Walking across the Cushman Street bridge in downtown Fairbanks, I heard a splash in the Chena River below. A beaver, I figured. They come out in the evening. Or a dog cooling off. I looked over the railing and saw a man swimming toward the north bank. He wasn't a strong swimmer but strong enough to manage 30 yards in slow-moving water. He climbed the bank, his briefs for swimming trunks, raised his hands over his head and bellowed, "I own the river! I own the river!"
Footsteps behind me signaled company: Two young women, one cradling a man's set of clothes in her arms. She muttered, "My brother."
In 1950, my parents bought a house on the banks of the Chena. The Chena was wider and deeper before flood control, and I had it drilled into my head: Stay away from the river, don't play in the boats tethered on the bank, the river is dangerous.
I did not learn until later the house came up for sale because the boy who lived there drowned. After the accident, his parents could not bear to live near the Chena. In retrospect, it seems my parents were inviting tragedy by purchasing the house. But that's what they could afford.
People abused the Chena terribly. They ran sewer pipes from their homes into the river. They threw garbage on the ice. They pushed wrecked cars down the bank. They dumped waste oil and chemicals into the water.
If you don't drown, little kid, the Chena will make you sick.
A little kid had to grow up to discover T.S. Eliot writing about rivers:
I do not know much about gods, but I think the river
Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten.
By the dwellers in cities -- ever, however, implacable.
From the Eliot perspective, the swimmer was committing blasphemy. I wish I had yelled down at him: "Come on mister, you don't own the river. You're just drunk."
-- Michael Carey