A changing scenery

As rivers and the world change, it’s important to take stock of what we have
Johnathan Hettinger — Enterprise Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
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Enterprise photos by Johnathan Hettinger

The Madison and Jefferson rivers flow together to form the Missouri River near Three Forks on January 19.

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The Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois, on July 1, 2017.

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Image by Montana State Parks

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

— Ecclesiastes 1:7


On a recent trip west on Interstate 90, I did something I’ve been meaning to do since I moved to Montana. I stopped for a moment of admiration at Missouri River Headwaters State Park, where the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers come together to form the Missouri River, debatably the longest river in the United States and a subject worthy of veneration.

The trip completed a full circle for me. About a year and a half ago, I was at Confluence Point State Park in West Alton, Missouri, watching the Big Muddy flow into the Mighty Mississippi. On the banks of the Mississippi, you can see where Lewis and Clark’s men camped the winter before setting off on their journey up the Missouri in 1804. There’s a replica of the keelboat the men used. A few miles up from the museum is the confluence with the Missouri. Even farther is the Mississippi’s confluence with the Illinois. Bald eagles flew overhead, and motorcycles passed up and down the road along the river.

A daylong trip to see where two rivers join isn’t the most exciting idea, but I had been wanting to do it for years. I convinced my parents and sister to drive the three or so hours from our home in Monticello, Illinois to see where the rivers joined. We had a nice picnic on the banks, dipping our feet into the Mississippi on a warm and humid July day.

Much to the dismay of my two sisters, I have always tried to steer family vacations toward places with some sort of natural or political significance. My youngest sister has sat in the car in a few cemeteries while I went to check out where presidents were buried.

A trip to New Orleans wasn’t complete without a jaunt over to Isle de Saint Jean Charles, an island that is disappearing due to climate change, inaccessible many days because of sea levels, home to the first climate refugees in the United States.

At least I get it honestly. In 2017, after Donald Trump became president, my family took a vacation to the Texas border from Big Bend National Park to the Gulf of Mexico because my dad wanted to see where they were going to build the wall, before it was built. After eating dinner in Laredo, we walked through a shopping mall at the border. Signs along the fenced area near the Rio Grande thanked President Trump for more money.

I guess I do this to take stock of what’s there and why it matters. The world is always changing, and I want to document how it is in the specific time I’m here, for me, if not for anyone else. We may as well appreciate the beauty while it’s right there in front of us.

I think that’s why I also like rivers, my favorite type of water. Rivers are never the same. Every time I walk along the Yellowstone in Sacajawea Park, every time I canoe down the Sangamon River at home in Illinois, it’s a different river. The flows change, new rocks and branches emerge. There’s something comforting in the stability of irregularity. The change reassures you that everything is how it’s supposed to be.

If you trust the sign at Missouri River Headwaters State Park, you can get in a tube or other flotation device and, two and a half months later, you’ll end up in the Gulf of Mexico. I have no reason to doubt this claim, though I do doubt your ability to navigate the Big Muddy from Three Forks to St. Louis to New Orleans, especially so quickly. The river has waterfalls and dams, and I think it’s unlikely to be tamed by you or anyone else on an inner tube. Native Americans used canoes and bull boats. Lewis and Clark used keelboats. Steamboats operated all the way up til eastern Montana.

It was just over 200 years ago that Lewis and Clark made their journey. In the grand scheme of things, two centuries is not very long, yet the landscape the Missouri flows through is extremely different. Hell, they shot 43 grizzly bears on their expedition. These days, I don’t think you’d see a single grizzly from your inner tube on your two and a half month trip.

Almost one third of the river’s water flows through reengineered and straightened channels. Dams have been built to reduce flooding, generate hydroelectric power and irrigate crops. The floodplains that used to support diverse plant and animal species are now used to grow corn and soybeans. The river has become inundated with nitrogen runoff from agricultural fields.

And the river is going to change even more in the coming years. Climate change has already changed the flows in the Missouri, decreasing water where there is little and increasing flows where there is plenty.

I want to see the river for what it is now, and hopefully, I’ll be able to capture it again in the future. Maybe I’ll even notice a difference. The river is likely going to do what it wants to do.

Humans have long attempted to expropriate wildness from rivers, but the rivers keep maintaining it. Despite the attempts to stop flooding, in 2011 the Missouri flooded areas throughout South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, closing bridges, leading officials to blow up levees and flooding nuclear generating stations.

In my first week in Livingston, during the spring floods, I saw a number of people trying to tell the Shields River where to go, via sandbags and water pumps and excavators and rock vanes and tractors and hay bales. Homes and fields flooded anyway.

Rivers change, from their headwaters to their mouths, and in channels along the way.

The world is changing, too. It’s important to stop and take stock of it, before we don’t know it anymore.


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