Queer American Rivers
by F. H. Spearman
I wonder if my readers realize what a story of the vast extent of our
country is told by its rivers?
Every variety of river in the world seems to have a cousin in our
collection. What other country on the face of the globe affords such an
assortment of streams for fishing and boating and swimming and
skating—besides having any number of streams on which you can do none
of these things? One can hardly imagine rivers like that; but we have
them, plenty of them, as you shall see.
As for fishing, the American boy may cast his flies for salmon in the
Arctic circle, or angle for sharks under a tropical sun in Florida,
without leaving the domain of the American flag. But the fishing-rivers
are not the most curious, nor the most instructive as to diversity of
climate, soil, and that sort of thing—physical geography, the teacher
A LIVE-OAK WITH SPANISH MOSS.
For instance, if you want to get a good idea of what tropical heat and
moisture will do for a country, slip your canoe from a Florida steamer
into the Ocklawaha River. It is as odd as its name, and appears to be
hopelessly undecided as to whether it had better continue in the fish
and alligator and drainage business, or devote itself to raising
live-oak and cypress-trees, with Spanish moss for mattresses as a side
In this fickle-minded state it does a little of all these things, so
that when you are really on the river you think you are lost in the
woods; and when you actually get lost in the woods, you are quite
confident your canoe is at last on the river. This confusion is due to
the low, flat country, and the luxuriance of a tropical vegetation.
To say that such a river overflows its banks would hardly be correct;
for that would imply that it was not behaving itself; besides, it has
n't any banks—or, at least, very few! The fact is, those peaceful
Florida rivers seem to wander pretty much where they like over the
pretty peninsula without giving offense; but if Jack Frost takes such a
liberty—presto! you should see how the people get after him with
weather-bulletins and danger-signals and formidable smudges. So the
Ocklawaha River and a score of its kind roam through the woods,—or
maybe it is the woods that roam through them,—and the moss sways from
the live-oaks, and the cypress trees stick their knees up through the
water in the oddest way imaginable.
In Florida one may have another odd experience: a river ride in an
ox-cart. Florida rivers are usually shallow, and when the water is high
you can travel for miles across country behind oxen, with more or less
river under you all the way. There are ancient jokes about Florida
steamboats that travel on heavy dews, and use spades for paddle-wheels.
But those of you who have been on its rivers know there is but one
Florida, with its bearded oaks and fronded palms; its dusky woods,
carpeted with glassy waters; its cypress bays, where lonely cranes pose,
silently thoughtful (of stray polliwogs); and its birds of wondrous
plumage that rise with startled splash when the noiseless canoe glides
down upon their haunts.
Every strange fowl and every hideous reptile, every singular plant and
every tangled jungle, will tell the American boy how far he is to the
south. Florida is, in fact, his corner of the tropics; and the clear
waters of its rivers, stained to brown and wine-color with the juices
of a tropical vegetation, will tell him, if he reads nature's book, how
different the sandy soil of the South is from the yellow mold of the
great Western plains.
Such a boy hardly need ask the conductor how far west he is if he can
catch a glimpse of one of the rivers. All the rivers of the plains are
alike full of yellow mud, because the soil of the plains melts at the
touch of water. These are our spendthrift rivers, full to the banks at
times, but most of the year desperately in need of water. It is only
with the greatest effort that they can keep their places in the summer:
there is just a scanty thread of water strung along a great, rambling
bed of sand, to restrain Dame Nature from revoking their licenses to run
and turning them into cattle-ranches.
No wonder that fish refuse to have anything to do with such streams, and
refuse tempting offers of free worms, free transportation, and
protection from the fatal nets. Fancy trying to raise a family of little
fish, and not knowing one day where water is coming from the next!
Not but what there is water enough at times; only, those rivers of the
great plains, like the Platte and the Kansas and the Arkansas, are so
wasteful of their supply in the spring that by July they are gasping for
a shower. So, part of the year they revel in luxury, and during the rest
they go shabby—like shiftless people.
But the irrigation engineers have lately discovered something wonderful
about even these despised rivers. During the very driest seasons, when
the stream is apparently quite dry, there is still a great body of water
running in the sand. Like a vast sponge, the sand holds the water, yet
it flows continually, just as if it were in plain sight, but more slowly
of course. The volume may be estimated by the depth and breadth of the
sand. One pint of it will hold three quarters of a pint of water. This
is called the underground flow, and is peculiar to this class of rivers.
By means of ditches this water may be brought to the surface for
Scattered among the foot-hills of the Rockies are rivers still more
wilful in their habits. Instead of keeping to their duties in a
methodical way, they rush their annual work through in a month or two;
then they take long vacations. For months together they carry no water
at all; and one may plant and build and live and sleep in their deserted
beds—but beware! Without warning, they resume active business. Maybe
on a Sunday, or in the middle of the night, a storm-cloud visits the
mountains. There is a roar, a tearing, a crashing, and down comes a
terrible wall of water, sweeping away houses and barns and people. No
fishing, no boating, no swimming, no skating on those treacherous
rivers; only surprise and shock and disaster!
So different that they seem to belong in a different world are the great
inter-mountain streams, like the Yellowstone and the Colorado.
They flow through landscapes of desolate grandeur, vast expanses
compassed by endless mountain-ranges that chill the bright skies with
never-melting snows. The countless peaks look down on the clouds, while
far below the clouds wind valleys that the sunlight never reaches.
Twisting in gloomy dusk through these valleys, a gaping cañon yawns.
Peering fearfully into its black, forbidding depths, an echo reaches the
ear. It is the fury of a mighty river, so far below that only a sullen
roar rises to the light of day. With frightful velocity it rushes
through a channel cut during centuries of patience deep into the
stubborn rock. Now mad with whirlpools, now silently awful with
stretches of green water, that wait to lure the boatman to death, the
mighty river rushes darkly through the Grand Colorado Cañon.
No sport, no fun, no frolic there. Here are only awe-inspiring gloom and
grandeur, and dangers so hideous that only a handful of men have ever
braved them—fewer still survived.
Grandest of American rivers though it is, you will be glad to get away
from it to a noble stream like the Columbia, to a headstrong flood like
the Missouri, or an inland sea like the Mississippi; on them at least
you can draw a full breath and speak aloud without a feeling that the
silent mountains may fall on you or the raging river swallow you up.
In the vast territory lying between the Missouri River and the Pacific
Ocean the rivers are fast being harnessed for a work that will one day
make the most barren spots fertile. Irrigation is claiming every year
more of the flow of Western rivers. Even the tricksy old Missouri is
contributing somewhat to irrigation, but in the queerest possible way.
With all its other eccentricities, the Missouri River leaks badly; for
you know there are leaky rivers as well as leaky boats. The government
engineers once measured the flow of the Missouri away up in Montana, and
again some hundred miles further down stream. To their surprise, they
found that the Missouri, instead of growing bigger down stream, as every
rational river should, was actually 20,000 second-feet smaller at the
Now, while 20,000 second-feet could be spared from such a tremendous
river, that amount of water makes a considerable stream of itself. Many
very celebrated rivers never had so much water in their lives. Hence
there was great amazement when the discrepancy was discovered. But of
late years Dakota farmers away to the south and east of those points on
the Missouri, sinking artesian wells, found immense volumes of water
where the geologists said there would n't be any. So it is believed that
the farmers have tapped the water leaking from that big hole in the
Missouri River away up in Montana; and from these wells they irrigate
large tracts of land, and, naturally, they don't want the river-bed
mended. Fancy what a blessing it is, when the weather is dry, to have a
river boiling out of your well, ready to flow where you want it over the
wheat-fields! For of all manner of work that a river can be put to,
irrigation is, I think, the most useful. But isn't that a queer way for
the Missouri to wander about underneath the ground?