The Watermark – Musings on Rivers, Wilderness and Humanity
A new year. A new decade.
I walk with my son down the chilly shaded path. The winter sun doesn’t warm the canyon like it does in spring and summer. It’s light just playing with the highest of the sandstone cliffs where once verdant dripping springs wait in icy hibernation for spring.
My son is 6 months old. The back of his head presses against my chest as he watches a magnificent and ancient cottonwood reach it’s leafless arms bravely towards the distant cobalt sky. The path is sandy and damp and there is a creek babbling towards the river it’s music muffled by encroaching ice.
Stepping on stones to the creek, I try to invoke the agility and stealth of a lithe mountain lion that I am sure at some point has crossed this way too. In the middle of the creek crossing a familiar smell reaches my nose, and I hope, my son’s nose too. It smells like winter. Like cold water. Like damp leaves. Like good memories. It smells like rivers I know. I pause. My heart fills with warmth in this cold silent canyon. I’m instantly transported back to the banks of the Salmon River. The babbling of this desert creek reminding me of the many creeks that babble and laugh and vigorously spill their waters across rounded stones into the mighty mainstem of the Salmon. The River joyously gathers all these creeks into its’ main flow as if to say, “the more the merrier!”
I can’t help but smile. Walking through this winter sandstone, I am remembering summer smiles, warm nights gathered with dear friends new and old on moonlit beaches, and swimming like salmon, shiny scales flashing and eyes open in clear water eddies.
This is the power of the river. Once you’ve been there, once you’ve experienced it, the feeling never leaves you. No matter how far away you are. None of us get to live on the banks of the Salmon River in the middle of the Land of No Return and yet after just one experience there, the power of deep wilderness connects you to something bigger. And, it connects you to the people who were there with you, sharing in the experience. Those people have become your tribe. They too are somewhere off in their own worlds remembering running the river with you; sharing this one singularly spectacular experience that has seeped into the core of you.
My foot slips on a stepping stone and cold water splashes into my boot. I chuckle to myself over my wet shoe and pant leg. It was inevitable. It’s just like when cold river water somehow finds is way between the gaskets of your “waterproof” jacket and onto your skin. The feeling is uncomfortable, but somehow a welcome reprieve from the discomforts we feel in our everyday world. Traffic, schedules, noise. Suddenly, cold water on the skin feels more like a wake up call back to reality. A more primal, ancient, authentic aliveness.
I exhale, hugging my son closer in the cold. We need this aliveness. We need this connectedness. My wish is not just for my son but for all of us to not only have the opportunity but take the opportunity to carve out time for ourselves and our families to journey into the wild places. Be silent. Be joyous. Let loose. Create community with our fellow seekers of authenticity, originality, adventure. Reconnect to our true nature, our animal selves. I believe the only way to truly reconnect is by visiting the backcountry and extended stays are the best. My wish for this new year is that each of us creates the space to have experiences that connect us with the real world and remind us of what is important. That way, once we inevitably return to our everyday worlds we will have a deep knowing of what is important and passionately strive to protect the places we love. They are disappearing.
Nearing the mouth of the canyon again, we step into the sunlight. Instinctually, my little boy turns towards it, eyes closed. Did I just see a smile cross his face? Being outside is soothing to him and I like to imagine that these winter canyons are his happy places. I marvel that even the youngest of us understand we cannot and should not ever be too far removed from our natural habitat, our wild world.
With these thoughts, I wish all of you a new year of authentic experiences shared with loving communities. And I wish you a renewed interest and vigor in raising your voice to protect wilderness.
See you on the river.