Friday, October 3, 2014

Joliet to Spring Valley: Absorbing the River

By Mark Emmons, Paddle Forward Team

This section reflects on the five days of paddling between Joliet and Spring Valley, IL. Now that we’ve spent a good chunk of time on the river, I want to talk about the connections forming on the water.

Absorbing the River

Rivers are interdisciplinary classrooms. There are plenty of metaphors to illustrate this point, but I’ll go with the simplest one: rivers are connectors. They connect point A and B upstream to point C downstream. But the connection goes much deeper than geography. Rivers contain our most life-sustaining resource, and thus allow the connections that make human life possible – commerce, fishing, industry, agriculture, etc. In paddling down the Illinois River, we get the opportunity to study all of these subjects.

With all this material surrounding us, I feel like a sponge, absorbing everything around me. Since we face the unknown around every river bend, each curve becomes an opportunity to learn. All it takes is a set of eyes and the curiosity to use them. It’s that childlike wonder that gets us to ask questions, to suspend the belief that we understand everything going on around us. Much of what we see on the river comes with no explanation, so we take pleasure in coming up with theories. On the day we paddled 25 miles from Joliet to Morris, we came across some rusted-out barges half-submerged in the river. What happened there? Well, a barge company could have abandoned them. Or perhaps there was a wreck. Have we considered the possibility of river pirates? We had no way of actually discovering the answer, but our minds raced with creative hypotheses and questions. In this instance, we didn’t uncover any further evidence, so we created our own story to explain it. For fun’s sake, we ended up staging a reenactment of our take on the events that led to the barges sinking (river pirates were the leading theory; here is the link to our video on YouTube!).

But sometimes, we do end up learning the rest of the story. Our group is constantly ingesting new information and connecting it to our earlier experiences. Constantly. Many times a day. Often, we take in visual information while we’re paddling and only make sense of it days later. For example, the day we left Morris, we saw the landscape become more rocky and bluffy as we paddled down to our next campsite at Starved Rock State Park. This park is the gem of Illinois, home to sandstone canyons that rise up a hundred feet above their sandy bottoms. We devoted an entire day to hiking/running through the park and marveling at the geological wonders. At the end of the day, I had thoroughly enjoyed the canyons, but still did not understand why they were there. Two weeks later and 112 miles downstream, we unexpectedly learned the answer from Mike Wiant, the director of the Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, IL. It turns out that a massive glacial flooding event carved out the canyons 16,000 years ago. This information would have felt completely irrelevant to me without our visit to Starved Rock to pique my curiosity. Something as abstract as geologic history can come alive when I can connect an expert’s explanation to my own observations.

In this fashion, we are piecing together a picture of the Illinois River watershed. Nick Ryan, who is both the Wild River Academy Director of Operations and our trusty driver, puts it this way, “We explore the river as generalists, but we rely on the work of specialists. By devoting their lives to the study of one thing, these experts create bubbles of knowledge. As we move from subject to subject along the river, we attempt only to dip our feet in their bubbles.” As we’ve progressed down the river, we’ve been able to meet with a widening circle of experts, thanks to Nick’s outreach efforts. We could have chosen to read extensively on topics ranging from waterfowl conservation to dam restoration, but instead, we’ve been able to visit the people and facilities where this work is going on. These face-to-face interactions have been invaluable in connecting everything. A museum director like Mike Wiant can weave together a narrative of the history of the Illinois River Valley in a way his museum cannot. We have been very privileged to meet with a wide range of experts, who have all patiently responded to our barrage of questions.

We’ve also been fortunate with our chance encounters with the locals of the Illinois River. In a way, the river is embodied in these people. When we left Starved Rock, we paddled to the small town of Spring Valley, and camped at a boat launch. In the morning, I awoke to the river illuminated by a golden fog. As we were taking down camp, a Ford truck rolled over to observe this hectic scene. Out of the truck walked 75 year-old Bob Posey, a member of the Spring Valley Walleye Club. We got to talking, and I listened to his story. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but it captured me with how tightly it was bound to the river. Bob had fished this stretch of the river his whole life, and seen it change with pollution, then restoration, then Asian Carp. His face lit up as he told me, “I used to take moving pictures of my kids waterskiing on the river, and you’d think it was a wilderness paradise.” We both looked out at the Illinois to admire its morning splendor, and at that moment, his words rung true. For that moment, I felt a powerful connection to this 75 year-old man, brought together by our collective experience of the river.

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