As a conservation biologist, I’ve spent years working to increase protections for rivers, especially in the American Southeast. Teeming with more kinds of freshwater mussels and crayfish than anywhere in the world, the rivers there are renowned for their biodiversity.
This summer, I decided that I’d go hard to win the river-swimming challenge — and explore rivers beyond my previous haunts. From my home near the Cumberland River in Kentucky, I drove across eight states, from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia, west to the Mississippi River on the Missouri border, and east to the Shenandoah River. I swam in state and city parks, national forests, wildlife management areas and private lands with public access sites.
I set out eager to encounter colorful schools of fish, spy on basking turtles and come eye to eye with the hellbender, North America’s largest salamander. It’s usually about a foot long, with nicknames including “devil dog” and “Allegheny alligator.”
What I found was entirely too much muck and plastic. Intent on upping my river count, I stood on countless banks and stared into impenetrably murky waters, wondering whether I could safely get in and out. Picking my way through mud, past discarded fishing lines, food wrappers and covid masks, I realized how much America’s rivers need protection not just from pollution but also from everyday insults.
I wanted to experience the rivers naturally, so I didn’t wear a wetsuit or goggles. Just a swimsuit, and hard-bottomed sandals with toe guards for protection in the muck, with a towel handy, along with eye wash and antibacterial cream in case I got scraped underwater.
Don’t get me wrong — exquisite rivers with clear water harboring wild treasures still exist. But they are few and far between. Of the 108 rivers I plunged into this summer (yes, that was enough to secure a 2021 victory), most were varying degrees of disgusting.
To jump into a river is to submerge yourself in all that is happening to a watershed. Anything that can flow downhill will, so river water may include run-off from roads, parking lots, aging sewer systems, pesticide-sprayed row crops, fertilized lawns, slaughterhouses and mines. I asked myself more than once why I would get into these streams. I wanted to add to my summer tally, but mostly I wanted to bear witness to what we’re doing to rivers and try to motivate myself and others to act.
Looking for rivers to swim in brought me face to face with the realities of the changing climate and the volatile swings between drought and storms. Some rivers were so dry, I had to find a puddle to lie down in. Others raged with so much rainfall that they overtopped their banks — arriving in Tennessee during its unprecedented flooding last month, I swam on a roadway beside the Duck River.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 and Endangered Species Act of 1973 have been wildly successful laws, given the appalling conditions they were intended to address. But there is plenty more to be done. In the Southeast, 50 freshwater species have gone extinct since extensive damming began in 1914, and hundreds more are at risk without more concerted efforts.
There are many ways to help rivers and the living things that depend on them. Remove dams that are no longer essential — 69 dams in the United States were taken out last year, according to the American Rivers organization. Dam management can be improved to kill invasive species and mimic natural flows. With political will, government agency staffing could be increased to ensure best management practices for logging and to enforce boundaries for off-road vehicle trails to prevent the erosion that adds wildlife-smothering silt to stream bottoms.
To bolster public support for such measures, access to safely enjoyed rivers should be increased. Many areas don’t have public beaches on rivers, and swimming is not allowed near boat ramps, so only people who can afford watercraft have access.
It’s easier to be disconnected from nature, and less concerned about preserving it, when it’s inaccessible. Enhancing the public’s ability to enjoy America’s rivers would encourage people to press governments at all levels to fight pollution and climate change. And it might even reduce those everyday insults.
This summer, I saw plenty of water snakes, herons, kingfishers and riverbank butterflies, but I never did encounter a hellbender. Maybe next summer, my chances of seeing that big salamander will improve if I stick to relishing America’s clean rivers, and keep working to make sure there’s more of them.