… living the braided life.

I asked the iconic McKinley River to consider one reader’s question: “Given the naturally untamed, raw look of my life’s many fast threads, how would I KNOW if I were unstable?  And how can I avoid that?  Can you give us “Braided” types some tips?”

Over half of you “What Stream Type Am I?” quiz-takers have turned out to be Braided Rivers – Stream Type D.* And over half of you braided folk have asked some form of this question! Clearly it’s a concern.

McKinley – that glorious mainstay of Denali National Park — graciously agreed to comment on these five main aspects of your mutual life experience:

1. Our Main Asset:

We braided rivers can DEAL — I’m talking huge, almost unlimited, amounts of sediment. Of course, sediment of any size – boulders, cobble, gravel, gravel, sand, or very fine material like clay – is every river’s load. (That’s an actual technical term the hydrologists use.) And MOVING its sediment load is every river’s work (another technical term!). So, yeah — we D-types function in high-load circumstances that would overwhelm any other stream type. How do we do it? By operating in a lot of pathways at the same time — often at a pretty rapid rate – across a huge, fairly level, playing field.

2. The Trade-off:

Yeah, we are rather unrefined, sprawling, ever-changing affairs. Our boundaries are always shifting across our big wide valleys – not clearly defined. So what?

3. When We’re Vulnerable:

The thing is, we DEPEND on that big wide valley – our floodplain – not just to provide the space we need for all our shifting channels but also to absorb excess flow when life gets crazy and the floods come.  And they always come: the annual snow melt, possibly some big rainstorm… and if it rains ON snow, then forget about it:

If anything messes with our overflow area, we got trouble.

The typical snafu comes from people deciding to fill ANY part of what they consider “empty excess space” around us. They want to build berms to contain our wildness or elevated bases so their roads can cross our paths without getting wet. Ha. These “developments” just narrow our options during our peaks. Our increased power will be forced to cut – down into our own foundations – rather than allowed to spread out harmlessly and nourish the whole open valley. This down-cutting triggers erosion that dominoes both upstream and down.

4. The Red Flags:

Yeah we always look fairly “raw,” but we can tell our floodplain has been encroached upon because we begin to see – or more importantly FEEL:

  •  walls of any kind and/or
  • abnormally steep, fast periods (“head-cuts”). OR for that matter, any oddly still, flat sections. Our many paths may have variable speeds, but we don’t normally have obvious “steps and pools” like those A-types – not that there’s anything wrong with that:)

 5. Tips for Success:

  • Identify YOUR “floodplain.” Notice how much wide-open, level space you have around you. Where can you overflow? What feels “even” and allows you to spread out and slow down when the going gets intense? I don’t know what this is for humans like you: Is it your quiet time at home? Evenings out with friends? There may be several things — hobbies, pets, secret get-aways — or one big sacred something.
  • Allow no fill on your floodplain. No walls. No narrowing. No “improved” external access ways with built-up pads  ostensibly “high, dry and safe” from your peak flow.

Remember, we need this big supporting space, but too, this overflowing nature of ours benefits that floodplain — it gets watered by our energy; fed and built-up by the nutrients and sediment we leave behind. So keep ALL your openness. Then and only then can you and your entire untamed, beloved ecosystem stay wild and healthy.

— McKinley R., Alaska

PS Dear Readers, I’d love to know what you think of YOUR floodplain. What is it? Is it ever threatened? How do you protect it? Judging by the number of you and your questions to me, I think braided living is a very important phenomenon in our busy modern world. FOr that reason, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this matter.

All my best,


* If you’d like to take the quiz, click here.

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