Saturday, July 25, 2009

Welcome and Introduction

During the summer of 2009, my wife Kristine and I took a road trip from Maine to Montana. The initial goal was to help promote my latest book, Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds, which emphasizes the physical and cultural connections between the lakes and the people of New England and the Upper Midwest. That's why we titled trip blog "Walden to Wobegon: A Freshwater Journey."

Illustrations from "Walden," by Henry David Thoreau, and "Lake Wobegon Days" by Garrison Keillor, two books and two places with much in common.

Long before our departure, however, I shifted the purpose toward environmental education and broadened the trip's scope to be a personal investigation of all freshwater resources -- lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, springs, precipitation, soil moisture, and clouds -- we would encounter along the way. So, instead of spending our off-road time speaking to independent bookstores and media outlets, we spent it surveying the attitudes of ordinary people on the subject of fresh water.

Ossipe River near Freedom, New Hampshire.

Everywhere we went -- streets, parks, motels, restaurants, gas stations, museums, libraries, stores, offices, roadsides, bait shops, taverns, kiosks, and visitor centers -- we asked the same double-edge question: “What to you like best about fresh water? And what is your main concern?" Some of the answers we got were astonishing, for example the breakfast host in Aberdeen, South Dakota who didn’t know what freshwater was. Most were surprising because the "water question" was so open-ended. Most importantly, the answers we got were regionally specific because each water sub-culture has its own delights and issues.

Bob Job, an employee of Linton, North Dakota, pondering the upcoming vote about whether to join the regional water district or to continue relying on municipal wells.

For example, on June 28, we attended a rain-soaked meeting of the Bear Pond Improvement Association in North Turner, Maine. There we heard the good news that the clarity of the lake was improving and the bad news that more than half of the loon deaths statewide are due to lead poisoning. Nearly three weeks later, we were in visiting the sun-baked badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. There, a kayaker was reflecting on the beautifully braided Little Missouri River before wincing about a defiant rancher who strung an electrified wire across a publicly managed stream, nearly garroting one of their party.

Little Missouri River at Medora, North Dakota. Note the red gravel bars.

To such water stories by local residents, I added my own observations as seen through the bug-spattered windshield of our dented station wagon. For example, in Hackensack, Minnesota (alleged to be the home of Paul Bunyan’s domineering wife Lucette), we saw a team of eight reindeer created as folk art from rusty home heating-oil tanks. Some had probably leaked into local aquifers before being discarded. I also added stories excerpted from local newspapers you probably never heard of. For example, in Williston, North Dakota, the U.S. Air Force had been strafing the city with insecticide on behalf of a municipal bureaucracy called the “Vector Control,” which was coping with a mosquito problem exacerbated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Collectively, the personal anecdotes we were told, the observations we made, and the daily newspapers we read, constitute a time capsule of water stories from the summer of 2009. But the climate is changing, the population is growing, energy development is threatening, recreational activities are shifting, kids are paying less attention, and concerns about public health are rising. How will the water stories change in the coming half century?

Our geographic focus was the glaciated fringe of the former Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered the northern and north-central United States (including southern Ontario) until about 15,000 years ago. Extending from the crystal clear ponds in New England to the potholes along the Lewis and Clark Trail in the High Plains, this enormous glacier was largely responsible for creating the lakes, watersheds and aquifers found today, including the inland seas called the Great Lakes.

Mural painted on an oil tank at Port Stanley, Ontario (Lake Erie) suggests an oceanic affinity to what is obviously a freshwater lake.

We stuck to the back roads as much as possible, beginning with the rain-soaked, winding pavements of Maine’s lake district and ending with the dry-baked, ramrod-straight gravel roads of Sheridan County, Montana. Our journey took us through the highlands of New Hampshire; the 18th century villages of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut; the rolling Berkshires in western Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont; the Lake Champlain Lowlands and the Adirondacks of upstate New York; the Saint Lawrence River and the northern shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie; Michigan’s mitten and its and Upper Peninsula; across Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail; here and there in Minnesota; and west through the prairie potholes of the twin Dakotas. Throughout it all, we kept our feet on the ground and the rubber on the road, riding the thin interface between earth and sky, the place where hydrology happens.

North Shore of Lake Michigan west of Saint Ignace, Michigan.

Intense traffic happened only twice: northwest of Boston near Minuteman National Park, and on “The 401” during rush hour through Toronto. On two occasions, we were completely alone: nearly stuck on a washed-out logging trail in central New Hampshire, and on Route 216 in eastern Montana where we cruised along on a midsummer Friday afternoon without seeing a single stop sign or human being for an hour.

Montana Route 216 between Wibaux and Sydney was the lonliest stretch of the trip.

With Kristine driving, I was free to drink in the scenery and soak up what people were saying. And being a very early riser by habit, I had five hours before checkout time each morning to distill the previous day's experiences and pour them into a daily posting. After reaching the outermost point of the trip, we rode the westerly prairie winds back to Bemidji, Minnesota (getting nearly 34 miles per gallon in a loaded Volvo station wagon). There, I hid for a week in my parents empty house to edit the results into a narrative stream that I hope will be a novel contribution to the environmental education literature.

Walden to Wobegon: A Freshwater Journey from Maine to Montana, is book-length web-journal, written in the anecdotal style of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, but with a tight focus on freshwater. It combines the intensity and quirkiness of a daily diary with the measured pace and uniform style of an edited manuscript. Following the "Preview-Table of Contents," and this Introduction are twenty chapters, one for each day of the road trip. The final chapter is a retrospective written from the perspective of the journey home.

Perhaps you're a fan of crossword puzzles. If so, then clinker, couteau, coulee, aquifer, aquamarine, artesian, pothole, bentonite badland, anhydrous, ammonia, flocculation, fluoride, LUST, limnions, kettles, and catchment are just a few of the words I would have used to design a puzzle from the trip. If you're a fan of literature, then you might enjoy the story of Bob Job from Linton, North Dakota. Were he Shakespeare, he might have written: "To drink or not to drink (water from the Missouri River)....That is the question." If you like mysteries, then you might wonder why there's no pipeline or water truck traffic between Poland Spring and the corporation's bottling plant.

For factual and analytical information about water resources, there are plenty of data-rich, highly vetted, and politically correct documents available from government agencies and scientific organizations. But if those formats are not your cup of tea, I hope you will read, enjoy, and learn from this quirky web-journal.