FROM HOME TO HEADWATERS

By Nina Gordon-Kirsch

Photo by Theresa Martin, at Highland Lakes, Hungalelti-Washoe Land

Roughly five years ago, a seed was planted in my chest that I had to walk to my headwaters (read more here from a previous WW newsletter) and use the journey to teach my high school students where their water comes from. Years of gestation, germination, hard work, lots of help, and many prayers later, that vision has come to reality! Thus, Home2Headwaters was born.

Globally, I feel that we are in a time when more and more people are returning to relationships with the waters. And yes it’s also true that many people are not, but when I focus on where there are people listening and witnessing the waters, I see that it IS happening. I saw it in Israel and Palestine when I completed my graduate degree in water recycling – multiple research teams looking at the health of the waters across borders. I see it through Run4Salmon, an annual prayerful journey led by Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe to restore the salmon runs, protect the waters, and indigenous lifeways. I saw it on Ochethi Sakowin and Wahpekute land in Minnesota at Stop Line 3 – folks from all across the US leaving behind jobs and loved ones to follow Indigenous leadership and protect the waters from oil corruption. And I saw it year after year as Walking Water showed up to walk from Payahuunadü to LA – bringing many people together to witness and listen to the waters. Walking Water was an integral inspiration and support for my journey. Witnessing what Walking Water had done – spiritually, physically, politically, and building relations with the indigenous folks along the way – helped lift my wings to the vision and a close mentorship and tracking from Kate Bunney lifted me into flight to pursue this Water Journey.

Route along the Mokelumne river

And lastly, I saw humans investing in relations with the waters this past summer when I walked 240 miles from my home on Chochenyo Ohlone land in Oakland, CA to the headwaters of the Mokelumne River, where my drinking water comes from – a whole village of humans, known and unknown to me, showed up to make this water walk happen. 

In July 2022, I spent 33 days walking the full length of the Mokelumne River, going upstream until I reached the headwaters. My journey started with excitement and boisterous energy – as my friends and family joined me on local Bay Area walking days, dropping off food, or offering a ride to where I would sleep after a long day of walking. As I moved further from home, the external energy of the walk decreased and I began to touch in more with the land my feet were walking on and the waters my body was swimming in.

Photo by Alicia Thompson, Nina interviewing farmers-turned-restaurant owners

I walked on the Bay Trail, through the Delta Islands (swam a few river crossings), kayaked upstream for 2 days, and backpacked off-trail in a remote river canyon on Washoe Land. Along the way, I interviewed farmers, river conservationists, hydropower employees, and regular citizens, collecting stories about how we all relate to water. I met Gerry Goodie, owner of a restaurant in the Delta that sits on the Mokelumne riverbank. He watched me swim a river crossing and as I exited the water onto his doc, instead of getting yelled at for trespassing he said, “I hoped you’d be coming here!” Gerry and I sat for a while and I got to hear about his relationship to the Mokelumne. He told me that his friends finish their work day and turn on the news or an action show on TV. After his work day, he takes his seat in front of the river and tunes into the baby Osprey learning how to hunt and he watches the tidal influence on this section of the River. He said it helps him slow down in a busy world. 

I also walked across private property, taking deep breaths to ease the anxiety and very much noting my privilege as a white female while hopping barbed wire fences and fitting between locked gates. I got to witness the river change forms – from expansive Bay, to channelized banks, to wild riparian flood zones. And I felt witnessed by Her as I moved through emotions of joy, sadness, anxiety, and awe.

On Day 32, high up in the Sierras, a group of my family and friends showed up to walk and support the last five miles of the journey. The exciting energy was back – lots of song and chatter and disbelief that this journey had really happened, that we had really made it! When there were about two miles left, I asked the group for silence. As I put one foot in front of the other, I looked around to take in the scenery – the high sierra flowers I recognized from my days guiding backpacking trips, the cloud formations I used to so intimately track while roaming the backcountry. My breath settled as I took in the beauty and I tuned into my body. 

In the silence, I noticed my heart beating. But it wasn’t the type of beating I was used to. This time, my heart was beating FORWARD. I could feel its forward trajectory, like it was leading me somewhere. I followed it. With each beat, I moved forward in its direction.

The Peace Poets song came to my tongue:

“If we listen, to the stars in the sky, 

we will walk in harmony with everything that’s alive. 

We are Rivers, running through the sky, 

from the ocean to the mountains, til the salmon arrive.”

Photo by Sky Richards at Salt Springs Reservoir, Hungalelti-Washoe Land

We approached Highland Lakes and before I knew it, my body was unhooking Petey’s dog leash, my backpack flung to the ground, and my feet were sprinting, in the direction of where my heart was beating. I ran past the group of reporters from CBS and SF Chronicle,  past my parents, the film crew, all waiting along the shore of the lake. I ran straight to the very drainage where the Mokelumne River is born out of Highland Lakes. I collapsed in gratitude into the waters. My waters became the waters of the River. 

Bent over, humbled by this life source. I gave thanks to these waters who fed my mom when I was in her womb… to these waters who I swam in for my first 9 months of my life… to these waters who raised me my whole childhood… and to these headwaters who go mostly unnoticed by the 1.4 million people who drink them from the tap in the East Bay of CA.

I tuned back into my heart, and I imagined the feeling a salmon feels as its whole body propels itself upstream. Without knowing what lies ahead, the fish follows its body intuition to go a certain direction, to go upstream, against the current. Wow, making the seemingly impossible, possible. I can only imagine the hearts inside each salmon beating Forward, upstream to bring them home. 

I made it! I had walked from “home” to here. I had left “home” over 240 miles ago to arrive here. Yet on that day, on the shore of those waters, I felt more at Home than I had ever felt in my life. 

I had finally arrived home. 

Nina is a high school educator and the continuing mission of Home2Headwaters is to make a film to bring into schools. The film team – Julia Maryanska (director) and Marielle Olentine (producer) – along with camera support from Mer al’Dao and Sky Richards, spent hot days out on the walk with Nina, filming her building relationship with the waters, interviews with people along the way, and the hardships and beauty that this type of journey brings forth. We are working on creating a film to bring into schools and tour the film festival circuit to bring more awareness not only to where our water comes from, but how humans can relate to water as a Being to be respected and listened to, instead of a commodity to be manipulated and sold.

Thus far, the film crew has only gotten paid for about half of their work hours and we are just at the beginning of the journey to make the film. Please consider donating today to help support this educational film!

DONATE HERE! 

Thank you so much!

Julia, Marielle, and Nina