Michelle Nijhuis on “River of Riches”

Michelle Nijius Cahaba Lilies
Michelle Nijius is a science and environmental journalist. She is the author of "The Cahaba: A River of Riches." Beth Mayor Young

Michelle Nijhuis is a science and environmental journalist based in Paonia, Colorado. In addition to being a contributing editor of High Country News and a correspondent for Orion, she has had her work appear in Smithsonian, National Geographic, the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Audubon, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.

What was it like canoeing on the Cahaba River, hunting for lilies?

The Cahaba is a small river. It doesn’t have the white water that makes rivers famous as places to go and take a vacation, but it was just a very charming place to be. You can move down the Cahaba very slowly and soak in what it’s like to be there, what kinds of trees are hanging over you and what kinds of places are the best to look at lilies, what kinds of rocks are the best to turn over to look for mussels. There are all kinds of things that you can learn when you move at that pace.

Did you see a lot of the lilies?

We did. By design, I was there when the lilies were at their peak. When you’re sitting in a canoe and moving through these rocky shoals where the seeds get trapped and then sprout up in the middle of the river, it almost feels like you’re moving through a forest because the lilies are so tall they can reach your chin —sometimes even the top of your head. They have these huge flowers that are as big as your palm. It’s quite dramatic. The lilies bloom for a very brief period, and each bloom only lasts a single day.

What was your favorite moment during reporting?

I’d say what I talked about most when I got home to Colorado was the annual lily festival in West Blocton. They crown a lily queen every year, and after she was crowned—she was a high school senior who was graduating that year—everybody went down to the river to admire the lilies. She was in her tiara and her fancy pink dress. She took off her shoes, as she’s probably been doing all her life growing up along the Cahaba, and waded out into the middle of the lilies and started posing for photographs. It was a nice illustration of just how people who live along the river and who know about it appreciate it.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?

I hope I communicate the real pleasures of looking closely at places that might not seem that spectacular at first glance. As I mentioned, many people who know about the Cahaba in Alabama do appreciate it. But there are a lot of people who live very close to the Cahaba who have never been down it. I met someone on the plane who was from Birmingham and didn’t know where the river flowed and had certainly never taken a canoe trip on it. That was a lesson for me, and hopefully for people who read this story -- it’s always worth exploring your own backyard.

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