“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed… We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
― Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water
Today, American Rivers published their list of the most endangered rivers in the United States. On the list are two rivers close to home here in Ashland, Oregon: The Rogue River and Smith River. Both are threatened by the same looming projects: nickel strip mining proposed in their respective drainages.
There are numerous organizations that can speak to why and how a nickel strip mine would be bad for the environment – land, water, and air. I am not as well versed with these kind of facts, but I do know a thing or two about outdoor experiences, especially the kind of experiences one can only have in truly wild places, in beautiful river canyons, and places that have generally been left untrammeled by man.
These are places where, on a cold morning, a ridge line seems to hold its breath. A piercing morning light peeks over the neighboring ridge and shows a slight frost on the ground. This is my favorite time of day. Cold with crisp air, dark enough to still want headlights, but an obviously beautiful day rising. Anticipation. We pull over to catch our first view of the river. From high up on the ridge, it’s just a thin band of silver in the early morning light. The ridge exhales, the trees sway lightly, and then the quiet returns.
When I think of the Smith River I am here, on a dirt road high on the ridge. Overlooking the Smith to my right, the Pacific to my left, and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness stretching beyond ridges I will never know. We’re en route to Major Moore’s – the access point to float the North Fork of the Smith River. Cell phone service was gone an hour ago, but satisfaction from visiting a place like this does not come from technology. In fact, just the opposite. Visiting places like this allows oneself to truly discover where personal satisfaction and happiness take root.
Life in 2015 is hectic and chaotic, it is full of beeps and tweets, tags and websites, automated phone calls and spambots, and, perhaps the worst- empty virtual experiences that offer momentary interest but no lasting memory. It only comes from experiencing the wilderness first hand that you can cast away these distractions and discover true, unaltered experiences. Consider this – when was the last time you had a literal breath of fresh air? When was the last time you were able to think in silence? Real silence.
We are at the rivers edge. The North Fork of the Smith is turquoise and creates a sharp contrast against the reddish soil and rock of the surrounding canyon. It is amazingly clear, cold, and powerful. Boats move downstream. I can’t help but think that the human mind is flawed. We needed an excuse to visit this beautiful place so we said, “let’s go rafting, let’s go kayaking, let’s go hiking, let’s go camping.” When it’s over, the memory of the experience is being here, on the Smith, in the middle of nowhere. We shouldn’t need an excuse to visit.
But it doesn’t matter: the important thing is that we are here. On most days, when I am experiencing life of 2015 – when the phone is ringing and emails are lighting up the screen, I will have this place and experience in my mind. And it will help me through the day, knowing that I can return to the North Fork of the Smith. That it’s crystal clear water is still flowing. That there is a quiet place in my world. That I can find happiness beyond a noise we call civilization.
At least this is what I hope. The sting of losing the Smith as I know it would go beyond an environmental disaster. It would be losing a place I visit every day to escape unreality.
The next time I am at Major Moore’s, I am going to put my hands in the water and try my hardest to concentrate on the cold, frigid water. I am going to look at the river and burn the turquoise water into my mind. And I am going to do my best to remember the simple act of merely floating down a crystal-clear river. Someday it could be gone. And that is a hard pill to swallow.