Earth Juice

Douglas H. Chadwick
Heart of Winter 2011

Hey. Just launched onto the Wolf River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. I’m riding a small kayak, slaloming between boulders. The flow is newborn and narrow here, fresh out of Wolf Lake. Boundless ranks of mountains behind me, day after day of untamed valleys and incoming tributaries ahead; there’s no way this isn’t going to be good. Moose eye my progress. Grizzly tracks cluster near a set of rapids. Ah, the bears must have been after the big, tapered shapes that flash by under my hull: spawning king, or Chinook, salmon with flanks red as last night’s campfire coals.

The Wolf is a far source of the Yukon River. From the Bering Sea, these fish have been swimming upstream for nearly 2,000 miles. Two waterfalls straddle their home stretch – not cascades but sudden, towering drops. My only options are to portage or be smithereened, but while the river explodes, shaking the bedrock, the kings climb straight up and over. It’s what four to five slippery feet of muscle and high-energy oils and salmon compulsions are designed to do. That doesn’t make it any less miraculous.

First water, then Life on Earth. Cells are sloshy with protoplasm, roots sip, hearts pump blood. About 114 of my 190 pounds are H2O – 55 quarts worth. I’d survive three weeks without eating but little more than three days without fresh water. So give me a paddle and an endless flow of this lovely, constantly changing stuff that absorbs and reflects the world around it and, at the same time, dissolves, transports, deposits, then carves the topography anew and animates it with creatures. Hand me a face mask and drop me in an eddy to look around. At the very least, let me quench my thirst.

Seen from space, Earth shines blue. Yet only 3 percent of its water is fresh, and more than 70 percent of that is locked in polar ice caps and glaciers. Another 25 percent plus lies in underground aquifers. The tiny fraction left rippling on the land’s surface forms the marshes, lakes and rivers that have shaped patterns of human culture from the getgo. No natural resource is more precious than usable fresh water. None is shrinking faster as we multiply. Even while putting filters on our household faucets or paying extra for bottled H2O, we Americans take the availability of potable liquid for granted. People in many regions can’t any longer, least of all the millions of women who spend much of each day walking to fetch water, and dealing with sick kids because the supply is laden with microbes or toxic chemicals.

Neither the mighty Colorado River nor the Rio Grande is more than a scuzzy trickle by the time they pass the last siphons for croplands, cities and factories. By 2025, experts predict, not one of China’s great rivers, such as the Yangtze, Yellow and Pearl, will still reach the sea. They’re already overloaded with sediments and industrial waste. What does this portend for more than 1.3 billion Chinese? Or for that nation’s fish and other aquatic life-forms, including imperiled river dolphins, turtles and alligators? Plus a six-foot-long salamander.

The Chinese giant salamander has a 30-inch U.S. relative: the hellbender, also labeled the snot otter for gushing extra mucus from its skin when disturbed. I love everything about those names. I want to meet the beasts and holler, “This water’s gotta lotta snot otters!” But they, too, are in rapid decline – even as amphibians’ skin secretions are being studied for a growing array of possible medical uses.

Although surface freshwater systems contain less than one-100th of 1 percent of the total water on the planet, they host 10 percent of all animal species. Among them are almost as many varieties of fish as found in the salt water covering most of the globe. However, freshwater animals are suffering extinction rates four to six times higher than the fauna in the oceans or on land. Roughly 20 percent of freshwater fish are now classified as vulnerable, endangered or recently lost. Missing. Toast. The figure is nearly double in North America. For that matter, almost half the animals on the U.S. threatened and endangered list call fresh water home.

While Europe has made progress cleaning up heavy metals and industrial poisons in its waterways, siltation from agricultural runoff, along with pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, is still on the rise. Barely 15 percent of the total length of rivers in the British Isles supports healthy aquatic ecosystems today. Tremendous strides have been made in cleaning up heavy metals and other industrial waste in Japan’s waterways since the 1970s. Yet many of Japan’s major rivers, lakes and other freshwater bodies still carry worrisome levels of contaminants including E. coli – the disease-causing bacteria that flourish amid sewage.

Name a nation: Chances are, more of its freshwater supply now includes virtually every kind of prescription drug flushed down a drain. Long-lived industrial compounds such as furans (used in flame retardants), PCBs and dioxins are also part of the brew. These chlorinated hydrocarbons are endocrine disruptors, which mess with hormone balances, immune systems and nervous systems. They knock down sperm counts, feminize males, lower disease resistance, cause cancers, and alter brain development. Everybody has heard one troubled species or another compared to the canary in the coal mine. It hasn’t really sunk in that, at this point, we’re all canaries.

I’d rather crash in the rapids than quote gloomy statistics. But the numbers define what’s happening to a crucial sector of Creation that deserves more attention and far better care. I won’t say hurry up and visit places like the upper Yukon or southern Brazil’s Pantanal – Earth’s largest wetland and the best setting I know for seeing jaguars and anacondas – while they remain unspoiled. I’ll just say, think about what you can do to help keep such splendor intact. And with that subject in mind, go ramble the nearest creek.

Waterways and their lush banks are natural movement corridors – connectors of lifeforms and nutrients. No matter how small or altered, every channel leads to some measure of wildness. Each cupful holds news about the environment upstream and down and, ultimately, about the quality of life as a whole. Contact folks working to leave the local water fresher than they found it. Enlist some friends. Save a snot otter, a furry otter, trout, herons, maybe our future. Fix the flow. If enough people join in, there’s no way this isn’t going to be good.

About the Author

Douglas H. Chadwick, the author of the recent Patagonia Book The Wolverine Way, is a wildlife biologist, natural history reporter, scuba diver, kayaker, stream snorkeler, and born Pisces. He has a home along a wild and scenic river, that he fought to protect, on the border of Montana’s Glacier National Park.