Travel Reflections

"My sabbatical taught me you can’t really take a break from who you are and what is important." -Liz Terhaar, Communications Director

You Can’t Take a Sabbatical from Clean Water

Liz Terhaar, Communications Director, hiking with her dog, Blaze, and daughter, Zuma in Montana; photo credit: Jon Terhaar.
Liz with her daughter and dog in Montana.

After eight years with Columbia Riverkeeper, 2022 arrived with an opportunity to take a month-long sabbatical. Having a child at the start of the pandemic who is now a toddler, her version of a big adventure is going to the grocery store. I knew we needed to get her out of the house and into nature before her next birthday! We stuffed our teardrop trailer with camping supplies galore, food, bear spray, countless fishing poles, stuffed animals, art supplies, books, a dog bed, and a guitar for good measure—only the essentials. Over the course of three weeks, we traveled more than  2,000 miles, touching on four states and two national parks. It was an epic trip.

To be honest, fighting polluters and working on climate issues can feel overwhelming at times and getting off zoom was a welcome break. But even away from computer screens, I couldn’t escape work...

Heading east, the highway ran parallel to “choo choo trains” as my daughter calls them. As we raced alongside uncovered coal trains, I reflected on the long-fought Millennium coal export terminal proposed in Longview, Washington. 

Driving through Idaho, we thought it would be adventurous to stay at a campground near an old mining town. My husband hoped to fly fish on the water while my daughter and I hiked. I plotted frying fresh-caught trout in our cast-iron skillet. When we arrived, we researched the fishing regulations only to find out there were no fish in the creek. We discovered we were camping adjacent to a Superfund cleanup site. Sadly, over a decades-long period of carving into and around the awe-inspiring mountains, the mines and their residual metal and chemical runoff had killed all life in the creek I was genuinely worried about the water my dog drank in the creek, and we stayed a good ways away from the otherwise beautiful water.    

In town, we struck up a conversation with some locals at a rock and curio shop. When I asked about the old mines, the shop owner furrowed his brow and replied, “The damn EPA bankrupted all the mining operations out here, so they had to close their doors.” It was incredible—I read an article this community’s children had eight times more lead in their blood than what current standards allow, yet this guy was still towing the company line. I bought my daughter a rock, my husband a football trading card, and left the shop quietly without argument.

Our next campsite at an abandoned and “haunted” ghost town had something less supernatural but scarier—yet another Superfund cleanup site.I read in disbelief how the former mining town’s chamber of commerce thought it was a good idea to sell $2 sandwich bags of leftover mining slag to tourists as a souvenir. (Thankfully, the EPA caught wind and made them stop.) I told my husband, “Wow, I never thought in a million years I’d have to google if a campsite was on a Superfund cleanup list!” We decided to skip it and continue west.

Also in Montana, we stayed in a campsite near the Clark Fork River, where my husband hoped to finally catch a few trout for us to eat—only to discover a fish advisory posted in the river due to high dioxins from mining and paper mills. It felt sadly familiar, thinking about the fish advisories at Bradford Island. 

We had a few days of levity in the liberal bubble of Missoula enjoying the university. Next, we toured West Yellowstone stunned by herds of bison and even saw a gray wolf! I marveled at the foresight of President Grant to preserve the land; this year marked 150 years of the park. Bozeman (called the Silicon Valley of the west) was an interesting place to visit,  and my husband caught what he calls his best rainbow trout of his lifetime while wading the Madison River.

The drive through the Northeast tributaries of the Missouri River was stunning. I’ve never seen so many birds—eagles, great blue herons, owls, turkey vultures, hawks, the list goes on. I texted my best friend a photo of a rainbow at sunset and she replied, “There’s a lot of big sky out west!” She was spot on.

We camped and tried a little hiking and fishing adventure along the Sun River. With my husband fishing and my daughter in a backpack, we were scrambling along the river bed when we stopped to confirm if a dark figure across the river was a bear or a cow—shaking while holding bear spray and praying I wouldn’t have to use it! (It was definitely a large cow, but don’t tell my husband.)

We circled up northwest, where hills punctuated by oil pumps reminded me of my childhood in Texas. I marveled at the bison ranges around the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

When we arrived at Glacier National Park, I noticed our cabin in West Glacier was six car lengths from a railroad track. My daughter loves trains, so when I heard one coming, I took her outside to watch it. Seeing familiar black oil tanks, I felt my stomach tighten, recalling the not so distant memory of the Mosier oil train derailment. I slept little that night in our quaint 1970s cabin despite the charming pool table and taxidermy collection. After hearing the third train go by shaking the cabin at 4 in the morning, I clutched my husband and said, “It’s hard not to think about Mosier sleeping this close to the tracks.” My husband recalled when he was a child, a train derailed near his hometown in Florida and leaked ammonia, killing several local residents. 

Taking a road trip is both humbling and exhilarating. Passing countless rolling hills with the occasional barn leaning sideways. Following mountains and glaciers rising up boldly above the horizon. Driving along creek beds that feed the mightiest rivers. Imagining how canyons were carved out over millions of years. Studying these changes of landscape makes you feel both large and tiny while pondering the natural history from dinosaurs to Indigenous tribes and settlers.

My sabbatical taught me you can’t really take a break from who you are and what is important. It’s a constant reminder when you’re exposed to new sights and sounds, and paying attention to the environment around you. The work I’ve done the last eight years is a part of who I am. I want clean water that my daughter can play in, fish that are safe to eat, oil and coal off the rails and replaced by renewable energy sources, and water that’s safe for communities to drink.

Newsletter Issue 2, 2022