Field Notices
Luther College Chips
May 7, 2009

You know that river winding down the Oneota Valley you see from the cafeteria windows?  It’s even more impressive up close. 

Before you leave campus this spring, or at least before you leave Luther College, do yourself the favor of floating that ribbon of sky in a canoe or kayak.  Doing that, you will be getting in touch with a piece of yourself you may not recognize.

That’s not a preposterous claim.  You are over 60% water.  When you live in Decorah the water you consume comes from underground sources directly linked to the river.  And once you are done with that water, it goes back to the river.

That’s why, in the book I just published about the Upper Iowa, I call people “walking tributaries.”

The majority of you that is water has been on the move now for about four billion years.  Besides being part of a river before it got to you, it has been in the sky, in the ocean, in plants, and maybe in another person.  Contrary to what you Minnesotans, obsessed with your ten thousand lakes might like to think, water is a restless resource, that doesn’t like to stay put.  The shape-shifting of a river is characteristic of the water world writ large.

That’s one of the beauties of a float trip down the Upper Iowa.  You may paddle all you wish, but mainly you are letting the current carry you.

It’s something you can do between classes and dinner.  The last time I was on the river we did just that: renting canoes from the outfitter just across the bridge from campus in the late afternoon, and putting the canoes in at one of the first bridges above Decorah, just off the Pole Line Road.

What did we get in return for the two and a half hours we took out of our busy day?  First of all, some of us got wet. 

We were canoeing with a guest from Hawaii who was used to outriggers.  He underestimated the tippiness of canoes.  It was late in the canoe season last fall, and I heard from those who went into the drink that the water that day was definitely cold.

We also got some very up-close views of kingfishers, blue herons, green herons, mallards, and bald eagles.  They, by the way, kept their eyes on us too: especially those eagles.

We also got to see familiar territory from an unfamiliar angle.  The river is the lowest point in the landscape.  As often as not, your main view is the bank on either side.  That bank is predominantly river forest: black willows, silver maples, box elders, and basswoods that in many places form a kind of open-topped tunnel.

We also got two hours of drinking in the sounds and smells of the river: the gurgle of water on the riffles and the splashing of paddles, the sound of the late afternoon wind against the boat in the open stretches, and the damp and rich nose full of smells that let you know you are on a river.

For two hours we also got out of the mindset of which class or meeting or phone call or e-mail needed attention next, and got into the moment.

When you paddle a river you’ve got to keep your eye on the current and keep your balance.  You’ve got to calculate and execute each stroke of the paddle.  As you focus to do that, your senses fill with all the rest of the rich, rivery world that presses in around you.  I don’t know about you, but that “living in the moment” sensation is all too rare in my daily schedule.

In that moment, you get lifted out of time as you normally know it. 

The Upper Iowa has been flowing its course for hundreds of thousands of years.  When you ease your boat into its current, you are following the course that billions of gallons of water have taken before you. 

It’s a course in which people have had little hand.  And it’s a course that will probably continue long after people leave the scene.  It’s not likely to be something on your conscious mind, but subconsciously, on a float trip you get absolutely flooded with the deep sense of your being part of something much bigger than you, of which you are just a tiny part.

Since this is probably my last column in this two-year-long series, I want to end with a thought that I’ve learned from the Upper Iowa on boat trips like the one I’ve described.

As I’ve said, water that is partly river water moves through us only briefly.  And the water around us, whether it’s rain or the current in the Upper Iowa, is never really ours.  I take a clue from that for understanding my place in the natural world.

It’s a world that, in most of what really counts, isn’t really ours.  We are borrowing a little piece of it for what is, in the big picture, a very little slice of time.

Environmentalism is really just the philosophy that we should pass on what we’ve borrowed in as good a condition as we can.

Final reason for renting that boat: even a quick float trip down the stream that borders campus helps you hear the sweet call to be a good steward of the resources we have been lent.