I raced this weekend. Like in a formal, sign up, pay money race. I think it was the first time in close to two decades I participated in an organized race. Racing’s just not my thing: I’m not very competitive, I shy away from organized events, and I’m cheap. Races are, of course, competitions, they are definitely organized and, it turns out, they cost some cash; this one was $50. Hell I figured, it’s only four and a half miles down the Clark Fork River to the heart of Missoula’s downtown, and I get a t-shirt. What a deal.
5:20 am. Alarm. Two snoozes later, I’m up. Hot coffee waiting in the pot, hard boiled eggs in the fridge, bike, board, paddle all set out in the yard ready to toss into the car. I pull out of driveway as the DJ announces it’s 6:07.
The sun hadn’t broken over the hills when the board slaps the water. I kneel down and snap a shot with my phone, board floating on the calm, mirrored surface of the eddy. A quick hop onto the board and my hands curl around the paddle. The first few strokes feel good, my arms loosening as I catch the current and settled into a rhythm. The cool early morning air draws goose bumps from my bare legs.
Each stroke reinforces my early morning get up and go. Even though I was up and out because I was “training” for the race, it still felt like I had pulled one over on the world. I reach forward and paddle through the still morning. Ten or so hours later, the put-in, deserted and silent for me, would be overrun with tubers, kids, dogs and the assorted hordes escaping the afternoon heat. The river awash with sunbaked stoners losing their beer cans to its thin depths. But for me, it is virtually silent, my companions a few birds hunting on the shore.
River floats open my mind. Rare is the paddle where I don’t slip into a deep current of thought and follow it around the bend. When I’m alone, it’s almost guaranteed. A train laden with the stuff of commerce shakes the iron bridge as I pass under on the silky water. I pause and catch my breath for a few moments as the sun peeks over the mountains to the east. It’s a big train – coal, steel axles, timber, assorted products and the makings of yet more products trailing behind the locomotive. We’re all following the river, winding our way through the rugged collision of tectonic plates that gives rise to the Rockies and makes travel hard won and arduous.
Look at a map and you’ll see why rivers mattered. Like the Clark Fork for its entire length, almost every river in the country is paralleled by a road. The big ones by roads and rails. For the past couple of millennia, rivers have been conduits for travel and commerce. In the U.S., rivers proved crucial to growing eastern cities, provided inroads to the West, and they carried our waste, effluent and by-products of industry merrily downstream. As a society, we’ve not been kind to rivers. Maybe it’s because they move that we feel compelled to stop them with dams and levies. Maybe their never-ending push to the sea spits in the face of our static, settled lives, and so we harbor some subconscious resentment. Maybe it’s much more pedestrian than that, and we just took advantage of the easiest solution to our industrial existence and on downstream the bad stuff went.
This river is doing ok. Now. Fifty years ago, it ran red with toxic mining pollution. Thirty years ago, they discovered arsenic in the reservoir that used to sit just upstream of where I’m paddling. One giant, 125-mile-long Superfund site and billions of dollars later, it’s remarkably clean and safe, even though they haven’t even finished cleaning up the floodplain. Fish, beaver, mink, osprey, mergansers, bald eagles, they all make a living in or near this river. The “tuber hatch” hits reliably each July, sending thousands of half drunk floaters bobbing along the surface, loosing beer cans, flip flops, hats and granola bar wrappers.
I grew up on the cold hard ocean. We’ve treated it pretty poorly too. The fact that rivers carry our waste straight into its briny waters obviously doesn’t help. Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay and the utterly massive Pacific garbage patch are the direct results of what we put into our rivers. I miss it – the damp, salty air, the sharp smell of life and decay and brine, the morning fog that muffles sound and shrinks the world. I spent countless hours playing, working, relaxing on and near the ocean.
But rivers now give me my fix, and junkies do just about anything for their fix. That’s why I’m here. Sure the $50 price tag and a strong desire to not come in last are the more immediate reasons. But in truth, they serve a bigger master, my deep need for being on the water. Even if I can’t eat the fish from this river (there’s still heavy metal pollution that accumulates in the darting trout); even if giant chunks of rebar and concrete and metal of every description lurk in its depths; even if the rampant littering turns my tree-hugging stomach, I’m here and it’s fucking great.
The billions have yielded real results. Inedible though they may be, there are fish swimming in large schools. The arsenic laden reservoir has been cleaned, the dam removed and the river now runs in its historic channel. Playing on the river is helping people notice the river in a new way. There are efforts to pull out the concrete and rebar; to codify public access throughout downtown; a couple times a year, folks show up to actually clean up the beer cans and flip-flops left by the careless.
A heron lifts silently from a shimmering boulder. I bounce through the last small wave train, past a couple of fisherman working the confluence of the Clark Fork and Rattlesnake Creek. I reach for my next stroke, under the pedestrian bridges and another couple hundred yards to where the finish will be. I glimpse yet another crumpled can on the river floor and remind myself to grab a mesh bag and mask on the next hot day and conduct my own mini river clean up. My board slides onto the cobbles on the shore. I glance at my watch one last time…44 minutes. I won’t win the race, but I don’t think I’ll come in last either. I haul my board up the bank, across the lawn, and set it near my bike and trailer. In five minutes, I’ll be pedaling back towards the car, board neatly deflated and rolled up in the trailer. A smile graces my face. It’s easy being happy if you just set your alarm and get out of bed.