Made of Mostly Water

Our move to Qingdao later this summer will be our first time living in a coastal city. This led me to think about all the lakes, rivers, and bays I’ve lived near, swam in, and depended on as a source of drinking water. Unscientifically speaking, because my body is about 70% water and I drink local water more than any other drink (bottled water, soda, juice, spirits), these bodies of water mostly compose me physically. Do they influence the way I think and behave? This post lists and describes my personal bodies of water in reverse order of my favorites, starting with my least favorite but probably most relaxing.

#9 – Crab Orchard Lake

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First of all, it’s not a real lake; it’s a reservoir created in the 1930s and protected since 1947. Secondly, it’s the strangest name for a lake that has no crabs. It’s a tributary of the Big Muddy River in Southern Illinois, so a better name might be the Big Muddy Reservoir. That sounds equally clean as a crab orchard to me.

I have drunk this Crab Orchard water for nearly three years, but I’m not sure if it was the water that made me a crabbier person in Carbondale or if it was my ex-boss. Perhaps the water made my ex-boss a crabbier person. Anyway, the tap water tastes a lot better than the two previous places we lived.

I never swam directly in Crab Orchard Lake, but I did swim and canoe in the Little Grassy Lake which is fed by Crab Orchard. In fact, I just swam in Little Grassy with my family and our visitors, Nicole and Eleanor. And a few weeks earlier, Jenevieve and I canoed while Autumn and her grandmother kayaked the same lake. The lake water was much warmer than most bodies of water I have experience swimming in, but I was a bit afraid of how much bacteria could develop in the tepid calm water. The fact that the beach was littered with goose poop did not calm my fears.

Crab Orchard Lake seems best for people who love boating and fishing, which many Midwesterners do. You won’t see many yachts, but you may see a water skier once in a while. But one thing you’ll definitely see a lot of in Crab Orchard Lake and many lakes in Southern Illinois are turtles. A common sight is seeing a whole bale of turtles resting on a log jutting out of the lake. I will miss that sight, but I won’t miss my crabby ex-boss.

#8 – The Rock River

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During the week between my two recent Little Grassy Lake excursions, I revisited the Rock River during the 20th Reunion for the Beloit College Class of 1998. The Rock River starts in Central Wisconsin and winds through Janesville and Beloit before entering Illinois where it finds the Mississippi River at the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. One of the biggest cities along the Rock River in Rockford, Illinois. However, I didn’t notice may rocks along the river in Rockford or Beloit or the Quad Cities. Perhaps they are at the bottom, but my curiosity doesn’t drive me to attempt a dive.

I spent about nine months every four years drinking Rock River water through Beloit College pipes. I’m not sure if they contributed to my learning and development as much as my professors and classmates. The first time I tried to drink Rock River water was through the sink in my dorm room in Chapin Hall. The black specks (named “floaties”) by my roommate deterred me from drinking any more than a sip. I got plenty of Rock River drinking opportunities through other water fountains or “bubblers” around campus. Is it a coincidence that I ended my soda drinking habits while at Beloit? Perhaps the Rock River is so good, I no longer needed high fructose corn syrup and caramel color to enjoy water.

Although I never swam in the Rock River and probably will never have the interest in doing so, at least in a city, many of my best memories at Beloit involve walking up and down the Rock River and Turtle Creek, one its tributaries. While many and most of my classmates spent their Sunday mornings sleeping through hangovers, I took long strolls through Turtle Creek Park. This tradition began because I could not stand the stench nor the snoring sounds of my beer-splattered roommate. I found the solo Turtle Creek walks more spiritual and meditative than any Sunday morning church service. Many good memories both solo and with friends were formed at Turtle Creek Park.

#7 – The Iowa River

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The Iowa River flows through Iowa County and Iowa City in the state of Iowa. I find it a tragedy that Iowa put Iowa City in Johnson County and not Iowa County, which is just adjacent to the west. It begins in northern Iowa and flows to the Mississippi River south of Muscatine.

I was among the many Iowans who drank water from this river from 2009 to 2015. My family and I did not enjoy its taste, so we had it filtered again through our home refrigerator. What worried me about drinking this water is that it passed through many farms before getting to my glass. I was made aware of this before moving to Iowa when I learned that many Southerners blame Midwesterners, particularly Iowans for creating the massive deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m linking to sources to support my arguments because I spent the majority of my time in Iowa developing my skills in searching for sources to support my research, which is not in ecology.

Although I never directly swam in the Iowa River directly, I swam in Lake Macbride, which was created after the Coralville Dam was built downstream. Actually, I didn’t swim, I just got about waist high in the water. Because swimming wasn’t so fun, I found more fun exploring the Devonian Fossil Gorge in the Coralville Dam spillway zone. The Iowa River floods of 1993 and 2008 helped create this attraction. So most of my pleasure with the Iowa River has nothing to do with drinking or swimming in it. One last pleasure was spotting bald eagles at the Highway 6 bridge over the river in Iowa City. They frequently nest there every winter and seeing them never got old.

#6 – Karasu-gawa

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Let’s learn Japanese kanji (Chinese characters)! 烏川 means Karasu-gawa. The first character means crow and the second means river. Because of all the bilingual signs around Japan, I learned the character for river (kawa) in Japanese right away. River alone is pronounced kawa, but when it’s paired with another word it’s often pronounced gawa.

I rode my bike to the train station every day to work over the big bridge you see in that picture. There was a road sign I passed every day with 烏川 written on it that it helped me learn the word for crow, a word I didn’t use often with my beginning Japanese speaking abilities. Unlike Crab Orchard Lake and the Rock River, I often spotted crows flying around the river. One day a crow spotted me, literally, as it pooped on my pants as I was biking to work. It was a great big white stain on my black chinos. I was incredibly embarrassed riding my bike through downtown Takasaki to catch the train, but nobody pointed or laughed, which would be very unbecoming of a Japanese person, generally speaking. Later that day at work, my students informed me that getting pooped on by a bird is considered fortuitous.

Although I did not enjoy getting bird poop on my pants, I did enjoy the view of Jomo Mountains from the bridge. On a clear day, I could see all three, but Mt. Haruna was the best and closest view. My daily commute passing Mt. Haruna on the bridge helped me get a sense of the level of pollution each day as the worst polluted days obscured the mountain completely and the clearest of days made the mountain seem as if it were extremely close that I could touch it. In this picture above, the mountain is mostly obscured, so you get an idea of how polluted it is.

Finally, I’ve seen the floodplain Karasu-gawa fill up once. In the summer of the year 2000, we had torrential rains while we were in a neighboring city upstream, Annaka. We usually took the train home, but they were stopped because of the flood. Our taxi driver had to take an alternate route to get us safely home as nobody was allowed to cross that bridge. I was astounded that the floodplain could fill up so fast. Within the next couple days, it was back down to its normal summer size. In the winter, the river is a modest creek. Yes, I admire the Japanese engineering of rivers.

#5 – Hangang

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Hangang (한강) or the Han River is the largest river in South Korea and run through Seoul from east to west. The picture above shows the view towards where Jenevieve and I lived on the north side of the river in Yongsan. We actually lived on the street Hangang-ro. Some believe that the river is named after the Han (people of Korea), and the current Wikipedia English page doesn’t help clarify this.

Hangang supplies Seoul with its water, but most people do not drink the tap water. We arrived in Seoul just a few years after the US military admitted dumping formaldehyde into the river. This egregious blunder was dramatized and exaggerated in The Host, one of Korea’s hit movies. Lots of good Hangang action in that one. So we did not drink the tap water when living in Seoul.

We also did not swim in Hangang, but we spent a lot of our free time along its shores. Jenevieve’s fondness for 5K runs began there, and she often had weekly runs with one of her coworkers. I didn’t run, but I went on long walks while listening to compilation CDs I made to match the night scenes as the one depicted in the picture above. Hangang was also the place to be to view the city’s best fireworks. The river provided a nice serene getaway from one of the congestion and hustle of the city.

#4 – Baltimore’s Inner Harbor & The Chesapeake Bay

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The Inner Harbor is one of Baltimore’s and Maryland’s biggest tourist attractions. The Urban Land Institute (2009) called it “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.” The city of Baltimore has a website all about it at https://baltimore.org/article/baltimore-inner-harbor.

If any body of water has to be called Crab Orchard, it should be the Chesapeake Bay, the original home of Maryland’s most famous cuisine, the Maryland Blue Crab. And the Inner Harbor cashes in on all crab-related merchandise. Sadly, the Chesapeake Bay is not doing well in terms of climate change, pollution, invasive species, and most recently a shortage of workers to harvest the crabs. Most “Maryland” crabs are now imported from the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere.

When I lived in Baltimore, I drank water and probably ate crab meat from the Chesapeake Bay. I may have eaten other types of seafood from the bay as well, but it’s so long ago, I can’t recall. Of all the bodies of water in my life, I probably ate more from the Chesapeake Bay than from any of the others. Crab is fine, but I don’t go crazy about it like many of my in-laws do. They are Marylanders, and it is a tradition in her family to steam crabs at least once a summer and to eat them with plenty of Old Bay seasoning while enjoying the summer weather. Sweet corn and beer apparently go well with the steamed crab, but I can only speak for the corn.

As for swimming, I never had the opportunity to swim in the Chesapeake Bay, and I would probably pass on it. However, I usually crossed it on the famous Bay Bridge to get to the more popular beaches on the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland. The only true Atlantic Ocean beach I visited was Rehoboth Beach. The Nelson favorite at the time was in Lewes, Delaware–the first city in the First State, over two hours driving from Baltimore. The Lewes beaches represented the southernmost beaches of the Delaware Bay, very close to where the Atlantic begins at Cape Henlopen.

#3 – The Volga

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The Volga is the pride of Russia as it flows through its European heart. It is the longest river in Europe flowing from north of Moscow to the Caspian Sea. Perhaps it’s best known from the Song of the Volga Boatmen, which stirs and heightens the pride in many Russians.

I have gotten to know the Volga very well during my ten months in Russia as I was the Senior English Language Fellow, representing the partnership between the US State Department and the Russian Ministry of Education, for the Greater Volga Region. I would say the Greater Volga Region is similar to the Great Lakes region of the United States in terms of size, culture, and importance to the country. My “home” city was in Samara, the largest city on the Volga, with a wonderful view of the Samarskaya Luka National Park across the river. I spent about half of my time in Samara and the other half traveling throughout the region. Other cities on the Volga that I visited were Kazan, Ulyanovsk, Togliatti, Syzran, Saratov, Volgograd, and Astrakhan. The combination of these visits gave me a great impression of the Volga region and its inhabitants.

I did not join any Walrus Clubs to partake in what Americans call the Polar Bear Plunge or winter swimming in the Volga. In January, it is quite popular for Russians to cut a hole in the river ice for this occasion. Jenevieve thought about it for a few months, but she changed her mind once we felt the sting of our first and only Russian winter. I was amazed to see a river as wide as the Mississippi freeze over so solidly that cars and trucks could drive over it to the other side. Were the drivers without fear? I don’t know.

I’m not sure if I drank water from the Volga because I always drank bottled “voda bez gaza” (вода без газа), which literally means water without gas and means non-carbonated water. Traditionally Russians prefer their water carbonated. I don’t know if we can call it sparking mineral water, club soda, seltzer water, or tonic water, but that’s what you get if you ask for water. I’m not sure if Samara bottled Volga water, but I am sure that they bottled beer as some claim the city to be Russia’s beer capital as it is home to Russia’s most famous beer, Zhigulevskoye, named after the nearby Zhiguli Mountains. It’s not the first nor the second time I’ve lived near a place famous for its breweries.

#2 – The Mississippi River

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The Mighty Mississippi needs no introduction. I have grown more and more interested in this river through my adulthood. The first person to interest me in the Mississippi was an Australian co-worker of mine in Japan. He said if he ever got the chance to the visit the States, he would take a tour of the Mississippi River because of the culture associated with the river, specifically the culture of the blues. My interest grew even further when I was in Russia, playing my role as a cultural ambassador of the United States to the English teachers in the greater Volga region. I liked asking them and reading about the culture associated with the Volga, comparing what I learned to America’s equivalent.

It seemed too fitting that the place we moved to after living in Russia was La Crosse, Wisconsin. That area of the Mississippi River is known as “God’s Country” as is just as beautiful as the Samarskaya Luka region of the Volga. I felt like I was beginning to develop an identity of a river man. I started this by revisiting the works of Mark Twain. Later, when we moved to Iowa City, about an hour west of the Mississippi, I read about one man’s canoe trip from Lake Itasca to New Orleans in a book called Mississippi Solo.

The Mississippi River has been an important feature in my daughter’s life as she was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Her first taste of water was from the Mississippi River (not directly, of course). Our apartment building was less than a mile from the river and during the summer we could hear the calliope playing from the steamboats. I was happy to learn that the calliope was usually played by my friend’s sister. The apartment building we lived in, Gund Brewery Lofts, was the original brewery for Old Style. La Crosse, like Samara, is a city famous for its brewery.

A bigger city down the river, St. Louis, is more famous for its brewery, Annheiser-Busch. I visited St. Louis twice as a child, and then again when we moved to Iowa City. Little did I know that my first postdoc job would be in the “Greater St. Louis area” in Southern Illinois. For the past three years, St. Louis has been the closest big city to where I live. Although St. Louis is a two-hour drive away, the Mississippi River is less than an hour east of Carbondale, very close to where the Ohio River meets it at the southern tip of the state.

Ever since my daughter was born, we have lived within an hour from the Mississippi: La Crosse, Iowa City, and Carbondale. Did we ever get the chance to swim in it? Yes, in fact at the Pettibone Beach in La Crosse, across the river from the downtown area. Even baby Autumn had a chance to wade in the water, her baptism into American culture. I believe that was the one and only time we dipped in the Mississippi, but we have visited its shores on visits to Winona, Effigy Mounds National Monument, McGregor, Dubuque, the Quad Cities, Muscatine, Hannibal, St. Louis, Chester, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, and New Orleans. For the last ten years, the Mississippi River has always provided our family with a place for solace and wonder. I will miss being close to its shores.

#1 – Lake Michigan

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Although the last decade of my life has been near the Mississippi River, the first two decades of my life have been closer to Lake Michigan, the only Great Lake that is completely enclosed in the United States and not shared with Canada. I grew up with Lake Michigan as my reference to what a lake was: great. I didn’t learn until I was in college that most people are surprised that you can’t see the other side of the lake. However, I’ve had a few vivid dreams in my childhood in which I’ve seen the other side of the lake. Many of my Kenosha friends have had similar dreams as well. I thought this collective dreaming made it true, that we could really see the other side. You can’t. I just flew from Lansing to Chicago last month, and even high up in an airplane, I could not see Wisconsin from the Michigan shoreline.

I have swum in Lake Michigan nearly every year of my childhood. Although I seemed to have enjoyed swimming in it as a young child, somewhere around the age of ten, the lake seemed too cold for me nearly all summer. I just looked it up at https://www.seatemperature.org/north-america/united-states/kenosha.htm to learn that the water only gets above 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 months. That seemed normal for half of my life, but after living in warmer climates and swimming in heated pools more frequently, I’ve learned that 70-degree water is chilly. It’s a refreshing dip when the temperatures are above 90, but that’s about it. I have shivered in 90-degree weather because I was immersed in 70-degree water for a while.

My father has instilled in most of my siblings a culture of Lake Michigan. One aspect of this culture, related to the previous paragraph, is a test of courage and endurance. For him, June was early enough to go swimming. It’s late June when I’m writing this and the lake temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a test of our character to see who would get in and out of the water the fastest or slowest. Of course, my dad was the first one in and usually the last one out.

Another aspect of this culture was stillness and meditation. In my early childhood, it was less meditation and more Sunday morning driving, eating doughnuts, and throwing stones. Later on, we would just pick a large rock nearby Southport Beach to sit on and listen to the waves crashing on the rocks. On a clear day, you could actually see the Chicago skyline straight south. The city appeared to be sitting on the lake as Chicago was a bit further east than Kenosha. So, my father taught us that Lake Michigan with him can either be terrifyingly cold or warmly tranquil.

Before moving away from Wisconsin and before I set off on my early adult adventures to Japan and Korea, my last great memories of Lake Michigan were taking long walks from our Forest Park neighborhood to the lake with my friend Nick, sometimes stopping by our friends’ houses on the way to the lake. We did this for a couple summers in the mid-late 1990s. It was a great way to experience Kenosha, and the lake always supplied us with cool rewards of the air and water. Nick and our other friends, Jeremy and Jeff, also had cars and sometimes we visit the lake at night where it seemed like the edge of the world. One of my favorite night visits to the lake was after a thunderstorm. We watched the lightning rage over the water as the storm slowly sailed away. Once in a while, a bolt of lightning would remind us that the storm wasn’t as far out as we thought. I recall one bolt that looked like a skeleton’s arm reaching towards us with the hand appearing right over our heads. It was the end of the world for me for a bit as I never returned to that same place with the same people ever again.

I miss being near that big lake. There’s something more comforting about having Lake Michigan nearby than a massive river that could easily flood or an ocean with hurricane surges.

TBD – The Yellow Sea

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Our move to Qingdao will be the first time I will have lived on the sea. I was close to the sea in Baltimore, but the nearest beaches were still a couple hours away. Even when I lived in Japan, I lived in the center of the largest island, so the sea was a couple hours in either direction. In Korea, Seoul was about an hour or so away from Incheon, which is on the other side of the Yellow Sea. But the main reason for me to visit Incheon was for the international aiport.

Qingdao has beaches, and I’ve read that it’s OK to go swimming at the beaches in the first part of summer before the algae blooms get too toxic. Many inland Chinese flock to Qingdao for its burgeoning beach culture. I’ve also read that there’s an area near the beach that’s designed for tourists, both local and international. Our apartment should only be about a half-hour drive away from the beach.

Qingdao is also famous for its quality of water because like Samara, La Crosse, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, it is famous for its brewery. Have you ever heard of Tsingtao Beer? It’s China’s most famous beer and it’s brewed in Qingdao, a city established by Germans. I embrace the irony of my life as a teetotaler living near the world’s best breweries. I have no interest or temptation to try the stuff. I’ll just have the water, but not straight from the tap because travel guides advise against it.

I’m not sure how life on the Yellow Sea will stack up against the other nine bodies of water I have lived on or near, but I’m looking forward to new narratives unfolding with the Yellow Sea and other bodies of water in Qingdao including the rivers and waterfalls of the Laoshan National Forest Park.

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