As a boy I camped on Government Island in the Columbia River. Long and low, with only a few acres of birch, vine maple and high grasses, the island is essentially a current-sculpted sandbar. We bivouacked in sandy clearings on its face. Our canvas tents, taut at first, soon sagged as wind soughed off the river and coaxed lines and pegs loose. Our campfire smoke lay low against the island, and moved away – without rising – over water.
In 1805, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Expedition passed this way. This bend of the Columbia – at 1,232 miles the 49th longest river on earth – is replete with tales from their venture. Maps hereabouts are imprinted with their names.
As boys, we paused to marvel that so long ago they had passed by. If we squinted, we could see their ghosts in the smoke.
Three decades later I stand on the south bank of the Missouri a few miles upstream from where it empties into the Mississippi. If the Columbia is long, the Missouri is extensive, crossing five states and 2,546 miles. And it wends through an altogether different country, this August Midwest. Although it isn’t yet 9 a.m., the temperature is approaching 90. As a lifelong inhabitant of temperate Washington, I am unaccustomed to the humidity. In Florissant, Missouri – where I am at a training seminar with my firm – the heat is tangible.
I had begun my hike to the accompaniment of an owl’s early-morning question, hoping to encounter deer on the trail. Indeed, two years before I had seen them about halfway between the conference center and the river. Their hides sun-dappled, eyes exploring me quizzically as those of deer used to humans will, ears cocked – they had lingered near me for a few moments, then bounded away as soon as I moved in a manner that perturbed them.
Supposedly you can tell the temperature from the wingbeats of cicadas. The frequency – whether higher or lower I don’t know – will tell you how hot it is. This morning the waveform of their sounds is nearly palpable. It seems likely that I could look through a space in the redbud shrubs and see it wafting – in visible layers – around a dew-bejeweled spider’s nest woven in a precise circle. My pocket-guide tells me that tree to the right of the web is an American bladdernut (staphylea trifolia). Its seedpods, when dry, rattle like an infant’s toy. All around is this fabulous chorale: cicadas, seedpods, back-currents near water’s edge, wind in the black willows that stabilize the riverbank. Even the oscillations of the black-winged Swallowtail fluttering past are beautifully percussive.
A staffer at the center told me there is a swamp white oak more than 300 years old somewhere on this trail. Although I don’t know which tree it is, I am moved to know of it. It was here, and mature, when the Corps passed upriver almost two centuries ago. From the bank I imagine four-dozen woodsmen and soldiers in two pirogues and one larger boat – the same way I did as a kid on the Columbia’s banks – all rowing against the flow that continues inexorably here today.
I look across to the opposite bank. Exactly as on this side, there is a band of Shagbark hickory (used to make ball bats, my pocket guide reports), walnut, willow, ash, mulberry, elm, dogwood, oak, maple, sugarberry, Ohio buckeye, hackberry, hawthorn, paw paw, bladdernut, basswood, sycamore, box elder. Beyond these trees are Illinois’s limestone cliffs, which demark a bend in the Mississippi and fade in rising mist off sorghum and cornfields as morning evolves. I turn from the river and start the climb back up the trail. A grumpy little toad crosses my path, fleeing. No deer, all the way up and out.
Tonight I will step out onto one of center’s observation decks. A vividly green cicada will light and begin to nibble on the handrail as stars come out in familiar constellations – patterns that stamped themselves on me as a boy and will bring me solace 2,000 miles from home. I will come very close to the bug. I’ll see its mandible worrying the rail in search of whatever cicadas eat to fuel those sonic powerplants, which will lay neatly folded about its carapace and thorax. Delighted with this perfect specimen, I will decide my son, who is now the age I was when I camped on Government Island, must see it.
Hoping it will loiter on the rail for a while, I’ll hurry back into the center for my camera.