The Mountains And Rivers In All Of Us

San Joaquin River headwater, CA | Evan Reimondo

San Joaquin River headwater, CA | Evan Reimondo

I’m a relatively recent transplant to California. I moved here from Flagstaff, Arizona to take my current position with American Rivers, but I brought with me a love for the mountains. I’d visited California’s mountains before, but to get a little more familiar with them, I’ve been splitting some of my free time between reading some of John Muir’s writings, staring at topographic maps, and getting up close and personal with these objects of my affection.

My recent work with American Rivers has elevated my awareness of just how critical these mountains are to our way of life. From working to restore headwaters through our Meadow Restoration program, to learning about issues in the Central Valley and the Bay Delta, and everything in between, I’ve come to realize that the rivers truly do connect us. They connect everything. That American Rivers slogan wasn’t kidding.

These relationships became dramatically apparent to me this past weekend on an excursion to the mountains. It was a last-minute, thrown-together, and poorly-planned trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, with the plan to climb some peaks in the Ritter Range of the High Sierra, including Mount Ritter, Banner Peak, and one of the Minarets. The details of my climbs, though perhaps exciting for me, aren’t what I intend to share here (though if you’d like to read about it, check out my personal blog). On reaching the top of Mount Ritter, I was afforded a very unique view.

The summit of many tall mountains is fairly similar- expansive views, and a highly-featured landscape made almost insignificant below you. I think that the summit of Mount Ritter is special, though. This expansive view not only includes the famed Yosemite Valley, but, in John Muir’s words,

“At a distance of less than 3000 feet below the summit of Mount Ritter you may find tributaries of the San Joaquin and Owen’s Rivers, bursting forth from the ice and snow of the glaciers that load its flanks; while a little to the north of here are found the highest affluents of the Tuolumne and Merced. Thus, the fountains of four of the principal rivers of California are within a radius of four or five miles.” (The Mountains of California, 1911).

As I gazed about, trying to make sense of the landscape unfolding below me, I began to think about the significance of the mountains and rivers around me. I could literally see the snowpack and glaciers melting, trickling down to form streams and lakes. I bore witness to their casual paths meandering, combining, and emerging as great rivers. Those rivers, ultimately flowing into the San Joaquin River and the Central Valley, grow food for millions of people throughout the world, and provide drinking water for millions more.

Indeed, if you’re snacking on something as you read this, chances are pretty good that there are a few drops of San Joaquin River water in it somewhere. Can you taste the glacial water and its minerals in those almonds or that granola bar, enriching your body the same way they’ve enriched the soils of the Central Valley for millennia? It was incredible to see- to experience- the birthplace of such a powerful, influential, and depended-upon river.

As I hiked out from my weekend in the mountains, the trail descended and crossed the San Joaquin River, and gave me that up-close and personal experience I was looking for. You bet I flopped into that glorious river, and you know I drank from its crystal waters. I can’t say I’d do the same 50 or 100 miles downstream, but maybe that’s a good reminder that, as much as we depend on our rivers, the river’s health and quality equally depend on how we treat it.

That’s all to say, I think it’s high time we all get outside and experience our rivers (when is it not time, really?!). As Muir said in Our National Parks (1901),

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Let’s keep that trend on the up and up. Take a float along a river’s Blue Trail, or go on a hike to the snowy headwaters, and take a friend with you. The more time we spend with our rivers, the more we see and understand the connections they create among us and our natural world.

I’ll see you out there.

How have you been experiencing your rivers?

How does your river or stream connect you to the people, places, and environment around you?