What Rivers Mean to Me: a personal essay by IRU Communications Director Greg Stahl

This is the first in a series of blog posts by the staff and board of Idaho Rivers United that will focus on the underlying currents that have swept them into the work of conserving Idaho’s rivers.

Greg Stahl paddling the Middle Fork of the Payette River in Idaho. Photo by Andrew Post.

My mom tells me she had me swimming when I was six months old, but I suspect there’s something more to it. I’ve always been drawn to water. 

As a child my parents took my brother and me to a huge reservoir near their home, and we’d wade through shin-deep muck or jump off cliffs into the deep green abyss. The depths were frightening. I imagined giant fish or the extended twigs from submerged trees swishing past treading feet. I was scared by what I couldn’t see, and water hid a world I didn’t understand. Perhaps it was this fear that attracted me, and I submerged myself in the murky mystery of Pennsylvania’s rivers and lakes as often as I could.

As I grew taller and the world expanded, my attention to water developed. I’d join friends and set canoes on the meandering sensibilities of Appalachia’s gentle streams. Suspended over deep, reflective riverbeds, diffused sunlight playing on leafy banks, we would watch the rhythmic beat of a great blue heron’s wings over the glassy shine. The meditation was broken only by sounds from the gentle strokes of our paddles and the hollow resonance of clunking aluminum underfoot. There were smells of loam and maple and honeysuckle carried by the wind.

There’s a place near my parents’ house where we used to carry giant inner tubes along an old railroad track to a deep, motionless window-clear spring. Where the spring emerged from riverbank leaves, we released ourselves to the current’s gentle whims. Time stood still.

As our world grew, a rocky perch far above the meanders offered perspective. Looking down from sandstone cliffs we recognized the river for its parts. We saw that the fish fed the hawks, that the raptors discarded parts for other creatures. We saw that the forest filtered rain and that the river delivered fertile soils to its banks. We saw that for the balance to remain we must protect the parts and pieces that make the river whole.

My own meandering path eventually led west where I continued to be drawn to water. Along the rugged spine of the Rocky Mountains, my attraction evolved. Western rivers are wild, remote and untamed, an arena in which I continued to test my fears. A friend taught me how to navigate rivers in a hard-shell kayak, and I rapidly excelled, working my way from wide, gentle streams to some of the West’s most challenging whitewater torrents.

I began to spend my springs and summers traveling the serpentine meanders of many of Idaho’s rivers and creeks. Those journeys led to all major basins and helped me know a different side of Idaho and a different side of myself. I’ve watched mesmerized as chinook salmon, driven by an awesome ancient instinct to spawn in the waters of their birth, launched over the ledges at Double Drop on the South Fork of the Salmon. I’ve floated through the towering embankments that constitute what remains of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Teton Dam after a hair-raising day on a diminutive east Idaho stream called Canyon Creek. I’ve marveled at the wild and free-flowing sensibilities of the Main and Middle Fork during week-long floats. And I’ve enjoyed the challenge of late-summer irrigation flows on the forks of the Payette and in Wolverine Canyon on the Blackfoot River.

On these specific journeys and many others I became, as avid boaters do, a student of rivers. I learned which were dammed or diverted, and why. I studied how irrigation affects flows and water quality. I studied the species that call Idaho’s rivers home, growing an appreciation for the complexity of how uniquely balanced and important river ecosystems are. Moreover, I simultaneously paused to consider that water is the biggest limiting factor to living and doing business in a region that continues to grow at rapid rates.

During my water-borne journey I also began to recognize, examine and test the rhetorical boundaries of the oft-used river-as-life metaphor. Healthy rivers are, indeed, like life: meandering journeys, ebbing and flowing, with eddies for rest and calm pools for reflection. There are long, solitary miles. There are challenging cascades. And there are additional currents and streams that feed a river with a new collective strength. These are ideas I’ve used for a number of wedding and birthday toasts, as well as one eulogy, over the years. While they may not be as well suited to the political arena that doesn’t make them any less true or important. Life in the arid West depends on water, and life is like the river systems that deliver water.

I’ve worked at Idaho Rivers United for more than seven years for a number of reasons, but one of them unequivocally is because I want to give back to the rivers and creeks that have taught me so much about Idaho and myself. There’s a lot of work still to do—and perhaps always will be—but Idaho’s rivers are healthier for having IRU around, and I'm proud to be part of the team.