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 asmall 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 asound.

In the light of day, the river took on a dark emerald tintborrowed from the spruces, pines, and firs that bristled down theslopes of the Cascades to its very banks. Though not much given toaesthetic reflection, I thought even then that it was beautiful. Myfriends and I fished it for steelhead and trout, but left thesalmon alone as they fought their way upstream to spawn. The baldeagles were less compassionate. They congregated just upstream fromMarblemount, 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 thrashingprey to the topmost branches of a tree.

It was beautiful, the river, but no ornament. We were constantlywarned of its dangers, and inevitably a boy from our villagedrowned. This added a deeper shade to its color, a darker timbre toits voice, but I loved it no less. When I finally left, I hadtrouble sleeping. Nights without that breathing presence seemed sohollow, airless. I still miss it.

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


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 slipperyhillside near the Willamette River in Portland. The neighborhoodwas called John’s Landing, and even though people landed there moreoften for fancy shopping than for river business, it still had thefeel of a river’s edge – a bit of grit in the soil, a hint of wildwandering in the air. Wherever you walked in the neighborhood, youcaught glimpses of the river, wide and smooth, coursing past itsmuddy banks.

The Willamette is not one of Oregon’s silvery streams roilingthrough the mountains; it is a working river, a big wet highway,with barges running up and down it all day and trucks rumbling overits 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 thecenter of everything – of commerce as well as society (dividing theupscale Westside of Portland from the working-class east). Itsappeal was not so much scenic as it was sentimental, a stream ofmemory of the city that used to be, defined and described by theriver.

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 itstributaries, all in a 15½-foot rubber Achilles raft. Fallingmore than 9,000 feet through the wildest and most unforgivingcountry in the Lower 48, the river is crystal clear near its piney,high-altitude headwaters and a rich red-brown as it tumbles throughthe canyon country, except right after a flash flood, when it turnsextra-dark chocolate, or in the Big Drops in Cataract Canyon, whenit heaves itself up into giant waves, white as lightning andjagged, converging upon the nose of my boat.

Young and recalcitrant as a bull rider, the river has had a handin carving some of the strangest and most dramatic scenery in theworld: The candy-striped spires of the Doll’s House that light uplike big bouquets of roses in the setting sun. The Maze’s red,brown, and yellow canyons that repeat and repeat like God gone madwith the Play-Doh. The black razored walls that flank the mayhem ofrapids at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The impossible proximityand stillness of the turquoise pools at Havasu Falls. Riding on itsmercuried surface in the blue-gold light of late afternoon is morelike praying than praying to me; it is wilderness, it isWesterness, it is grace.

Pam Houston, the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, is creative writing director at theUniversity of California, Davis.Listen to ourroundtable with Western water experts »

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