I have loved many rivers. As a paddler, I lean to meandering, small rivers and streams where I can lose myself in solitude. I've never wanted to be a racer. To be on a river with scores or even hundreds of others seems like the antithesis of the entire experience. Nonetheless, I do not begrudge racers their place, strange though it may be. Humans are a competitive lot.
In the Adirondack Park of New York State, the Grasse, Oswegatchie and Raquette are among my favorites. I spent forty years exploring these and many other rivers within the park with my trusty companion, Jim. I once lived along a small river called Trout Brook, located between Potsdam and Madrid, just north of the Adirondacks in the St. Lawrence River valley. Along with others, notably, Don Butters, a group of us worked successfully to protect Trout Brook from efforts to construct a landfill along its banks.
And with two other friends, David and Robert Trithart, I fought a case in favor of allowing free passage on navigable rivers inside the Adirondack Park. We were encouraged in our efforts by Paul Jamieson, the late doyen of Adirondack writers and river lovers. It was through Paul's decades-long battle to open Adirondack rivers to the public that that goal was finally achieved through a series of appeals court decisions in New York.
But if this seems like an ode to Adirondack rivers, it is in fact an ode to just one of many rivers that I have loved. That river is the Thames in England, a river I first encountered almost sixty years ago. Over the years, I have strolled along her banks, taken boat tours to Greenwich, punted her coils in Oxford, stared into her black waters from Cleopatra's Needle along the embankment and marveled at nighttime views of the houses of Parliament as Big Ben tolled away the hours.
The history of this river has always enthralled me. As a writer and author, a number of my books have included aspects of the Thames somewhere in their schemes. If the Thames also calls to you, I heartedly recommend Peter Ackroyd's book, Thames: the Biography.
For a river that is only 215 miles long, the Thames has more history than perhaps any other on Earth. It has been used by man like few others, dating well back into Paleolithic times. There are 134 bridges along her course. She is tame enough to be paddled her entire length by paddlers of a certain age with little interest in running rapids or races and more in viewing history as it flows by.
The river constantly renews itself. As Peter Ackroyd declares: "One drop of water, fallen in the Cotswolds, will have been drunk by eight different people before it reaches the sea. It is taken out, purified, and then reintroduced to the river." I confess I have no idea how this particular bit of information was determined.
Cleopatra's Needle was created by the Pharaoh Thurmose III. The obelisk stood for 1500 years at Heliopolis on the banks of the Nile, one great river I regret to say I have never seen. Maybe that's why I like to stand beside Cleopatra's Needle and think about both mighty rivers and the great civilizations the obelisk once overlooked. Transported to the Thames in 1878, the monument's pink granite has since been blackened by the fogs and smoke of the city, so it is now as black as the river.
When I think of the history of the Adirondack rivers I grew up with, that history pales next to the majestic history of the Thames, along with that of the great empire itself. When we speak of history of course, we are talking about the human history. The river goes back long before ancient humans struggled to haul huge stones into place for monuments like Stonehenge. Druids, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Romans, Vikings, Normans...the list goes on. From Queen Boudica, warrior queen of the Iceni, trying to unite the tribes of Britain against Rome to Winston Churchill doing the same against Germany, the Thames steadfastly flowed past them all.
Even with so much history to choose from, the fourth Duke of Queensbury grew tired of watching the Thames from his house at Richmond in the late 1700s. "What is there to make so much of in the Thames?" he asked. "I am quite weary of it, there it goes, flow, flow, flow, always the same."
Always the same? No change in the Thames? Consider this: 30 million years ago, Britain was connected to Europe via a land bridge. The Rhine River was actually an extension of the Thames. It was a tropical world, a world of jungles. Crocodiles and rhinoceruses lived along the river and palm trees lined its banks.
More recently, at the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, hippos wallowed in Trafalgar Square, while elephants wandered down the Strand. Since 10,000 B.C., with the arrival of Mesolithic settlers, humans have occupied and settled the Thames valley in an unbroken process. They constructed some of the earliest boats, canoes 18 feet long, dug out of single tree trunks. In the Neolithic Age, beginning about 3,500 years B.C., more than 80 Neolithic settlements have been found, just along the course of the Middle Thames alone. They lived in huts and small villages, grew crops and raised livestock.
One of the reasons I love rivers is their changeability. Small, winding streams offer a constantly altering vista. I never could understand the fixation some people have for sailing and sea cruises; nothing to see for days on end but ocean, sky and horizon line. Sunsets only get you so far. I become bored quickly at sea.
There is an echo between Adirondack rivers and the Thames. It took many years for the navigation of Adirondack rivers to overcome the refusal by private, wealthy landowners to allow free public access. Again, largely due to the efforts of Paul Jamieson. In England, however, the Thames has, throughout its history, been understood to be free to all people. In the Magna Carta, the great rivers of the English kingdom were granted to all men and women alike.
A parliamentary committee in the 19th century declared the river to be "an ancient and free highway." The public had the right "to move boats over any and every part of the river through which the Thames water flows." Essentially, the river belongs to no one, neither monarch nor peasant.
So it seems the Thames' protections go further than those of the rivers of the Adirondacks, which still require the standard of navigability as the limit to its free use by the people.
The great English nature writer Richard Jefferies says in "The Modern Thames" (1885), "on the river people do as they choose, and there does not seem to be any law at all..."
Quite reminiscent, don't you think, of the Adirondacks' famous boulder, Sunday Rock, at the northern entrance to the park, whose stated purpose was to mark the boundary beyond which the laws of men were supposed to fall away.