Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where the Wild Rivers Run

Special to The Spokesman-Review Pinch
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap

Waking early in the February morning, it took a minute to get my bearings in the dark Missoula hotel room before I dressed for the day’s drive. We were crossing a swath of the wide Flathead Valley in Northwest Montana and I wanted to take advantage of the wintery sunlight. The days are short in the Northwest this time of year with precious little sunlight between the dark of morning and dark of night.

Stopping to pick up a pastry and a cup of coffee, we crossed the Clark Fork River on our way out of town. The sun was just coming up and the sky along the horizon was fading, changing from a deep indigo to violet to plum.

The river, already awake, already on the move, snaked quietly between snowy banks following the curves it had already cut, centuries before. It seems a shame to drive right over or alongside a river without slowing down for a closer look, to be so blind to the beauty. Because a river is a wild and wonderful thing.
Impulsively, I pulled over. A few more minutes wouldn’t break the day’s schedule

Standing on the riverbank, shivering in the cold morning air, I had the feeling that only moments before other eyes had taken in the same view; wild eyes that live at the whim of the weather and the rhythm of the river’s pace and come each day for water and food.

My mind traveled back to other places and other rivers: To a glimpse of the wide, muddy Mississippi - when you think about it, the country’s first super-highway - a big river of even bigger stories and legend, sweeping along. A powerful monster deceptively slow and quiet. To being a child, standing on the rim of the canyon it carved out of stone, peering down at the wild, hellbent and furious Colorado River. To the view from an Amtrak observation car riding for miles along the Columbia River - the king of the gorge - which waters a dry and thirsty land as it flows headlong into the Pacific Ocean.

I remembered the feel of the hot sun and the sound of birds and insects on the banks of the languid Cahaba, an Alabama river ornamented by rare lilies and lush undergrowth.

The Hudson in New York. The Platte in Nebraska. The Rio Grande. How many rivers have I - have any of us - crossed in a lifetime?
Even now, every day I work and go about my life crisscrossing the Spokane River again and again.

We talk about the draw of the ocean. Of the need to see the waves crash and to smell the salt air. We spend our summers at play on the lake, speeding over the glassy surface on boats and jet skis or paddling along silently on canoes and kayaks.

But too often we take for granted the working waters of the rivers that travel the land around us.

I took one more look at the Clark Fork before getting back in my car and driving away.
The water, I should mention, took no notice of me. It had already moved on.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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