I sit on the banks as I write this, filled with awe and gratitude after seeing the Columbia River. 

I am so emotional because the Columbia River is the final waterway that will carry me to the Pacific Ocean. I’ve paddled over 500 miles to get here, and I have become more invested in this river system than I could have possibly imagined. 

As I have now entered the main body of the Columbia River, I feel it’s my duty to tell you about the issues facing the waterways I’ve passed so far, on my travels to this point. But first, a little about this journey:

The Columbia River Canoe Project is an expedition from the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia – Silverbow Creek near the Continental Divide at Butte, Montana – all the way to the Pacific Ocean. My cousin, Braxton Mitchell, and I will paddle or carry our custom-made Navarro canoe over 1300 miles on this expedition, living on the rivers we travel for the entire journey. Our goal is to really learn about the health of the river system and share our first-hand knowledge to benefit the entire watershed and its stakeholders. To this end, we have an incredible crew of filmmakers traveling with us to create a documentary about our experience, as well as the social and ecological concerns facing America’s rivers. In this case, I’ve chosen a few issues to inform you about. 

The Scars of Progress

While the upper Clark Fork River flows inevitably into the lower Clark Fork, I see these two sections of the same river reversed in time. One possible future for the lower river has been written in the upper river. On the upper Clark Fork sits one of the most contaminated areas in the country, a problem so complex that the money and time it will take to fix the issues are almost incomprehensible. Meanwhile, on the lower Clark Fork, another ecological disaster rests at a tipping point.

Mining in the upper Clark Fork basin produced and processed the majority of U.S. copper during the industrial age. Advancement often comes at a price, and the scars of progress can now be seen in the upper Clark Fork watershed. The basin contains the nation’s largest superfund site, a mile-long acid lake, and an area where the Clark Fork flows over 19 million cubic yards of unaddressed toxic mining waste. 

Downstream in the lower Clark Fork basin, below the city of Missoula and on the banks of the river, sits the Smurfit-Stone site, which is the remnants of a wood pulp mill that made bleached cardboard. While the mill no longer operates, 50 years of industrial waste remains in the Clark Fork floodplain. One of the most pressing concerns is that a large-scale flood will erode the inadequate earthen berm, causing toxins to be flushed into the river. 

As we canoed by Smurfit-Stone, it was easy to see the horrific possibility of this threat. If you need more convincing, just look upstream. In 1908, a historic flood washed Butte-area mine tailings downstream, threatening life along the river, both ecological and human. A similar flooding event could occur at Smurfit-Stone with similar consequences. But there is an opportunity to prevent the upstream mistakes from reoccurring. Smurfit-Stone needs to be reclaimed while the cleanup is a relatively simple one, and before the drastic consequences of inaction become reality. 

Smurfit-Stone is just the beginning, and the addition of the Clark Fork River to American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers Report of 2023 provides important recognition and a way for community members’ voices to be heard. But if you ask the people who live in the upper watershed in communities like Butte, they’ll remind everyone that until there’s a full cleanup in the upper watershed, the Clark Fork can never be healthy. Step one is cleaning the toxic Smurfit-Stone site, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal: a clean and healthy Clark Fork River from the Continental Divide to the Lake Pend Oreille Delta.

Big Trash, Simple Fix

There is a problem in this beautiful watershed, as terrible as any, that simply doesn’t get the coverage it deserves–trash and garbage in the river. Luckily, despite being one of the biggest problems, it has a simple solution that anyone can be part of.

Everyday during our trip, we picked garbage out of the river, and not just the types of items you’d think. We picked up chunks of Styrofoam coolers abandoned after riverside parties, basketballs lost to the currents, and a water cooler from an office. The trash we couldn’t extract from the river is much crazier – a half-sunken 35-foot boat run aground, full cars from every decade in the last 70 years, hundreds of pounds of coiled barbed wire, and even a broken trampoline that had been claimed by the wind. More concerning, though, is the staggering amount of plastic in the river. It’s heartbreaking to be in areas of this amazing river that are relatively untouched and see plastic bottles floating by.

The solution to garbage in the river doesn’t require government involvement or millions of dollars, just you. It comes down to prevention and clean up. Prevent more trash from entering river systems by securing your garbage and educating others on the importance of keeping trash from negatively impacting rivers. Cleanup is even simpler. You don’t have to join an organized river cleanup (although it would be great if you did). When you see trash, simply pick it up and dispose of it properly. Clean rivers benefit not only the ecological health of the river, but also guarantee a trash-free river experience for everyone, including future generations. 

The Downstream Blind Eye

Industrial pollution and garbage can’t be addressed until we grapple with a principle that I finally understood as I paddled across the border into Canada. I call it the Downstream Blind Eye. Over and over, river impacts are passed to our neighbors downstream, and as soon as those impacts are out of sight, they are also out of mind. While the Downstream Blind Eye is a concept that can be seen in every watershed since industrialization, it is abundantly clear at the United States/Canadian border. The United States passes less-than-perfect water to Canada. Further downstream, Canada returns the favor by passing on to us pollution from a still-operating lead-zinc smelter. Both countries have turned a blind eye to the impacts passed across the border, and people have very little understanding of the issues on the opposite side. To the fish, eagles, bears, and countless other animals that use and rely on these rivers, our line on a map doesn’t exist and only water quality matters.

If the Downstream Blind Eye can be so apparent between two superpowers, then it’s occurring on every level, from states to individual landowners. At every scale, from local to international, a clean watershed can only exist if we take responsibility for our impacts and no longer pass them downstream for someone else to deal with. Pass on downstream only the water that you would hope is passed on to you from upstream. 

Fight for this Watershed 

Talking about big serious issues can make people think that the problems are beyond repair or that a resource is no longer worth saving. I’m here to tell you that is not the case.

In this watershed there are landscapes worthy of our greatest national parks. Places where you can see a golden sunset over a 400-foot limestone cliff that was carved by the river. The confluence between a river so brown it could be flowing with chocolate milk and one so green it looks like liquid emeralds, and when they meet they don’t mix for miles. A spot where you can feel the power of a waterfall free falling into the river just by the wind it creates. 

I’ve seen animal interactions on this river that most have only seen in National Geographic. Newborn deer taking their first wobbling steps along the river bank. A river otter that stops playing in the rapids to curiously watch as we pass by. Bald and golden eagles fighting above our boat to secure a fish that was snatched from the water only moments before. 

So do not believe for even a second that problems can’t be solved and this river isn’t worth saving. The beauty is still there, and it’s worth preserving, not just for us but for all those who wish to see it in the future. Join the fight for the health of this incredible river system. And win.

Enjoy The Journey!

Sarah Uhl wasn’t always a visual artist. After a winding career that included time as a professional bike racer, marketing professional at New Belgium Brewery and Big Agnes, and producer of a film festival, the Coloradan realized that it was time to channel her love of nature into a career as an artist. These days, the new(ish) mom is a fulltime creative, working across mediums such as commercial illustration, live art, murals, and map design. She also teaches creative empowerment in workshops and retreats. Find Sarah on Instagram @sarahvirginiauhl. Shop her collection at our store.

Sarah Uhl

What do you draw on for inspiration? 

All of my inspiration comes from Mother Nature. I was lucky enough to grow up camping and playing outside in nature with my parents. I feel a deep connection to the land. Not everyone has the opportunity to form that bond early in life, and it is my hope that my art can help point people back to nature, inspiring them to build their own deep love of the land through curiosity and beauty. I paint what I feel more than what I see.  

Tell us about the idea for this piece. 

When I learned that the new motto for American Rivers was “Life Depends on Rivers,” all I could think about is how we are all interconnected with nature. I wanted to show that interconnected relationship. My first idea was related to the way a river delta looks like lungs and vasculature. I realized I could overlay my home watershed on top of an image of people in a way that the river takes on the look and feel of their veins … their lifeblood … their very existence.  

It is not surprising that I landed on an image of a woman and a young boy, being a new mother to two young boys. The line work on the image is the actual waterways and mountain topography of the Roaring Fork watershed, a tributary to the Colorado River. The mother and son looking up towards the sun are showing a reverence for nature that I feel every day. 

What inspired you about this project with American Rivers? 

This job pushed me to refine my skills as an artist and to find the balance of creating beautiful imagery that draws someone into a story. It is my hope that this artwork creates curiosity and further inquiry into the interconnectedness of people and rivers. 

What is your favorite river? 

I am lucky enough to live beside the Crystal River in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. This sacred river shapes the valley and awes me daily. I am so grateful to live beside a river that reminds me how precious and magical life is. There are so many distractions in our modern culture that pull us out of that awareness, and it’s a huge gift to be able to pull myself back into that connection to nature.  

For our 50th anniversary, American Rivers is teaming up with five artists on original works that explore how important healthy rivers are to the future of humanity and nature. You can buy their limited-edition artwork atAmericanRivers.org/store.  

Art can inspire action! For our 50th anniversary, American Rivers is teaming up with five artists on original works that explore how important healthy rivers are to the future of humanity and nature.

The nation’s most iconic poster press Globe Collection and Press at MICA helps us kick off our five-part limited-edition art collection.

Learn more about Globe and visit AMERICANRIVERS.ORG/STORE to buy T-shirts, totes, posters, and more featuring this artwork and more from our 50th anniversary collection. 

Globe has an incredibly cool history. Tell us about it. 

Globe was founded in Baltimore 1929 and started out printing inexpensive posters for everyday people — so fairs, carnivals, boxing, racing, wrestling, big band. But it’s real claim to fame was in the 1950s and ‘60s with R&B and rock-and-roll posters for the likes of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and B.B. King.  

It was using a mixed-media process to produce these super-vibrant posters. Fluorescent backgrounds and bold black type became Globe’s trademark style. And its footprint wasn’t just Baltimore, it was sending posters everywhere from upstate New York down the Eastern Seaboard and along the Gulf into Texas.  

That carried forward into the late ‘70s to early ‘80s with go-go music and early rap and hip hop. And it held on until about 2011. When Globe finally closed, there was a community movement of artists and designers, historians, and students that activated to find Globe a new home and keep it in Baltimore, where it’s always been. The Maryland Institute College of Art, MICA, stepped up and purchased it when the press was 81 years old. It is one of the largest intact collections of letter-press printing materials of its kind in the country, if not in the world.  

What is Globe up to now? 

Now Globe is what we call a working collection. It has three jobs at MICA. We teach with it and pass on the tradition of the letter-press craft. We’re also slowly working on archiving the collection so it can be used for research and scholarship. And we also make new work with it. We’re using all of the great type and tools and stylings that made Globe famous. MICA has given us a lot of freedom to try a lot of different things. The collection has a really nice balance of commercial work, but we also do a lot of nonpartisan voter civic participation stuff and community-based projects. 

Can you describe the process that Globe used to create the posters for American Rivers? 

With any project, we always look to our archive materials as a place to start, whether it’s posters or wood blocks in our collection. This project with American Rivers was a little bit different because most of the time we design posters that need to be screen printed and letter pressed one at a time. This was a fun one because we didn’t have those same constraints. It gave us a lot of room to play with the wood type and the texturings from the collection to build up different layers.  

For example, take the poster that says, “Life Depends on Rivers.” That is the one that is most classically Globe, with a colored background and black wood-type text on top. We pulled the idea of the background from American Rivers’ annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®. The background for that poster is made up of wood-type textured graphics of our loose interpretation of what the shape of those endangered rivers look like.

What inspired you about this project? 

There’s a really nice symbiosis of using wood type as the base of these graphics. Because without rivers, trees don’t grow. We are kind of coming full circle in the materials that we’re using to do this design work — because it wouldn’t exist without water in rivers.  

I really like design where you are constantly finding more information about it, whether it’s subtle moments where two pieces of type overlap or a color hits or something shifts just a little bit. I like those really quiet moments in design where things sync nicely or in a way you don’t necessarily expect them to. 

To learn more about our Globe collection, please visit the American Rivers’ store.

California is living through a critical ecological moment, and the time has never been riper to build a movement around river health. From an intensive years-long drought to the recent series of atmospheric rivers that have inundated the state, we have been dealing with the whiplash between drought and flood, but also the emotional whiplash of an uncertain future. How should we respond to these changes as individuals, an organization and a statewide community? 

One of the ways I’ve responded to the urgent climate crises of our time is to join American Rivers. For the past 20 years, rivers have guided my personal and professional choices, whether connecting me with the man who became my husband or guiding me through the various phases of my career: whitewater rafting guide, master’s and doctoral student, conservation partner, and scientist.

Committing myself to rivers – to saving them through collaboration and science – was an act of faith. Faith that if I made choices centered on what I believed was true – that rivers are the fabric that connect our lives – I would meet opportunities to do something good. My faith was rewarded with the opportunity to become American Rivers’ California Regional Director. It was also a reminder of the power of preparation. Faith and preparation are the tools we need now to secure the future for healthy rivers and the communities that depend on them.

In the Dreamt Land by Mark Arax, a vivid historical portrait of California’s Central Valley, Arax describes an amnesia that seems to grip California after extreme natural events. Floods and drought come and go with the seasons, and when they depart, we seem to forget where we live. We forget that to be in California is to be an inextricable part of its natural systems.  Acknowledging our collective amnesia reminds us to prepare on all fronts. The rhythms of nature are cyclical, it’s extremes a perennial issue. And when circumstances change radically and suddenly, as climate change guarantees they will for decades to come, we can find ourselves reacting rather than responding. 

As an organization, American Rivers needs to be nimble and prepared. We need to set up our work on a diverse array of fronts so that when an opportunity arises, we are ready to push forward with concrete solutions. Much of this work is already being done. American Rivers has been preparing and building resilience for half a century. 50 years of restoration has created deep impact on the ecosystems and communities of California. Our multi-benefit work in the floodplains of California’s Central Valley mitigates flood risk, improves ecosystem health and water quality, opens access to natural space, and provides essential habitat for the creatures we love. In the headwaters of the Sierra Nevada, we are tackling these problems at the source, restoring mountain meadows, mitigating wildfire risk, and more. And there is much more to do. 

It is difficult to understate the critical importance of river health. When we reframe rivers as integral connectors of living systems, then it becomes clear that life depends on rivers. California depends on rivers. I depend on rivers. And I love them.

I’ll share that my favorite view of a river is the canyon wall at Nankoweap, a river camp on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, where hundreds of millions of years of history have been archived in the rainbow catalog of rock formations. The human footprint at this site stretches back millennia, with the ancient stone granaries built by Ancestral Puebloan people still standing. We are not the first to manage these landscapes, nor will we be the last. Standing on the banks of the Colorado, it feels as if time itself is captured in the wall. The river has cut through and exposed millions of years through its natural course, a geologic reminder that no single person is responsible for our precious environment. Simply put, no one can do it all, but we can all do our parts.

We will be a blip in the geologic archive one day. And while nature persists and evolves, what will we leave for the people coming after to us to move forward with? I take comfort in knowing that I need to do my part, and that I can look to these amazing places as a reminder that if we focus and prepare, the opportunity to do something good will arise. Rivers are durable and dynamic, but they are not immortal. We need to steward the natural world with care, drawing on a range of wisdom and perspectives to inform and calibrate our approach to conservation. And we need to work together so that we can push forward together, breaking down the artificial barrier separating humans from the natural world we are a part of, lifting the haze of amnesia to train our gaze on the future of California.