North out of Yellowstone, a two-lane road snaked along the hillside and next to a dark blue-green river, white ripples cascading from rocks. Around a bend, traffic slowed to a stop and go. I pressed and released the break with patience born from heart full of bison, caribou, and mineral pools.
Onto a straightaway, we saw a bull elk down river, and knew the traffic jam was for him.
As we neared, we found a crowd of people only tamed by the limited parking area. We got lucky. A car put on its reverse lights as we approached. And just like the others, we left our car with camera in hand to admire and immortalize the stag in our memory.
As we focused on the bull, a man excitedly approached us to point and say, “this is the most incredible thing. There’s a mom over there and baby in the grass!”
The mother relaxed close to the river, her golden back to the crowd, wanting to enjoy the view, but her ears turned back, knowing humans could not be trusted. We walked a few steps further to find the baby behind tall grass. It stood facing us, its innocent eyes on us. Nervous, yet unafraid, knowing its father stood behind in the river, his robust, spearlike antlers facing the crowd. Ready if necessary, keeping an eye toward us as he lowered his mouth to drink.
Listening to the river and tuning out the crowd’s chatter, I remembered the last time — the first time — I found myself in the presence of elk. At an empty campsite on a rocky creek in Oregon, in the cool morning just after dawn, I walked through the mist. Moisture hung low to the earth to make the lush ferns mysterious and magical. I had left my camera in the tent, having taken many pictures the day before. I wanted to lose myself on the winding trail that followed along the creek, beneath trees adorned with moss. As I bathed in the forest, I saw a family of elk drinking. Two cows, a bull, and a few calfs. I stopped, obscuring myself behind a tree, in awe of their elusive nobility. After a few breaths, I stepped around the tree and towards the creek to get closer. They each stopped drinking to watch me. Having their peace disturbed, they backed away into the forest and mist.
We returned to the road leaving Yellowstone after taking our pictures and enjoying the elk. We drove to a campsite nestled between hills. We walked beside a meadow while the sky turned pink and purple, passing deer who leaped as we neared.
The next morning, we woke early, broke camp and continued north to Glacier. A haze had settled in over night. North of Bozeman, forcing us to abandon our plans, the air grew thick and brown.
Smoke from Oregon. Forests burning. Flames intensified by human-created climate change, taking the moss, ferns, trees, insects, and wildlife — the elk.
Under the smoke, my heart burned along with my relations, children of the earth and sky.
I haven’t even begun building the Varanasi Sage art installation and I’ve already hit a bump! Watch this video to see what happened — it’s all part of the excitement! I’m sure there will be many more bumps in the journey, so I’ve got to get used to it!
I drive down Dog Bar Road along narrow twists and turns. I pass green, rolling hills; Victorian farm houses with blossoming trees and horses out front; abandoned barns that are hauntingly romantic; and ponds that are full from recent rainstorms.
In the distance, a group of female turkeys step out of the lush greenery and onto the road. I slow to a stop and see a male, with large plumage, chase after them. He passes behind daffodils and out of sight.
I arrive at the Bear River crossing and pull over. With my hands on the railing, I watch the water, knowing that 75% comes redirected from the Yuba. It’s hard to believe this fast-flowing river may soon become a reservoir if Nevada Irrigation District builds its proposed “Centennial Dam.” With two other dams on the Bear River, this is the last remaining stretch of free flowing water.
At the end of Dog Bar, I turn left for the Bear River Campground.
People gather along the river panning for gold. I see young children, teens, parents, and older folks. The stormy winter unearthed far more gold than we saw during the drought, I’m told.
I walk the entire length of Bear River Campground, listening to the river’s soothing music. When I come to a patch of Miner’s Lettuce, I sit down and eat a few leaves. The river lulls my senses as it spill over rocks and laps against the shore. Native bees add their notes to the song, pausing when they alight on wildflower petals. The wind brushes against the river and caresses my face; it feels fresh, as if it has never been sullied by man’s emissions. I place both my hands to the ground. My heart fills with dread thinking this land will be entirely underwater if the dam is build.
When I reach the trailhead, I see a man collecting data next to a county truck.
“Mornin,” he says.
“You picked a good time to visit the campgrounds.”
“Because it’s empty?”
“That’s right. You been here in summer?”
“No, I just moved here recently. Is it a madhouse in summer?”
“Oh yes, lots of people camp here. It’s only $10 a night.”
“Wow! That’s the best deal in California.”
He laughs, “I wouldn’t doubt it. Where’d you live before you moved here?”
“My last home was in San Luis Obispo.”
“Ah. I went to Cachuma Dam a few years ago,” he says.
I look in his face and see the monstrous cement wall and dead zones lining the perimeter of the reservoir, the hallmarks of a dam. “It’d be a shame to see that here.”
“I’d hate to see that here,” he looks down at his spreadsheet.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” I say. “Have a good one.”
“You, too. Enjoy your walk.”
The trail follows the river closely at the base of a steep incline covered with ferns and wildflowers. Deer trails split off and lead to secluded nooks at the river’s edge. As a child, I would have played pretend in these nooks, imagining a time before modern development. I wonder if these are the locations where the indigenous Nisenan tribespeople continue their ceremonies with reverence to ancient traditions; I remember learning the Nisenan people in our area were stripped of their land and hunted like animals during the gold rush.
I pass beneath a flowering tree, petals flutter to the ground like a gesture of love. Cottonwoods sprout bright green foliage on every branch.
Finding a large rock at the water’s edge, I listen to the river’s song and commune with the beauty around me. Soon, when the rain subsides, the river will return to a brilliant blue, all the trees will be green again, their leaves will flutter in the wind like tiny fans; the banks will recede below the tree line, and people will enter the river on kayaks and rafts finding refuge from their busy lives.
I think about the Nevada Irrigation District. They say the dam is a solution to climate change-driven water shortages, but don’t they know water evaporates rapidly off the top of a reservoir? Don’t they see that their other two dams on this river are never at full capacity?
I think about our Congressional Representative Doug LaMalfa. Nevada Irrigation District has requested he sell them our public land, the land I sit upon, so they can build the dam. He has already voted to pull back the EPA clean power plan, lift the moratorium on federal land coal leases, and roll back environmental regulations. I ask him regularly to share his stance on selling our land, the land I sit upon, but I have not heard back from him. I can only guess at his intentions.
I place my hand into the cold river, the snowmelt. It brushes through my fingers and against my palm. I savor the moment, knowing I may not have this opportunity next year.