These are the words of Hiram Chittenden, captain of the Army Corps of Engineers charged with the task of taming the mighty Missouri River, the fabled Big Muddy, at the turn of the last century. His quote encapsulates the conflicting visions for this river and, by extension, the conflicting visions for America and the uses of its water resources.
In Rivers of Change, author Tom Mullen explores past, present, and possible future visions for the use of the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Columbia Rivers. He does this by following, insofar as possible, the route taken by Lewis and Clark on their epic sojourn to map and explore the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 to 1806. And, as in most journeys of discovery, Tom is also involved in an inner quest. After working for over a decade as a water resources consultant in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of the United States, Tom articulates a desire at various points in his trip for a home:
Photographs of the coast and falls gave me a feeling as though a lost soul inside me found eyesight for viewing reality. Inspired, I later considered what I saw while pacing along a sidewalk outside the museum. I realized then that exploring these western rivers meant slipping through their communities in the same way a migrating salmon darts through currents. This transience of the journey had worn on me. Just as the Columbia turned to a wide ocean near Astoria, my wanderlust was transforming to a larger desire for home and community.
Beyond this personal search for place, there is also more than a little of John Steinbecks Travels with Charley in Rivers of Change. Steinbeck traveled across the United States in 1959 to reacquaint himself with the country and its people and wrote his impressions. Mullen does the same, traveling from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on a meandering course that crosses a hat-full of states and a variety of topographies and ecosystems before ending at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. Like Steinbeck, who named his camper Rocinante after Don Quixotes horse, Mullen named his motorized steed Six Pac. Like Mullens prose, Six Pac is sturdy, reliable, and well-ordered. My one complaint is that Tom didnt stretch out more and give us some descriptive literary riffs to match the spectacular scenery, colorful characters, and whimsical detours he cataloged. Also, not being a water resources person, I found the frequent stops at dams along the rivers and the detailed descriptions of their inner workings tedious.
But that said, I enjoyed the quirky histories from Lewis and Clark days; the accounts of devastating floods, especially the Great Flood of 1993; tales of exploding and snag-trashed steamboats; and a wandering river that transformed thriving communities to ghost towns and forced migrations of Native American villages. We also have interviews and conversations with a range of characters from pilots, engineers, and biologists to tribal elders, back-to-the-earth homesteaders, and carny-style river rats plying the tourist trade. Names such as Glasgow, Weston, Wolf River Bob, Restaurante Mamasitas, Blackbird Bend, Buffalo Bill Sanders, and Joe Medicine Crow revive some of the intrigue and romance that guys like Captain Chittenden sought to erase by turning the lower Missouri River into a long irrigation canal.
Along with the human story, we are reminded that prior to the coming of Western Civilization, the land drained by these rivers was home to countless bison, antelope, wolves, bighorn sheep, prehistoric fish, and so on and so forth. Today, remnants of some of these populations fight for their very existence. Tom highlights the struggle of dedicated naturalists to save the piping plover, the least tern, and the pallid sturgeon. An effort that is only part of the story in the continuing struggle to resuscitate biodiversity along these rivers in times of changing use.
As Tom says near the end, Fixing a river to one course is like asking Pegasus to file a flight plan. A channeled river is like a mythical horse stripped of its magic, a society that never deviates from status quo, or a person who believes they have reached a state of perennial security . . . such intransigence is illusory.
Craig Carrozzi, author and publisher, has just published his fifth book, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and is doing a number of performance readings throughout California to dramatize this historic western thriller and call attention to the possibility of someday restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley which was dammed in 1915.