Watershed walks get close to nature. This is where you get to follow a part of nature back to its source. Or, as may be the case, as close to that source as possible.
Part of this article originated with the constant exposure to associated material for my job. The other part of this article originated with what I found myself doing most all of last summer. On some of my hikes, long stretches of the trail followed a stream or creek. Other hikes had me overlooking streams or creeks. Still other hikes had me following streams or creeks just because I was curious.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already starting to write this article back in early June.
That made this a whole hell of a lot easier!
First, though, a useful definition from Merriam-Webster:
wa·ter·shed | \ ˈwȯ-tər-ˌshed , ˈwä- \
1a: a dividing ridge between drainage areas :
b: a region or area bounded peripherally by a divide and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse or body of water
Watersheds and Mankind
I don’t want to go too deep, so I’m going to summarize:
- Man goes to stream to drink. Man notices that animals also go to stream to drink. There are even animals living in the stream.
- Man finds he likes the taste of animals. The animals don’t like that man has found he likes the taste of animals. So it goes.
- Man hunts animals around stream. He follows the stream up and down to find more tasty animals.
- Man notices that water goes downhill. He is lazy and appreciates that water is also lazy.
- Man keeps eye on stream, remembers which branch he takes, and when he walks with or against the water. He doesn’t want to get lost on his way back to camp.
- Man finds that he uses the same streambeds all the time to navigate. He’s developed a territory.
- Man notices non-animals also grow near the stream. He gathers those tasty non-animal things.
- Man makes sure the tasty non-animal things keep growing and throws away the non-tasty, non-animal things.
- Man builds a settlement by his new fields of tasty non-animal things. His spot is along his stream because it’s good for growing and hunting things.
- Man finds out other men have done the same thing. Travel between these settlements is made easier by following (or floating down) streams.
- And so on and so forth…you get the idea.
Whew…okay, maybe that was a mouthful. Let me summarize the summary: everywhere we have lived depended on access to water. This includes desert- and artic tundra-dwelling folk.
Ergo, for as long as mankind has been toddling across the earth full of curiosity and hunger, he’s been doing watershed walks.
It’s in our blood, folks, so there is no escaping it.
Why this Hike is Different
Okay, so if all hikes technically take place in watersheds, what in the blue blazes is the point of watershed walks?
Ahh…the point of this article is to understand our watersheds. I mean, who wouldn’t want to understand the silent force that has been feeding our starving Earth since before the advent of bones? Who wouldn’t want to explore how this ancient entity carves up the ground and, in the process, conquers and changes itself? It exists without emotion and identity…
I may have used an over-the-top and pseudo-epic Conan the Barbarian way of saying it, but there is no way around it- watersheds are important!
They’re so important, in fact, that to get to know them, we’re going to ignore the trails and follow the water.
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need…roads.”
-Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future
The short version of watershed walks is walk along the stream.
The longer version of this method has quite a bit more substance. Watershed walks may take you along animal paths (where they travel to get water), well-trodden fisherman paths, or even well-established trails. No matter what your walk looks like, you need to consider safety and respect. I’ll take a look at all that in a moment, but there is something more important to consider:
Which way are you going?
Here you simply pick a spot along a waterway and see where the water goes. As you travel, it will likely get larger as tributaries add to it. Since there are waterways coming together, you need to watch your map (mentioned below) closely, else you could get stuck at a point where you can’t go any farther without wading across water.
If you’re in more of a wandering mindset, this is the best version for you. You pick a spot along a waterway and see where the water came from. As you travel, it will likely get smaller as you leave tributaries behind.
What’s the difference?
While you should still consider it, you don’t need to pay as much attention to your map when you’re going upstream because you’re less likely to get “stuck.” You can actually stay on one side of the waterway the entire way as it branches farther and farther away from the main waterways, following it clear to the headwaters (where it originates). If you follow it far enough, you’ll likely run into a spring.
Even better, when you start by going upstream, your return trip will be downstream. There is less of a chance getting lost because you’re staying beside the water without crossing.
What To Do?
Okay, so you’re following a stream. Great. What in the world is there to do?
Much like a “regular” hike, you walk. But, beyond that, there is a great chance for some extras! Consider some of these ideas:
- Look for flora and fauna. Wildlife needs water. Their entire world revolves around access, so watershed walks are prime time to see a variety of animals and plants. Bring along a guidebook and a camera!
- Look for fish. If you’re a fisherman, there is a good chance you do this anyway! Provided you’re following seasonal guidelines and are properly licensed, why not bring along a rod for when you find a really nice spot? If it’s deep enough for fish and you’re far enough away from established trails, you’ll probably have it all to yourself.
- Look for waterfalls. While they may not be as impressive as some of those that have dedicated trails to them, the waterfalls found hidden along smaller waterways can be both relaxing and exciting to stumble upon!
- Look for challenges. Unlike established trails, watershed walks may take you along very rough terrain. You may end up scrambling, re-routing (while keeping as close to the stream as possible), or even walking through the water. NOTE: This type of route may not be suitable for younger, elderly, or disabled hikers.
- Look for trash. But I’m in the wilderness! True, but your route may be along established trails or touch on places where mankind wanders. There is a good chance that the whole reason you’re doing this type of hike is because you care about and want to understand the watershed. In that case, bring along a trash bag and do a little informal clean-up. There are even organized watershed walks with this whole idea in mind.
- Look for inspiration. Frankly, walking along a lonely, isolated waterway can be a relaxing, humbling feeling. This is a force that has been going on long before you arrived on the Earth, and is likely to be going on long after you leave. Paths may change over time, but the effect is always the same- water traveling downhill.
Keep in Mind
Like any other kind of hike, safety should remain at the forefront of your watershed walk wanderings. Even the most accomplished, experienced bushwhackers know enough to keep safety in mind!
- Keep an eye on your map. Even if you start going upstream and then follow it back downstream, have a map and pay attention. Obviously, you want to be able to find your way back out, but there is more to it. When you have a good idea of where you are, it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to get out if you have to get out. Every time you come to a spot where it branches, check the map. Note where you are.
- Know the landforms of the watershed. This goes hand-in-hand with the map. No one likes to have their adventure cut short when they arrive at a point that is simply impassible. Watch out for extremely steep and narrow sections, large wetlands (unless that’s your target!), or anything else that you can’t simply march through. If you’re good with maps, adjust accordingly.
- Know who owns your route. Many waterways cross private land, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not wandering through somewhere where no one wants people wandering. If you need to, contact the right people and get permission. This is especially important if you’re dipping your lines on your watershed walk.
- Pay close attention to wildlife. Sometimes it’s not enough to just look for wildlife, sometimes you need to protect yourself from them. Rattlesnakes, bears, noxious weeds, poison ivy, and a whole host of otherwise dangerous or harmful flora and fauna use the water. Be careful out there! Consider wearing long pants, gaiters, and long sleeves. Also consider carrying a walking stick. I provide more information on gear here and here. Also consider the other animals that hunt out there- humans.
- Watersheds and Drainage Basins– U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- What is a Watershed? -National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- What is a Watershed? FAQ – United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Watershed – National Geographic (Resource Library)
- Watersheds – Penn State Extension
- Walking with Local Waters -Deep Nature Guides
- We’re Walking the Watershed – Chesapeake Bay Foundation
- Walking the Watershed – National Geographic
- Master Watershed Stewards – Penn State Extension (personal pop, but programs exist in many other states!)