We were forbidden to go near the Clarion River. No fishing, no wading and definitely no swimming – those were the rules. As children, we stood on the Clarion River Bridge and realized that even without those warnings, the water below us did not look inviting. Brown waves churned slowly, almost hesitantly, and frothy pollution gathered in its ripples. The Clarion River was instrumental in spurring the growth of central Pennsylvania, as the region’s main industries all revolved around the area’s woodlands. Logging, sawmills, leather tanning and wood chemical plants thrived, and all used the Clarion to transport goods through the worn hills of the Northern Alleghenies. These industries may have laid the foundation for the area’s economic advancement, but the river suffered because of barely regulated factories that dumped waste directly into the water. In 1909, Carnegie Museum mussel biologist Arnold E. Ortmann called the Clarion River “one of the worst streams in the state” because of its thick pollution.
Decades later, when I was growing up, the river was still thick with pollution and garbage. As children, we would try to identify what we could see in the murky water: plastic straws, cigarette butts, Pepsi cans, broken beer bottles.
Only gnats and mosquitos hovered near the water. I never heard the song-like shrill of spring peepers or the gurgle of bullfrogs. Here, even late-summer crickets fell silent. One time, peering closely into the current, I thought I saw a fish and ran home to tell my father who had always proclaimed, “No good fish can be found in the Clarion.” He dismissed the alleged sighting as a carp, otherwise known as a “bottom feeder.”
From what I had seen in the water, I couldn’t imagine what was on the bottom of the river that a carp would find tasty.
The small parcel of shoreline under the bridge was a hangout for teenagers who “were up to no good,” as my mother explained to me. “No good” in my rural town usually translated to smoking, drinking, doing drugs and getting pregnant (or getting someone pregnant). Sometimes, when I walked across the bridge, I saw teenagers by the river with cigarettes in hand, trails of smoke mixing with truck exhaust and patches of river fog.
I was old enough to know that somehow water could spark. Years before I was born, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire, a concept I had a hard time understanding as a child. After all, water was supposed to douse a fire, not act as gasoline. Still, old photographs of thick, black smoke over the river convinced me that flame and water could work together to create a fiery disaster.
Those summers, as I watched the teenagers flick their cigarette ashes into the river, I waited, holding my breath for a spark.
The water that tainted the creeks near the old mines was orange. Acid mine drainage, I would eventually learn, but as a child, I only knew it as “polluted.” I didn’t know that the orange water was caused by sulphide materials being exposed to the air, creating a rust-like film on the water. The chemical reaction also coated the rocks with reddish specks that looked like the rug burns that appeared on my skin when I slid across the carpets at home.
Nothing lived in these tainted creeks. Unlike other clear streams, where I patiently lifted rocks to find scuttling crawfish or looked for small fish darting in the ripples, these waves were stagnant and even the banks had no plant life. Anything green cowered away from the water.
I once dipped a twig in the creek and swirled around the colors. On some days, the water looked like my mother’s homemade chili, a comfort food during winter months. But mostly, it looked as if rust were floating on the water, reminding me of the burnt orange rings inside our bathtub and clinging to the edges of the kitchen sink.
Once, while climbing a rusty chain-link fence, I slipped, my whole body sliding against the metal, my lip catching and splitting open. I didn’t know if I tasted metal or rust or my own blood. But I liked the taste, and afterwards my tongue searched for things that would have that metallic sting, lingering on metal spoons after I had licked ice cream or sucking spare change when I thought no one was looking.
I wondered if the colored water would taste like metal, or if it would taste like the water I drank from the garden hose, something we all did when we played outside and didn’t want to go indoors for a proper glass of water.
I wanted to dip my finger into the stagnant reddish-orange water and suck on my skin, the same way I would lick the icing bowl clean after my mother made cake.
But I never did.
I learned to swim the day one of my older brothers picked me up and threw me into a pond.
I hit the water feet first. For a moment I froze, my whole body eerily still. I felt myself sinking slowly. When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was dark flecks floating. I blew bubbles through my nose, so I wouldn’t accidently breathe in and fill my lungs with water. I looked up and saw a fuzzy round ball of light that I assumed was the sun in the afternoon sky. I swam toward the light and when I burst to the surface, I heard my brother, the same one who threw me into the water, yelling, “Kick your legs!”
So, I kicked my legs. I was a little bewildered, but it seemed the only logical action to take.
Water splashed in every direction. My body rose to the surface in a horizontal pose, and I pushed my arms forward as I had seen other members of my family do. I easily made it to shore while my family cheered. I felt so triumphant that I forgot to be upset with the offending sibling who caused the incident.
For years, we spent our summers at this pond, located on the grounds of my family’s camp. One side was lined with a rocky beach – so rocky we didn’t shed our shoes until we reached the edge of the water. Then, we kicked off our old sneakers or worn flip flops and waded in, shivering in water that never seemed to get warm, even in Pennsylvania’s late-summer heat and humidity.
In the eyes of a child, the pond seemed huge, and we used to have races to see if we could make it to the other side. Sometimes we did, claiming victory but never stepping onto the opposite shore, for it was just as rocky as the ground we had launched from. In spite of the fact that we were deep in the woods, the pond was overrun with human existence. Someone before us had strung a wire cable between two trees and hung a piece of board so we could swing across the water. Truck tracks and footprints were often embedded in the rocky mud. It wasn’t unusual to arrive for an afternoon of swimming and see a fire pit near the water, empty pails near the blackberry bushes that lined the trail, or remnants of bait and fishing lines strung in the weeds.
We had been told that there were water snakes in the pond, but I only remember seeing one, when it swam by my niece, who panicked, arms flailing. Afraid that she would drown, I yelled, “Kick your legs,” an order that echoed my brother’s command from years before. She made it to shore safely, but it was a long time before any of us could convince her to go into the water again.
Much later, the pond became stagnant and then it slowly disappeared. The last time I visited, what once had been a clear pool was now little more than a languid, murky puddle. Bushes and small trees had latched onto the banks. Cattails clutched every corner, while soggy lily pads sopped at what little moisture remained.. A tire, half-submerged, rose from the shallow water like some sort of misshapen sea creature. There were no fish, but a few tiny frogs and a lone dragonfly darted through the weeds. Mosquitos buzzed angrily in my ears, and when I approached the water, I sank into mud, my shoes making a strange sucking noise as I struggled to walk.
It never occurred to me that a swimming spot could become overrun with weeds, choking out water and wildlife alike.
I didn’t know if the pond’s demise was caused by humans or nature, but it didn’t seem to matter. When I looked at what was left of this once-cherished family spot, I had only one thought: The pond itself didn’t have enough to drink.
The Conewango Creek, which flows through the middle of Warren, Pa., where I now live, reminds me of the Clarion River.
Maybe it’s the bridges that span the creek in three places. Or maybe it’s the way that people walk across these bridges, often stopping to admire the natural world around them.
Or maybe it’s because the creek shares a similar history as the Clarion. Both tributaries were used in the field of lumbering. Both were important to the development of western Pennsylvania. Finally, both are now considered important recreational spots.
In the 35 years since I was a child peering into the Clarion’s murky waters, the river has become a designated part of the National Wild and Scenic River program in Pennsylvania. Today, the river is used for fishing and is also part of a popular route for canoeing. These days, the only time the waters seem cloudy is after a heavy rain.
When I watch the Conewango Creek’s waters churn, I see many differences from the Clarion River of my memories.
First, there is the wildlife.
There are mergansers and wood ducks and, of course, Canadian geese. But the Conewango is particularly favored by mallards that hang out in the water and wait for area residents to throw them bits of bread. (Naturalists discourage this practice but considering that some of these residents include nuns who teach at the elementary school located on the banks of the creek, who is going to argue?) Downstream, a Wendy’s fast food restaurant sits near the place where the Conewango meets the Allegheny River. In the parking lot, customers often have to dodge the mallards that rest on the pavement and hold discarded French fries in their beaks like cigarettes.
I have seen other wildlife as well, including white-tailed deer wading near the edges and a muskrat swimming lazily in its waves. It was by the Conewango where I once saw a mother opossum wandering down a path with her babies clinging haphazardly to her back.
The Conewango Creek sports sand bar-like islands, sturdy enough that small trees and bushes take root. Purple loosestrife blooms on some of the islands in miniature fields that practically spill out into the water.
Often I see people in the creek. Although the Conewango is not ideal for swimming, families sometimes fish along the banks. Often, people lob stones into the water, and paths along the creek are favorites for dogwalkers, with the occasional black Lab or golden retriever let free to frolic after a tossed stick. Once, I even saw a group of teenagers floating down the creek on an air mattress.
There’s a pastoral mood here, one that makes me forget that just a few miles west, in the middle of the city, an oil refinery often belches thick smoke and taints the air with a thick smell of burning. Meanwhile, just over an hour away, another controversy concerning hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is brewing.
The state of Pennsylvania has had a precarious relationship with fracking, a process by which gas and oil are recovered from shale rock. In the simplest terms, supporters of fracking say we should increase our reliance on natural gas instead of other sources of energy, specifically coal. However, many people are concerned about the harmful effects that fracking may have on the environment and local communities, especially on drinking supplies. The studies and research on fracking are numerous and often confusing – so confusing that I could probably read differing opinions for months, maybe years, and still not fully understand all that is at stake.
The most recent issue concerning fracking in my home state is the proposed shale wastewater treatment plant in Coudersport, a small town located just over an hour away. Again, water is the main concern, as many local residents fear that the treatment of fracking water, which would then be released into the Allegheny River, is not fully effective and could contaminate drinking supplies.
The Conewango Creek joins the Allegheny River in Warren, Pa., so thoughts of contamination are never far from my mind.
On hot days, when I walk along the bike path near the Conewango, I sometimes long to reach in, cup the water in my hands and take a drink.
But I think of the history of water in my home state. I think about the continuing controversies concerning hydraulic fracturing and its possible effects on our water. I think of the water of my youth.
So I resist the urge. I never take that drink.