Veins of the Earth
“A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation; rivers are veins of the earth through which the lifeblood returns to the heart.” Roderick Haig-Brown
November 12th, 2021
In his new book about major North American rivers, UBC professor Eric Taylor shows why rivers are key to human civilization and he provides an extensive overview of each of the ten riverways, including B.C.’s mighty Fraser.
By John Gellard
Rivers do indeed run through us.
“One simply cannot understand the history of human civilization, or its future without an appreciation of the role that rivers have played,” says Eric Taylor in Rivers Run Through Us: A Natural and Human History of Great Rivers of North America (Rocky Mountain Books $38).
His aim is “not to provide an encyclopedic summary of rivers of North America, but to provide a taste of the diversity of rivers and their geography.”
Actually, he does both supremely well.
There are ten great rivers in North America. Taylor places them within the six “continental divides” defined by mountain ranges. Namely, these are:
- The Great Divide is the crest of the Rocky Mountains. Into the Pacific Ocean flow the Yukon, Fraser, Columbia, Colorado and Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers.
- The Arctic Divide sends the Mackenzie River into the Arctic Ocean.
- The Laurentian Divide sends the Mississippi basin to the south, and the St. Lawrence to the north-east.
- The St. Lawrence Divide (the fourth) and the Eastern Divide (the fifth) along the Appalachians contain the St. Lawrence and send the Hudson south to the Atlantic Ocean.
- The Sixth Divide circles the Great Basin west of the Rockies. Its rivers are ‘endorheic’: they run inwards to the Great Salt Lake.
Rivers never cross the Divides…except sometimes. The Peace River does it, as I will describe shortly.
Here’s some advice to the reader. Bring the title to a personal level and relive some vivid river experience. In my case, it was lying alone with a broken leg for six days, having fallen into Cottonwood Creek, drinking the sweet water that tumbled down from alpine Brimful Lake on its way to the Stein River which joins the Fraser at Lytton, just before the canyon. Yes, the creek ran through me.
The Stein valley is small, only 1070 sq km, but it’s very special. It was about to be crisscrossed with roads and logged in the 1980s. Protest prevailed and now the pristine forest is a jewel in B.C.’s crown – the Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park, known for camping and salmon fishing. Bring your own experiences to the book.
Let’s look at the ten rivers in turn. Taylor delves into all aspects of a river’s life: geology, glaciation, ecology, flow variations, First Nation occupancy, colonial settlement and exploration, and possible future development.
East of the Great Divide (which separates the watersheds of the Pacific Ocean from those of the Atlantic Ocean), the 4,000 km Mackenzie River runs from Lake Athabasca to its delta near Inuvik. The main tributaries are the Athabasca coming north through the Oil Sands, the Peace, and the Liard.
Two issues stand out here. One was the proposed pipeline to bring gas south from Alaska. This was abandoned in 1977 after the Berger Commission found it “too disruptive to the environments.”
The second issue is dams. The Peace River is a geological anomaly. How did it find its way from the Pacific side of the Great Divide through the Rockies to its productive delta in Lake Athabasca? This is one of those situations where a river crosses a Divide.
The WAC Bennett Dam holds back the 1,760 sq km Williston Lake and generates power. It’s followed by the Peace Canyon dam. Then the Peace opens east into rich farmland. A hundred kilometers downstream, the Site C Dam, now under construction, will flood 6,000 valuable hectares and the power it will generate must be sold at a huge loss.
So why keep building it? Taylor mentions the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) as a possible factor. He also quotes General G.L. McNaughton, who calls NAWAPA “a monstrous concept, a diabolical thesis.”
“Roll on Columbia, roll on.” –Woody Guthrie
Let’s look at how the Columbia River affects B.C. The 168-metre Grand Coulee dam was completed in 1943. It generated electricity for the war effort and irrigated semi-desert areas. The trouble for B.C. was that it blocked sockeye salmon migration.
The landlocked kokanee salmon has taken up the slack in Kootenay and Arrow Lakes. However, the damming of the Arrow Lakes has spoiled the spawning and flooded out valuable orchard land. This made a storage reservoir for flood control and power. B.C. does get ‘downstream benefits’ but the outcome is that the B.C. section of the Columbia is almost entirely dammed.
The Fraser River: Sculptor of biodiversity
The Fraser is a consummate salmon river. Its 1,375 km flow entirely within B.C. and there are no dams on it. Several tributaries including the Harrison, the Chilcotin, the Thompson and the tiny heroic Stein are spawning grounds for a huge variety of salmon species returning annually from the Pacific.
Once, the river flowed north. Now it starts northwest out of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Then it turns south across the Interior Plateau, then through the Fraser Canyon where it is called “the savagest of all the major rivers of North America” (Hugh MacLennan).
It abruptly turns west through a fertile alluvial plain and enters the Pacific in a huge estuary beside Vancouver. In July, 1808 Simon Fraser reached the Pacific and “British Columbia” was born.
Problems have developed with the Fraser’s salmon fishery. Returns have dropped recently from several million to less than a million and then briefly back up again. Causes? Climate change, overfishing, mining spills, fish farm disease and human development generally. Fraser River salmon remain in a “perilous state.”
“I wanted the gold and I sought it …Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it and somehow the gold isn’t all.” –Robert Service
The Yukon River runs 3,185 km from Atlin Lake, B.C. to Nome, Alaska. In the gold rush on the Klondike, Dawson City’s population rose to 30,000 in 1898. By 1899 the rush was over as hydraulic mining and dredger mining replaced placer mining.
Taylor will startle you with his accounts of environmental damage. “Dredges eviscerated creeks and destroyed the original topography,” he says, which left trails of tailings. This damage and mercury poisoning endure.
It’s worth noting that US$11 trillion (2021 prices) in gold was extracted. An interesting geological sidebar is how the gold got there in the first place.
Now Dawson City has settled down to being a tourist stop: population 2,300. Recent efforts to restore the river’s ecology are ongoing.
Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers
“When we are diverting our water to save a couple of pinky-sized fish and leaving hundreds of acres to lie fallow, there’s something wrong with our priorities,” said Travis Allen, California Assemblyman. In California’s Central Valley, the Sacramento River (640 km long) runs south and the San Joaquin (589 km long) flows north. Fed by runoff from the Sierra Nevada range, the two rivers meet in San Francisco Bay in the Suisun delta, California’s largest marsh.
The “agricultural behemoth” is short of water. One of the “water wars” is between walnuts and the delta smelt. Walnuts require irrigation and if the smelt get water that’s too saline, they will go extinct. Battle lines are discussed as Taylor examines ecology and human settlement in the Valley.
The Colorado River: Sacrificed
The Colorado River used to flow 2,333 km from Wyoming to the Sea of Cortez. Its delta is dry now because “this great river has been… sacrificed to the development of a hydraulic society,” writes Taylor, who then explores its features: the Grand Canyon is just upstream from the 221-meter Hoover dam that supplies water to major cities.
The Rio Grande – Rio Bravo
Be prepared to probe “an open wound where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.”
The Rio Grande flows southeast from Wyoming. Most of it forms the U.S.–Mexico border from El Paso to Brownsville on the Gulf. Taylor explores the geology of the Rio Grande Rift. Here, the Pueblo Indian settlement yielded to colonization by Spain and Mexico. English speaking “Texians” moved in and fought for independence. The Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845 after the Mexican war ended. U.S. Manifest Destiny took hold.
Today we have the “Wall” and migrants still drown crossing into the U.S. “The long history of conflict, violence and death continues…an example of a river motivating larger questions of morality in society,” writes Taylor.
The Mississippi River – The Body of the [U.S.] Nation
The 6027 km Mississippi River and its tributaries drain 41% of the contiguous states – from the Rockies to the Appalachians – into the Gulf of Mexico, providing water and transportation to 72 million people.
Earliest settlement was the Mississippian culture of 6,000 years ago. Spanish exploration was followed by French possession in 1682 when La Salle claimed the territory for France and named it ‘Louisiane’ after King Louis XIV.
In 1803, the U.S. made the Louisiana Purchase and took control of the valley, ushering in the era of steamboat travel. Taylor explores how the Mississippi Valley influenced the outcome of the Civil War. “The Mississippi is the backbone of the rebellion,” he quotes Abraham Lincoln. After the epic siege of the impregnable Vicksburg in 1862, the Union prevailed.
The Hudson River: Source of Inspiration
Only 507 km long, the Hudson is “the most interesting river in America,” says Taylor. Half its length is the estuary. It flows due south to New York’s harbor and is home to 11 million people.
The first settlement 10,000 years ago was by “Paleo-indian” farmers and fishers. After contact came the Dutch, who employed Henry Hudson. Taylor guides us through the complex British – Dutch struggles which culminated in 1664 when Nieuw Amsterdam became New York.
The mid-1800s were a “halcyon time” during which the Hudson River School of Landscape Art emerged. Taylor relates the fascinating story of Thomas Cole.
The St Lawrence River: Gateway to a Continent
The real source is western Lake Superior, 3,060 km from Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. This chapter explores the fascinating geology of the river’s origins – an interplay of glaciations and marine incursions.
The valley has been settled for 20,000 years, first by Paleoindians and then as New France until the British took control in 1759. Canal building has gone on since Cartier optimistically named the “La Chine” (China) rapids in 1535.
In 1954, the “Golden Dream” took shape as “the greatest construction show on earth” began – a system of canals that would lift great ships180 metres to the Great Lakes, “moving the ocean a thousand miles inland” (Globe, 1959).
Is it a “tarnished dream?” questions Taylor. Use of the Seaway has declined lately and he reviews how there has been catastrophic damage to aquatic ecosystems.
The Future of North America’s Great Rivers
Taylor says that we have treated rivers as hydraulic machines and have neglected them as ecosystems. To avoid disaster, we must change. “The health of rivers is a metaphor for the health of Canadians,” says Taylor. He urges readers to recognize the “Rights of Nature” and share water with the natural world.
Taylor’s book is a masterpiece of scholarship with exhaustive appendices, an index and notes. Your humble reviewer has merely skimmed the surface. Find your personal river and prepare for a wild ride.
Eric B. Taylor is a professor of zoology and director of the fish collection at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC. He studies the patterns and processes promoting the origins and persistence of biodiversity and the application of such knowledge to conservation, especially in fishes. He graduated with a Ph.D. in zoology from UBC in 1989, spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University, then 18 months as a visiting research fellow at the Pacific Biological Station before returning to UBC in 1993. Between 2000 and 2018 he was involved with COSEWIC (the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) and was its chair between 2014 and 2018. In 2016 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He lives in Vancouver.
John Gellard takes an active interest in environmental issues and travels extensively in B.C. He retired from teaching English and Writing at Kitsilano Secondary School after being named Canada’s “Best High School Teacher” in a Maclean’s poll in August 2005. His articles have appeared in BC BookWorld, the Globe and Mail and the Watershed Sentinel, as well as online at BCBookLook and The Ormsby Review.