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Rivers seem to be discreet entities like mountain ranges or forests, but like mountain ranges and forests they are not. The Mississippi is often called the longest river in North America ever since 72 miles of meanders were snipped off the Missouri during that river’s re-channeling. But what defines the Missouri and what defines the Mississippi? The Missouri discharges a larger volume of water into the lower Mississippi at its confluence at St. Louis every year than the upper Mississippi does– but it has large seasonal fluctuations, so it often looks much smaller.

The Missouri “Headwaters” is a spot where the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers all come together in Montana’s Gallatin valley within a mile of one another. (It’s about a half hour from where I grew up but for some reason I didn’t go there until this weekend.) Lewis and Clark dropped the Missouri name at that spot because they couldn’t figure out which of the three forks was bigger. If you travel up the Jefferson, though, then turn up the Big Hole River, then turn up the Beaverhead, then turn up the Red Rock River, and then Hellroaring Creek, you’ll get to Brower’s Spring– which isn’t really a spring but a place water percolates out of a mountainside like it does in every other drainage. And you can look at that water and tell yourself it’ll flow a really really long ways– the fourth longest waterdrop journey in the world. When really it’ll get sucked out or evaporated by a thousand and one irrigation canals and reservoirs, first.

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Headwaters of Hellroaring Creek, Centennial Mountains. 6/27/2013

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