Category Archives: multiple channels

… 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.

… split but not crazy.

Dear Like a River — My life doesn’t fit the model of a stream channel! It’s more like maybe ten at once. There are my kids (homework, practices, fruits & vegetables, suitable friends, clothes that fit, feelings, dreams, and socks, oh the socks…), and my job (sometimes I actually bring the kids, depending on when, who, etc…) plus love life, work-outs, friends (I CAN’T do without them, luckily I get to see a couple at work and in yoga class), parents (my mother-in-law lives with us which is actually helpful), and this tantalizing little side interest that’s maybe, hopefully evolving into a true vocation. See what I mean? — Split

Dear Split,

I have two friends, Crazy and Sassy, who both flow through multiple channels every single day.  But any similarity between them ends there.


Mostly she’s crazy-beautiful, but at times she falls apart. Then Crazy Woman Creek is unable to carry her load. As you can see, she begins dropping rocks and dirt all over her bed. Her channel becomes shallow thereby decreasing her stream power so she’s less capable of doing work. Eventually an unnatural island forms right in the middle of Crazy’s life. It divides her energy between channels, further diminishing her power, then the additional deposition acts like a low dam and flattens her water surface, forcing the stream sideways. She erodes her own ragged edges:


Sassy does multiple-channel-flow in the healthy way: anastomosing. You can see she’s more like a system of many stable, narrow, deep streams. The sometimes twisting branches join, split, and reconnect in a continuous network across a super wide, very flat, extremely well-vegetated floodplain. The friendly plant roots stabilize her banks. The Saskatchewan River’s  whole environment is lush with LIFE: insects, mammals, and everything in between. Plus she’s super accessible. You can walk all over that flatness as long as you don’t mind being damp. It’s wet everywhere even though you’ll rarely find a serious “rapid” or any water deeper than your waist. And best of all, Sassy functions beautifully – she can do her work — which for a river means transporting sediment. As a result, her banks and bed are stable.

How to be Sassy:

• Each separate part of your life must be deep and narrow — focused enough to move a load on its own. But let some of those branches turn and meander almost tortuously. That’s part of Sassy’s charm and stability.

• Like Sassy, draw support from the roots of your friends.

• Those roots will depend, in turn, on your energy. Because of interconnections, if there’s any water in Sassy’s stream, those roots get it too. If one channel gets blocked, water flows another way. That’s why so many lifeforms have this same pattern – blood capillaries, leaf veins — and why you, Split, seem to be doing pretty well. Your mother-in-law helps with the kids who can also sometimes go to work where you also see your friends who you may see later at yoga.

• This life needs a steady and unhurried pace. Sassy, her banks, and her floodplain are all pretty flat, so everything’s evenly irrigated. Furthermore, the gradual slopes create very little erosion force AND allow plenty of time for water to soak in.

• Sassy can handle a flood for the same reason – lots of level space to spread out and slow down the floodwater. If you want to run in multiple worlds, be sure the overall cross-section of your life gives you room to overflow when inundated.

• Avoid building walls. Burying or filling any part of Sassy is the beginning of her end. Imagine elevated roads, railways, or “flood control berms” cutting off her channels.

When we’re part of a community, branching from and joining into others lives in our own healthy way — well, not much can disrupt that kind of well-being. Thank you, Split, for the reminder.