by Ryan Morra
“Slow down, you’re moving too fast, you’ve got to make the moment last.” Simon and Garfunkel phrased it well. If you look at aerial photographs of the Winooski or Lamoille Rivers in northern Vermont, you’ll notice how dramatically the rivers snake through Champlain Valley with one horseshoe-shaped bend after the next.
Launch your canoe into these rivers and you will come face to face with the phenomenon known in the scientific community as fluvial geomorphology. This phrase has become increasingly familiar to the public in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, where fluvial geomorphologists have been called upon to explain the widespread flooding experienced across the state. But what exactly does fluvial geomorphology mean? It refers to the ability of flowing water (fluvial) to shape (-morpho-) the earth (geo-). To be precise, it is the study of all that (-logy).
An easily observable way that rivers shape the earth around it is the formation of the horseshoe-shaped meanders, called oxbows, seen in the Champlain Valley. More curious are the crescent-shaped lakes alongside the river, the most dramatic example of which is Half Moon Cove in Colchester. If your instincts tell you that this U-shaped lake may have once been a part of the Winooski River, you are correct. How it formed river can be explained by first thinking about the path of least resistance for a river.
Paddling down the final stretch of the Winooski in a canoe is a dramatically different experience than trying to navigate the steeper rivers found in the mountains. In the Green Mountains, the steep slope causes the water to flow fast and cut out a straight channel on its way down to Lake Champlain, and there is little need to propel yourself along (adrenaline junkies will still find cause to do so, however). Once the Winooski reaches the Champlain Valley, it begins to follow a far more convoluted path, and it is hard to go anywhere in your canoe without paddling.
The soils in the valley are soft clays, silts, and sands that provide little resistance to the now slow-moving river, so the river will bend around at even the slightest obstacle. Once a meander has developed, a feedback process begins that causes further erosion and meandering. Along the outer edge of a curve, the water moves faster than the water on the inside of the curve, since the water must travel a greater distance in the same amount of time. The water erodes the banks along the fast-moving outer edge of the curve, and deposits the silt and sand along the slow-moving inner bends.
If you want to land your canoe during your trip, you will have greater success along these inner bends, where gradually rising sandbars have been built up through this deposition process. Trying to exit on the outside curve of a river bend will prove far more precarious, as the streambank drops of sharply into the river! As the river cuts away at its own banks, it can eventually cut through the remaining bit of land at between the two river bends, and the channel straightens.
Major floods like those experienced after Tropical Storm Irene are sometimes the catalyst for this final step. While we may continue to alter the flow of a river through creating new dams and reinforcing the banks below streamside roads, river waters will constantly look for their path of least resistance, and we may find that our interests are in conflict with the hydrologic forces facing us. Next time you enjoy a float down the sinewy channels of the Winooski or Lamoille river, note where each bend and twist occurs. When you take your children and grandchildren out in the future, it may not be the same—fluvial geomorphology may have worked its magic.