What the River Says

The night after celebrating my son’s second birthday along the swift, milky-emerald current of the Spokane River, a bout of insomnia had me phone surfing about rivers, and in particular, the one that runs through our city. The late-night search was inspired by wondering why spending time along a free-flowing stretch of river always leaves me feeling the same way: calmer, introspective and musing about the significance of everyday things in nature. With this feeling still nagging my sleep-starved psyche, I’m awake in the middle of the night, scrolling through historic images of the Spokane River, wondering what the riverbank and beaches looked like 200 years ago; what the water smelled like before dams cut off the upstream flow of fleshy, saltwater-dwelling salmon that swam here, reproduced, and died.

The pondering and Googling surged and split off into more obscure tributaries: What did the Native American river camps look and sound like? What types of now extirpated animals roamed the shoreline, attracted by the smell of fish? I searched unsuccessfully for historical references of grizzly bear encounters by local tribal people or early pioneers, then wandered off to another search topic—my ongoing quest to find frogs on summertime floats down the Spokane (I’ve yet to see one or hear of any other frog encounters). I finally start to drift off toward sleep, but manage to blearily open another window on my phone, intending to search for any mention of amphibian populations along the river before mining and other pollution, I assume, wiped them out or pushed them up into more pristine waters. Before finding any relevant search results, my heavy eyelids drop and the phone falls from my hands, smacking me in the face.

Sometimes, if you spend enough time floating down or simply sitting within earshot of a swift moving river, the sound of water pouring over and around smooth stones and gravelly river bottom can start to sound like whispering words that are just beyond our linguistic grasp. Which leaves me wondering as my mind takes a final plunge toward sleep. If the Spokane River could speak to us, what would it say? An expletive-laced tirade about PCBs, TMDLs, in-stream flows, heavy metals and the need for better fish passage? Or maybe a lyrical lullaby advising us to slow down, chill out and spend a little more time on and along a river this year. It certainly could be both. //

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