Rivers are sinuous creatures, possessing tenacity, ingenuity, and supple grace. By definition, a river is a large body of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another river. Most of the synonyms of the word describe rivers of various size or character: watercourse, stream, brook, rivulet, rill, freshet, creek, burn, billabong, beck, wadi, arroyo. The specific meaning of each of the terms changes with location. Local definitions can be quite different. A creek in Maine is not a creek in Oregon.
Upper Salmon River, photo by gv simoni
James Fenimore Cooper, noted author of The Last Of The Mohicans and many other novels, had this to say:
'Creek,' a word that signifies an inlet of the sea, or of a lake, is misapplied to running streams, and frequently to the outlets of lakes.
Cooper lived in upstate New York in the mid 19th century, well within the orbit of New England pedantry. The quote is from Cooper's book The American Democrat which was published in 1838.
By 1859 the definition had begun to broaden and generalize. The Dictionary Of The English Language defined creek as " ... a small inlet of the sea or of a river, a bay; a cove ... " This dictionary was the work of Joseph Worchester, the rival of Noah Webster, and the favorite son of Harvard English and the detractor of the English spoken further west and south. Mr Worchester did grant that " ... in the Middle, Southern, and Western states ..." the word might define a " ... small river; a rivulet."
The 1934 Webster, arguably the finest American dictionary --- the last hand-bound book allowing it to be as thick as the editors needed it to be and not subject to the dictates of machine binding --- explains creek as:
... a small inlet or bay, narrower and extending farther into the land than a cove; a narrow recess in the shore of the sea, a river, or a lake ... the estuary of a small river or a brook, emptying on a low coast or into the lower reaches of a wide river, together with the upper course of the small river or brook to its source.
This begs the question of when or if a 'creek' is also a 'crick.' Some people pronounce 'creek' as though it were spelled like 'crick.' Some people do not. Some people distinguish the difference between creek and crick by size. For example, a recent article on the Field & Stream website quoted a commenter from Texas who suggested that " ... if you can jump across it, it's a crick; if you have to wade across it, it's a creek."
Definitions, too, it seems, can be sinuous creatures, possessing tenacity, ingenuity, and, at times, even supple grace.
Lower Columbia, photo gv simoni
The length of a river is its measure from its source at its headwaters to its mouth where it debouches into another river, a lake, or the sea. Length is the sine qua non for determining the river's size and ranking. Generally, any tributaries feeding a river must be smaller both in size and volume. The Mississippi, reckoned the 2nd longest river in North America, becomes the 4th longest in the world if the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi just north of St Louis, is added to it. The Missouri, however, is considered a separate entity due to its size. The numbers suggest finagling: the Mississippi is most often listed as 2,348 miles long, though 2,320 is not an uncommon measurement; the Missouri is listed at 2,341 miles long, and is often granted the longest river in North America laurels. Three streams and many tributaries feed the upper Missouri with considerable opportunity for error. The Mississippi begins its southern journey in Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. Quibbles seem to be in order.
In terms of volume, generally measured in cubic feet per second (cfs --- think sugar cubes 12 inches square), the Mississippi heads the North American list with a discharge of 593,000 cfs. The Columbia River, the fabled River of the West, languishes at just seventh in length at 1,243 miles; but moves up to fourth in volume at 293,000 cfs. By comparison, the Amazon, the largest river in the world by volume (and by length, as well, depending on who is measuring) discharges 7,380,765 cfs.
The gravitational pull of the moon creates tides, and long sections of rivers that empty into the sea fluctuate accordingly. Tidal rivers rise and fall with the tides, and they flood and ebb as well. The fresh water of a river, less dense than the ocean's salt water, generally floats over the top of the heavier seawater. St Helens, Oregon, once a contender with Portland for major port honors, sees a three foot rise twice daily from the tide. Merriwther Lewis noted tidal water as far inland as Beacon Rock, 145 miles from the Columbia's mouth. The river's flow has considerable variations due to dam releases, wing dams, wind, and tidal currents. Data taken by NOAA suggests tidal flows are coincident with the rise and fall of tides and effect the river's current by up to two knots. No worries for tugs pushing barges which have bigger fish to fry. Kayakers, however, may be late for dinner if paddling against an adverse tide.
Rivers lend themselves to various metaphorical phrases. Most often, flowing water is used to describe life itself, or that other great abstraction, time. In literature, stream of consciousness is a major stylistic feature of many modern novels which attempt to duplicate in words a character's thought process. The phrase was coined by psychologist William James in his Principles Of Psychology of 1894. Though James thought of one's reactions to events as a continuous flow, novelist, with the limitations of the written word, may come closer to duplicating what to many is a rather herky-jerky, stop-and-go process. As one floats the river of life, a good deal of focus is required to maintain a continuous line of thought, to focus beyond distraction come hell or high water. Nonetheless, distractions are legion, and sooner or later one finds themselves up a creek without a paddle, in the proverbial chicken-wire canoe.