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Gradient

“Wild rivers are earth’s renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning.” Richard Bangs

Watson Falls. Oregon.

A break in the weather prompted me to head to southern Washington and Oregon to explore their numerous waterfalls and outstanding rivers and streams. It was a trip I had hoped to take several times over the last year, but snow or expected weeks-long deluges convinced me to stay home each time. While rain is great for photographing rivers, a long-term forecast for heavy rain and cold (typical weather for the Northwest) can certainly dampen your enthusiasm if you plan to camp out.

Lucia Falls, East Fork Lewis River. Washington State.

Motivation resurfaced as I was thinking back to a river trip I had taken long ago on Oregon’s southwestern Wild and Scenic North Umpqua River. I remembered green forests on each bank, deep turquoise and green in the water, great whitewater, and a wonderful and scenic descent out of the Cascade Range. A week ago, I found a brief window where the sun was expected to come out, and the temperature was going into the 60’s, and it was time to go in search of water, flow, and gradient.

Toketee Falls, North Fork Umpqua River. Oregon

These three words mean a lot to me, as I have a history with paddling and rivers that goes back decades. When I think of who I am, what I do, and what motivates me, water, flow, and gradient play a significant role. Full disclosure, it has been several years since I have been in my whitewater boat, and I have rarely gotten into my sea kayak lately, but still the experiences I have had on the water, the lessons learned, and the values of friends and fellow paddlers define me and how I think and act today. Paddling and water still influence the decisions I make, and direct how I want to live my life. When my wife recently offered to make me a bracelet on what is most important to me -- I asked for two. One has Stephanie’s and our daughter Danna’s names on it – the other has “water” and “flow”.

'Taking the Plunge!' Water Ouzel/American Dipper on North Fork Umpqua. Oregon.

Water, flow, and gradient are all intertwined when I think of rivers and streams. There are absolutely stunning images of placid lakes and calm streams, but when I think of water it is almost always headed downhill. Gradient adds a lot to water: movement in eddies, rapids, and falls; the sound of falling water, water tumbling on and over rocks, mist, spray, sometimes a rainbow; the feel of cold, pure water as it rushes through your fingers, pulls on your paddle and boat, or quenches your thirst. Always, there is a palpable sense of movement, a transfer of energy, and an unmistakable rush of adrenaline when you stand beside a fast-flowing river.

East Fork Lewis River. Washington State.

The next time you find yourself near moving water, just close your eyes and focus if you want to understand what I am talking about. And look closely, beyond the rocks and currents, to the banks and the interface between the water and the land (riparian zone). What fish and other species live and depend on this special place? What communities does it flow through? Where did it start (headwaters)? What tributaries flow into it? Where does it go? Finally, take a deep look below and through the water to fully comprehend how what lies before you is a unique, amazing, and complete living system.


That less-evident water flowing through and under the streambed, known as the hyporheic zone [from the Greek hypo (water) and rheos (flow)], is an important part of the system as it provides for nutrient cycling, moderating temperature, and creating unique habitats. Much of my fascination with the hyporheic comes from my river conservation background, but even more comes from my first boss in river work (also a full-on Aquaphilia). It is impossible to see the word hyporheic without visions of my mentor going on and on about the secret-subterranean world flowing beneath and around each rivulet, brook, or raging torrent.

River Falls, Streamboat Creek. Oregon.

And I am not alone in my attraction to and love of water. Everyone and everything have an ongoing special relationship with water. Each living cell is mostly water, water mingles with our blood, and water has shaped our world and without it, no species could exist. When seeking life on other worlds or solar systems, water continues to be key. Icecaps on Mars, underground oceans on Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede and Saturn’s Moon Enceladus, and water vapor on an Earth-sized planet K2-18b.

South Falls, Silver Creek. Oregon.

All of this was swirling in my head as I headed south. Water, flow, and gradient as I pass the Skagit, Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Nisqually, Columbia* and hundreds of unseen and unknown waterways as you drive at freeway speeds. Backroads and hikes along the South Fork Lewis River, the McKenzie, Silver, Watson and Steamboat Creeks, Umpqua. Then time to slow down, to think about each individual stream, rapid or waterfall that you visit. Water, flow, and gradient swirling all around me, through me, under me, above me in the cosmos. Water, flow, and gradient firmly identifying where I am, why I came here, and who I am and how I got here.


“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.” Leonardo da Vinci

Watson Creek 2. Oregon.

Endnotes:

· Much of the history of space exploration has been a search for water on other planets and it has now become the key chemical marker as we look for life among the stars (Alok Jha, The Beauty of Water).

· *The Columbia River Gorge is considered to have the highest concentration of waterfalls in the entire country. Ninety on just the Oregon side alone. While many will recognize the famous Multnomah, Upper Horsetail and Bridal Veil Falls, the north side of the gorge in Washington also has amazing falls including Fall Creek, Panther Creek, Spirit Lake and many more. Amazing side trips include the drive to Trout Creek in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and up along the spectacular White Salmon River with its headwaters on the slopes of Mount Adams.

· Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon -- There are approximately 110,994 miles of river in Oregon, of which 2,173 miles are designated as Wild & Scenic—roughly 2% of the state's river miles (compare to Washington State which has only designated 197 miles as Wild and Scenic out of approximately 70,439 miles of river).


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