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Retracing a river

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Retracing a river

Students and faculty join disciplines to re-create Goodbye to a River canoe trip 50 years later

Photos by Derek Bradford and Earl Zimmerman

During the fall of 1957, John Graves spent three weeks canoeing on the Brazos River — alone except for his dachshund puppy. The Fort Worth writer wanted to make one last trip on the scenic river as up to 13 dam proposals threatened to change it forever. Graves later published Goodbye to a River, an account of his journey. The book's success is often cited as a reason most of the dams were never built.

Joining the students on the trip were, from the biology department, Jim Kennedy and Earl Zimmerman (third and fourth from left) and Bob Killam (second from right).

In October, on the 50th anniversary of Graves' trip, five UNT students and four faculty and staff members from the departments of English and biology re-created part of the journey by canoe. The students — two from BIOL 5040, Contemporary Topics in Environmental Science and Ecology, and three from ENGL 3160, Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction — were accompanied by their instructors, Jim Kennedy, professor of biology, and David Taylor ('86, '88 M.A.), lecturer in English, along with Bob Killam, administrative services officer in biology, and Earl Zimmerman, retired professor of biology.

The students read Goodbye to a River before they began the trip and kept personal journals with their impressions of the Brazos. They also collected aquatic insects to gauge the health of the river.

David Taylor, lecturer in English, first read Goodbye to a River as a UNT student.

Taylor, who first read Goodbye to a River as a UNT student, says one of the purposes of the trip was to find a connection between disciplines.

"We know the deeper stories of that place now by learning more about how all the things along it and in it get by," he says.

While Kennedy says their biological assessments showed the Brazos water quality was generally good, determining the river's ecological health wasn't the primary goal.

"Scientists are very good at gathering, analyzing and preparing scientific data for technical publications, but rarely do we write for the general public or share information with non-scientists. And non-science majors sometimes have a fear or dislike of science," he says. "This trip was an opportunity to take these two groups into the field to discuss, view and experience the ecology of the Brazos River in a non-threatening way."

The students plan to share a presentation about their trip with other universities to show what can be accomplished through interdisciplinary projects. They are scheduled to give the presentation in February at Texas State University in San Marcos.

"Our presentations will only be successful if both groups work collaboratively in the synthesis of our experiences," Kennedy says. "This will be another great experience in communicating across disciplines."

The College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of English provided funding for the trip.

Excerpts from David Taylor's journal

Thursday, Oct. 18

Highway 16 to First Camp (around 9.5 miles)

Ben and Charles are off "to collect," as they call it: that means that they are collecting benthic macroinvertebrates — the larvae of damselflies, dragonflies, caddis flies and other insects. They compare their counts to the water temperature and conductivity (salinity) to the bug counts and can come up with a reasonable estimate as to the river's aquatic health; it's also called a "rapid bioassessment" by people with a bigger vocabulary. When they return they have a fine grouping of insects which is dominated by hellgrammites; Jim, their professor and mentor, points out that's how it should be. "It's a good sign," he says. …

canoeing in shallow water

At one point in Goodbye to a River, Graves points out: "This age, of course, is unlikely to start breeding people who have an organic kinship to nature that Comanches had. … For them, every bush, every bird's cheep, every cloud bank had not only utilitarian but mystical meaning; it was all an extension of their sensory systems, an antenna as rawly receptive as a snail's."

He goes on to say most of us now live "on" the earth, not "in" it. Everything about our lives seems to conspire to keep us from living "in" the earth: air conditioners, cars, Ipods, Moon Pies and pre-packaged TV shows of sameness. So what then is our access into this organic kinship? Maybe we'll learn something about this over the next few days. …

dragging the canoes

Once everyone arrived and we pushed off we got a better idea of just how low the river was. The minimal amount of water was being released as no additional electricity was needed by local towns and cities. This meant yards, sometimes hundreds of them, of dragging the canoe through gravel ripples. Again, though, it's a laid-back bunch and while we'd all prefer the ease and aesthetics of current and rapid, all seemed OK to the watery, or should I say rocky, situation we actually faced.

Friday, Oct. 19

(First Camp to Rochelle's/Dark Valley Bridge)

deeper water with a high cliff on the left

… These unionid freshwater mussels are becoming a focal point of study as they are good indicators of river health. They are "filter feeders," Jim says, which means they rely on filtering algae and other particles from the water for food. If toxins are present in the water, they're among the first critters it affects. If there's increased silt from erosion and runoff, they're the first to have to deal with the problem. If certain species of fish disappear, they cannot reproduce as they use only certain fish as hosts in the larval stage. In other words, they're the barometers of stream ecology. However, in the past hundred years, they've been over-harvested twice — once in the first half of the 20th century to be made into pearl buttons and again in the second half as pearl starter core to place into saltwater oysters. It's the kind of animal that's hard to rally people to save — nothing furry, cute or endearing about it. Yet, they're also the kind of animal we'd better pay attention to if we care about the water we drink or the rivers that flow around us. …

overhand cliff on the right

Saturday, Oct. 20

(Rochelle's to 26 mile camp below Thunderburg Hollow)

… In one of the deep pools, mayflies swarmed on the northern bank. Jim paddled over and explained to me why they seemed to hover next to the trees. The males, he said, emerge from the water and look for the highest object near the river, whether it be a ridge or tree. They then begin a sort of male, sex-crazed, vertical pulsing swarm, which interested and enamored females fly through only to be followed by the males closest to her. As the old phrase suggests "to the swiftest go the spoils," so too do the next generation of mayflies. …

viewing the bank with from the canoe, three large boulders

The sunset was of the Texas postcard variety — where there is no visible human hand on the landscape to the west and the Brazos meandered through the panorama and reflected blues, reds, oranges and pinks only an artist could imagine. I sat near the river and wrote a poem for someone I missed and let the sky tell most of what I was feeling. …

sunset reflecting on the river

I know 50 years ago today some guy not too much younger than me with a canoe and a dog made his way down the river to find something deeper than just a journey, to find a reason to care. … We have to have a way of understanding ourselves as part of the story, and I mean our whole selves, not just the rational and objective, but the heart and the community. Goodbye to a River has made the Brazos more than a river for me but a place I care about. …


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