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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Death of a River

There are times when, despite being a loquacious River Rat, the right words for a certain event are only found amongst select other individuals and not from behind these whiskers. So it is with the recent tragedy on the Rock River in Illinois (previously reported here). So, I've enlisted the pen and mind of Lindsay Wood Davis, long time Rock River lover and dear friend of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, to capture the scope of the tragedy when, as has happened to a 100 mile stretch of the Rock, a river dies...or, is killed, which is more appropriate in this case (photos courtesy of Sauk Valley Newspapers):

"Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again Because a vision softly creeping Left its seeds while I was sleeping And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"

When Paul Simon wrote those famous words back in the winter of '64, the Rock River in Northern Illinois was a muddy old river, filled with organic and inorganic effluent, from heavy metals to farm field runoff to residential, industrial and commercial sewage piped straight in. There was certainly some wildlife and a few fish, but it was far from a healthy place for "man or beast." But it was the river we had, the only one we knew.

Like the storied summer of Bryan Adam's anthem, "Back in the Summer of '69," I started paddling the Rock River. That year, a group of friends paddled and floated down the Rock River from Oregon, Illinois to Grand Detour, about 12 miles. Putting in at sundown of a Friday evening and getting in Saturday at sunup, the way was lit the entire night by a moon darned close to full and bright white. That nighttime paddle on the Friday of the full moon of July came to be known simply as, "The River Trip", an all night odyssey of friends and fun. The cast of characters paddling expanded and contracted over the years, but the core group remained. The River Trip has been held every year since.

This year a dozen folks canoed down the Rock, marking the 40th anniversary of our nighttime adventure. Age has taught us the wisdom of leaving at 6 instead of 10; now we arrive in time to help close the local tavern instead of waiting for breakfast to be ready. But what has taken place in each year since that first hasn't changed. Each year the river became cleaner, clearer and a whole lot better for "man and beast." Every year we experienced new delights: One or two Great Blue herons became a rookery with dozens of nests; Little Green herons and Night herons joined their bigger brethren. We saw eagles! Bald Eagles on the Rock! You can't imagine our delight. Or the spine tingling moment when we first spied an otter-slide on "our river." Year after year, the Rock River healed, pulling away the curtain and showing again what the Sac and Fox had seen, the river that Blackhawk didn't want to abandon; a great meandering beauty of a muddy old river, abundant with the feel and the sign and the sound of a place teeming with wonder. Every year, every single year, the river got better. Until this year.

The Rock is not a little stream; it is a good sized river with sections easily a quarter of a mile across. Where we paddle is often referred to (going back at least to the French trappers and perhaps to the Native peoples) as "the land of a 1000 islands." It has been used as the site of the American Canoe Association National Championships, and big money fishing tournaments, such as the Bass Masters and Cabella's Catfish Challenge. While Bass and Walleye have made spectacular comebacks, the river has always been most noted for huge flat-head catfish. It is said that Rock River Catfish was served at the White House by President Grant and fished for by future President Reagan. And all these fish shared the river with the buffalo carp, sheepshead and other "rough fish" typical of slow-moving, Midwest rivers. Until this year.

Our put-in, just below the Oregon dam, has for some years been a sort of Izaak Walton version of the United Nations. The people who fish that hole represent every age, race, color, creed and nationality. Little old grandmas, big tattooed bikers, Mexican kids, hordes of Hmong, toothless, tobacco-stained old men, couples paying way more attention to each other's charms than to their bobbers. There are people who fish with cane poles and carbon-fiber Ugly Sticks, stinky cheese bait or Finnish lures, the latest monofilament or thread stolen from Mom's sewing basket. They're all there, standing on that riverbank or up to their ankles, knees, waist or armpits, trying to land that big walleye or catfish, maybe even a spoonbill. Or anything. Or nothing at all. Except this year.

Each of us who paddle, or fish or float or gaze, or write or snooze or wonder or cuddle along a river has a "home river, " that stretch of water that means something deeper to us that anyplace else. Its probably obvious to you that this stretch of the Rock River is very much my "home river." While it has the familiarity of hundreds of trips, it is the changes that I see each year that really make it special to me. Until this year.

A terrible thing happened this year to my home river, the Rock River. Something so terrible that tears run down my face as I write this. In late June a train carrying ethanol hydroplaned off the tracks near Cherry Valley, just east of Rockford. Among its load were a dozen and a half tanker cars filled with ethanol. Some of these cars derailed and caught fire; the fire was fought (valiantly, according to press reports) using fire-retardant foam. Eventually, all that ethanol and all that foam ran into a creek (swollen from the same storms that derailed the train,) ran into the Kishwaukee River and then into the Rock River. What happened next is very clear. Why it happened is not.

Beginning somewhere below the Oregon Dam and above Grand Detour, essentially everything in the river was killed. Though initial reports referred to it as a "fish kill," it was WAY more than that; the river was denuded of turtles, frogs, snakes, whatever was in it at the time. This kill (and what was already dead) moved downstream past Dixon, Lake Sinnissippi, Sterling/Rock Falls and down to Como, Prophetstown and Erie. The deaths may have continued almost to the Mississippi. It was a near total devastation of almost 100 miles of the Rock River. This Canadian National freight train was our own Exxon Valdez, wiping out not only wildlife but endangering a way of life. The Rock River went from proof of the efficacy of the Clean Water Act and the efforts of thousands of people over decades of work, to being a dead zone.

As my paddling partner and I headed down the Rock last Friday night, we reached a favorite stretch a few miles north of Grand Detour. It is a spot we both know particularly well. In the midnight silence she asked, "Hey, how come it is so quiet? There's nothing! No frogs peeping or croaking, no carp feeding, no muskrats splashing. Just nothing." And she was right. The sound of that silence was both deafening and painful.

It will be years until the Rock River can recover. A real estimate is probably impossible; how many 100 mile stretches of a river, ANY river, has ever been comprehensively killed off in a matter of hours? Whatever it was that wiped out the life of the river appears to be gone; little fish, probably those who had been up the creeks feeding into the Rock, are already being caught by anglers willing to throw their lines in, even before the cause of the kill has been determined. Over time those little fish will grow to be big fish. But it will be years and years.

As of yet, there's no real outrage from the State of Illinois, no real clarion call from the politicians, no real editorial anger, no real wailing from the local chambers of commerce; there is only this deep sadness among those who know and love the river.

Over 40 years of watching the Rock River come back, I've been one of those afforded a vision of what a great place it has become and can and will be in the future. The Rock led me to involvement in the politics of rivers and the joy of paddling dozens and scores and maybe hundreds of rivers more. I'll return next year to night-time on the Rock River...and say, "Hello Darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again." I hope the message I hear from my old friend will be happier than the sound of silence I heard this year. They killed an entire river, my river. Think about that: An entire river. It brings tears to my eyes.

"And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"

1 comment:

  1. This is beautifully written and very sad.
    People's lives were at stake and the rescuers worked the best they knew- however, rivers are life as well.
    Somehow this reminds me of the toxic aftermath of Sept 11, how the rescuers suffered severe illnesses as a result of exposure- even the rescue dogs got chemical burns from the wreckage. I just cannot believe that this Rock River event is not being studied. The best outcome from any horrific event is to learn what went wrong and work to change "the next time" while hoping there is no next time.