Creating a Wild River Life


Water just started spewing from the hot water heating tank on the side of our 20-foot “road home,” a 94’ Coachman Catalina Sport RV. The tank likely froze and burst this winter while snowed-in in White Salmon, Washington. No hot water. No water pressure. And we’re scheduled to leave for a two-year road trip in less than a week.

The road-life wanderlust hit us a few years before the vanlife phenomenon blew up on social media. After all, we boaters have traveled and lived in vehicles since the beginning of time. Adam and my road trips have diminished over the past few years. Jobs. Graduate school. The usual suspects. Thus, the allure of knowing and exploring our own nation kept building, despite traveling to rivers in Asia and South America. Something about packing up for months, sitting behind the wheel, and pulling over at a new put-in was enticing. It’s as if we have a separate kind of wanderlust for North American exploration entirely.

It’s hard to know when the specific idea to travel around the country to visit Wild & Scenic Rivers began. It started with a simple desire to see new rivers, because, well, who doesn’t? It quickly evolved into something much larger. As we put more time and energy into the initial idea, more and more components surfaced. We wanted to see a variety of rivers, not just the whitewater classics. But we didn’t want to go on a huge paddling road trip and not make all that time, energy and money count for something other than our sweet boofs. We wanted more than just a dreamy vanlife or epic whitewater tour. We wanted our explorations to fuel the conservation of these incredible places and the protection of more rivers into the future.

These ideas joined to become the Wild River Life: two paddlers set on exploring 50 Wild & Scenic Rivers to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 2018.

But where to start? How would we choose which rivers? These thoughts emerged around the time that I started learning more about the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Wild & Scenic Rivers owe their blanket of protection to the dam-hungry developers of the 1960’s. Dam fever ran rampant back then. Plans were in the works to transform the Middle Fork Salmon into a stairway of reservoirs, to flood our beloved Grand Canyon, to dam everything. Developers saw hydropower as the hot-new energy source. It seemed bountiful, endless, practical. These men had likely never seen these rivers or the ecosystems and communities they sustained.

Luckily, people questioned the rampant development. People who floated the rivers, who fished the rivers, and who called those watersheds their homes. Like the Craighead brothers—two wildlife biologists who began studying grizzly bears, are credited with saving the population in the lower 48, and went on to enable Lyndon Johnson to sign the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act in 1968.

Suddenly, the government acknowledged the value of just leaving a river alone. They took the idea that rivers provide benefits beyond hydropower and put that idea into law. The act attempted to establish the foundation to protect more rivers and create a “balance” to the developed river systems.

That “balance” is still way off. Today, less than 0.5% of our waterways are protected as Wild & Scenic. Compare that to 17% that are impacted by hydropower, which is only one form of development.

More rivers need to be protected, plain and simple. With the 50th anniversary of the act approaching, now is the time to push more rivers into designation. Now is the time to celebrate the rivers that we’ve placed on this pedestal. Now is the time to enable communities to connect with their rivers. Now is the time for a road trip.

We don’t actually need a hot water heater, as it turns out. Perhaps we can fix it, but if not, we’ll boil dish water and take quick cold showers when necessary. Challenges and solutions like this arise frequently when renovating a 23-year old RV. Leaky bed-over-cab? Rip it off and build a new one. Dented rear-end from jack-knifed trailer? Fill in with fiberglass. Ugly mirror-faced cabinets? Cover them with photos. Done. Now, we just want to get on the road and start living the Wild River Life.

We decided to target 50 of the 200+ designated Wild & Scenic rivers to explore on our Wild River Life tour.

We plan to stick to the west coast throughout 2017 and head east in 2018. Our list of targeted rivers would make any kind of river enthusiast melt with jealousy. Jarbidge, Bruneau, Owyhee, Chetco, Rogue, Trinity, American, Tuolumne, Merced, Kings, Dolores, Poudre, Chama, Taos Box…and that’s just the first two months.

Since we want to experience these rivers in many ways—paddling a raft with friends, casting a rod from shore, navigating a stand-up paddle board, or boofing in kayaks—our road trip is equipped like no other. Every piece of river gear we own resides in a 10 x 5 flatbed trailer, transformed into a four-foot tall enclosed box by my extraordinary husband, Adam. Kayaks and bikes for shuttles are strapped on top. Inside is all the gear to make rafting for a day, multi-day trips, and stand-up paddling possible. We’re also excited to get in packrafts, float in canoes, and join outfitters on commercial trips.

This variety in watercraft also helps us to better understand the types of designations that the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act provides.

The law classifies each Wild & Scenic river segment as one of three specific designations. We generally think of this as a spectrum from backcountry to backyard. While it may take days to access some rivers or only a short walk from your car, the act protects the rivers equally.

Three types of Wild & Scenic designation:

Wild – The rugged and primitive rivers. This alluring designation attracts the backcountry boaters. Those who are willing to slog equipment to river sections inaccessible by vehicles. The primitive nature of Wild rivers typically extends into the watershed. Nature’s filtration system works through the combination of undeveloped shorelines and a healthy watershed ecosystem. Thus, rarely will we find pollution on Wild river segments.
Scenic – The lazy man’s Wild river. Scenic rivers cover pretty much everything in between Wild and Recreational. While these rivers still feel primitive and have almost no shoreline development, they are easier to access. Roads lead to the river in some locations or can be seen from the river corridor.
Recreational – The backyard favorite river. Many rivers in the Wild & Scenic system flow right through a town or community. Houses and other development may line the shores and easy access to the river can be found in numerous places (the act does not take property away from landowners). These river stretches are designated as Recreational. While dams or diversions may have existed here in the past, no new ones can be built.

Our Wild River Life tour seeks to experience each of these three forms of designation to better understand the diversity of rivers in our country. We also seek to learn what makes these rivers valuable in the long-term.

When a bill adds a Wild & Scenic River into designation, it provides a list of Outstanding Remarkable Values (ORVs) that make that river segment worthy of protection. These can be cultural, recreational, scenic, fish and wildlife, geologic, ecologic, historic or others. The ORV’s justify the river’s long-term protection. We’ll explore what each of the values actually mean on the ground (or in the water). The words look nice on paper, but how do they impact the experience of that river? We want to find out. This may help us then connect those values to other rivers that need protection.

We aren’t the only ones thinking about expanding the Wild & Scenic system. Organizations like American Rivers and American Whitewater have been working hard to identify eligible rivers and to build coalitions, congressional relationships and bi-partisan support. Our grassroots tour of river communities across the country will help amplify this message and engage the public. Wild River Life is not only a manifestation of a dream river-destination road tour, but also our firm belief in the value of natural and wild rivers.

The final piece of the Wild River Life puzzle is you. Yes, you. We want to meet the people that call these rivers their home runs. The people who know and love them and the people who are working to protect them. You can help amplify awareness, too. Follow us @wildriverlife on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And stay tuned for more updates here on Duct Tape Diaries throughout our tour.