It’s cold and gray and lonely on the river in early March. The ice went out in late February during a weird warm spell, now the water is liquid but the air temperature is below freezing.
The backwaters are still mostly frozen, so Ryan and I are confined to the main channel, where we hug the eastern shoreline. Eagles glide over us, likely looking for food for hungry hatchlings.
When we finally leave the main channel we slip through a strip of trees on a submerged island and into a side channel full of geese and swans. There are flocks of them full of restless migration energy. They are pulled north by an ancient force, following the river, their road for the past 10,000 years or so. Their ancestors have seen backwaters and channels come and go, and always seek out these slower waters for respite.
Birds slowly start flowing to the sky. They rise from the water near and far. Then they start swirling overhead in countless groups of five or six or twenty. We are under a dome of waterfowl, our ears filled with honking and bugling. My mouth hangs open.
Then in the thick willows on low-lying shoreland nearby, there are two sandhill cranes watching us warily. We put down our paddles and watch them back as we float past. The elegant birds pace in the grass.
It’s wild and wonderful and makes my frozen legs entirely worthwhile.
The current keeps carrying us along and we are soon out of the side channel, the sky overhead clear again. White swan feathers float here and there on the surface, and cover a small tangle of trees against the bank.