Nina Gordon-Kirsch

It’s November 2017. I am at Evergreen Lodge (Miwok land)– somewhere in between Groveland and the western entrance of Yosemite National Park, where the incense cedar fills my lungs and cold air bites my nose. It’s the end of Day One at a conference called Localizing California Waters. Instead of heading to the pub to socialize, I decide to cap off the night by attending the optional film entitled The Longest Straw. The documentary tells the story of Samantha Bode, who walked from her house in Los Angeles to Mono Lake, tracing the path of the water. Sam endures 300 miles of walking through hot desert valleys with the Sierra Nevada mountain range looming above. Along the trail, she connects with hikers, utility workers, and ecologists, collecting stories to better understand the waters. When she finally arrives at the Mono Lake Committee building, tears are flooding my face, and a vision drops into my heart, rooting itself deep inside me somewhere:

I, too, have to walk to my headwaters.

Six months later, it’s April 2018. I have returned to my life leading outdoor trips for youth. We are in Point Reyes (Coast Miwok, Graton Rancheria land) and I send the students out onto the bluffs for a one hour ‘solo’ – silent alone time in nature. During this precious hour of solitude, I hear the waves crashing gently into my ears and feel the rays of sunshine touch my face. Something rustles somewhere deep inside my heart, reminding me that I have forgotten.

I have to walk to my headwaters….. remind me when I get back to Oakland (Chochenyo-Ohlone land)….I have to walk to my headwaters…

Jump to a year later, April 2019. I am now on a solo of my own, facilitated by a women’s initiation program called Tree of Life.  But this time, it’s not for one hour, it’s for three and a half days – a final rite of passage after two years of self exploration and soul searching. I am on Pomo land, with just the clothes on my back, two wool blankets, and no food or water.

I embark on this solo as my life is crumbling – my loved one decided to walk a different path, hardship with my mom is in full swing, and it feels clear to me that I need to quit my beloved job as an outdoor educator. My heart feels broken and my life’s purpose unclear. Time to pray.

I will find my place among the water keepers.

I will find my place among the water keepers.

I will find my place among the water keepers.

And so water finds her way to me. Rain joins me on my solo for 48 hours straight. I lay face up on the squishy grass, shivering with my wool blankets soaked through.

I am too wet to pray.

I make a shelter from downed wood and moss, which keeps me mostly dry from above, but soon the flooding groundwaters create a river alongside my body, caressing my hips and continuing downhill. After two days of not drinking water, my body thirsts for her. I turn over and press my lips into the river, and take a sip of the sweetest water I have ever tasted.

Am I too wet to pray?

I will find my place among the water keepers.

I will find my place among the water keepers.

I will find my place among the water keepers.

A few months later, August 2019, I am on the East Side of the Sierra (Paiute land), supervising my last backpacking trip, as I let go of a profession I so dearly love to make room for whatever it is that I am supposed to be doing. I meet with Kate Bunney, co-founder of Walking Water, at Black Sheep Coffee Roasters, ‘best coffee on the East Side.’ I don’t question why she opts for the 96 degree back patio seating over the indoor air conditioning; instead, I follow my mentor into the blazing heat. Soon enough, I sink into the energy right here at our table and temperature no longer matters. I tell Kate about that ‘some-day dream’ of mine to walk to my headwaters.


“So, what?”

“Why aren’t you doing it?”

The seed that was planted nearly two years ago is germinating right now inside my chest. The vision was watered by the heavens and given a blast of heat and is finally ready to wake up.

I am walking from my home to my headwaters.


March 2020.

Hi. My name is Nina and I am walking from Oakland to Highland Lakes. No, I’m not currently on the physical walk, but I am already on the journey. I understand that this is not my walk. I am so clear that this is a walk that I will be on. This is a walk being guided by something way bigger than me.

At first I thought I was just going to do this as a through hike – a hike from point A to point B that requires external support like food and water resupplies and a shuttle ride. Some of my coworkers at Outward Bound did the famous through hike in Yosemite called The John Muir Trail (Nuumu Poyo). So, I thought, this is just my version of that – a few weeks on trail, some food and water resupplies, and voila! A through hike!

But it turns out visions don’t work that way. I have to keep my heart open, every step of the way, and listen to what the waters want. This water walk wants to be bigger than my personal summer backpacking trip. And so I am releasing my fingers of containment and letting this vision grow.  And how beautiful its growing will be!

The seed has now grown into a little seedling, looking for light and resources and blessings.  I am moving into relationship building with indigenous tribes along the whole line of the Mokelumne River. I will speak to them about this vision and ask permission to walk on their land. First stop: Sogorea Te Land Trust – an urban land trust in the Bay Area led by two indigenous women, Corinna Gould and Johnella LaRose. I will meet with Corrina to tell her about this water journey and ask her permission to walk on her land. If it’s a No, then I will not walk. But if it’s a Yes, then we keep moving, keep connecting.

Above all, this vision of walking to my headwaters is about connection: from tap to source, settler to native, farmer to city dweller, fish to ecosystem, and who knows what more? The vision is calling for restoring relationships, and I am listening.

Join me as I embark on this journey! Sign up for my email list here

In gratitude for our precious waters,

Nina Gordon-Kirsch

Resident of the Temescal Creek Watershed

Nina Gordon-Kirsch works part time doing water quality monitoring, part time installing residential greywater systems, and full time educating folks on where their water comes from. Moving forward, she’ll be following the call of the Waters and backpacking her way from Oakland to the Headwaters of the Mokelumne River, where EBMUD sources East Bay tap water from.

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