The exquisite roar of roiling water in mountain creeks and rivers
by Allen Best
It’s that exquisite time of year in the Rocky Mountains when winter dissolves into summer and snow into water, roiling and roaring in the annual runoff amid the rocks of mountain creeks.
I once lived in the Colorado mountain town of Vail, my cramped condo close to Red Sandstone Creek. The creek has a small watershed, the headwaters just a few miles away. In May and June, though, it ran rambunctiously with runoff from the melted snow. A few times, I sat on terraces along its banks, inwardly smiling as I watched the water pound and spray, then sluice down among the ruddy rocks, always in a hurry—rushing, rushing, but also this: noisy.
I loved that sound, what Wallace Stegner, in one of his many books, called “The Sound of Mountain Water.” In those same years I often kept my window open at night, lulled to sleep with the sweet discourse of a billion water molecules sloshing, slamming, slithering down the nearby creek, impatient to join the mighty Colorado River about 35 miles away.
Noise often makes me cranky. Try as I might, my ears do not translate the hum and whine of highways and busy streets into a soothing lullaby. Grinding, blustery diesel engines annoy me, but far worse are motorcycles whose self-important riders have replaced their factory-installed noise-taming mufflers with after-market pipes. If unprepared for the roar, it’s like being slapped hard on the back of the head by a stranger.
Water rushing self-importantly down a mountain creek is different. It’s music. It’s the finest orchestra you’ve ever heard, Earl Scruggs at his best, more powerful than the tastiest licks of Keith Richards, more melodic than McCartney and Lennon, more poetic than Bob Dylan. Those sounds connect me viscerally to the annual rhythms of the planet. They’re a reminder that today’s Facebook postings or the unrelenting Twitter feeds are not the most important things happening today. There is life beyond Donald and Hillary.
During that same time in Vail, I was strong, skilled and lucky enough to ski among the surrounding peaks during May and June. In that setting you get to know the changing states of snow like the mood changes of a close companion. In the morning at 10,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation, it was usually hard as concrete after an overnight freeze, melting discernibly by 10 a.m. on the surface, just enough to provide an edge for your skis. By late afternoon, the snowpack sometimes was eviscerated by the day’s heat, too hollow to support your weight. Snow melts from the interior. Whoosh—sometimes you’d plunge to the ground.
A tradition of summer solstice during those years in Vail was to climb to above timberline in the range of mountains near Mount of the Holy Cross. Some of those years we found wildflowers blooming by June 21. But in big snow years or those when winter refused to flee until Memorial Day, creeks remained blanketed with snow at the solstice. Below, you could hear the commotion, like a subway, of water that only minutes and hours before that had been snow, now on a mission to reach the Pacific Ocean.
Rarely does this runoff from the Colorado Rockies reach the Pacific or, on the eastern slope, to the Atlantic. Its gets drawn out of its natural pathways for farms, orchards, and cities. At Glen Canyon, Hoover and other dams, it produces the electricity that powers our gadgets, and in the Imperial Valley along the Arizona-California border, it produces the lettuce and broccoli we find at our grocery stores in January. The snowmelt bathes our bodies whether we’re in Denver, Tucson or Los Angeles. As a species, we have a right to be impressed with ourselves. Our hydrological engineering is a wonder.
But the sound of mountain water now tumbling off peaks along the continent’s spine is an even more visceral wonder. The sound matters just as much as the noise of the presidential campaigns. It matters just as much as whether the economy sizzles or slumbers or who wins the NBA championship.
You may never live in a mountain town, with a rowdy creek outside your window running wild and free. But everywhere, no matter how far downstream, there’s a spring runoff. Connecting with this symphony of nature may leave you smiling and just a little bit richer.
An alternative version of this essay appears in The Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/2016/06/17/the-exquisite-symphony-of-mountain-runoff/