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In praise of wild rivers and first descents

Why are wild rivers so important, and why are we drawn to the idea of a first descent? Why it is necessary that we keep exploring them?  It’s about more than thrills and adrenaline.
Negotiating the Una River in Bosnia, where the wild waters are.
Negotiating the Una River in Bosnia, where the wild waters are. Laura Hubber

“Wonder is the first of all the passions.” — Descartes, 1645

It was in the winter of 1971 when I came across a tattered copy of Argosy Magazine, a quasi-men’s magazine that featured a report on a 1968 expedition down the Blue Nile by a British Army team. The article told of super-financing and over-the-top publicity, of an expedition that compared in pomp and stature to the British naval campaigns of 200 years ago. With 70 men, a budget in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, and no whitewater experience per se, the army, marched forth to accomplish what it self-named, “The Last Great First.”

Though I was drawn by the concept of “The First” it was the photographs in the piece that sold me. Looking at those pictures was like peeking through a window into the bedroom of a sleeping demon, peering into the soul of an unrun river, glimpsing a divine afflatus. The Blue Nile coiled through a mile-deep gorge, and by a member’s own description it was a seething cauldron of giant boils, whirlpools and hydraulic jumps.

Despite meticulous planning (they practiced capsizing on land with color-coordinated paddles and helmets), things went awry. There were capsizes, missed airdrops, lost boats, injuries, and fatalities. The expedition still called itself a success, though there was a section they had not rafted as it was deemed too difficult and dangerous ... and that missing piece on their map inspired me. I showed the article to my friend and fellow weekend rafter, John Yost, who had just returned from a visit to Ethiopia, and he was charged with the possibilities. He said Ethiopia was the Tibet of Africa, a high plateau boiling with big, fast rivers, ripe for exploring, and that he was up for an expedition, if I could ever organize such a thing. This was a challenge I was ready to take. And it started my career of First Descents.

Why are wild rivers so important, and why are we drawn to the idea of a first descent? At bottom, rivers challenge our complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds that are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets there are environments that do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Wild rivers correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, rivers refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability, and the importance of our schemes. They induce a modesty in us.

Rivers also reshape our understandings of ourselves, of our own interior coursings. The remoteness of the unrun river can provide us with a valuable perspective down to the most familiar and best charted regions of our lives. They can reorient us and readjust the points from which we take our bearings. In their reach and gradient rivers stretch out the individual mind and compress it at the same time: they make it aware of its own immeasurable volume, and at the same time, of its own limiting banks.

One of the risks of exploration—or a river, wilderness or continent—has always been that there will be an eventual alternation of those pristine qualities that first attracted the pioneers. Probably the best example is the New World itself; only a few acres of the original plant communities of the Great Plains remain intact today; the Amazon basin is being deforested at a dizzying rate; the glaciers of the Swiss Alps are melting even faster; and an appalling number of native animal and plant species has been eliminated or poise on the brink of extinction. We hope that our impact on the regions, as river explorers, has been, if anything, positive. If our efforts have led to the slightest increase in understanding the roles wild rivers play in human history and natural process, then every flipped boat, wearisome portage, and icy swim were well worthwhile.

What made Livingstone search the entire length of the Zambezi, looking for a gateway to “civilize” Africa? What drove James Bruce to the farthest headwaters of the Blue Nile? What brought the pilgrims of Asia up the Indus for thousands of years to the trickles of its icy springs? Looking for the sublime may not be the right turn of phrase, but not because it is too overreaching: it is only insufficient.

For some a first descent is about the thrills, the fired adrenaline in the midst of a roil. For others it is a testing of personal mettle. But for nearly all there is something more, something ineffable yet deeply satisfying, as we join with ancient currents and flow, for a brief time, between the timeless banks. Whether these rivers are small, crystalline streams percolating through granite boulder gardens, or huge juggernauts of hydraulic insistence creating the very landscape they inhabit, every waterway that we have explored has brought us more than we expected. Rivers, as we quickly found out, are greater than their grandest canyons and biggest drops. They are habitats, as well, for plant and animal species that depend upon the steady flow of water for their survival; and among these species is man.

On the river we recognize the identity we share with the people who came before us, whether the Anasazi in the Grand Canyon, who left behind a few stone structures and fewer rock paintings, or the likes of David Livingstone and John Wesley Powell, who challenged the waters of the unknown. On the river we see in the faces of today’s inhabitants our own faces. On the river we see ourselves as motes in God’s bloodstream, venturing along the planet’s arteries, observing and, perhaps inevitably, changing as we go. For while many of the rivers I have run for the most part still flow strongly, undammed and undaunted by humankind’s treacherous acquaintance, they are not eternal. In varrying degrees, all are under siege, be it by diversion projects for irrigation, dams for hydroelectric power, or unthinking pollution. Yet, don’t look elsewhere for villains or turn aside in despair. We are all rivergods; and whether we act as creator or destroyer—or like Shiva, the cosmic dancer of the Indus, who is inextricably both—is up to us.

Ultimately, wild rivers quicken our sense of wonder. The true blessing of wild rivers is not that they provide a challenge or contest, something to be overcome and dominated. It is that they offer something infinitely more powerful: they make us ready to credit marvels. Navigating a river yet undone reignites our astonishment at the simplest transactions of the physical world: water patiently carving a tunnel in a granite gorge; the apparently motionless shift of a boulder midstream; the basenote of an approaching rapid.

Wild rivers return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives. That is why they are so important, and why it is necessary that we keep exploring them.

Richard Bangs is author of 19 books, founder of several digital media properties, sits on the boards of several travel, technology and environmental boards, and is  producer and host  of the national public television series, “”.