Recently, I kayaked with friends through the upper reaches of a gentle riverine reservoir – an impoundment that still looks like a river but with greater depth and less current. Wood abounded in the watercourse and I wished for fishing tackle, maybe catfish tackle. Giant sycamores leaned precariously out over the inscrutable water – still rooted firmly, for now.
Rounding a bend, Joe pointed to the mossy remains of some sort of crude tree stand in one looming sycamore, positioned maybe 20 feet out over the water. The host tree was anchored into a bank on an outer bend of the river and it was hard to imagine why anyone would have chosen to put their hunting stand or clubhouse in such a precarious position. Judging by the rotting boards and incumbent vegetation though, I thought that no-one had nailed this here in recent weeks and when they had, they’d built it over dry land.
“I think that when that stand was put up, Joe, that river bank might have been about here (pointing my paddle to the opposite shore). This river’s in motion, in more ways than one!” I said it but Joe knew it as well as I did.
It was a good reminder of real river dynamics, the way a slow, lowland flowage sweeps back and forth over time, eroding, depositing, uprooting and churning. It was a good reminder too of how nature is ever cycling the things that look most solid and constant to us.
In naturalist Daniel Botkin’s 1995 book “Our Natural History” we find this passage, a commentary on the Missouri River which Lewis and Clark first ascended:
Meanders in the river are natural, produced as the river seeks the path of least resistance across its floodplain. Over the years, the meanders themselves migrate back and forth across the river valley. Meanders of the Missouri have been measured to migrate across the floodplain at an average rate of about 250 feet per year. Over much longer times – thousands of years – the river has wandered across the plains, eroding and depositing, like an artist working his oils over and over again on his canvas.
The river of today is not the river of tomorrow. Botkin also observes:
In our minds, we have an idea of nature undisturbed by human influence as constant, fixed, and permanent. This idealized nature forms the basis of our environmental laws and policies,, of our conservation and management of our living resources, from the conservation of biological diversity in tropical rain forests to the harvesting of ocean fish.
A couple of nights ago, I was out in search of walleye for the first time this fall. While most walleye fishermen head for our 3 Pittsburgh rivers, I normally choose the streams that flow into these rivers, fishing when water levels reach a certain point and wading around at night. These river predators visit the shallow hiding places of chubs and dace on nights when “all the stars align.”
I crashed through familiar knotweed and splashed into a familiar riffle, my headlamp illuminating a pale patch on the flood water in front of me. Good so far. But rounding the bend, the large fallen sycamore that had been there this spring, marking the upward limit of walleye migration, was no more. New logs were here, dispersed in strange directions, rooted firmly in stream gravel as though they’d always been there. But they hadn’t been. These half-trees had just “shown up” here within the last 6 months. Already, deep scour holes had been washed out below them, creating new patterns for fish and fishermen alike to learn. It was not gradual metamorphosis over time but was drastic change. The homes of many of last year’s aquatic animals were gone. New ones abounded.
We’ve been too often lured by tales of nature’s constancy but nature is nothing but change and the rivers are nothing but change. We mesh better with nature and fish better too when we learn to welcome this change.