Learning the Language of Rivers I: A History of Confusion

I don’t grok rivers. Some folks seem to understand them on an almost instinctual level, whether they grew up intimate with them or developed that relationship later in life. That’s not me. My experience with rivers runs thusly: they’re gashes in the landscape with rocks in, where you have to watch for flash floods; the ones that ran throughout the year tended to do so at the bottom of very deep, very vertical canyons.

The Colorado Rivers runs through it. No, seriously, if you click to embiggen, you’ll see a microscopic bit of water in that hole in the center. Also, there is a watercourse leading up to it. It hasn’t got water in it just now, but this is the high desert, baby, yeah. Actually, low desert where that is, because it’s almost a mile down. This was my first youthful impression of rivers. No wonder they are mysterious and inaccessible to me. Image courtesy Cujo359.

People talked about rivers you could sail more than rafts on, and I didn’t really understand. I still don’t, not on the instant-grasp-of-concept level. To me, a body of water that doesn’t usually dry up and that you boat around on is a lake. When we crossed the Mississippi River visiting family when I was a small child, I got overwhelmed by the experience – it should not take more than thirty seconds to cross a river, except at Hoover Dam, where the traffic brought you to a crawl on top of the dam. But that was okay, because the river was still a narrow ribbon at the bottom of a very deep canyon, and thus exactly what a river should be. Not this wide, muddy monstrosity that you could barely see the opposite bank of. That’s not a river, silly people. It’s a very long lake, or perhaps a freshwater inland sea.

I knew rivers had floodplains, because people in Arizona like to build houses in them. They’re nice, flat ground near that dry gash in the desert that sometimes gets water in it, and is frequently very green and lovely what with all the trees that have drilled down to suck up the water that’s sunk deep into the ground. People never worried, because there was never any water there – except every few or a dozen or fifty years, when we’d get a really wet spring or monsoon, and their houses would sing “I’m Sailing Away” like Cartman as they rafted down the suddenly raging river. That’s one thing I knew about rivers: you absolutely must respect their floodplains.

But people would talk about the rich soils in said floodplains, and I’d look at the rocks and thin dirt left by receding floodwaters in ours, and scratch my head in puzzlement. Harf?

I remember being delighted the day Jim Bennett taught me the word “riparian,” and showed me we actually had some of said riparian habitat in Arizona. It was nice to have a word for the areas that were green and lush compared to the searing dry country round them.

Making friends with a sycamore at Montezuma Castle. That’s Beaver Creek alongside it – it actually has got some water in it. Usually, something like this would be called a river in Arizona, even if it’s two inches wide, but we’re never very consistent about what we call things related to water here. Image courtesy Cujo359.

So that was a river: often bone-dry, rocky, likely stuck at the bottom of a deep canyon, occasionally dangerous but never floody for long, most recognizable due to a straggling line of trees, although those weren’t always present. These Arizona streams warped my perception of what a river is. I spoke a few river words, not fluently. I knew broad, deep, always-flowing rivers existed, but didn’t have any direct experience with them.

Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest. On the western side of the Cascades here, even the tiniest rivulets are likely to be carrying water the majority of the year. Dry dirt is a novelty. Most of the creeks could eat Arizona’s creeks for breakfast and still have room for elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner and supper, and the rivers laugh in in our rivers’ general direction. They even snigger at the mighty Colorado: “Oh, look, isn’t that precious – it’s pretending to be a real river!” Even on Washington’s dry side, I ran in to more river than I was prepared for. This shit has water in it, people, and you can walk up to it without having to climb down a 1000 foot drop.

The Columbia River from atop Grand Coulee Dam. Mind you, this is the bit that’s not the reservoir. It has banks and everything! Image courtesy Cujo359.

And the rivers on the west side – they were aliens. I had no idea what they were on about. Some of them flowed straight and quiet through cities, and I didn’t understand them at all until I discovered they’d once meandered here and there over valley floors until humans straightened them out.

The Sammamish River in Bothell, WA. This river has been thoroughly domesticated – might as well call it a canal now.

Then there were rivers that still had their rough edges, and displayed behaviors I’d heard rivers that always had water in them were supposed to indulge in, like creating gravel and sand and point bars, meandering, and doing interesting stuff to their banks. They were also eye-poppingly wide.

The Skykomish River at Al Borlin Park, Monroe, WA. This is the first river here that I grew familiar with that wasn’t thoroughly domesticated. Humans have mucked it about in places, but it’s still fairly wild, and it’s like so many of our Pacific Northwest rivers: it starts small and builds to something enormous enough go motorboating on. I’m still a little surprised when I see plain ol’ motorboats zipping up these rivers, but I’m getting gradually used to it.

And when you went up into the mountains, where they arose, they changed character quickly. They were full of rapids, weren’t flowing through such wide, flat floodplains, and were fast, narrow, wild waters hurtling down-mountain with joyful abandon.

The Skykomish near Gold Bar. Okay, it’s still bloody enormous by Arizona standards, but considerably narrower and swifter here than it is at Al Borlin Park a few dozen miles downstream. There are words for the tall, steep bank it’s cut, and the bouldery flat bit my intrepid companion and I were wandering all over that day. There are words for what it does, what it is, and what changes it goes through. There’s a whole language of rivers, and I only speak enough to get myself into trouble with the natives.

These rivers were often glacier-fed, cold as fuck, wild colors, and did things most Arizona rivers never seemed to do. I began learning words like fluvial. There are fluvial processes, and things like fluvial terraces, and all sorts of mad things rivers leave behind. They create deltas, sometimes enormous deltas. There are estuaries where rivers meet the sea. Gargantuan floodplains built up thick piles of sediment. And those things leave traces in the geologic record. Arizona’s rivers, in fact, once were mighty, and left vast swaths of rock that show they affected enormous areas.

Standing on an ancient floodplain, the Hermit Formation. I forget what Sugarloaf, that big knob o’ rock in the center, is – possibly part of the Schnebly Hill Formation. Still. Hermit. Under our feet. Rivers ran through here, and flooded, and left thick sediments that turned into some of Sedona’s brilliant red rock. I used to play on those floodplains, turning myself thoroughly burnt orange in the process, and never realized I was splashing through the ghosts of rivers. Image courtesy Cujo359.

And it’s hard for me to comprehend how these ribbons of water can do this. I don’t speak their language. They can’t explain to me what they’re doing, how and why. We sit together, and the rivers speak, but all I hear is sounds. It’s like being babbled at by a native Russian speaker: a stream of sound flows by, and occasionally a word bobs in the current that I can pick out, recognize, and I nod enthusiastically: “Da! Da!” I get that word, although I have no idea how it relates to the others. Then we’re right back to nyet.

Fortunately, I have friends who speak the language of rivers. They’re slowly teaching me to speak it. And while I’ll never be as fluent as they are, I’ll at least be able to say, “My aunt’s fluvial terrace is on my uncle’s watershed” with confidence, though with a horrific accent. And while I return to more explosive matters over at Rosetta Stones, we’ll be largely exploring hydrogeology here, in between the usual fare.

Rivers, my friends, are geologically fascinating entities. They come in a variety of styles. And if you don’t speak their language, they may kill you. Also, here in the Pacific Northwest, they’ve interacted with volcanoes in intriguing ways. Additionally, they are beautiful. Reasons enough to learn their lingo, eh?

Learning the Language of Rivers I: A History of Confusion
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15 thoughts on “Learning the Language of Rivers I: A History of Confusion

  1. 1

    I’ve been loving your series about St. Helens! Reading to Diane and occasionally to mystified co-workers. Can’t think of any reason this post shouldn’t be cross-posted there as well, encamped as it is in the wash of discovery where joy exceeds firmness of foundation. During flood season.

    (Please send me an email – I found an interesting Geo sample the other day and would like to send it to you)

  2. F

    Oh, sweet rivers, I love them.

    And hexidecima makes me nostalgic. I only spent a little time on the Clarion, but it is just as described – trees, with a bunch of water in the middle. I miss the creeks and rivers of western PA & NY. The Allegheny, Kinzua, Connewango, Olean, Tionesta… it’s a fantastic area of ancient orogenies with lots of green and wet. I still love my Rocky River, which is quite different and a big trough poking into the lake, but there’s something about those old mountain rivers.

  3. 4

    Wonderful post, love it. Once you spend some time getting your mind exploded thinking about river systems you’ll want to ponder their submarine extensions — for example, the Bengal submarine channel runs for at least 1,000 miles across the deep ocean floor.

    (note: I had trouble posting this comment, it may show up twice)

  4. 5

    Very cool article. Thanks.

    I grew up with Pacific Northwest rivers as you describe, with ice-cold glacier-fed water. River rafting remains one of my favorite childhood outdoor memories.

    Then I moved to LA, where “rivers” are more like concrete-sided flood channels.

    I now live in St. Louis, MO, where the Missouri river pours into the “mighty Mississippi”, where the river occasionally clogs up with ice in the winter, and where we’ve had a “hundred-years flood” two or three times in the last twenty years.

    The stories that rivers tell vary as widely as the land through which they carve.

  5. 7

    ooo! rivers! i grew up along the StCroix, which forms part of the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I loved the thought of the large deep river valleys of the st croix and mississippi, with their impressive bluffs, being filled to the brim with water during the end of the last ice age, with the huge flow of water from glacial lakes carving such magnificent scenery.

    and i loved being on top of the bluff at the park south of town, seeing the confluence of the st croic and mississippi, the mississippi already laden with silt on its way to the gulf.


  6. 8

    Lovely writing, Dana. I’ll go back and follow the links shortly, but first must ask a question:

    When you visited Grand Coulee, was the inclined elevator down the face of the new part of the dam working? Is it even still there? It’s been years since I’ve been to Grand Coulee but I worked on that elevator at my first real job, around forty years ago. I even designed some of it! And every time I visited the dam in hopes of riding on the thing, it was broken.

    We’ll be crossing the mountains pretty soon to make a family visit, perhaps I can work in a visit to the dam.

  7. rq

    You too, eh? I remember canoing that river (and the Canal, too) a lot. This is my other childhood river:
    There’s a waterfall out in the beyond of it, near a store called Campbell’s, that got build into a hydro dam, and lost some of its charm… But at the foot of that fall, we used to go swimming on special occasions, and while it may look rather wide, in especially hot summers, it was shallow enough to wade across to the store. Fond memories of the local yokel losing a case of beer in the water on the return trip one time… :)
    The hiking around this area is absolutely divine. Even though the Laurentians are some old, washed-down mountains (none of that craggy, snow-capped rocky-mountain-goodness), they are impressive – especially this time of year, what with all the autumn reds and yellows and the rocky red river.
    I think spending two weeks at camp (no, not a religious one) in that area was the best time of my life in grade school.

  8. 10

    I’m used to huge, wide valleys with small, but visible, rivers in them because the valleys were carved by huge volumes of glacial meltwater. They are muddy and warm and full of agricultural runoff.

    In the mountains, the gravel-based, braided rivers are full of rock flour from glaciers, which makes the lakes turquoise.

    In the Gatineau Hills near the Ottawa River, there’s a lake so sheltered it doesn’t turn over in spring and fall, and its salinity changed so slowly that it still contains descendants of oceanic sticklebacks. It has a layer of photosynthetic algae and then an oxygen-free base with anaerobic bacteria. Lakes are interesting, too.

  9. 11

    Nostalgia sneaks up and grabs you when you least expect it. I live in the upper mid-west where water is (relatively) everywhere. The other day, a gust of wind at a construction site blew some stinging dust in my face, and I was transported, for a second, back to Northern Arizona. Blowing dust is rarer here than water was where I grew up.

    So, bang! There it was again! Looking down on the Kaibab trail before it turns and goes through the tunnel and across the bridge, I was home again for an instant. I’ve left a lot of sweat on that trail and brought back a few blisters. That river was a river to me as a kid. Oak Creek wasn’t big enough to be a river, but it was right there. The Verde almost made it, but not quite, no matter what they called it. Now I live within 10 miles of two rivers that would embarrass the Colorado, but to me they’re lakes with a current, and I always wonder what they’re hiding. Rivers don’t always have to have water in them; sometimes the memory is enough.

  10. 12

    I spend my teenage years with the North Saskatchewan river only a few blocks from home. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Saskatchewan_River
    Every chance I got, I would be down in the valley exploring.
    And how very different that river is in the Canadian Rockies with wide its wide flat gravel flood plains vs the deep cut through the landscape it has made at Edmonton.

    My favorite water-related geological feature is Alluvial fans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alluvial_fan So very interesting, and changeable. Get a thunderstorm to park for an hour or so upstream from an Alluvial Fan and watch the destruction when the creek/river decides to overflow its banks all over the fan.

  11. 13

    I’m having major nostalgia attack here; I miss the Yakima river and all its friends.

    Diane’s river was the Ohio; when she saw the Columbia for the first time she was amazed at a river in a desert.

  12. 14

    Once rode a 30,000 ton iron ore freighter up the Orinoco River in Venezuela for almost 24 hours. As the radio operator I had to stay on watch the whole time in case another ship was coming down. It was like no river I had ever seen before, nothing like the Assiniboine and only a little bit like the Fraser. It’s a voluptuous tropical rain forest river.

    It was brown water half a mile or more wide, meandering in big curves over the flat land. Everywhere there were green, green trees overhanging the shore so that no grass or dirt could be seen. Occasional there were villages that used the river as their only road. They were quick to pick up any buckets or bottles thrown overboard from the ships. I think the crews sometimes held onto useful things until they saw them out there.

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