“The experience of confluence is the glue that binds us to a social setting, the promised reward that keeps us seeking each other out. It is not freedom, it is union. Being involved in something together, feeling something together, experiencing togetherness, we feel safer, stronger, we transcend the limits of self.”– Bernard L. De Koven
On New Year’s Day, Mr. EndlessSeeker and I hiked a trail at The Confluence Natural Area – where two branches of the Eno River come together. As I stood watching the joining of water from the two branches, I noticed how the river became wider, the water mixing and churning as if dancing a greeting to its kin from the other side of the hill. In nature, confluences are where rivers or separate channels of the same river meet. Here something new emerges. The river changes. The speed and character of the water shifts with a new energy. The impacts of what happened upstream from both directions accumulate and influence the plants and animals, water quality, speed, structure, and energy of the river. Nothing is the same. Something new is created. It is a mixing and merging of separate selves into a bold, new whole. I left the Eno River that day wondering about this notion of confluence and how it might translate to the dynamics of other systems and our own human lives.
Then, last week we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park in winter with our friends and master naturalists, Mike and Melissa (see RoadsEndNaturalist.com), and six other people Mike and Melissa knew, but who were new aquaintances to us. Driving through the Lamar Valley in the northern range of the park, we came to an area where the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek come together. Mike told us people just call this area “the confluence”, and my ears perked up. As I looked across this snow-covered valley threaded with braids of glistening, icy water, I looked for signs of mixing, changing, influence. I began to understand how special it is as a place for wildlife, for ecosystems, and for people. There were American dippers (small, gray birds with pink legs who walk under water) foraging for aquatic insects, ravens honking their guttural calls, and people straining to see wolves, bison, elk, moose – anything wild and wooly – in the distance.
This confluence has a remarkable history. Until 2018, Soda Butte Creek had been one of the most polluted creeks entering Yellowstone National Park due to 80+ years of mining for gold, silver, zinc, lead, and copper from 1870 to 1950 upstream. But the Montana Department of Environmental Quality implemented a reclamation project of an old mill and mine tailing site upstream, and in 2018 the creek was de-listed from the Clean Water Act impaired waters list. Today Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River are prized spots for fishing, bird-watching, and wildlife viewing. There are other confluences here, too, like that of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers. Over the course of four days in the Lamar Valley where rivers meet and mountains rise, I saw more wildlife than I ever thought imaginable in one place in such a short time.
Thousands of snow-dusted bison lumbered across the meadows, over creeks, and into the roads in front of us. Elk ambled and browsed on grass and trees. Moose peeked through the red-tinted willow branches. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats clambered gracefully over rocks and left scat and tracks near our snowshoe path. Red foxes sprinted across snowy fields and a limping coyote ran down the road looking for a handout. Mule deer hung out in smaller numbers, and bald and golden eagles graced us with their majestic profiles. But, the stars of the show were the wolves.
On one bitterly cold (-10 F) and gray morning, we stood at sunrise atop the “sunrise-sunset” pullout and heard wolves howling in the far, far distance. The Rescue Pack, we were told. Heard but not seen. Hoping for a better viewpoint, we drove back down the hill and pulled into the Wraith Falls trail pullout, seeing only one car there. The man in the car put his finger to his mouth, telling us to be quiet. Then we heard them. Howling. Loud howling. Close howling. Long, low howls and high pitched howls, and multiple howls. We looked across the road and could see with our naked eyes six wolves – the newly formed Lupine pack. As we watched and listened, six wolves sat, walked, played, and howled together. The young wolves hopped and bounded around. One chewed on a stick, perhaps teething. They were only about a 1/4 of a mile away, some of the best possible viewing from the road. In the quiet of the cold morning, our hearts warmed and our spirits filled. The ten of us who had come together for this trip shared a profound experience. We smiled, we cried, we hugged, we stood in awe and simply listened and watched as these wild wolves allowed us to glimpse a moment of their lives. An hour and a half later, the pullout was filled with cars and vans and wolf-watchers, all sharing an experience, feeling something together.
After our days in the Lamar Valley – snowshoeing and wildlife-watching – we headed into the interior of the park on a snowcoach. For two more days, the ten of us rode through Yellowstone in a winter snowstorm, stopping at frozen waterfalls, gazing at steam rising from thermal features, marveling at the blue pools of hot water and mud volcanoes and geysers, listening to stories of the people and wildlife and geology that make it such a special place. Each night over dinner the ten of us shared stories and impressions from the day.
As we listened and looked and experienced this place together, we were swept up in a human confluence – our own coming together, change, and emergence. Like different branches of the river, each one of us brought our individual knowledge and expertise to this experience. We shared and learned and blended our accumulated insights. We changed our minds about some things and broadened them about others. We developed friendships and partnerships. We felt something together. We mixed and churned and carved new spaces in our minds and hearts for learning and living and being. And we came out of the experience together, as one group of friends who shared something profound and unique and lasting. In confluence, we were at one with ourselves, with each other, and with the wild and wondrous community of Yellowstone.
And it was magic.
Note: Since I just had my cell phone, I didn’t get fancy or close wildlife photos, but I’m sure Mike and Melissa will be posting much better wildlife photos at some later date (they had those nice cameras with big lenses!), so do go visit their site at roadsendnaturalist.com.
Deb, so beautifully written. I’ll never look at a confluence without thinking of these profound words. Thank you.
Thank you, Mike. Thank you and Melissa, especially, for making it happen and making it special!
Deb, so beautifully written. I will never look at a confluence again without thinking of these wonderful words. Thank you!
Beautiful thoughts, Deb. You may get two comments from me as I had to log in and used an old log in on one and I thought it rejected the comment, but who knows as I could not see them.
No worries. Thanks.
Sounds like a wonderful experience, Deb. So glad that worked out so well— and virus free!
Thank you, Joe. Yes, everyone stayed healthy. It was definitely an enlightening experience.