Originally published on the blog One Thousand Days in Nature:
A distant sound catches my ear, and, for a minute, I am convinced I am hearing anthropogenic, industrial noise pollution. Isolated from the modern world, it takes me a while to figure out what I am hearing. It is not some kind of mechanical destruction, not some internal combustion machine, but the sound of nature’s power and changing fury. I am hearing the sound of a giant ice raft colliding with the frozen fields of ice between island and channel. I am hearing the power of a wild river.
Most of the river is frozen, but the wild and swirling currents here maintain open water year round. An unusually warm stretch in middle December has allowed much of the river to open up again this year, but the more recent cold weather has hastened a second freeze. With gathered power, the larger rafts of ice now crash into previously frozen and stationary ice. Splinters of ice continuously slide over the top of smooth, glassy surfaces. The millions of smaller events together, intermingled with the occasional giant crash of two huge ice masses, echo in the river valley.
The open waters of the river have invited a large congregation of Trumpeter Swans, more than thirty of them on this Polk County stretch of water. Many family groups have shared this section of river since the late autumn. It is refreshing to see their great numbers, since the hot summer droughts of Northwest Wisconsin had recently exposed many of the swans to old lead shot from decades gone by, lead that had been too deep, too far out of reach to pose a threat. In recent years, lower water levels introduced the old lead as a new threat. Swan mortality was high.
As I walk along the river in bitter cold air, feet moving silently in fresh powdered snow, my eyes are focused on the new snow. It is perfect tracking snow, and it tells me many truths. The deer have been very active since the snow fell less than forty-eight hours ago. Squirrels have been out and about only sparingly. Otters and fishers have wandered here and there. Grouse have been working at the sumacs, walking around in the stands of small trees, flying up into the berries, littering the snow with a history of their busy feeding forays. The white-footed mice have been out only sparingly, much like the squirrels, but the rabbits have had at least one very busy night. As my eyes drift downward, my mind is mesmerized by the jazz ensemble of trumpeting swan voices drifting up from the river.
As the beauty of the late afternoon sun drops below the western treeline and crowns of bur oak, white pine and silver maple stood out as black silhouettes against a frozen blue-black and orange sky, I move east to the forested hills and continued tracking along favorite deer trails. In the silence of the forest, I can still hear the distant crashing of ice flows and the echoing music of swans. A flash of movement draws my eyes to the snow laden forest canopy. A Barred Owl perches upon a limb and makes preparations to leap to higher boughs. The forest is strangely warm and calm as night settles in. I head home with my mind in good order and my heart invigorated by a winter walk in beauty.