Follow the River

The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.


I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river

Drawn to Water


I have always been drawn to water. I’m not alone in feeling this pull.

Perhaps there is something to that lunar pull that moves the tides.  The “lunar effect” is usually defined as a real or imaginary correlation between specific stages of the roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle and behavior and physiological changes in living beings on Earth, including humans. Examples of this belief have been found in ancient Assyrian/Babylonian writing.

There have been plenty of studies to consider any effects on humans. Some studies have found no correlation between the lunar cycle and human biology or on our behavior. One that I found seemed to indicate that there seems to be an effect on humans based on the amount of moonlight rather than tidal pull. An ancient belief that survived into modern times was that the monthly cycle of menstruation in women was lunar based, ut that is now considered a coincidence in timing without lunar influence.

I don’t feel any monthly pull to water, but like Ishmael in the opening of Moby-Dick, I do find myself drawn to the ocean several times a year.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Maybe Ishmael was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As someone who grew up with time at the Jersey Shore every summer of my life, I find that “high time to get to sea” more of a spring event than a November one.

My most regular pull to water is to local waters. There are brooks and creeks in the woods where I frequently walk that I am always drawn to visit.  There is something in the tumbling water that I find very appealing.

That is magnified when I visit waterfalls nearby, from the small Hemlock Falls that was childhood destination to the Great Falls of the Passaic River. (Take a look at the Great Falls.)

There is science to this attraction. The dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge. That is why people buy air ionizers (negative ion generator) which uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Negative, in this case, is a good thing. A trendy, new-age version is the Himalayan salt lamps that are sold.

Naturally-occurring negative ions are said to have health benefits including enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity, and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks.  Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. (Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.)

I would consider water therapy as effective as “forest bathing” and other get-into-nature therapies.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” is a common English proverb.  It’s an old one, going back to 1175 in Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken” which is translated as “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

You can lead people into nature or to the water, but they may not drink in its benefits. You have to be drawn towards it on your own.

As a child, Cub and Boy Scout and independent hiker and walker of the woods, I discovered early on that I was attracted, like other animals, to water. Animal paths made by deer and other creatures inevitably lead to a water source. Another quote from Moby-Dick, talks about this attraction to water and not only the sea.

“Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” 

As I wander in the woods, naturally-made paths do lead downhill because they were first worn by rainwater and then by animals making their way to a pool, pond or stream.

We are drawn to water. And that is a good thing.

Further Journeys: River Horse

William Least Heat-Moon is best known for the now modern classic Blue Highways, a book I wrote about earlier here.

Since then, I read about another of his journeys that he chronicled in River Horse. This time he starts out from New York Harbor aboard a boat he named Nikawa which means “river horse” in Osage. 

His plan is to reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. He has a companion this time, a First Mate he calls Pilotis, as he attempts a 5000 mile water journey. 

This trip would be more miles than any other cross-country river traveler. He follows the path of some other famous inland explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Lewis and Clark. 

In some ways, this voyage is similar to his truck trip around the country. He runs into more real battles with nature (floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather) but he also meets interesting and helpful people with tales of their own.

The landscapes of Blue Highways become riverscapes as they take the small motorized boat down rivers, lakes and canals from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The book also carries more of an ecological story about our lands and waters.

I still have a few other Heat-Moon books to read. I think my next one will be PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In that book, he sets off on foot. It is a big book (624 pages) and from reviews I have seen, it is quite different from Blue Highways and River Horse

PrairyErth is a term that Heat-Moon found in an old taxonomy to describe prairie soils. In this book, he does not attempt to walk across the country, but instead he picks a specific area of prairie. In the same way that Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” and how Annie Dillard became a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in Virginia, Heat-Moon attempts to explore every bit of the 774 square miles of Chase County, Kansas in the geographical center of our country.

If this big book seems too much to take on right now, consider William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of short-form travel writing. Here, There, Elsewhere has short pieces on trips to Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico and also to Long Island, Oregon and Arizona. He visits and writes about small towns, big cities, the shorelines of our country and places hidden inland.

The Pi of Rivers

I met pi in school. You probably met pi that way too. It is that number used to calculate the circumference of a circle. Pi is shown symbolically as:


Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an “irrational number” which means its exact value is inherently unknowable.

Using computers, we have calculated billions of digits of pi, starting with 3.14159265358979323…   –  but no recognizable pattern emerges. So strange. The digits of pi continue to infinity. Does anyone really understand infinity?

Ancient mathematicians did not like irrationality because it didn’t work with the concept of an omniscient God.

Recently I read about another pi connection which is also strange. In 1996, the UK earth scientist Hans-Henrik Stølum published a paper announcing that pi explains the seemingly chaotic paths of rivers in a mathematically predictable pattern.

This is called a river’s sinuosity. By dividing the river’s actual meandering length by the length of the direct line drawn from source to sea.

Of course, some rivers flow pretty straight from source to mouth , so they have small meandering ratios. Some rivers wander all over the place and have high meandering ratios.

But the average meandering ratio of rivers seems to be pi. Good old 3.14.

Albert Einstein used fluid dynamics and chaos theory to show that rivers tend to bend into loops.

If a river has a curve that will generate faster currents on the outer side of the curve. Those currents will cause erosion and so a sharper bend. That will eventually make the loop tighten. I have read that then chaos will eventually cause the river to double back on itself and form a loop in the other direction.

I did some more research on this river connection and found that this claim may not be accurate.

Someone put up a website at one point to crowdsource river data. The site at seems to be dead now. People could put in the coordinates of the mouth and the source of a river, and the length of the river (from Google Maps and Wikipedia probably) to calculate the sinuosity of a river. That study looked at 258 rivers and found an average sinuosity of an un-Pi-like 1.94.

Hmmm. Maybe it is another mathematical constant, like the golden ratio (phi) which we often find in nature. That value is 1.618. Nope.

What about if you look at pi/phi? You get 1.94. Okay, that’s a strange “coincidence.”  Or something more than coincidence?

I need to be careful with all this, because I saw the film titled Pi. I saw this science fiction film when it was released in 1998. It is a difficult film to label. It is surrealist, psychological, thriller, that delves into religion, mysticism, the relationship of the universe to mathematics and number theory. It was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky in his directorial debut.

I read it as a cautionary tale. It is about a genius oddball mathematician, Max, who has been working for a decade trying to decode the numerical pattern beneath ordered chaos. The ordered chaos he studies is the stock market.

Max’s belief that there is some mathematical “code” underlying everything compares in my mind with Einstein trying to find that theory that explains it all. That quest frustrated Einstein through the end of his life.

Beware of that quest.