A guest post from Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater.
Long before I ever kissed a girl, I looked into a river’s wet swirly eyes and felt what I could only imagine was love. I snapped a sprayskirt on my kayak, picked up my paddle, and slid into the river. The sky brightened, the texture of the rocks grew richer, and the currents seemed to come alive. All but my animal self fell away. Gone were the high school social blahs, the stress of home, the teenage angst. There was just the river and its mesmerizing mathematics of motion, infinitely complex and yet utterly knowable, and me, its unworthy but devoted dance partner.
Oh sure I was a wet mess, flipping and swimming all over the place. But I was learning, enticed by fleeting moments of kinetic beauty in which my mind, body, and boat did just the right thing relative to the river’s currents. These moments were revelations, in which my intuitive knowledge of water grew immensely. I paddled every weekend, and in time I could string these moments of grace into lines through rapids and down entire rivers. I called them “zen runs.” My physical skills grew, but so too did the way I approached the river. I learned that a mix of physical playfulness, eyes-wide-open wonder, humility, and attentiveness was the magic recipe to generate zen runs.
Turns out it is also a fine recipe for doing good science (and pretty much everything else). In college I dove headlong into ecology as another way to better understand nature, and environmental science as a means of giving back to the natural world I already felt indebted and akin to. My professors taught me an avant-garde approach to restoring ecosystems that favored using natural processes rather than engineering, something akin to eastern medicine for injured lands. The approach suited the sensibilities I’d learned on the river – humility, respect, and seeking big changes through small inputs. I took these ideas to graduate school in Montana where I turned my professional interests to rivers for the first time.
Rather than learn a marketable skill in grad school, I devised my own methodology for critiquing stream restoration projects by plotting flow complexity vectors. The project was born out of a frustrating day spent paddling a stream that had been “restored” with logs using heavy-handed engineering techniques. I knew streams, and this one just felt wrong. It felt manhandled and unnatural, and I was determined to reveal the shortfalls of this restoration approach. On the way I read nearly every peer-reviewed article written on the many roles that fallen trees play in streams.
Paddlers call fallen trees “strainers,” because water goes through but we don’t. They are a leading cause of on-water deaths among our community. Paddlers move wood around for safety, while agencies put wood into the river for fish habitat, and this can create some tension. On a bit of a whim, I wrote an article for the American Whitewater Journal informing paddlers about the value that wood has in streams and the ethical ramifications of wood removal. The good folks at AW liked it and hired me as a river stewardship associate before I had even defended my thesis.
While in grad school, I kayaked around 150 days each year, fascinated by surfing river waves solo, riding the colossal torrent of spring snowmelt, and embarking on multi-day wilderness runs. I honed the zen runs of my youth into deeply fulfilling and energizing conversations with moving water and wild places. I often felt like I was floating two inches off the water, freed from its physical resistance. I was in deep, living the life of a blissed out river monk. It was incredible. But I wanted more. I wanted a warm-blooded partner as well as my cool-water partner. And I wanted to give back. The job offer with American Whitewater wrenched me out of my ascetic life, and weeks later, still in flip-flops, I was negotiating not with rivers, but with power companies to secure new flow regimes below dams, river access solutions, and conservation initiatives.
In this new role with American Whitewater I found that my subtle approach to ecosystem restoration applied well to rivers suffering from dams. Moving large groups of stakeholders towards settlement agreements was a bit like navigating a complex rapid. Sparring with $500 an hour water law attorneys was a bit like surfing a big river wave at 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Fueling all my work was the energy I’d absorbed from rivers through years of zen runs. In some ways, it was ironic. There I was arguing against dams when I myself was hydro-powered. And when I stood on the banks of a river that had been dry for a century and watched it roar back to life because of the work I had done, the feeling of giving back was overwhelming. It still is.