For the Love of Rivers

William Kent Krueger has informed us of his new novel, “The River We Remember”. that will hit the shelves come September. Another of his non-Cork O’Connor books. For you see I have a thing about river books dating all the way back to growing up on a Missouri farm some 50 miles west of Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi. Rivers are moving waters, and moving waters are the sources of dreams. 

I seemed to have grown up fascinated by watching the moving waters of what we called Billy Branch, an offshoot of the Salt River, of visualizing those waters eventually joining those from Montana in the Missouri River, then the Mississippi to eventually enter the Gulf of Mexico. Strong stuff for a kid growing up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, time when imagination fueled the soul rather than cell phones and instant, worldwide visuals via Google and 24-hour network news.

Then there was my mother, Mary Laurele White, the first college educated woman of our family who called herself a “river rat” having grown up on the Chariton River about another 20 or so miles due west. When I was a boy, going to the Chariton to set banklines for overnight catfishing with my uncles was a thorough joy. Where she grew up, and where a cousin still lives, the nearby Chariton was “ditched” back when she was a child, straightened and deepened to help with flood control, for the river valley is flatter than our prairie here at Listening Stone Farm. It continues to flood, though, because the reshaping of the river only goes so far before it melds back into the old river channel complete with its more natural twists and turns. This causes a backup of the coursing waters which means, of course, the valley still floods. Deeply into the basement of the heirloom house.

Catfishermen on a bend of the Minnesota River as the sun sets. Another outing with friends Tom Cherveny and Tom Kallahar, long time paddling and fishing buddies.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer entered my youth early on, and those moving waters of the Mississippi became quite a haven for my childhood cloud gazing. “Life on the Mississippi” by Twain took me as step deeper in high school, and years later Norman Maclean continued the odyssey with “A River Runs Through It.” I still have a well worn early edition. And the books, of every genre just keep on coming. “Course,” a beautiful book of poetry by a dear friend, Athena Kildegaard, “marries” the grief she experienced with her mother’s death with her mother’s love of her home along the Minnesota River. 

From prose to poetry, fiction to non-fiction, from fly fishing to canoeing, my home library contains a fine mixture of river-based books. Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time” takes me from Norway to Iowa’s author John Madson, whose “Up on the River”, is a long time favorite. Eric Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” is a few books away from Natalie Warren’s “Hudson Bay Bound”, the chronicling of her canoe trip with Ann Raiho as the first two women to do Sevareid’s “Cree” journey. Natalie’s book blends their paddling journey with the pratfalls and joys of friendship, and does so beautifully. 

A group of canoers on the Lac qui Parle.

Then there’s Thomas Water’s “Streams and Rivers of Minnesota” and Darby Nelson’s “For Love of a River … The Minnesota.” Both are nonfiction and beautifully written. The former a college course book, the later a remembrance. Darby came through doing research, and several of us Minnesota “River Rats” were called into Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo by his co-author and friend, John Hickman. We were to share our love and joys of paddling Darby’s home river, a story that he begins around Franklin, downriver a couple of hours of drive time and chronicles his and his wife, Geri’s, paddling the length of the river.

Now in the “autumn” of my life, those moving waters of streams and rivers still put me in the same circle as Maclean in that I, too, am “haunted by waters.” A few years back I was fly fishing with two wonderful friends, Joe Jost and Jack Griffin, on Maclean’s Big Blackfoot in Montana. Driving the two-lane highways, in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, his writing came to “haunt” me. A couple of years later I found “Home Waters” written by Norman’s son, John N. Maclean, that brought more clarity of the Maclean family and their home river, places I could now visualize from our meandering about looking for fishing entry points. Both books made catching three trout on flies I had purchased in a fly shop in Orvanda, just a bit east of the Clearwater Junction, really special. 

The Chippewa River from the Lentz Landing Bridge.

Yet, being here in our own home waters is heavenly. Oddly enough, when we moved to the prairie back in 1992 we debated on whether to bring our canoe. Living outside of Hastings on the near banks of the Little Vermilion River, we launched our canoe almost weekly. Paddling didn’t look promising moving to our little town where Hawk Creek, right in our backyard, was designated as a “Federal Ditch” back in the late 1960s. This was a long shot from the wild rivers on the eastern side of the state, where I had canoed almost all the major tributaries of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. And we were buying a house on a federal ditch? 

Little did I know that we were moving into Darby Nelson’s home country, although it would be years later before I would meet him. Not long after moving to the prairie Patrick Moore encouraged me to join the CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) board which introduced us to the Minnesota River. For the first few years we would paddle from Skalbakken County Park down to Vicksburg County Park, through the Patterson Rapids and past Big Eddy to our pullout. It was a beautiful river, cut through miles of gneiss outcrops and timbered the entire route. It was nearly unbelievable. Since I’ve paddled the Minnesota from the Churchill Dam to the near border of Nelson’s old hometown of Franklin.

Fly fishers on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, the home waters of the Maclean clan.

Then came the tributaries. Even Hawk Creek, which we found was almost continual white water from the US 212 Bridge to the confluence of the Minnesota. Once past the highway the little river was in basically enclosed within a timbered deciduous canyon, a stretch of wild water that thankfully survived efforts to dam it to create a lake. 

Lac qui Parle River came next with put in outside of Dawson. High walls of  prairie till caused a bit of neck bend with just enough small rapids to give a small thrill. This led us to the Chippewa, Pomme de Terre (Terror) and Yellow Medicine rivers, all different in both scenery and individual challenges. All with the coursing of moving waters. All rivers I remember. 

So thank you Twain, Madson, Sevareid, Maclean and the dozens of others, as well as my mother’s side of the family and eventually CURE and all the friends who shared those rivers with me. Rivers so full of stories and adventures, and more of each are added every year. In reality and from the writings of valued authors. Now we await Krueger’s next novel. I can hardly wait.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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