Category Archives: Stream Type E

Moderation may not be

Play my new game! Rank these eight rivers in order of moderation. Go ahead; I will wait.

1Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland. 2Stream Type B... somewhere in my great-grandparents' homeland of Norwegia

3Stream Type C -- Blue River, Colorado 4Stream Type D

5StreamType E: Meandering. 6Stream Type F -- Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

7 8

So, looking back at your ranking decisions, what were your criteria?

Most people instinctively do not choose #1 as the most moderate: so steep and fast and wildly beautiful.

Number 7 is usually eliminated for sheer rawness, as is #4.

Here are  other  common responses:

Number 8 looks too complicated to be considered moderate.

Number 6 looks rather… something. Way down there? But on the other hand it looks kind of under control, so maybe it’s moderate.

Number 2 — very exciting and fun! But that’s not what we associate with moderate.

Maybe #3 is the moderation star — seems so classic, after all.

Or #5 — meandering along like a river “should.”

Before I reveal the hydrological answer, let me throw in an extra credit question: which river do you think is the most stable?

And just for interest, though there is no such thing as an ugly river, what is your favorite in terms of beauty — right this moment?


Fluvial geomorphologists look at rivers in terms of four basic characteristics:

    • entrenchment (when flood waters come, an entrenched river stays in its channel and gets deeper — as opposed to spreading way out),
    • width-to-depth ratio (relatively “wide and shallow” vs “narrow and deep”),
    • sinuosity (how curvy is the channel?), and
    • slope.

Only one of the above eight river types is moderate in all those areas: #2.


Moderation is not the same as slow (#5) nor does it go with a classic workhorse beauty (#3). It’s not isolated and independent like #6.

The most moderate river type is the one we call “rapids.” It’s the one river runners flock to. It’s fun — not boring even in low flow and not full out terrifying even in high flow. It interacts with its surroundings — getting somewhat wider in a flood and definitely benefiting from nice stream side vegetation — but doesn’t dominate the neighbors (by overflowing at the slightest increase in its energy) or completely depend on them (a little over-grazing or watershed paving won’t reduce its banks to raw smithereens).

As for the most stable* river type? Yes: also the rapids. Moderation may not be…

At least it may not be what we thought it was.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of — or inordinately obsessed with in any way. But for sure it’s not dull. It’s vital and engaging.

No, it’s not the only way to be well. What I love about rivers is that any type can be stable (well, except one.. and it can be healed), and they’re all gorgeous — even the immoderates. Even the moderates.

I invite you to take the “What Stream Type Are You?” quiz to investigate your own nature (“for now”… because, thankfully, rivers/we are always changing) and consider tips for maintaining your own particular beauty. Meanwhile, my wish for you (from John O’Donohue’s poem Fluent) is that you may continue to:

“live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of [your] own unfolding.”

* I define stable as resilient when insulted. (For a river, an insult can be: big change in flow/energy, either up or down; big change in the river’s sediment/load, either more or less; alteration in width or depth or slope/speed, like someone digs a hole in the river or fills it or tramples down the bank or narrows up the edges; or interference with the flood plain, reducing the amount of area a river can use for overflow. Um, does it amaze you how EACH ONE OF THESE IS A METAPHOR FOR OUR HUMAN LIVES?! I know. Me too.)

Rock Creek reveals: “the biggest thing people don’t seem to see” about living like a river

This weekend I got the chance for some pillow talk with Rock Creek  — I slept right on the banks of my old friend. My hostess reported that the stream was “crazy” this year during runoff. “It almost came over the banks!” Here’s what the stream itself whispered the next morning:

June 5th was my peak this year, and it WAS a decent one — but look it up on your gauges, crunch the numbers, and  you’ll see it wasn’t unusual. In the long haul, I end up peaking at least this high in three out of four years. Unless someone messes with my shape, I should actually top my banks every five years in this particular spot. Of course that’s because I’m a river of rapids and hence (surprisingly to some) the most moderate. Most of the flatter streams get out way more often, yet somehow people look at our stream banks and think it’s “normal” for us rivers to keep inside our channels. It’s not and we don’t. That’s the biggest thing people don’t seem to see about us. We are not just our channels. We are “supposed” to do what you call “flood.” It’s the norm, not the exception.

I verified everything Rock Creek said with the United States Geological Survey’s lovely stream gauge data (I love USGS data!). Rock Creek’s been behaving “normally.”

And my old friend’s also right that B-type streams like Rock Creek don’t spread out on a big floodplain as often as the streams we see in wider, typically human-occupied valleys (the skinny, deep, meandering E-types or the point-bar dominated C-types). When you average it all up, our most familiar creeks top their banks two out of three years or even more.

Why, then, does “flooding” always catch us humans by surprise?!

Why do we think the word “flood” equates with disaster??

Perhaps for the same reason it shocks us when our human lives spill out of our constructed boundaries — though that too happens regularly.

Maybe we’d rather all that energy stay in one tidy-looking, seemingly controlled channel. Or maybe we just spot some orderly constructs and assume they’re not to be breached — ever. Likely we worry our floods are dangerous.

But river water leaving the banks is natural. And for good reason:

Torrents of water must come every so often — during annual snow melt or seasonal rainstorms. If that water stayed within the channel’s width, it would have to flow incredibly fast. All that power would erode the river’s foundation out from under it.

And so the river builds a flat area adjacent to its banks. When large flows come, the water spreads out onto this plain and instantly slows, spreading harmlessly across the land, saturating the soil with not only moisture but fine material, nutrients, and seeds. The whole ecosystem flourishes. The floodplain is fully part of the river — not an accidental bystander.

When our human lives overflow, we too are saved by spreading out and slowing down. If you’re living like a healthy, wild river, then you don’t need your floodplain every minute, but you do need it regularly.

<<Every person’s floodplain looks a little different. What’s yours? It could be friends, family, alone time, a pet, nature, your favorite city, reading, music, moving your body in some way, clarifying your feelings, or something I’ve never dreamed of!>>

If you’re living like a river, then whatever kind of floodplain you have benefits from your floods as much as you benefit from your floodplain’s ever-ready presence.

<<Can you entertain the possibility that those people/places/activities/things that save you are not only okay with their role but nourished in return?>>

And yet the fact remains that a flooding river can hurt buildings, roads, and even people. Possibly you’re thinking that you yourself have damaged those around you with your own personal floods. Here’s the important thing:

Floods only cause damage when we humans ignore reality by obstructing our floodplains with artificial structures or trying to stop the overflow. The floodplain is fully part of the river. It cannot be eliminated.

Can you honor your floodplain and keep this integral part of your wild nature intact?

I hope we all can see the way things really work as “normal” and create room for our streams — and our selves — to live like real rivers.

… traumatized.

My Dear Readers,

A friend of mine’s family recently went through an ordeal — a human version of when a river “gullies” into a raw chasm.

An extreme example.

I am not saying my friend’s situation is this injurious, but either way – for rivers AND humans – even a “small-scale” trauma is painful.

She fears that neither she nor her beautiful son will ever be the same.

On some level, we never are the same after ANY experience, day, or moment.

But this family is dealing with something acute and damaging, so my friend’s specific fear is that they each will be changed for the worse — messed up.

It can be tempting — especially when you are not the one involved in a crisis — to assert that no event is inherently bad or damaging but rather part of life in ways we can’t understand and that we must adjust our thinking about the event.

In river work, it is certainly true that healthy, natural processes always involve change and sometimes look decidedly not-pretty to a cultivated aesthetic. For example when a river bumps up against a high terrace, an exposed, vertical bank is to be expected. This is not problematic.

But such a default assessment negates the very real experience of trauma – to rivers AND to people.

Hydrologists know that rivers can indeed be harmed:

And hydrologists define a destructive event as one that destabilizes the river.

Stability and instability:

A stable river is one that maintains function — transporting its water and sediment load — without changing its basic form and type.

A stable river does change and move. You can see how the Pecatonica River [a classic E-type stream] migrates back and forth across its valley over time in a gradual manner. But the old channels show that the stream maintains the same pattern (curve shapes), profile (slope), and dimensions (width and depth) everywhere it travels:

[Image credit: Louis J. Maher, Jr. photo 156-07.]

Alas, ugly events can destabilize any river, altering its form and function in ways that most typically include degradation. The stream is scoured down through its very foundation in the affected spot. Layers of earth are exposed in an entrenched, narrow space.

That’s trauma.

The Great News:

Even the most significantly damaged river will heal. Always.

How quickly a stream recovers its stability will depend on what happens after the initial damage — it’s possible to speed the process along – but, even without assistance, the stream will mend over time.

How a gullied stream heals itself:

1. A recovering gully first evens out its slope. Ironically, this natural accommodation actually causes MORE erosion in the short run as the channel “head-cuts” through its bed.

The first and crucial step in healing human trauma is also to smooth out the jagged edges — that panic gouged into the body by a cocktail of stress hormones designed to make us fight, flee, OR freeze. As Belleruth Naprostek describes it: “These biochemicals in the bloodstream don’t dissipate quickly, but instead they swing back and forth like a pendulum, between releasing alarm and sedation neurohormones, in an automatic recalibration to get the body back into balance. People can be furious or terrified one minute – that’s the alarm biochemicals – and numb and disconnected the next – that’s the natural opioids.”

In the first 72 hours following a trauma, it’s super helpful if the person who experienced trauma can clean out those hormones and the associated residual biochemical gunk: move a LOT, rest a LOT, and relate the story of what happened. Perhaps many times.

2. Once its profile regains a uniform average slope, the stream will begin widening its gully to provide room for meanders and a flood plain. It craves spaciousness. The stream achieves this breathing room through the benign-sounding process of lateral migration; however, once again, the short-term reality of the healing process actually causes more erosion since the stream must cut into its side walls. It carves bigger boundaries.

As I do more research into healing human trauma, I hope for a clearer idea of the human parallel – of how we broaden our lives after a trauma and how that more expansive life allows us to meander through different explorations and to build places where our lives can safely overflow in future times of flood. I want to learn how we can support one another in such restoration. I will keep you posted.

For now, I am content to know that healing is inevitable. And that traumatized rivers end up functional once more, fully restoring themselves albeit at a much deeper level. Literally. Which is why they are so gorge-ous and beloved by us all, even while they are still in the midst of restoring themselves… like the [F-type]  river pictured below and some of my very favorite people: