Let the River Run

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I’ve lived on the water most of my life. Most significantly I spent my high school and college summers on the ocean where my friends and I would bring coolers to 77th Street and sit on blankets or swim or just hang out listening to music and talking. Now I walk along the same beach every week and while I’ve changed the ocean looks the same and probably always will. When I was young I’d stare across the waves and wonder about places—Spain, Africa, Russia. Now I look across the waves and I see it differently, almost with a tinge of sadness. I have experienced those places now and the acute sense of anticipation has ebbed. Reality is never what we hope it will be, though it has been fun.

I went to college on the Allegheny River where my innocence was obvious and my courage was not lacking. I’ve been back since and see the river now more of a time from my past than a place in my life. The Allegheny River for me will always be 1980, and when I recently walked the path behind campus and looked at the shallow waters, I remembered the boy I was who had such plans. Many came to fruition, so it is not a melancholy glance, but there will always be something missing. Of course. There should be; it’s what keeps us moving forward.

I like that. Sometimes leaving something incomplete guarantees a reunion of sorts. In Russia they say, “Leave something for next time so you have a reason to return.”

And now I live near the Chesapeake, along the Rappahannock River. The water in the Chesapeake when the tide is rising and fills the Rappahannock will have an identity crisis as it moves past the mouth of the river and floods the marsh at the end of my road messing with the salinity. Still, it adapts. The water moves and swirls and flows and floods; it finds new ways to cut crevices in sand and even rocks. And the water running past my calves on a warm May afternoon might have once cut its way through limestone up river near Luray and will slap against a fishing boat out beyond the continental shelf towards Bermuda.

When I was young I fished on the Connetquat River on Long Island, only catching eels, and in winter we would skate out toward Oakdale across the water. And just a few hundred yards to the south sat the Great South Bay where I learned to comb the beach.

“I am haunted by water,” wrote Norman MacLean, and so am I.

71 percent of the earth is water. Babies are born about 78 percent water, and that drops to about 60 percent by adulthood. Of all the water in the world, only about 2.5 percent of it is fresh. And 68 percent of the fresh water is found in inaccessible ice caps and glaciers. If you’re out looking for any though, the best place to fill your canteen is Lake Baikal in Siberia, which contains about 20 percent of the world’s fresh water (the unfrozen non-glacier type, except in winter). That’s changing, obviously. In fact, right now only about 30 percent of fresh water can be found in the ground. This means of all the water in the world, only a small fraction is drinkable.

I dehydrate very easily so I am always drinking my share, and probably your share. I like water. It energizes me. I can do that. But about 1.5 million children die every year because of lack of water or having access to only low-quality water.

Water is life. Even when searching for life on other planets, it is actually water they are looking for. At the same time, water kills. My brother lives southeast of Houston, Texas, and through some combination of miracle and excellent planning on his part was not flooded by the rising waters. But too many people to count lost their homes, lost their lives. It isn’t hard to understand why the number one weather-related cause of death in the world is floods.

Michael and I hired a car and driver along with a translator in Irkutsk and headed north out of the city to the villages along Lake Baikal. It was a foggy day, the air wet but warm enough, and we walked to a dock where an older man was getting in a small boat to fish. He stood next to us describing the waters, the countless tributaries coming into the lake from the frozen north, but only one river out, the Angara, which heads south into Mongolia. Then he leaned over and told us when the water is still as it was that day, you can see a dozen meters into the water, and it isn’t unusual to see seals swimming by deep in the lake.

We were surrounded by water; clear, deep, pure fresh water. We were as far from having anything nearby as you can get. GPS doesn’t work there. Cell phones are pointless. We stepped over the edge. World history there has more blank spaces than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. For many of the residents in some remote sections of Siberia, Columbus never set sail, the Wright Brothers never took off, and Neil Armstrong is a myth. I understand why the Czars in St. Petersburg and leaders in Moscow considered exile there to be punishment enough. It simply doesn’t exist unless you are already there. To the rest of the world, the landscape is a mystery and the people are all ghosts. And we are not so much travelers as we are brief shadows in the land of the midnight sun.

A few weeks later we arrived in Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan where we were cautioned against drinking tap water. The Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami  had occurred just two years earlier, and there was some concern the contaminated deluge might still be swirling through the Pacific. I drank beer instead.

And when we returned I made my normal, post-remote-world visit to the doctor and cardiologist, who said I needed to keep my blood pressure down, so he prescribed a diuretic to reduce the fluid in my body.

Yes, I am haunted by water.

man on lake baikal

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