Riverbank Rambles

When I first traveled along the Columbia River, it was by train rather than bicycle. Bonneville Dam was only half built, Grand Coulee Dam was still in the planning stage, and the river ran the way that Nature intended.

The mighty Columbia (on whose banks I now bicycle all of the time) had not yet become the fully developed “organic machine” that historian Richard White describes in his book by that name. All that I remember from that ride when I was six years old are night-lights glimmering on black water.

A little later, our family lived close to the Willamette River, one of the Columbia’s tributaries, and Mom and Dad, even though neither could swim, taught us to dog paddle in a quiet pool on the river’s edge that had been dredged to supply a rock crusher with material.

During seminary years, my wife and I lived in the ancient village of Somerset, on Indiana’s Mississinewa River—on the high side. “Why, even in the flood of 1913,” old timers told us, “the town was dry.” Imagine our distress when the Army Corps of Engineers decided to construct a flood control dam down river even though it would put an historic Indian burial ground and old Somerset under water. “Why should we have to move,” my Somerset neighbors asked, “because those people down at Peru (accent on the first syllable) had no better sense than to build their town on the flood plain?”

We lost, of course, as the people always do when contending with the Corps of Engineers, and more than half a century later I still grieve.

During a pastorate in California’s South San Joaquin Valley, we lived near the Kings River, which carried snowmelt from the high Sierra Nevada to the valley floor. When John Muir first beheld the scene, the desert was covered with a brilliant floral carpet. When I saw it, the valley was intensely planted to corn and cotton, grapes and nectarines and oranges, and Fresno (our county seat) proclaimed itself the agri-business capitol of the world.

Our long-time home in Indianapolis was near the White River and a short canal that provided a haven for ducks, a gravel towpath for cyclists, and respite from the city’s unrelenting geometrical grid. This dual waterway, which had failed to live up to the industrial hopes of earlier settlers, provided a neighborhood in which Nature and human community, including children, lived together in gentle harmony.

In later years, the Colorado River system has been the focus of my attention. Despite the fact that these streams flow through serious desert, they used to flow year round, maintaining a riverine way of life for fish, plants, animals, and people.

Even in ancient times, people have harnessed their rivers, seeking to improve upon Nature’s way. In many parts of the world, irrigation was the principal modification. Despite their small scale, irrigation systems were hard to sustain. Because of the build up of salt and silt and the rise of cities with concentrated political power, they could not be sustained forever.

An early irrigation civilization in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun perished, but many generations later, founders of a new village built on top of the old named it Phoenix, invoking the legendary creature that once had risen out of fiery ashes. Its irrigated way of life is far more complex and powerful than the ancient ones could have imagined, but its demise seems equally certain. The time comes when Nature’s way resumes control.

For forty years I have enjoyed hard-core cycling along America’s rivers—along the Ohio and the Wabash systems in the Midwest, the Colorado and its tributaries in the Southwest, and the Columbia River system in my native Pacific Northwest. The folly of large-scale diversion and irrigation has been at the center of my reflections.

During the summer of 2010, however, I am changing focus, with the Potomac River becoming the center of attention. In order to improve upon Nature’s watercourse, George Washington and entrepreneurs with plenty of public money and poor peoples’ blood and guts, constructed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, twisting it along side of the river, all of the way from the nation’s capitol to Cumberland, Maryland. Now a National Park, the towpath provides a way for people to bicycle through time.

Which is what I plan to do, beginning in June. On my Waterford touring bike, I will travel this classic trail and reflect upon one interaction between Nature and engineers in which Nature has won and a world of tranquil beauty has managed to survive.

In your imagination, come ride with me. There is much to see and think about. I’ll keep you posted.

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