By SuzAnne M. Miller/for MISSOULA CURRENT
While long in possession of an intellectual understanding of rivers, it has only been since my move to Dunrovin along the Bitterroot River that I have acquired a personal, emotional connection to a specific river with its many moods and fickle nature. Like an adult becoming a parent for the first time, my relationship with rivers has forever changed. They have taken hold of me.
Rivers aren’t subtle. They lack guile. They greet the seasons with boldness and commitment. Spring is, of course, the showy season, arriving with vibrant colors and promises of sweet things to come. Rivers embrace this exuberance by overflowing their banks, spreading themselves across the land, scattering logs and debris along their paths, and carving new courses through the landscape. Spring rivers demand attention. Broiling currents carrying winter’s melting snow, water rising up through rich riparian soils, and pastures transforming into small lakes cannot be willfully ignored.
Here at Dunrovin, we have come to love this annual spring display of the Bitterroot River’s might. In an oxymoronic display of destruction and regeneration, the Bitterroot uses what it tears down upstream to build anew downstream. Trees fall, ponds form, channels wander, and life rushes in.
Nothing hesitates or questions the existence of suddenly appearing, yet ultimately ephemeral bodies of water. They are there and they are to be used and enjoyed. Turtles, wood ducks, muskrats, and snakes all take up residence. Great blue herons wade the shores. In years gone by, our own children rallied their friends to gather in cottonwood forests turned Bitterroot bayou for mythical canoe battles and water fights. A child’s utopian playground that was at once mysterious, ominous, and yet totally safe.
Unseen, yet, most importantly is the vegetation’s reaction to this aquatic abundance. Flooding is essential to riparian zones. Willows, grasses, and cottonwood trees all lap it up, responding with vigor and regeneration. Snow white clouds of cottonwoods seeds fall softly on the muddy soils required for germination. Healthy, multi-aged riparian cottonwood forests proclaim healthy, free flowing rivers.
The cottonwoods evolutionary partnership with rivers is a symbiotic dance. Shallow roots are all that is needed to find water and nutrients; yet shallow roots will not hold heavy trees during high winds. Cottonwoods routinely collapse, only to be lifted by rising river waters and transported downstream to jam up against a bank or gravel bar, obstructing the river’s flow, deepening its channel, changing its course, catching sediment, tearing the nutrients from the woody trees trunks, and constructing new habitat for fish and beaver. In a endless game of leap frog, the river and the trees work together to destroy and renew. It’s a beautiful ballet.
This close association with water makes cottonwoods America’s fastest growing native trees. But their rapid growth comes at the expense of the density of the resulting wood. It is soft. It yields easily to the beaks of wood peckers and to gravity’s pull on large, heavy branches. Cavities form; trees are disfigured. Insects move in. Birds soon follow. The birds thrive; the forest thrives; the fish and the river thrive. They thrive together in a classic ecological symphony.
Once privy to this music, it is impossible not to notice the details. To watch the ospreys striping the long strands of soft decayed cottonwood bark to line their nest. To hear the pileated woodpecker’s loud drumming in the forest tree tops. To wonder at a kestrel’s ability to know that ingesting cottonwood bark will relieve its pain. To smell the pungent organic brew of drenched loam and rotting duff as the Bitterroot drains its bayou in retreat, becoming a peaceful summer river.
Long, hot and lazy summer days soon erase memories of bulging river banks. Waters again behave themselves by neatly confining their flows to established channels. Fisherman eagerly walk the shores and wade the ripples to spend morning and evening hours casting in the deeper pools. Laughter echoes through the valley as floaters seek cooler afternoon temperatures bobbing along in inner tubes. A sense of complacency sets in. The river is once again seen as a friendly, predictable place. Until – until the next spring arrives.
Life along the Bitterroot is intoxicating. Rivers are living, breathing entities that are as simple as they are complex. They are earth’s arteries and veins. They represent life at its fullest; nature at its best. They nourish and sustain. All they ask of us is to listen, adapt, and learn to sing their eternal song.