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Rivers Run Through All of It

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

On our road trip earlier this year, we traveled thousands of miles west and back again. In the course of that journey, we crossed the longest and most voluminous rivers in the nation as well as some other notables that impressed us in various ways.

>> Jump ahead to the books.

The Rivers

After leaving our own Ohio River (981 miles in length, moving more than 280,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs), tributary of the Mississippi River) Historically, the Ohio served as a natural boundary that marked the cusp of freedom, or near to it, before the abolition of slavery. Today, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center stands along its northern bank. Here are some of the rivers we encountered:

  • Mississippi River (2,320 miles, 593,003 cfs; Algonquian for "big waters, or river")

  • Big Sioux River (419 miles, 3,793 cfs; tributary of Missouri; French adaptation of the Algonquian name, Nadouessioux, for the Dakota people, whose name for themselves means "friendly")

  • Missouri River (2,341 miles, up to 900,000 cfs; tributary of Mississippi; Algonquian for "people of the big canoes")

  • Snake River (1,078 miles, 54,000 cfs; tributary of Columbia; named when European explorers misinterpreted a hand sign from the Shoshone that more likely meant "the people who live near the river with many fish")

  • Yellowstone River (692 miles, usually up to 9,000 cfs but nearly 50,000 cfs during flooding earlier this year; translation of Minnetaree name meaning "yellow rock river," which refers to yellow sandstone along the river's banks in Montana; more history)

  • Spokane River (111 miles, 7,946 cfs; tributary of Columbia; named for the Spokane people, known as the "children of the sun" among the Salish)

  • Columbia River (1,243 miles, 265,000 cfs; also called Wimahl or Wimal by Chinook, Nch’i-Wàna or Nchi wana by Sahaptin, and swah'netk'qhu by Sinixt, all of which translate roughly to "big river"; source = Columbia Lake in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, home of the 9,000-year-old Kinnewick Man)

  • Willamette River (187 miles, 37,400 cfs; tributary of Columbia; French pronunciation of the name of a Clackamas village; whose valley is home to about 70% of the present population of Oregon)

Below are the rivers in the order in which we encountered them, beginning with the Ohio, because it's our home river, and moving on to the Mississippi, the Big Sioux, the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Spokane, the Columbia, the Willamette, and finally, the Snake, which we didn't actually cross on our way west but did on our way back. None of the photos quite do any of them justice. These photos are snagged from public park and org websites. I have not had the chance to sort through the ones on my camera yet and the ones on my phone do them even less justice ...

These maps give you a sense of the scope of the rivers and the ways in which they not only connect to one another but also connect all the disparate parts of the continent and we who live there. Included is a map that shows the routes traveled by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, from 1804 to 1806. Our journey followed a good bit "in their footsteps," to the point that my husband lamented seeing another brown Lewis & Clark Trail sign alongside the highway. People beyond count traveled, hunted, fished, and settled the rivers and lands explored by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their many companions, including the Lemhi Shoshone woman Sacagawea, but their journey contributed a great deal to the United States' knowledge of and interest in (and subsequent settlement of and conflict over) lands west of the Mississippi River.

Find out which rivers number among America's Most Endangered Rivers® of 2022 and why.

During out journey west, most of the rivers in the northwest were unusually high. We crossed the Yellowstone in Billings, Montana, a few days after the flooding began that shut down Yellowstone National Park. When we crossed, we could still see flooding of construction sites and other areas. Scientists concur the massive flooding that swept away buildings, roads, and riverbanks resulted from unusually high snowmelt in the mountains combined with higher levels of rainfall. The behind-the-scenes reason? Climate change ... global warming ... us. You can find a lot of footage of the dramatic flooding online. Following is one news report.

Fun River Books

Okay, that's a lot of history and geography and current events, more than I meant to include before getting to the picture book side of things. That's why I added the little "jump ahead" link. So, to the fun stuff to check out and read ...

First up are some of our favorite river storybooks, lyrical texts, and illustrated overviews of the importance of rivers and water conservation ... We begin with Scuffy, because he's a classic and I read him over and over as a child and to my own children. Dated, yes, but a rollicking journey still.

Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

What Is a River? by Monika Vaicenavičienė

Song of the River by Joy Cowley and Kimberly Andrews

A River by Marc Martin

Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris and LeUyen Pham

The Raft by Jim LaMarche

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling

The Rhythm of the Rain by Grahame Baker-Smith

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade

Flood by Alvaro F. Villa (wordless picture book)

and the most recently released, Forest by Brendan Kearney

Younger book enthusiasts? Here's a fun board book!

These are some wonderful reads about actual rivers. We can't say enough good about the lyrical narratives, fabulous informational backmatter and stunning illustrations in all of Laurie Krebs' titles (each with different talented illustrators) from Barefoot Books:

We're Roaming in the Rainforest: An Amazon Adventure by Laurie Krebs and Anne Wilson This one's more about the rainforest but at its heart is the Amazon River.

Song of the Mekong River by Na-Mi Choi and Sinae Jo

These are two of our favorite song books about rivers ... Such fun to sing with delightful illustrations!

Row Row Row Your Boat by Iza Trapani

Moon River by Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini, and Tim Hopgood

Finally, I found this amazing resource at the library recently. Wow! If you need a quick and beautifully illustrated reference on rivers from across the continents, this is your book. It's not a bedtime book but makes for great snippets to read a few at a time or to go to as needed.

Amazing Rivers: 100+ Waterways that Will Boggle Your Mind by Julie Vosburgh Agnone and Kerry Hyndman

Okay, finally, finally, another classic and favorite of my childhood, this one's a chapter book but heavily illustrated and worth the extra pages ... If you haven't shared the tales of Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger in their riverside homes, you should.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (various iterations with different illustrators but I love the ones by Ernest H. Shepard)

And finally, finally, finally, for slightly older readers, get your survival spirit on with the second book in Gary Paulsen's Brian tales:

The River by Gary Paulsen

And now, in closing, because I love it so, "Moon River" as sung by Audrey Hepburn ...

Side note, huckleberries are a big thing in the northwest ...

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