s dark now, growing colder. We’re tired, full, and jovial, revealed to each other by firelight alone. We could be just about anybody; this could be just about any age. Huser raises his palms to the fire and begins to speak, the old man of the river spinning yarns about early experiences in the wild canyons of the West, dropping the occasional corny joke in to spice his soliloquy, each story suggesting another, a smooth and natural chain of associations, a lilting flow of memory and talk. Everyone is still, except for Devon and P.J., who occasionally rise to feed the fire. The hiss and pop of the wood, the genial tones of Huser’s voice—these sounds help us notice the great quiet beyond our small circle of fellowship and warmth. The sky seems larger even than it did during daylight, yet barely big enough to contain its crowd of stars.

All evening Nash has kept to himself. But now, encouraged perhaps by his friend’s fireside musings, the distinguished professor takes advantage of an opening and begins to hold forth about fire. He reminds us what a rare treat this is, given the strictures of the new wilderness. But this reminder is only a preface, a brief note of thanksgiving for what we now enjoy. Nash’s real topic is the bond between humans and fire. In controlling fire, he suggests, our ancestors came to be shaped by what they conquered. The limited space of the fire circle served to set the viable number for a tribal group. Sitting around the fire people traded stories and kidded each other, proposed strategies and hatched plans, developing the linguistic intelligence that played such a large part in making us the marvelous, dangerous creatures that we have become.

Before long, Nash and Huser retire to their tents. Weltzien and I soon yield the fire to the youngsters and do a bit of stargazing. In our tent a little later, my weary body cradled by the soft island sand, I ponder what I’ll say to my students on the drive back to Omaha tomorrow evening, how I’ll urge them to tease out the implications of Nash’s words regarding our double-edged human intelligence.

We are the species whose brains enable us to pull many meanings from the river, to articulate what it is we treasure about traveling together on moving water. We are also the species that produced a pair of leaders capable of planning and carrying out a safe and hugely edifying first exploration of the mostly uncharted Louisiana Territory, a journey fraught with all sorts of danger and almost unfathomable difficulty. Of course this same human intelligence also enables us to transform our environment with exhilarating and sometimes dreadful effect. We develop and carelessly dispose of powerful chemicals that poison our rivers, the veins and arteries of the earth. We erect dams that block the flow of the water that is our planet’s lifeblood. Still, as Rod Nash and Verne Huser have shown by example, human intelligence, rightly used, can also be a source of power for those who invest rivers with values that transcend the sewer system and the energy grid.

In my ears now plays the same old coyote talk that Lewis and Clark and their company would have heard as they drifted to sleep along this stretch of the Missouri. The first time the Corps of Discovery passed through here they had no clear picture at all of where they were going. Aided by the maps they made possible, I carry an image of the entire Missouri in my head. I can lie here on this island, my body suspended as one wing of my mind works its way upstream, savoring the long, sinuous ascent toward the headwaters high in Montana. Meanwhile another wing eases downstream, past Sioux City, Omaha, Council Bluffs and Kansas City, winding its way to St. Louis where this river feeds the Father of Waters. My tent mate snores peacefully nearby. Back at the fire, the young people keep company. Their talk mixes in my ears with the coyote chatter. Beneath those sounds, like far-off water flowing, play a pair of voices already working their way into my long-term memory, two mingled word-currents emanating from old friends brought together once again by the river.

 

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