Our society today is obsessed with value. Life is often judged by the price of our homes, the cost of our food, or even the monetary values we assign to living beings--"he's worth 1.2 million" is enough to signal importance without a single other factor. This system has become the way we quantify everything: wilderness areas by tourist dollars and hiker traffic, oceans by their contribution to coastal and world economies. Movements to protect rivers are swept in with a vanguard of statistics and economic buzzwords. But along the way, in the maze of numbers and markets and monetary worth, some of the truest value of these places is forgotten.
Numbers are still important for rivers; they tell us how the river flows, how many fish and waterfowl call it home, and how many people have walked its banks. But the deepest value of a river is in none of these things. There is a part of the river that is utterly unquantifiable; a mystery, a knowing beyond the ken of humankind. There is more to a river than the numbers can describe, more in the sudden roar of a wavetrain appearing around a cliff-rimmed bend than any list of statistics can describe. It isn't the economic value of a river's components that keeps us coming back; what really draws people to the river, where its deepest value really lies, is beyond any list of monetary values or wildlife surveys. It is in the flickering silver gleam of a running salmon, the spray of whitewater in summer sunlight; the indescribable intrinsic energy that is the river's soul.
The soul of each river is different, and each one has the capacity to change lives in a different way. Even individual rivers are constantly changing; varying with each season, eroding new banks and channels, roaring and ebbing with the rhythm of each year's snowmelt. All the numbers in the world cannot come close to describing the different feel of a river in each season. The spring melt, wild with cold young water sluicing down from ice-clad peaks; the lazy low days of late summer, when heat and water blur together in somnolence and the banks are crowded with lush greenery; the clear quiet ripples of winter beneath an arch of bare branches. It is the brush of this indefinable mystery, this soul that is as vibrant and mercurial as the river itself that keeps us coming back, again and again.
There is plenty of value in river statistics; they help us learn, help us figure out how a river connects to the rest of the world. But the true worth of a river cannot be found on any spreadsheet or glossy brochure. If you really want to know the value of a river, grab a raft or a kayak or your own two feet and let the rush of wild water show you how to feel the river's soul.