Water is always in motion, always restless. It rushes and ripples, waves and wanders. One particular bottle of it covered a lot of miles lately.
During the past week, the water, which was collected from the source of the Mississippi River by indigenous women, passed down many miles of the St. Croix River. Blessed by prayers and collected in ceremony, this sacred liquid is known as nibi to Ojibwe people.
Sunday morning I met nibi at Log House Landing in Scandia. I also met four companions who would escort it downstream in their kayaks. After a few photos and a prayer for water, we pushed off. The river immediately held us, absorbing some of gravity’s pull, letting us ride on the surface of the mighty stream. There’s something so comforting about being carried by water.
Today, though, we were also carrying the water. The Relay for our Water was organized to give people a chance to give back to the liquid that gives us life.
That morning, other carriers brought the water from Interstate Park to Log House. In the next few days, it would make its way to Stillwater, and then to St. Paul by bike. It was all part of an event to celebrate water, and protest against threats to it.
It was a tropical day. The sun’s intensity was magnified by the saturated atmosphere. You could break a sweat sitting still — or paddling downstream. We moved steadily past lush green banks splashed with the scarlet of cardinal flower and sunny sneezeweed, under a gauntlet of cedar waxwings who swooped over the river and back to their perches.
In a short ways, we fell into the river’s rhythm, and began the natural conversations that come with canoeing or kayaking. We drifted between each other, taking turns talking to our nearest neighbor, and silently slipping down the river.
Nibi enjoyed the ride in silence. It made me think of the song of a spring-fed waterfall, or a rill rushing between rocks, and the Wendell Berry quote, “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Only obstacles bring out water’s voice — sealed in a vessel, it is quiet. Free as a river, millions of gallons can carry us downstream in silence.
(Above photos courtesy John Chevalier)
The Relay for Water is a grassroots-organized effort. This one pint or so of water traveled hundreds of miles and passed through countless hands before I briefly accompanied it. Few of the folks who have carried it met each other, but all were connected by this living liquid. And everyone took time to protect it and get it to the next person in this human river.
My paddling partners were Peter Foster and Leslie MacKenzie, and Jaunita and Geoff Schodde. We received the water from the folks who carried it down from Interstate Park that morning, John Goodfellow, Kitsi Vadheim, and Cecily Harris.
Above St. Croix Falls, John Chevalier and a paddling partner had carried it down the upper river for several days. After us, another flotilla took it to Stillwater, where they were met by a group on the water and on land. Then, others carried by bicycle by way of the Brown’s Creek and Gateway State Trails to the capital city.
Tomorrow, Saturday, August 29, it will travel from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s headquarters to the state capitol building. Later this fall, it will be returned to the Mississippi headwaters, as wild rice harvest season comes to a close.
The Relay for our Water was organized to celebrate Minnesota’s priceless waters, and oppose the Line 3 oil pipeline project, which threatens many lakes and rivers. While the pipeline route does not cross the St. Croix’s watershed, all water is connected. It would cross the upper Mississippi twice, as well as more than 200 streams in northern Minnesota, countless wetlands, and violate U.S. treaties with Ojibwe tribes.
As we approached Marine on St. Croix, the human relationship with water was hard to miss. On a sultry Sunday, people were boating, paddling, fishing, swimming, and simply trying to be near the river.
When we reached the landing, nibi stopped for the night. It was brought to someone else, who would carry it to the next person, and along its way it would go.
I had never been on the river with these four people before. It’s always amazing how an hour or two sharing water with others can create connections, and I believe I got to know them better in our short paddle than I could have in six hours of terrestrial conversation. I said goodbye and paddled on a couple more miles.
The river seemed very different when I was alone. It was still hot and lush, but its presence expanded until it filled the sudden silence and solitude.
The river level had been slowly dropping and the water clearing since recent rains, making possible one of my favorite paddling pastimes. I turned my attention down, watching the scenery of sand and channels, plants and rocks on the river bed, as it slipped past underneath. In just a few inches of water, it felt like I was flying, but really carried by the clear, orange-tinted water of the St. Croix.
When I was almost to the landing, I stopped at a favorite beach for a quick swim. I walked into the water until it was knee deep, then sat in the sand. The current pushed at me, washed away sweat, cooled my body. I half-floated, just heavy enough to keep me in one place, and my aches and pains floated away.
Water is the one of the most powerful forces on Earth, yet it is fragile and easily contaminated. It is always there for us, and as it held me, I thought about how I could return the favor. That’s one reason I wrote this article.