Sunday, December 4, 2011


Nothing endures but change” Heraclitus said in the 5th century BC. This has also been slightly altered into the more recognizable “the only constant is change” that we know today. The central theme to Heraclitus’s philosophy was that change is the fundamental source and order of the universe. After walking a good length of one of my favorite local rivers today it was a central theme in my thoughts as well.

The river's course has changed,
leaving its old channel behind
It was a gorgeous day, but the water was low and with a bright sun in the sky the fishing was less than stellar which lead to a lot of walking. I came to a spot in the river I have known well but was alien to me now. The channel had moved cutting off a bend I fished often in the past. With two catastrophic floods this year it could have happened during either event. Now the water flows straight through leaving a small oxbow to gradually fill in. 

The course of the river has indeed changed. Rivers do that as part of their natural cycle. They move constantly throughout their floodplain. Looking at a good aerial photograph of a river will show the evidence of sinuous movement back and forth across its valley floor. We don’t see this movement well because it happens on a time scale we are not familiar with- the geologic time scale. The only time we really comprehend it happening is when something major causes the river to dramatically alter itself in a short period of time.

Cataclysmic change can happen in a short period of time
and have a lasting impact.
Anyone who spends time on rivers sees changes from year to year. Gravel bars shift, pools fill in, logs and other debris move and deposit, and erosion consumes banks but it seems like the same place. After something disastrous it can be amazing to return to a familiar stretch of water and wonder if it is the same place. Pools will have been dredged or filled, runs become pools or riffles, banks are worn away, islands formed or wiped away and sometimes the entire channel of the river is nowhere near where it once had been. These vivid changes only take a matter of hours in some cases but have lasting impact on the character of the water.

As anglers we wonder what has happened to the river. Will it be the same? Will that pool still hold fish in the same place? Have all the spawning areas changed? Have the fish survived? Will I be able to fish this the way I always have? These changes are filled with fear. H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the greatest horror author of the 20th Century, wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Our questions are filled with fear. We don’t know the repercussions of the changes the river has undergone. It is an unknown and we approach that unknown apprehensively.
Once a river channel this mostly filled oxbow is
rarely visited any longer by the stream that formed it.

One thing is for certain: the water flowing in the river will continue to flow from its source to its end point. The path will change. There are places that will remain constant, vigilant against change. Hard rock outcrops will keep a river within its walls but once it finds release from these constraints it will move freely again, changing to adapt to its needs. There will be times when the river floods and revisits its old channels for a period of time. As the flows change however, deposits will build up and the frequency of those stopovers will be lessened. Oxbows will form leaving a permanent mark on the river valley that can be recognized if you look for it. The river’s path may have relocated but where it had been will always leave a sign to remind us of what once was. 

Change happens and we adapt. We find the place that the fish are holding now. We learn how to fish the pools and riffles that have been created. We discover the nuances of the river we spend so much time with. We learned from the river already how to work it well before and we will learn how to do so again. Adaptation is what has allowed life to go on through the changes that this planet has gone through. Species adapt or they take the path of the woolly mammoth and cease to exist. We do the same as anglers. 

John Gierach suggests with his book title that “Death, taxes and leaky waders” are the constants that anglers can expect and he is pretty much on the mark with that. Everything else will change. Rivers certainly do. And so does life.

…a metaphor?  Perhaps…

No comments:

Post a Comment