Reading the rivers

David Fenton
In 2008, the West's rivers are loved and threatened as never before. We invited three of America's best writers to tell us what rivers mean to them

Will our rivers survive? Top water experts answer the question


The Skagit River
Source: Cascade Mountains, British Columbia
Length: 160 miles
Mouth: Puget Sound, Washington
Watershed: 3,130 square miles

A river runs deep in my memory, as it once ran deep in my life - the Skagit River, in northern Washington. As a boy I lived in a small village right on the Skagit. My bedroom faced the river, maybe 100 yards away, and for many years I fell asleep to the deep, steady sigh of its flowing, as much a physical sensation as a sound.

In the light of day, the river took on a dark emerald tint borrowed from the spruces, pines, and firs that bristled down the slopes of the Cascades to its very banks. Though not much given to aesthetic reflection, I thought even then that it was beautiful. My friends and I fished it for steelhead and trout, but left the salmon alone as they fought their way upstream to spawn. The bald eagles were less compassionate. They congregated just upstream from Marblemount, where we changed buses on our long drive to school, and we sometimes played truant for a day to watch them hunt - skimming just inches above the water, then lifting their thrashing prey to the topmost branches of a tree.

It was beautiful, the river, but no ornament. We were constantly warned of its dangers, and inevitably a boy from our village drowned. This added a deeper shade to its color, a darker timbre to its voice, but I loved it no less. When I finally left, I had trouble sleeping. Nights without that breathing presence seemed so hollow, airless. I still miss it.

Tobias Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University; Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories will be published this month.

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The Willamette River
Sources: Cascade Mountains and Coast Range, Oregon
Length: 187 miles
Mouth: Columbia River
Watershed: 11,478 square miles

For a while, I lived in a long yellow house on a slippery hillside near the Willamette River in Portland. The neighborhood was called John's Landing, and even though people landed there more often for fancy shopping than for river business, it still had the feel of a river's edge - a bit of grit in the soil, a hint of wild wandering in the air. Wherever you walked in the neighborhood, you caught glimpses of the river, wide and smooth, coursing past its muddy banks.

The Willamette is not one of Oregon's silvery streams roiling through the mountains; it is a working river, a big wet highway, with barges running up and down it all day and trucks rumbling over its fretwork of bridges all night.

I loved that it seemed to flow out of Portland's homelier past, when it was a timber town, a little rough, and the river was the center of everything - of commerce as well as society (dividing the upscale Westside of Portland from the working-class east). Its appeal was not so much scenic as it was sentimental, a stream of memory of the city that used to be, defined and described by the river.

Susan Orlean is a staff writer at the New Yorker; her books include The Orchid Thief.


The Colorado River
Source: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Length: 1,450 miles
Mouth: Gulf of California, Mexico
Watershed: 242,900 square miles

I wasn't born on the Colorado River, but I ought to have been. I've boated more than half of its 1,450 miles and most of its tributaries, all in a 15½-foot rubber Achilles raft. Falling more than 9,000 feet through the wildest and most unforgiving country in the Lower 48, the river is crystal clear near its piney, high-altitude headwaters and a rich red-brown as it tumbles through the canyon country, except right after a flash flood, when it turns extra-dark chocolate, or in the Big Drops in Cataract Canyon, when it heaves itself up into giant waves, white as lightning and jagged, converging upon the nose of my boat.

Young and recalcitrant as a bull rider, the river has had a hand in carving some of the strangest and most dramatic scenery in the world: The candy-striped spires of the Doll's House that light up like big bouquets of roses in the setting sun. The Maze's red, brown, and yellow canyons that repeat and repeat like God gone mad with the Play-Doh. The black razored walls that flank the mayhem of rapids at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The impossible proximity and stillness of the turquoise pools at Havasu Falls. Riding on its mercuried surface in the blue-gold light of late afternoon is more like praying than praying to me; it is wilderness, it is Westerness, it is grace.

Pam Houston, the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, is creative writing director at the University of California, Davis.

Listen to our roundtable with Western water experts »

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