Ice season sure didn’t last long. The river was frozen for maybe three months. I last went canoeing on an unseasonably warm day last December. Now my wife Katie and I, and Lola the dog, got back on the water on Sunday for a few hours and a few miles in the Marine on St. Croix area.
It was gray and cool, the water was up a couple feet, and a breeze blew from the south. We hugged banks and hid in side channels, where open water was still ensconced in gray, slushy ice which we crashed through in the canoe.
Everywhere there were birds. Countless ducks and geese, sandhill cranes high overhead, a surprising pair of bluebirds, and… a flock of turkeys soaring across the river right above us. But the best part was a first-of-the-year chance to maneuver the canoe in collaboration with my favorite bow paddler.
Linda Peterson of Stillwater later explained why it wasn’t surprising we had seen bluebirds. Linda has been putting up bluebird houses in the area for 37 years.
“Some actually over-winter near river bottoms, backwaters, especially along any open areas of the Mississippi and tributaries,” she told me. “More over-wintering has been noticed in past 20 years or so. They follow the weather, more seen in milder winters. There’s more food near the water, too.”
In the last backwater, the trip earned its “Annual Waterfowl Harassment Tour” title, as scores and scores of drake mallards – 90 percent males at least – exploded from every bit of cover as we approached, climbing into the sky in a great chaotic crowd. Geese were honking and all manner of other birds were singing and crying.
Then we skirted the edge of a big sheet of soft ice nearly blocking our way to the landing, and bumped against the bank. We were cold but awake. Life was definitely returning to the river.