The Ripple: River Walking

This Land is Your Land

Check out these 5 pointers below on how to river walk, preventing a wipe out due to slippery rocks and strong currents.

Our floods are over for the time being, and the furnace heat of July is driving us to the water where we can find some relief from the breath of fire that surrounds us. We are such sensitive creatures, aren’t we? Below 60 and above 80 degrees, our life patterns get deranged—20 degrees is not a very wide spectrum of temperature, is it? Heat waves provide us with the best evidence that the maxim of classical environmentalism is true: where you are is who you are.

So get thee to a river! This is the best time of year to explore the river bed and the lush riparian growth that flourishes beside it.

The common law of the USA states that river courses are the property of all citizens. I say common law, because right to river access is considered to be an ancient and inherent right—but, depending on where you go, you might find this common law more or less respected.

You might find the history and reality of our common law right to access rivers to be interesting, so here’s a portion of the explanation that National Organization of Rivers provides us:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the bed and banks under all rivers, lakes, and streams that are navigable, for title purposes, are owned by the states, held in trust for the public. Title in this context means ownership. This public-trust ownership extends up to the ordinary high water line, (or ordinary high water mark,) encompassing what is commonly referred to as the submerged and submersible land, as opposed to the upland.” (Source:

Land owners who covet their privacy can post “no trespassing” sings to keep you from getting access to river courses, and you must abide, unless you want to get arrested or something similarly unpleasant. The common law allows you to walk in the river bed, not on the properties the river flows between.

In practice, the best places to get into the river are on public land or land that is owned by non-profit conservation organizations. But, if you can find a safe place to park near a bridge, you can access the river at the bridge, and head up or down stream, staying the water the whole time. I can’t guarantee that you won’t meet a property owner who will tell you to leave, but if you are pleasant and not making a mess, you can usually win them over. Nobody likes people who break bottles or litters in and along rivers. Show respect and you’ll be respected—at least most of time.

When you river walk you have to be careful, because if you aren’t you’ll fall awkwardly and hit hard rocks. If the current is strong, worse things might happen. A few pointers:

  1. Use a sturdy walking stick; post the stick ahead of you and walk towards it. It’s amazing how stable you become when you have three legs.
  2. Avoid stepping on the tops of wet rocks, especially large ones, because the algae on them is slicker than ice. Step in the cracks between large rocks.
  3. Try to “step into the gold”—look for sand or pebbles to place your next step. They are rarely slippery.
  4. Walk like a monkey, not the tin man. Bend your knees, so your rear end is low; if you slip you can sit instead of falling like a tree. Impact is thereby minimized.
  5. Be the tortoise, not the hare. There is no hurry! and besides, if you go slow, you’ll notice how beautiful and alive the river is. And you might find a treasure!

Rivers are yours and rivers are mine! Have fun!

One final thing: I was hoping that, if you have composed a song about one of our local rivers, you might want to share it. If you send me the mpeg  file with a short account of how it was inspired, I’ll post it on the Biocitizen website. We need to find the “voice” of our rivers, and music is one of the best ways to do that. Last year, I had an amazing experience up near Turner’s Falls that I wrote about that also prompted me to compose a song that imagines being a homeless person living by the side of the CT river. More people than you can imagine are doing that.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Jason Jones]

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