Who Speaks For Running Waters (1988)

[Update, 2022: the Three Rivers Dam was completed the following year and has now been in operation for almost a third of a century. It is heavily silted from upstream erosion and drains down to mud flats for part of each year. Today a different Conservative government plans to open its headwaters to coal strip mining. This essay was originally published in Trout Canada and reprinted in my book Coming West]

I went down to the Bow River often during the strange evenings of my adolescence. It was a place where I could leave self-consciousness and tension behind. The sound of water lapping at the rounded cobbles was rhythmic, soothing and sure. Standing beside the evening river, I watched the rings of rising trout break the reflected light of street lamps.

“Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything,” Henry David Thoreau said. I think he was right. The Bow River helped me through many difficult times. That is the way it is with rivers, with clear flowing waters. They flow quietly through our lives, as constant and reassuring as the changing seasons or the ebb and flow of time.

One evening I drifted a muddler into an eddy at the tail of a long, quiet riffle and hooked a brown trout. The sun had set already. I had planned on this being my last cast but this was a big fish and he was not going to be hurried. He burrowed deep and stayed there, the powerful throbbing of his fight communicating itself up my line, through the rod, into my arm. The water was dark, full of quiet urgency as it slipped past and under the Crowchild bridge. I felt both fascinated by and fearful of the heavy thing alive at the end of my line, unseen beneath the river’s flickering surface.

At length the fish turned into the main current, allowing the force of the river to help as it headed downstream, away from the pull. Unable to resist, I followed, obeying the pressure of fish and river, hands shaking at the thought of my leader separating. Its side broke the surface of the river and a tail splashed; then the fish was deep again, holding behind a slab of old sidewalk that city crews had dumped there. I held the pressure on. Nothing happened. The river lapped and chuckled as it always had, going somewhere else, letting me know that this was just between me and the fish.

More pressure, more resistance; then the fish gave a little. It was too dark to see into the water, but street light flickers showed the line of water behind my leader, and the bulges and swirls where the old trout struggled just below the surface. He ran again, held, then slid almost unresisting to the shallows where I dragged him, suddenly, from the secret water to the grass. Before he could flop back in, I pounced on him and subdued him with a stone.

The river flowed on through the night as I sat beside my victim and tried to fathom why I felt so moved by the night and the river and the trout that lay beside me in the grass, the chill of the water still on him.

That evening, in some way that I still cannot explain, remains in my memory as a pivotal event that helped me clarify my self, and my relation to the world. Perhaps it suffices to say that sometimes experience becomes parable. In any case, I can say now without embarrassment that I love the Bow River. It may seem a little alien: the thought of loving something you cannot hold, that is not human, that lacks the awareness to return that love. Yet I cannot look at the Bow River now without remembering countless things that, over the years, have become part of who I am. The late night struggle with the old brown trout. Evenings spent watching the passing water and wondering what was to become of my life. Canoeing in an October snowstorm with my wife-to-be. Obeying my two-year-old son’s orders to bring him more rocks to throw.

Everyone has a river in their life. For me it was the Bow River, a few blocks from the family home in Calgary. For some friends of mine it is the Oldman, sliding peacefully past the garden their grandfather first dug sometime in the late 1800s. Kids dream dreams by their rivers. Fishermen cast flies upon them. Canoeists float along them. We build our homes near rivers. We walk with our lovers along their banks.

I remember canoeing the Oldman one day several years ago, slipping quietly from riffle to riffle as farms and river bottom pastures slid past. To me, this was all a new landscape; to others it was the home river, deeply familiar. I floated past buildings that had been put up a century ago, fences that showed signs of frequent repairs, old trees surrounding older houses, and pools where generations of anglers had fished. It occurred to me then that this river, which I was only discovering now for the first time, was part of the fabric and definition of countless people’s lives. Farm kids had grown up here with the sounds and rhythms of the Oldman River worn deep into their hearts. Fishermen had developed that strange, jealous affection we all know so well for secret holes and favourite lies.

Every river in Alberta is like that. Each river has its own alumni whose lives will never be the same again, once the rhythm and magic of running waters have touched them.

Although we are a river people, the West’s wealth is limited when it comes to rivers. Our rivers are the more precious and beautiful for their rarity. We don’t need many to value them for what they are. As Roderick Haig-Brown said: “I have known very few rivers thoroughly and intimately. There is not time . . .  .”

My rivers are the Bow and the Oldman, the Maligne, Ram and Elbow, a few lesser streams, and that is all. My friends have their rivers. There are rivers I have never seen. They belong to others.

These are our rivers, and we are theirs. We can live away from them for long periods, just knowing they are there. Losing one, however, can feel like losing an arm, a child, or a much-loved parent.

The Oldman, for instance: the provincial government is going to flood it. Many of us still cannot really come to terms with that idea. Miles of river will soon be gone, forever, always. The rest will change, its wild vitality replaced by calculated artifice as computers determine how much flow it will have from one day to the next.

A part of me, and a part of many other Albertans, will be lost when the Alberta government closes the gate on the Three Rivers Dam. Little pieces of countless peoples’ lives died when the government filled the Dickson reservoir on the Red Deer, and the Bighorn reservoir on the North Saskatchewan. The Bow River may be dammed again soon. Each dam stops the laughter of the water, buries favourite trout pools, and erases the scenes and sounds that define somebody’s memories of their life and home.

Rearranging Creation is easy when you see rivers as lines on maps, and consider them merely to be water resources. That is why the West’s free flowing rivers are in trouble.

Damming rivers is sometimes presented as an essential matter of economics. The government’s own numbers, however, have proved that the Dickson, Three Rivers and Milk River dams are all money-losers. Besides, money is not the issue. Our lives, and the quality of our lives, is what our rivers are all about.

It is our government that is building the Three Rivers Dam on the Oldman. In a democratic country we elect governments to help arrange society in the ways that best satisfy our idea of a fair and rational civilization. Governments change as our needs and values change because they know they must respond to our wishes if they hope to survive. That is the theory.

A democratic government exists to serve the people who elect it. So how does the resignation with which we sit back and let economists and politicians who know little about the real value of our rivers build dams and reservoirs we neither want nor need, relate to our privilege of living in a democratic society?

I don’t know. I do know that when the part of me that is the Oldman River disappears at last beneath the muddy waters of a wind-scoured irrigation reservoir, I will be a little less whole. The province of my birth will be a little less like home. I also know that I will have gone down kicking. The government has no doubts about where I stand; many of my letters reside in their files.

I guess few others bothered writing. The dam is going up.

I once heard that politicians work on the basis that one letter represents the wishes of a thousand voters. When I contemplate the fact that Alberta’s living rivers are at the heart of what makes our lives rich, and that the sound of running water echoes in the hearts of we who have chosen to make our homes here, I cannot help feeling that we have failed ourselves. I remember the words of British Columbia poet David Zieroth, anguished over the possible fate of his own home river, the upper Columbia:

“…And when I ask you

where are your friends

. there is only silence.

It is the sound of the mountains coming down

with their creeks, coming down through the ice.

It is the sound of men fighting, men

failing to fight, and men

passing . . . “

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Home is the southwestern foothills and mountains of Alberta. Born and raised here into a fishing and hunting heritage which morphed into a fascination with nature, a commitment to conservation, a home place on the Oldman River, and a career in landscape ecology. Still in love after forty years of marriage, and proud of the good people our three offspring have grown up to be. No less proud of, and grateful for, the friends and neighbours whose community spirit, stewardship ethics and good humour make this such a good place, and a good life. Worried about their future, which is why I can't stop working to keep my home place good. I write books and things too.

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