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Photos and story by Ken Campbell

Take a look at any map that you may have handy. Colors and squiggles of coastline, urban areas and open spaces, but what you are likely to notice first are the lines, the highlighted borders dividing the map. They are the most obvious marks, and in most cases these political boundaries are what the map is based on. All man-made, although some may follow along with natural features – mostly rivers – the lines are clearly the product of human imagination.

Lines of division, all of them. Lines to separate one country from another, one state or province from its neighbor, or one particular city or village from the ones on either side. We see them so often that we don’t even think about them consciously, but they are still there. These artificial barriers can seem completely arbitrary and yet they still hold deep meaning for most of us. (Just try asking someone from Wales if they are English, or telling someone who lives in Tacoma that it’s the same thing as living in Seattle.)

Nature is a place of more permeable borders, not given to lines as symbols of separation, with few exceptions. None of them are more impressive than the line that defines the edges of a watershed, which is itself one of nature’s most powerful features. Most of us, however, would be hard pressed to find evidence of it on that map we were just looking at. As it happens, the most important lines on our maps are the ones that aren’t there, and this concept of viewing our immediate surroundings as part of our larger watershed brings a perspective that makes those surroundings far more interesting.

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The idea of a watershed is not something that most people are familiar with, although they should be. The word refers to the region or area that is drained by a system of streams, creeks and ultimately, a river. This is a critical phase in the hydrologic cycle, this movement of water from the mountains to the sea, and it is an effort that is organized and carried out by watersheds. Along the crest line of the hills that surround these areas run the lines we cannot see on the map, clearly dividing one side from the other in turn. But it’s not just that. A watershed is more than simply a system for moving water, it is also a complicated set of connections between the land, the river that runs through it and the people who live there.

Those of us who paddle may already have a working knowledge of our local watersheds, may already see some of the ways that our lives are tied to these streams and rivers. We look to the water primarily for recreation, while others look at the flow and see irrigation, power or a better day of fishing. It doesn’t really matter what our highest use is on a personal level; the fact that so many different meanings are given to any watershed is an indication of the value that it holds, even if it is not always given credit.

Rivers are facing some of the same environmental pressures that are being felt elsewhere, like non-point pollution from storm runoff, agricultural nutrient overload, dumping and other foul deeds. The implications of all this abuse can be felt throughout the affected watershed, and the associated problems have an impact on public health, property values and the future of life in that finite, circumscribed zone.

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At any moment, at any given spot in the river, everything is different from the other places along the waterway. And yet in that moment, the river is still all one river. Even though the places and people that line its banks may differ in many ways, they are still connected by the water that touches them all. To the extent that people are figuring this out, there are places where the situation may be improving. As citizens get out into their own distinct watersheds and learn the ways that people and places are connected, a lasting bond is formed between them. An understanding born of familiarity and respect is key to any chance at environmental progress, no matter where in the watershed we are looking.

We value the things we know well, the places we love. The time has come to get that map out again and draw that line around your watershed. This is your home, the best one you’ll ever have.

——MORE ENVIRONMENTAL PADDLING COVERAGE FROM C&K——

Cleaning up Missouri Waters, One Tire at a time

Weather and Climate 101 for Paddlers

Digital Feature ‘A River Divided’ on paddling (and walking) the length of the Rio Grande