This past summer I got to be a bum for 60 glorious days. I traipsed 11,107 miles around the western half of the United States and into northern Saskatchewan in my maroon Jeep Grand Cherokee, stopping whenever possible to backpack, mountain bike, rock climb, canoe and camp.
It was a trip that had been in the making for nearly a year. I devoted hours to planning out the perfect route, reserving backcountry permits, contacting friends about meeting up along the way, and converting my vehicle into an adventure-mobile.
My friends referred to the undertaking as “Vision Quest 2015.” My dad helped me build a sleeping platform for my car. My mom instructed me to call home once a week. I loaded up my gear, filling every nook and cranny of space, checked my oil and windshield washer fluid, and hit the road.
I crossed five different river basins, spending a decent amount of time in the Missouri Basin, and also cruised through the Arkansas, Colorado, California, Nevada and Northwest basins. In Canada, I passed through several drainage areas as well, including the small region that eventually ends up in the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Hudson Bay.
It’s not a profound idea to recognize that water plays a large role in our lives. We need it to survive, to wash the dirt off our feet, to paddle our boats in, to cool off.
The concept that intrigues me more is following the path of our water. How a tiny spring trickles along until it intersects with others and becomes a twisting torrent of mighty river, chugging along with one final destination in mind.
Everywhere I went this summer, I found myself surrounded by stories and experiences centering around water.
I was caught in a flash flood in the red rock canyons of Utah’s desert country. I paddled along the shores of Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan — one of the only bodies of water that sits directly on the Continental Divide, meaning that half of the lake drains to the Pacific and half drains to the Atlantic. I witnessed the extreme drought occurring in California and heard about the troubles of a major water bottling operation hogging the resources of a community in western Colorado. I picked up a hitchhiker who explained the inner workings of hydropower plants in Montana. I ran out of water purification drops in the middle of Yosemite’s backcountry and thankfully made a new trail friend who lent me his filter. I took dips in waterfalls and gazed upon the powerful Arkansas River from atop Colorado’s Royal Gorge and re-connected with an old friend on the banks of Portland’s Willamette River.
On the final day of my trip, as I cruised next to the familiar Platte River on Interstate 80, I reflected again on the many paths our water supply takes as it carves through the land. It’s a constantly moving, constantly changing network of our most precious resource. We all live downstream from someone and upstream from someone else.
When I got back to PBT headquarters in Lincoln, I wanted to look more into how, exactly, the different drainage basins are designated.
I found that river basins are more important from a hydrological, economic and ecological point of view than I previously gave them credit for. A river basin is simply an area of land that drains to a particular water body. There are 18 major river basins in the contiguous United States, as designated by the U.S. Water Resources Council. Experts have agreed that managing these river basins is the best approach to conserving our planet’s freshwater resources. A well-managed river basin can provide fresh drinking water for communities, access to food, hydropower and recreational opportunities. River basins also create a critical link between land and sea — providing transportation routes for people and aquatic creatures.
The Platte Basin will always hold a special spot in my trove of nostalgic places. It’s where I’ve grown up and fallen in love with being outside. After the multi-basin experience of this past summer, though, I’ve learned to appreciate all river basins more. I respect the power a basin can possess, recognize the necessity of conserving these areas, and can relate to the determination with which a river ceaselessly moves forward.
I kept a blog during my trip this summer. Check it out here.
Cristina Woodworth is a PBT intern and senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism and environmental studies.