Reflections from a Warm River
February 28, 2019
Tiny iridescent fish hovered in front of my daughter’s goggled-face. Her long hair waved in the current and her cheeks bulged as she held her breath. She popped to the surface into the blazing sunshine. “What are those Dad?”
We were swimming along the edge of the Grande Ronde river of northeastern Oregon, in day 2 of our weeklong wilderness rafting trip with my parents and sisters’ family. The river drains snowfields of high mountains down 1000-foot canyons of ponderosa pine and red rocks and rattlesnakes. We drifted downstream, mile after mile, lazily fishing. Cedar waxwings chased moth-like caddisflies over the dappled water. When the sun got too fierce, we would pull over, set up our chairs in the sweet shade of an ancient cottonwood, sip a cold beer or soda from the ice-chest, and quietly talk, read, or splash around in the shallows.
Time outside in beautiful places with people I love makes me deeply happy. It makes me calm, mentally healthier. And I also think it makes me a better scientist and better human being. As my Mom describes in one of her books —nature has a great capacity to heal and give hope. The trip was absolutely wonderful.
But I wasn’t sure what the little fish fry were that were surrounding my daughter...perhaps dace? Certainty not the coldwater-loving Chinook salmon or trout fry I was expecting to see and that we saw 15 years ago, when we previously floated the river. This year the water was warm-like a swimming pool. We stopped by one cold trickling tributary, and it was jammed with rainbow trout. Other than that, the tailouts were filled with big schools of suckers and meandering cow-like carp, the eddies had hovering smallmouth bass, and the shallow river edges had clouds of the mystery fry. All of these fish thrive in warm water.
The fish community and river temperatures just weren’t right. I had previously read the papers. Research by Julian Olden’s lab in a nearby river discovered that as climate change warms the waters, the farther upstream warmwater smallmouth bass can spread and the less habitat there will be for coldwater rainbow trout and Chinook salmon. The IPCC 2018 report was dire. I have even downloaded the data myself and created graphs of temperatures rising over the last century. But this was the first time when I felt like I was really witnessing climate change.
On the third day of our rafting trip, we woke up to throat-burning forest fire smoke. Helicopters circled up on the canyon rim, dropping water and fire retardant, their concussive-thumping filling the canyon like the pounding of a panicked heart.
When night came, I lay awake, watched the stars through the tent roof and a haze of smoke, and listened to my daughter gently breathe and the river murmur. Should I just enjoy swimming in the warm water and catching the non-native bass? Or should I mourn the rivers as they change from the growing heat of a 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide added each year to the atmosphere by humanity? Should I burden my daughter with my sense of loss or should I just let her rejoice in this beautiful world?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that even as the natural world is rapidly changing, I will embrace it. But it hurts.
So we drifted down the meandering river, not knowing what was around the corner. In the deep green pools, we would swim alongside the rafts, carried by the gentle currents. When the rapids came, we would come together back on the rafts, hold on tight, pick the best route we could through the boulders, into the unknown future.
Moore, K.D. 2010. Wild Comfort.