A Traveler’s Ode to Water

I used to know a man who tuned rivers.

He would make camp on a willowy bank, then sit and listen. Listen to the chatter of water over rocks, the whirl of an eddy, the late evening splash of trout.

To truly hear the river required a few days. He’d have to learn to separate the trill of a tiny stepped waterfall, or the bass of a torrent over deadfall, from the rest of the landscape. If he was lucky, it would rain, and he’d get a chance to listen to the clouds building the river once again, drops spilling off trees like a water clock.

At last, he’d start to tune the stream. He would wade into the cool wet and move rocks to change the entire music of the flowing water, adding words to the language of a spill of river across moss.

This may be one of the most sensible things anyone has ever done. Because, really, aren’t we all dancing to the sound of water before we’re even born, in our mothers’ wombs?

Forget the poets who tell you we’re made of stardust. The human body is composed of up to 60 percent water, a coming together of those most common of elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Our bodies’ own rivers and streams are traced in blood, as susceptible to the forces of tides as Canada’s Bay of Fundy, where the seawater can rise and drop 50 feet in a matter of hours.

Water compels us, and water saves us. It hydrates us. It keeps our minds supple as we learn its patterns and splashes. It offers us many ways to move through the world.

And not just us: Consider whales. Look inside a whale flipper and you’ll see the bones of fully articulated fingers. Millennia ago, the precursors of whales came ashore, hung out on land awhile, then headed back to the sea, where they could sing water-carried whale song to each other across hundreds of miles.

Is it any wonder that we run for the water’s edge whenever we can, eager to feel that cut of sand pulling out from under our feet, reminding us where we came from?

Water is anywhere and everywhere. It steams in a hot spring, lingers in a still lake, hides alligators in the rich mud of wetlands, flows as surely as the Mississippi River.

I once stood on the ice sheet that blankets Greenland, stood in a place where absolutely nothing was visible but ice, stood where there was more than a mile of ice beneath me. I wonder now if that ice sheet remains as vast, if it’s still as real as cement. Or is the ice cracking, sending out sounds like shots from a very powerful gun? Someday, probably sooner than we expect, all of that ice will be waves, currents, eddies.

I also have lived in a place where it didn’t rain for 143 days, where there were no rivers, no lakes, nothing but desert and heat and sand and plants that wanted to harm me. When the rains finally did begin, I stood outside, letting the downpour drench me while I reached my hands to the sky to catch drops even sooner in their descent to Earth.

“He who hears the rippling of rivers … will not utterly despair,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1840s.

No wonder all civilization has followed rivers, from the Tigris and Euphrates, where essentially everything was invented, to China’s Yellow River, along which everything else (the compass, paper, fireworks) was invented. Annual flooding by the Nile brought fertile silt for crops, which enriched pharaohs—and made possible the pyramids, made possible Cleopatra floating on her barge as if she were on the world’s most exclusive cruise line.

Rivers transport us—freighters on the Danube, canoes on the Orinoco, paddlewheelers on the Columbia—and purify us. In India, millions of people gather at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers to bathe in their waters, washing away sin and preparing for a new life.

My own choice of rivers is the Stikine, which rises deep in British Columbia and cuts to the coast of Alaska. I keep a talismanic jar of the river’s water in my house, taken from a night of avalanches and wolf howls.

But don’t we all have our own small waters, the water of a homeland? Today, the first mist coming in over salmonberry bushes and the reflections of bald eagles in Washington’s Bellingham Bay make me as alert as a wildebeest preparing to cross the crocodile-clotted Mara River in the Serengeti. I believe each of us has such a centering point. A special cove, with the beach house that smells of coconuts and sunburn; the summer lake with its rope swing.

Can we ever fully know these blessed places? I have been living on a lake in Washington State for the past year. No two days are the same, but I slowly am coming to know the water’s rhythms and sounds—the songs of frogs, the way the lily pads turn silver right before the sun drops behind the mountains. Not once have I peered out the window and not seen something completely new.

Over a life of water defining my own travels across our big blue world, I’ve kayaked with orcas off a speck on the Alaska map labeled “Deadmans Island,” had a hippo try to overturn my boat on the Nile, watched the glint of dolphins surfing a standing wave between sea and lagoon in Tahiti, and, as I explored a swamp, ignored my parents’ shouts to watch for snapping turtles, which to a six-year-old are the greatest things ever.

I have sailed on six of the seven seas, through 50-foot-high waves as my vessel traveled the southern Atlantic Ocean on its way to Antarctica, and past sperm whales in the deep Pacific Ocean.

It always has surprised me that we have better maps of the moon than we do of our oceans, even though oceans are home to the biggest mountains on the planet and canyons so deep they make the Grand Canyon look like a roadside ditch. An entire universe thrives under oceanic waves.

What isn’t down there is light. Photosynthesis doesn’t work beyond a depth of 650 feet; by 3,000 feet, the dark is perfect. Filmmaker Stephen Low, who in the 1990s recorded an expedition to the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, said that when he descended to the ship, resting nearly 10,000 feet deeper than any light not caused by the bioluminescence of sparse and impossible-to-imagine fish, it suddenly was just there.

“No perspective at all. No way to tell how big the thing is.”

The day in 1912 that the “unsinkable” Titanic cast off to cross the Atlantic, man experienced a moment of hubris. At last we humans controlled water—though what we master now with computers and GPS is nothing compared with the ancient Polynesians, who learned to read the sea and sky as clearly as a billboard and sailed canoes thousands of miles across a world with no landmarks at all.

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In one of the greatest moments of my life, I interviewed explorer Francis Cowan. Sixty years ago he sailed a raft from Tahiti to Chile without navigational instruments other than the sky’s swirl of stars.

“But Francis, what did you do when the storms came,” I asked, “when you couldn’t see the sky?”

“The sea is great,” he answered. “You can always wait for another day.”

Water is great. We tune ourselves to it, to its murmured song of ebb and flow, of wave and ripple, in seas, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, ponds, snows. We drink it, we bathe in it, we stare at dark clouds praying for their sudden moment of release of it.

“Take me somewhere magical,” my favorite cousin once said. So I did, to sail the sea. By the third day our ship was completely out of sight of land, nothing but water curving with the horizon.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. That’s exactly what I needed.”

Below us, the swells rolled, allowing us to dance with them until our very steps were full of the lift of waves. In our own small way, our steps lifting with the waves, we were tuning the ocean as we sailed—and it, in turn, was tuning us.

Edward Readicker-Henderson is an award-winning travel writer. 

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