An Outdoor View: On water

On TV news earlier this week, the Californians who were wading through their flooded houses and boating down their flooded streets got me to thinking about water.

In September 1972, when astronauts aboard Apollo 17 were 28,000 miles from Earth, they took a photo of Earth. They named it “The Blue Marble,” and it became one of the most widely distributed photographic images in existence. When I first saw this strikingly beautiful image of Earth, it really came home to me that 71 percent of Earth’s surface is covered with water.

We make great sacrifices, even go the the extreme of risking our lives and homes, to be near water. Always have, always will. Ever wonder why people continue to live in flood-prone places?

One reason we’ll live on land in flood plains is that such land can be quite cheap due to the risks of flooding. If a building lot is in the “100-year” flood plain, we reason that we’ll never see a flood in the 10 years or so that we plan to live there, or we convince ourselves that we can engineer around whatever Mother Nature might throw at us. When our property floods after we’ve lived there only a year or two, a low-interest government “disaster” loan helps us recover. We then convince ourselves it surely won’t happen again.

Another reason we’ll accept the risks of living on the water is that waterfront property can be highly desirable. As those of us who live near the Kenai River know, access to the river for fishing and boating is prized. Just a view of water can add several thousand dollars to the price of a building lot. An acre-size lot fronting on the Kenai River can cost anywhere from 5 to 10 times as much as the same-sized lot without river frontage.

I understand the urge to be near the water. For as long as I can remember anything, I’ve loved being around water. My forbears were Norwegians and Brits, people who lived and died by and on the sea. At least one of my great-great grandfathers was a shipbuilder. I teethed on the gunwales of a small boat, and spent my boyhood fishing, swimming and water-skiing, and cruising around Puget Sound in a small boat with my family. My urge to be near water is both genetic and learned, and it remains a driving force.

Things happen on rivers, lakes and the sea that don’t happen anywhere else. On the open ocean, where the water stretches to the horizon, no trees or mountains block the view of spectacular sunsets and cloud formations. There’s the mystery of water, the inability to know what’s happening in the jungle that churns with life beneath the surface. When you’re at sea, miles from land, there’s a constant hint of danger, a feeling that you’re adventuring into the unknown.

Speaking at a dinner for the America’s Cup crews in 1962, then-President John F. Kennedy said, “I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because, in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”

We now know far more about water than we did when I was growing up, in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, my home town’s dump was on the bank of the Skagit River, one of Washington’s most productive salmon and trout streams. Back then, sewage was simply drained into the nearest lake, stream or into Puget Sound. Although the handling of trash and waste of various kinds remains far from perfect, it’s now done in ways that are more environmentally friendly than in the past.

I have hopes that more of us will learn to respect our planet’s water and act accordingly. After all, water does more than keep us alive. It makes life worth living.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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