A river bar, that is. The McKinley River Bar, to be exact. Today’s excursion is to hike down through an old-growth spruce forest to see this wide expanse. The air is crystal clear and warming as we reach the rocky river bottom, emerging from the dark pines into this vast open space.
This is one of Alaska’s many braided rivers. At ground level, it’s hard to understand the name, but from the air (my first time in a little four-seater plane), it’s easy to make the connection – various strands of the river separate and reconnect, like a loosely braided rope. With the varying levels of glacial melt during the year, the placement of these strands shift.
Standing here on the ground, I’m struck by the width of the bar. Another party of our hiking group went before us and we can just make them out in the distance, at least a half-mile ahead across the bar. It might be a mile wide from edge to edge.
As I look downstream, it all appears to be so barren. The soil is sand and rock. The river, over time, sweeps the bar with its icy waters. What could live here?
Yet animals do pass by. I find a grizzly paw print, sharp and fresh in the mud. Other animal impressions are nearby. I imagine these visitors, loping easily under moonlight, using the bar like a highway to places unknown.
Yes, I know there’s no moonlight in the summer. Just let me have the dramatic image, okay?
We all break for lunch. It’s not easy to find a comfortable spot, but I locate a river-worn log to sit on. And I contemplate the scene, thinking of how often God, in the Old Testament, promises to bring abundance to desert places.
Here’s one. The wilderness in this prophecy has an undercurrent of tragedy, since Zion, God’s place of his presence on earth, lies destroyed by its disobedience to him. But note the promise of grace:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
and who seek the Lord…
The Lord will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the sound of singing. (Isaiah 53:1,3)
It’s easy to have joy and singing when one is young in the Lord. His love is a revelation and his grace transforming. But a lifetime in this world, with its icy washes of heartbreak and unanswered questions and persistent sins can sometimes lead a believer into a barren place.
The sound of singing can be scarce.
Our God, however, is the Lord of life. So, I’m not surprised to see something growing here. Our guide tells me that later this summer, these plants will be ablaze with color. How I wish I could see it!
Again and again, Scripture drums this message: God has the final say. The barrenness will be overcome with life. He redeems. He transforms. Abundance is his calling card.
No matter where your stony ground is.
Lord, when we get to feeling like our lives are like infertile ground, breathe new life into us through your Spirit. Make us fertile gardens for your praise.
Reader: What’s the most inhospitable ground you’ve ever witnessed? And did you see signs of life?