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Rivers have a way of captivating people — inspiring reverence, love and sometimes a fierce instinct for protection.

Many of my colleagues in river science and conservation were drawn to this field through paddling or fishing. While my son — with a love of fishing that could only have been inherited from my ancestors — is tugging me toward angling, and although I certainly enjoy raft trips, I’m not particularly skilled at either. Something else seeped into me at an early age and drew me toward rivers.

I grew up with a creek in my backyard — Sulphur Springs, a tributary to the Chagrin River and one of Ohio’s few coldwater streams. Though I had no idea what a “coldwater stream” was or why it was so rare in my part of the world, the creek captivated my childhood imagination with hooks that, years later, emerged again to lodge deep within my adult brain.

As a child, I loved that my creek was always changing. It was really many different creeks during the course of the year:  the one I forded with ease, its feeble flow wetting nothing but the bottom of my feet; the one that frothed and roared, its tame trickle now transformed into something that posed legitimate danger for an eight-year old. When the rain poured down I would eagerly run down the well-worn path to watch the creek’s brown water rising high against the banks.

Sulphur Springs in flood

Sulphur Springs in flood. (Photo: Jeff Opperman/TNC)

I also loved that the creek connected places. It was a corridor of freedom that penetrated the hard boundaries of a childhood world. I wasn’t allowed to cross the “park road” bordering our backyard. But by following the creek, I could go under that road and emerge from a tunnel, blinking, to the mysterious and forbidden other side. Perched above a deep pool, I saw silver flashes of large fish fleeing my shadow. (The deep pool was formed by the force of the culvert-concentrated water plunging into the creek bed, contributing to downstream channel erosion…but of course I didn’t know that.)

I could also follow the creek upstream, creeping silently and unseen through neighbors’ backyards, to a miniature Paradise — a valley with a carpet of shimmering emerald green beneath tall trees.  A waterfall cascaded lyrically into the deepest pool I knew — even during dry summers it was deep enough to wade in and cool off (it was another culvert-caused plunge pool, and the emerald carpet was an unbroken understory of invasive ivy, but again, ignorance was truly bliss).

Fifteen years later as I prepared to leave an internship in Washington, DC for grad school in California, I visited a library and flipped through ecology journals, seeking areas of research that might interest me. I found a special issue of BioScience dedicated to river floodplains. As I skimmed its pages — and this may sound hard to believe — a paper on the “Flood Pulse Concept” sent a thrill through me. Though a technical term and definition, it resonated and reawakened those memories: yes, rivers change and connect and breathe and live.

Those two hooks that had captured my imagination — the restless, ever-changing river that also connected different worlds — now captivated my brain. Rivers’ variability and connectivity underlay my dissertation research and my current work.

And, of course, they still hold my heart.

Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds. He meant that, when you know what to look for, you see what most others don’t: how tattered and depleted much of our world really is.

Take a flight over the Midwest, California’s Central Valley or the southeast Piedmont and you see a world that is mostly wounds. But when I am suspended over these landscapes, my eyes are drawn to the creeks and rivers, and they reassure me that wildness has not been fully banished from the world.

Though abused themselves, rivers and their fringing forests are bandages over the wounds. While most of the cloth may be rent, the riverine threads do their best to hold the quilt together. They are green corridors of wildness and mystery in otherwise tamed and homogenous landscapes.

An agricultural landscape in western Ohio.

An agricultural landscape in western Ohio. Although at first glance, the scene is dominated by agriculture (left image), the forests along the Huron River, its tributaries and old, now abandoned channels form long, connected strips of natural habitat, shaded in green for emphasis in photo on right. Nearly every acre of natural habitat in this image is associated with a river or stream. (Photos: Google Earth)

The ivory-billed woodpecker may or may not persist but, if it does, it is only because of riverine forests’ long linear islands of refuge in a sea of soybeans. A colleague in California tells me of remote cameras capturing photos of mountain lions slinking through the floodplain forests of a Conservancy preserve on the Cosumnes River, dozens of miles into the Central Valley and far from their larger habitat in the foothills. They creep silent and unseen deep into a world of rice fields and subdivisions, much as I slipped undetected through my neighbors’ backyards, hidden within the creek’s tangled jungle.

A few years ago I moved back to Ohio, and now live overlooking  some other, and as-yet unamed, tributary to the Chagrin River. (I’m sure my kids will give it a name, as they’ve already named some of its features, such as “Cosmo Zooey Island.”)

But I’m only a mile from Sulphur Springs. On Father’s Day, my family spent the afternoon at a wooded picnic area along its banks. I stood high up on its edge, watching my kids wade through its cool gentle current , and I beamed like some sentient ghost of a spawned-out daddy salmon come back to watch his progeny frolicking in his natal stream.

Do you love a specific stream or river? If so, tell us which one below in the comments, or just add your thoughts on what you love about rivers generally.

— Text by Jeff OppermanCool Green Science Blog