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In a nation where there seems to be a Starbucks around every bend, getting away from it all sometimes feels impossible. Fortunately, some 3.5 million miles of rivers provide paths less traveled. Cutting across every state and terrain, and leading to some of the most scenic locations in the country, rivers offer a rare opportunity to journey like the early explorers, deep into the heart of nature.

“On a summer afternoon when you’re out on the river, and the sun is shining on the water, it’s so wild out there – you’re surrounded by otters and fish,” says Kimani Kamau, a river guide with Friends of the River, a statewide river conservation group in Sacramento, Calif. “It’s hard to describe how refreshing it is.”

Growing up in Kenya, Kamau fished in small trout streams and explored riverbanks looking for wild fruit. But until about four years ago, he had never been on a river. Then he got a job as the manager of volunteer programs at Friends of the River. Now he’s a white-water enthusiast who coordinates volunteers to lead rafting tours.

Kamau loves the perspective he’s gained by traveling the state’s water trails – so much so, in fact, that when he returns to Kenya, he plans to start a rafting program that provides opportunities for people living along Kenyan rivers to make their livings as river guides. “Before, the only time I thought about a river was when I was driving over a bridge. Now I just want to be part of that beautiful rolling thing. It has changed my life,” he admits.

From tackling California’s rapids to exploring the tranquil waters of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, from fly-fishing the tributaries of the mighty Susquehanna to retracing Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River trail, more people than ever are flocking to river recreation. The Outdoor Industry Foundation reports that more than 34 million paddlers (canoe, raft or kayak) and almost 15 million fly-fishing enthusiasts used our nation’s waterways in 2005 – an increase of 4 percent and 13 percent, respectively, since 2003.

People also are enjoying rivers in new ways. For example, the Lunch Counter, a wave that forms as a result of mountain runoff in the spring and early summer in the dam-controlled Snake River near Jackson, Wyo., has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s hottest surf breaks, drawing curious surfers from both coasts.

The popularity of these river activities reflects the public’s growing interest in getting off the beaten path and taking the water way. “Thirty years ago, if you walked into a room and said you were a white-water boater, you would have been on the lunatic fringe. Now, you’re in the mainstream,” says Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater, a national river conservation group based in Cullowhee, N.C.

Open the Flood Gates

Greater accessibility has spurred much of this popularity. Across the nation, “river trails” have sprouted along abandoned railways and watershed preserves. American Whitewater, for example, has fought for access to 1,000 miles of white-water runs and partnered with fishing advocates to reestablish native fishing habitats. Meanwhile, local groups, such as the River Revitalization Foundation in Milwaukee, Wis., merge conservation, public education and freshwater recreational access.

And Milwaukee is just one among dozens of cities, including Chicago and San Antonio, where residents converge on riverfront promenades, join paddling events and enjoy a new waterfront view of downtown.

The commitment to compatible river living has reached new heights in Buena Vista, Colo., a quiet community on the Arkansas River that’s one of the most popular white-water locations in the country. In 2003, siblings and competitive kayakers Jed and Katie Selby, with the help of their father, a Tucson, Ariz.–based doctor and real-estate investor, purchased 40 acres along the river and created a widely heralded plan for a river-friendly community called South Main. Their vision combines river recreation, including a white-water park, with low-impact development and a New Urbanism design that will reconnect the town to its river history. The plan struck a chord: Before ground even broke on the project, all the housing lots had pre-sold. (For more on the Selbys’ project, read “Back to the Land” in the April 2005 archives.) “It’s a great model for what the future of sustainable development along these really unique national resources could be,” says Singleton.

The Changing Tide

Pollution control has played a major role in today’s river renaissance. While government has worked to clean up the nation’s waterways, river enthusiasts have become some of their most passionate stewards.

Just 40 years ago, America’s rivers were in a shameful state, filled with industrial and municipal pollution, chemical contamination, and garbage. A series of landmark environmental policies, including the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act, have helped turn the tide, but nearly half of our nation’s streams, lakes and estuaries are still not clean enough for fishing or swimming, says Katherine Luscher, partnership program director with River Network, a national nonprofit conservation group based in Portland, Ore. (Learn more at www.rivernetwork.org.)

So, hundreds of organizations whose ranks are filled with water enthusiasts have become watchdogs over our rivers. Whether by boat or raft, in hiking boots or waders, these river keepers are the eyes and ears of the nation’s waterways, monitoring white-water flows, testing and reporting pollution levels in partnership with government agencies, hauling trash out of streams, and leading paddling trips.

“People start using rivers for recreation, and through this, they develop a very keen sense of the environmental qualities of the river corridors,” says Singleton. “And they become the most ardent environmental stewards when it comes to their specific connection.”

Those connections can run deep, sometimes spanning decades. Take Joe Cook, for example. He grew up in Atlanta swimming in the Chattahoochee River, a 436-mile waterway that supplies drinking water to more than half of Georgia’s residents. More recently, Cook paddled his canoe from the river’s headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, a 100-day trip he and his former wife chronicled in the book River Song: A Journey Down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers (University of Alabama Press, 2000).

Today, Cook devotes himself to protecting the sprawling Coosa River Basin near his home in Rome, Ga., as executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI). The organization works to sustain the 5,000-square-mile basin’s vast stream system and diverse ecology by developing educational campaigns, training volunteer river monitors, and conducting river and stream cleanup events. A 2006 CRBI cleanup of Rome’s Silver Creek, for example, drew 100 volunteers and netted 8,000 pounds of trash, including 60 tires, several bicycles, appliances and Styrofoam from a nearby production facility, among other debris.

In addition to pitching in to clean up the waters they play upon, river enthusiasts are eager to share their passion. And paddling events led by kayakers and canoeists across the country are key to turning curious citizens into ardent river supporters. “For environmental causes to be successful, you have to have constituents involved, and you have to get them outside and doing things,” says American Whitewater’s stewardship director, Dave Steindorf.

And as Kimani Kamau can testify, just one river experience is enough to hook anyone. “If you go out on a river once, there’s a 99 percent chance you’ll go out again – and again and again,” he says.

River Inspirations

Water stewards are hard at work protecting rivers around the country. Here’s how you can get involved:

American Canoe Association – Provides education on matters related to paddling, supports river stewardship, and promotes programs and events that support paddle-sport recreation; www.americancanoe.org

American Rivers National River Cleanup – Register a site for cleanup, or volunteer to clean a river or stream in your community from June 2–10, 2007; www.americanrivers.orgwww.nationalrivercleanup.org

American Whitewater – Restores rivers dried up by hydropower dams, improves public land management and protects public access to rivers; www.american whitewater.org

Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign – The Water Sentinels program trains volunteers to collect water samples and monitor data with the goal of cleaning up waterways; www.sierraclub.org/cleanwater

Trout Unlimited – Volunteers from this conservation organization’s extensive network conserve, protect and restore North America’s trout and salmon fisheries and their watersheds; www.tu.org|

Before You Wade, Paddle or Dive In

Rivers offer fantastic recreational opportunities, but don’t get caught unprepared. Follow this checklist to ensure a fun, safe experience:

Get smart. Make sure you’re educated about your activity, your vessel and your gear, well before venturing out on a river.

Go prepared. Wear the right clothing for the activity and weather, and pack a set of dry clothes in a waterproof bag. Bring safety equipment, emergency provisions, maps, waterproof sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, food and plenty of fresh drinking water. Keep them dry and attached to your boat, or, if you’re on foot, in a secure place.

Study up. Make sure you’re familiar with currents, launch locations, dams and other features so you can avoid unexpected obstacles. This is especially important on white-water runs, where water levels can change drastically as a result of weather conditions or dam discharges.

Know your limits. Don’t attempt to navigate a section of river that is beyond your skill level.

Shout out. Before going out on a river, let someone know where you’ll be, including where you plan to launch and pull out, and what time you’ll be back.

Keep it clean. Pack up all your trash to make sure the river stays clean for everyone to enjoy.

Stay healthy. Never drink river water, and try to avoid getting it in your eyes or nose.

Ask around. To learn about potential river pollution or other health concerns, contact a local watershed group (search online by “[state name], watershed”); your local office of the Environmental Protection Agency (find at www.epa.gov/epahome/state.htm); or your state park system (search online by “[state], [state park system]”). Also, check the EPA’s online listings of rivers and streams to find pollution reports at www.epa.gov/owow/streamsurvey and www.epa.gov/waters/305b.

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