My classmates stared at the looping images of swirling water on the projector screen. Water particles flowed straight and smooth until meeting an obstruction where they quickly erupted into fantastic disarray. Next slide: arrows pointing in the direction of flow around a river bend, but then turning sideways and upstream as they round the corner. Final slide: a cartoon depiction of a kayaker, immediately recognizable as William Nealy, turning in a hydraulic.
For the other students, these concepts challenged their understanding of fluid behavior. For me, these ideas not only made sense but also initiated a physical response that felt like my chair crossing the eddy line. Questions arose and I sat back and smiled. Fifteen years of river guiding suddenly seemed like a decent prerequisite for graduate school in River Engineering.
Dirtbag is a label we throw around for those who seek as many river days as possible. The word connotes a selfish lifestyle—pursuing the most pleasure through adventure with minimal care to society’s stereotypical core values, like buying homes and cars or having stable employment. However, the label diminishes the value of our time spent pursuing our passion, dreams, and adventure. The draw to water, to rivers, steered my travel during my dirtbag days, but I never thought of it as gaining expertise or an immensely valuable perspective until now.
As river guides, we spend most of our day teaching outdoor skills and facilitating a positive interaction with the river. Days begin by greeting guests who have arrived from anywhere and everywhere and orienting them to the basics: staying warm while wet, understanding hazards and safety measures, and participating in paddling the raft through a rapid. We silently evaluate each individual in our raft or class, and we change our language and methods to accommodate different learning styles. As we float, we read the water’s current and make split-second decisions. Every day with the river—even the same river over and over again—becomes a new experience.
I found a love for teaching in guiding. From facilitating a student’s first outdoor experience to connecting physics, history and biology to river systems—I explained concepts using the river. At the same time, the river taught me about the world. I saw communities who relied on the river’s flow to power their lights or wash their laundry. I rode in canoes on Amazonian corridors that provided sole access to remote field stations. I met Native Americans who traditionally subsisted off of the river’s salmon.
Fifteen years immersed in the dynamics of a natural resource actually turns out to be a lot of time understanding the physical, biological and social systems intertwined in every river system. It was a full immersion—in water, culture, hydrology, geography, psychology, adventure, and experience. And it gave me invaluable perspectives and a global network of river case studies and connections.
Then I dove into a graduate program in Water Resource Engineering or, more specifically, River Restoration Engineering. This type of immersion often felt more like the traditional definition of the word: to be under a liquid, to sink.
As graduate students in science and engineering, we spend many long days trying to make sense of equations. We start early, perhaps reading a journal article on the behavior of a single sediment particle traveling on the river bed. Classes start and we look at international water policy, like India’s groundwater recharge problems or the Columbia River Treaty agreement renegotiations. Then we run an experiment in lab that demonstrates conservation of mass over a waterfall or spillway. We speak in Greek symbols that represent gravity, density and shear stress. We pick apart the river and try to put it back together.
Yet, at any time I could close my eyes and transport myself to experiencing the river. I remembered the sound of boulders crashing beneath me during a flood on the Upper Yangtze, or riding the boils after nearly every rapid on the Grand Canyon in my Green Boat. These experiences made the equations real. The people I met in these places made the work feel more important.
The two years in the classroom humbled me. While understanding eddies came natural to me after crossing over so many, analyzing such a small scale in sediment transport was a struggle. I worked hard, trading many possible days of blissful paddling for ones full of collecting velocity data in a hydraulic flume (a river in a box) or learning and designing software code to analyze my bedload data.
When I slip my boat into the river, I don’t have every move planned. I trust that I can handle the challenges. Grad school is like this. I launched. I got eddied out and surfed. I traveled to three continents for water. I found inspiration and challenges. I went deep.
For me, the result outweighed the struggle. I’ve learned methods to rebuild and restore rivers, to connect with stakeholders, to continue asking questions and finding answers to big problems. The dual-immersion of both experiencing rivers and studying them, allows me to approach complex river issues from multiple angles. I can feel the water’s power, as well as model it. After seeing the problems our world faces with maintaining healthy waterways, I believe that we will all need to see problems through multiple lenses.
A few weeks ago, I floated down the Queets River on the Olympic Peninsula. The broad river churned with a muddy silt, creating a gray hue to the white caps. My packraft floated past large trees with root wads pointed upstream and islands growing in their wake. I thought of the invasive grass species I’m researching and the growth of bars behind patches in mid-stream. I saw an eroded bank and the source of high velocity causing the bank to sluff into the river. I heard fisherman talk about the upcoming winter steelhead season, but knew that today the river was too murky for them. My thoughts are now deeply present in the river, both in calculating my line but also in the formation and function of this system. This is immersion.
The interdisciplinary Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University and my previous 15 years of guiding, instructing, teaching and playing on rivers have me asking more questions still. I’m now thinking about how we make the case for rivers in our nation’s legislation. How we can use science and recreation to fuel the conservation of these places. How we can keep more wild rivers on the map. There is more to understand. I’m in deep, but I’m going deeper.