How walking along rivers changes your brain

Spending time in natural spaces reduces anxiety, worry and stress. Nature, and rivers, are fundamental to our health, well-being, and relationships – to our happiness.

Canyonlands National Part, UT | Photo by Robert Crum

My little boys are growing up. My older one starts kindergarten next month. My little one is charging out of toddlerhood, becoming more independent by the day. Life moves so fast, and the best way I know to slow things down and treasure the moments is to get out on a river.

Amy Kober
My sons exploring outside together

So I took the boys to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. It’s in the heart of Portland, not far from our house.

A little piece of wildness on the Willamette River. An easy urban escape. It was cloudy, a welcome break from the record heat and drought we’ve had this summer. The alders and cottonwoods smelled so good as we walked the shady trails.

Walking down to the river, we talked, free of distractions. At home I feel as if I’m always trying to do five things at once and conversations are constantly interrupted. But here, it’s just us. No chores or emails, just walking and chatting. Just being, together. My five year old reaches out to hold my hand, and my heart melts. How much longer until he’s too old, too cool, for this?

As we walk, I’m thinking about a recent New York Times article, How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain. The story looks at how spending time in natural spaces reduces anxiety, worry and stress.

For me, rivers are medicine. I know when I need a break, when I need to get out for a float, swim, paddle, or streamside hike. If walking in nature changes our brains, then spending time on rivers must deliver an even bigger bang for the buck, right? I’m thinking of multi-day river trips. I’m thinking of finding peace and connection, of open hearts and strengthened spirits. Healing waters. I’m remembering floating on my back down the Salmon, nights in the Grand Canyon, early morning kayaking on the Potomac…

My boys, racing for the river’s steep bank, bring me back to earth. I snap out of my reverie and take their hands. Together, we carefully approach the eroded edge. A sailboat is anchored here, and kayaks paddle by. We wave, and they wave back.

My five year old asks if he can get a kayak for his birthday.

I think that’s his best birthday present request yet. And I’m game. Any excuse to get us out here more often. For fun, of course. But also to test our own mini science experiment that nature, that rivers, really are fundamental to our health, well-being, and relationships. That they are essential to our happiness, to who we are.

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