The Ovens is a short river by Australian standards: just 191 kilometres from its source at Harrietville in the Victorian Alps to its confluence with the Murray River at Bundalong. For much of its length it is clear and cold, running over rocks through the rich grape and hops growing country of the Ovens Valley. By the time it reaches Bundalong, it is as turbid and brown as the Murray.

This is the Ovens I grew up with, and it has fixed in me a strange kind of affection for brown rivers. For the way the water darkens from lustrous amber to impenetrable black as you dive for the bottom. For the delightful squishiness of the mud between your toes. For the feel of the water wrapping round you like a second skin, warm one moment and freezing the next.

As a child, the section of the Ovens that meandered through the red gum forest behind our block seemed like a kind of paradise. Its gentle, tree-shaded waters offered endless prospects of swimming, canoeing, fishing, exploring, watching, floating, dreaming…

Officially it was known as Camerons Bend, after a local farming family. To my family, it was always just ‘the river’. ‘River’ in the singular, though, paints far too deceptively simple a picture. Far from a single, well-defined watercourse, the Ovens at this point branches off into myriad smaller channels. Sometimes these channels wend their way around an island and join up with the main watercourse again; sometimes they filter into a billabong. Sometimes, three or more channels converge to form a wide expanse of flat, still water, disturbed only by the occasional fallen tree or the splash of a jumping fish. In these places it is common to spot a Pied Cormorant or a darter on a log, or a bevy of baby swans paddling after their parents.

The slow-flowing current and maze of shallow channels make Camerons Bend ‘one of the best places for still-water canoeing in the state’, according to Parks Victoria. It certainly felt that way to me as a kid. Countless summer days were spent there with my brothers and cousins, drifting for hours in our old Canadian canoe and whatever other floating device we could find: an old fibreglass surfboard; a windsurfer board; the inner tube of a car tyre. It must have felt that way to my parents too, who would send us off happily enough in the morning with a packed lunch and a bottle of sunscreen. But I know it didn’t always seem so safe to others.

Once, I was out on the water with my younger brother and two cousins, the four of us aged between 10 and 14. At the time, Dad was running river cruises on the Ovens for the tourists who flocked to nearby Yarrawonga and Mulwala over summer; eager to show them a side to the region other than the roar of speedboats and eighteen holes of golf. When he passed us in his pontoon boat, we waved madly up at the middle-aged couples on board. Dad waved back but didn’t acknowledge us by name, and afterwards he told us what one of the women had said when she saw us: ‘Wouldn’t you hate to be their mother, worrying about them!’

We all revelled in this comment, and proudly lorded our aquatic ability and navigational prowess over those clueless city slickers. But one day, the river that I thought I knew so well did deceive me.

It was about a year later and my cousin Rachel and I were out in the canoes again, this time by ourselves. We’d idled our way through several smaller channels to the far side of river, where farmland drops down to a low, flat bank. It was a favourite lunch spot, because the bank was largely free of undergrowth and shade was provided by some magnificent, gnarled old red gums. We swam, ate lunch and dozed for a while in the shade of the trees. When it came time to leave, I decided to follow the course of the main river further upstream instead of back through familiar channels.

For a while, everything was fine. It was exciting to see how our surroundings changed now we were in the river proper: the banks were higher and more defined; the current just a little swifter; the vegetation denser. But presently I realised that we were headed too far upstream, and would have to find a channel soon to cut back towards home. We should have turned back at that point, but I was confident that sooner or later we’d round a bend and I would see something I recognised—a distinctive tree stump or a glimpse of our neighbours’ fence line.

When the river finally forked, we took the branch to the right, in the vague direction of home. But finding your way back, we discovered, is not as simple as turning the way you want to go. The water follows different rules to those of the land. You can paddle in one direction for a kilometre or more, confident you have struck the right path, only to round a bend and find that you are heading back on yourself, losing all the ground you have gained. The current, even in the main channel, is not strong, and to an untrained eye it can be difficult to tell the river proper from its offshoots.

We carried on in this way for hours, turning up channels only to find them doubling back to the river, or being forced to retrace our course by an unbroken line of scrub looming ahead. The final straw was when we headed up a promising-looking channel that struck off the river at right angles, pointing straight for home. It was not wide to begin with, but by the time the canoe came to a sudden, scraping halt on top of a submerged log, it could not have been more than two metres across. Exhausted but determined, Rachel got out first into the knee-deep water and attempted to tug the front of the canoe over the log while I tried to push us off with my paddle. The canoe hardly budged, so soon we were both on our feet, pulling and straining in the shallow water. Finally, I paused to wipe the sweat out my eyes and glanced around, properly, for the first time—and saw how the channel came to a piddling end, swallowed up by reeds just a few metres ahead.

After that, we gave up any pretence of navigating a course by water, and made a beeline cross-country for home. I don’t rightly know how we managed it, but somehow the two of us half-carried, half-dragged that canoe across open forest and thick scrub; through long grass and wet marshes where our feet squelched in fetid mud and razor-edged reeds lashed our bare legs. When we finally made it home it was close to dark, and Dad was just setting out in the tinny to find us.

When I first wrote about this day, for a creative writing class in my first year of university, I crafted a kind of coming-of-age story in the vein of Picnic at Hanging Rock: of the river lulling us into a dream state and luring us into its twisted depths. Even now, the trope of nature the trickster is a tempting lens through which to tell this tale—how else to explain that complete failure to make sense of our surroundings? And yet, it wasn’t really ‘nature’ that tricked us at all.

The river as I know it has only existed since 1939, when the Murray River was dammed at Yarrawonga to ensure a reliable water supply for irrigators in the Murray Valley. This pushed water back up into the Ovens, permanently filling anabranches and wetlands that previously would only have held water after floods. The foundations may have already been laid, but it was the damming of the Murray that cemented the labyrinthine tangle of the river below my family home.

Thinking about the river of my childhood as a manmade ecosystem is a slightly disconcerting idea, because what I always loved about it was how ‘natural’ it seemed to be—and how perfect in its naturalness. The riotous chorus of the cockatoos in the trees in the early morning and evening. The sacred kingfishers flitting from branch to branch at the water’s edge. The improbable grace of a pelican as it soared above the river through an avenue of trees. The sheer beauty of the river on those calm, sunny days when the water threw a perfect reflection back to the sky. When you were out among the islands with not another person to be seen or heard, it was easy to imagine you were witnessing a pristine landscape.

I think it was due to all this nature on my doorstep that it took me such a long time to appreciate Melbourne’s urban parks and waterways, where I live now. I developed a kind of nature snobbery for places such as Merri Creek and Yarra Bend Park: the roads were too close; there was too much rubbish; too many weeds and too many people. It couldn’t compare to what I had back home. But then I started postgrad study in environmental communication and reading authors like Timothy Morton, Emma Marris, Val Plumwood and William Cronon: searing critiques of ‘pristine nature’ and compelling calls to recognise that even the landscapes we think of as most natural have been shaped by culture, sometimes over many thousands of years. They helped me look at urban nature on its own terms, for the life that was there and the set of conditions that had enabled it to flourish. And they also challenged me to rethink my own relationship to the river back home.

The first step must be to acknowledge the displacement and dispossession of the Pangerang and Yorta Yorta peoples who once lived all around the Ovens and Murray valleys, before the first white settlers arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century. The odd scar tree is the only physical trace of the people that were here before. There is no signage about the traditional owners on-site at Camerons Bend, and the entry on the Parks Victoria page for the Warby-Ovens National Park is dissatisfying: a generic acknowledgement of the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of Victoria with no mention of specific tribes or nations. The website directs you to Aboriginal Affairs Victoria or Native Title Services for more information.

There is knowledge and culture there if you search for it, though: there are Pangerang men and women around Wangaratta who continue to tell stories about the Torryong (the Pangerang name for the Ovens River) and who are recording these stories in books and heritage trails. But I know very little about what the river at Camerons Bend was like before the settlers came, and what it meant to the people who lived there.

Then there are the changes of the twentieth century. There was, as I have mentioned, the construction of the Yarrawonga Weir, which ensures the channels and wetlands at Camerons Bend are always flush with water. Year-round, it supports a rich diversity of plant and animal life—and yet I know too that the building of dams along the Murray has devastated downstream ecosystems like the Coorong. When the Yarrawonga Weir was built it also flooded the red gum forest on either side of the Murray River from Yarrawonga to Bundalong, forming Lake Mulwala. The eerie, water-locked forest of dead trees now provides important habitat for the vulnerable Murray Cod, and it is apparently one of the reasons why this much-loved species is still relatively common in Lake Mulwala. There are no simple answers here: species adapt and even thrive in the changed conditions, but we cannot afford to forget the other lives and ecosystems that are lost along the way.

Once I started to look, it was easy to see how every part of the river has been touched by humans. There are the obvious signs on the ‘mainland’—vehicle tracks criss-crossing the forest, rubbish left behind by campers, a yellow sign for a natural gas pipeline sticking out of a swamp. Other impacts become obvious when you compare the sparse understorey of native grasses on the mainland to the dense mesh of acacia and bottlebrush on the islands. The islands shelter wallabies and other small marsupials that you never see on the mainland, where years of cars, people and cattle grazing have taken their toll. The cattle are gone now, banished not long before the area became part of the Warby-Ovens National Park in 2010, but the cars and people remain. It’s sad how little respect some people have for this place they come to fish and relax: gouging new paths through the bush in their vehicles or taking a chainsaw to a fallen tree to carve up far more firewood than they need.

Then there’s the water quality. That coffee-coloured water that I have come to love was apparently not always so brown. Old folks around the district swear that as children they’d wade out to their waists and still be able to see their feet on the bottom, as clearly as if they were looking through glass. But then came agricultural runoff and streamside erosion, livestock defecating and muddying up the banks, and of course, the reviled European carp. Carp are well-known to contribute to the turbidity of the water by stirring up the riverbed, in turn making it harder for fish like the Murray Cod to hunt and feed. To get a sense of the scale of sheer hatred that is directed against this introduced species, you need only to listen to National Party leader Barnaby Joyce in Parliament last year: ‘We are afflicted in this nation with these disgusting, mud-sucking creatures; bottom-dwelling, mud-sucking creatures…for which the only form of control is a version of herpes to try and get rid of these disgusting mud-sucking creatures.’

I’ve had several unpleasant encounters with carp over the years. The most recent was during an overnight kayaking trip I’d organised for some friends from Melbourne, eager to show off the tranquillity of the river. Unfortunately, the grassy, tree-shaded bank I’d scouted out to camp turned out to be the very same spot that some compliant fishermen had decided to dispose of the carp they’d caught (as a declared noxious species in Victoria, you are not allowed to return carp to the water alive). We didn’t discover the source of the stench until we were halfway through putting up the tents, and by that time it was too late to find another spot. We unearthed eight rotting corpses in all, their gleaming silver-white bodies decaying putridly after a hot day.

Imagine those eight rotting corpses multiplied by millions, and you get a sense of the numbers of dead carp that riverside communities may soon be dealing with if the government’s plan to release a carp-specific strain of the herpes virus goes ahead in 2018. Fond as I have become of the river’s bronze hue, I would love to see its waters run clear once more and the native fish species replenish. Yet the thought of releasing a virus that is capable of wiping out 95 per cent of the carp population is also slightly horrifying, especially when it is so difficult to know how the ecosystem will adapt to such a sudden and drastic change. After all, the carp have been in the river system for more than 50 years now, and all previous attempts to eradicate them have failed. I can’t help thinking that without the public revulsion for these creatures that at times borders on the irrational (after all, in some parts of the world they are regarded as a delicacy), the apocalyptical scale of the impending ‘Carpaggedon’ would not have been thinkable, let alone actionable. Perhaps we need to learn to love our monsters—or at least learn to love to eat them.

***

The river was central to my sense of self as a child and adolescent, and I held onto that when I came to Melbourne. However, time passes, and now I see the river only at sporadic intervals throughout the year. It becomes harder to sustain a meaningful connection to this place that I love, even with all its imperfections. When I’m home, time in the water is now more often spent in the backyard swimming pool or water-skiing at the Bundalong Junction. To keep cool in the summer we sit inside in the air-conditioned cool. Those kayak trips with cousins are a thing of the past.

Yet last Christmas, with my cousins around once more, the river called to us. Christmas Day was a scorcher—the mercury soared to 40 and the ground seemed to shimmer in the relentless heat. In the post-lunch drowsiness, while our parents dozed in the lounge-room, someone suggested a swim. So, we stepped out of the air-conditioning, bypassed the pool and made the trek through the forest to the river. In the height of summer, it feels like a tinderbox down there, the dead leaves crackling underfoot and the air heavy with the hum of cicadas and crickets. To step into the cool brown water, though, was pure bliss. As I sank my feet deep into the mud, I tried not to think about all the things that were in it when they should not be, and enjoy only the sensation of it squelching between my toes.

Out in the middle of our swimming spot, there’s a submerged log that stretches all the way across the channel, invisible to the eye but impossible to miss as a swimmer. All eleven of us—the oldest 30, the youngest 16—clambered up on to this log at one point, our hands and feet slipping against the one-inch layer of fine silt and slime. As I sat there looking out at the others treading water, splashing each other and hurling mud bombs, I wondered if we weren’t just indulging some terribly nostalgic dream; a yearning for the past and for youth that we can’t get back. Amidst the delight of relaxing on the water, this feeling breeds a sense of unease, as though by being here I am putting my life in the city on hold. But there is another feeling, one that I am trying to nourish, and that is the lesson the river has taught me: to be present to the life in front of you, to notice how things fit together in their place. To live deliberately, as Thoreau would say. Maybe it’s just the lesson to learn to love an ugly river.

I’ve written this from my apartment in Richmond and other times across the river in Yarra Bend Park. The slow-moving brown current there reminds me of home. Every day the surface of the water looks different: sometimes it is still and covered in detritus from the riverbank; other times it is blown clear by the wind and it looks so inviting I wish I could swim.

In other ways, though, the Yarra is so different to the Ovens back home. There is more obvious diversity in the vegetation here; a compact interaction of native and non-native species. I’ve set myself the task of learning to tell them all apart. The birds seem to hang about in much closer proximity, to each other and to me; much more used to humans, I suppose. Mostly Noisy Miners, but also magpies and Eastern Rosellas and the little Red-Rumped Parrots that I love to see. The females camouflage so well into the grass that you can be about to step on them before you realise they are there—and then once you do, dozens of them seem to materialise out of the ground. Then there are the water dragons, the cute little striped guys freezing like statues on the riverside paths. I remember the sudden feeling of disappointment when I learnt that they were introduced—and yet they’ve made a home here, like me. This river, like the Ovens back home, is not what it once was—but what it is, now, is special.

I wrote this piece for the 2017 Nature Conservancy Nature Writing Prize. It was not a winner, but it was a nice opportunity to reflect on my relationship to this special place.