And the river bank talks
Of the waters of March
It’s the promise of life
It’s the joy in your heart
– “Waters of March,” by Sergio Mendes
There is always a moment when I push off from shore on the first river trip of the year that I pause to consider the fact I am afloat again. It’s a unique state of being, suspended above the ground by water, this magical liquid of life.
I felt that yesterday when I launched my kayak for a first foray of spring. There was the feeling of being held, like flying without leaving the surface of the Earth.
The river can be as menacing as it is nurturing. Today the water is flat, unruffled by any breeze, yet it rushes south, the current urgent with spring energy. Like birds looking for a nest, it has somewhere to go.
I too am pulled forward, eager to see what the St. Croix has to say after another winter. I first paddle straight across it, about 150 yards, sideways to the powerful push of some 4.5 million gallons of water per minute.
It feels good to pull the paddle through the water, quickly putting Minnesota behind me.
In the days before this outing, the governors of my state and Wisconsin announced extraordinary steps to slow down the spread of coronavirus. My family has been essentially isolated for more than two weeks now, with more to come. Our hospitals will soon fill up.
So I seek the river. The land is gray but the sky and water are blue. The buds on the silver maples of the floodplain are ready to bust. There is no one near me except ducks and geese, the air is pure and the water is clean. An expanse of forest and water is between me and any novel coronavirus.
In this time of closures and social distancing, self-quarantine, and isolation, America’s public lands have suddenly become important in a new way. They are safe places.
With millions off work or working from home, and kids out of school, the parks have been packed. Any day of the week, trailheads are crowded with cars. Where last spring, a nice day on the weekend might draw a crowd, this sunny Thursday would see a nearly full parking lot at William O’Brien State Park.
Like toilet paper and baking yeast, ventilators and N95 masks, open spaces are in high demand right now. But don’t hoard the river. Keep your distance and explore new areas if your usual places are busy. Just look at a map and you’ll find a lot.
Once I get across the main channel, I slip past a point and into a meandering side channel. Here the current is half-strength, the banks always nearby. I relax my paddling and start drifting down the twisting ribbon of water. The backwaters without significant current are still locked in soft ice, but everything else is open.
From above, you would see my path marked by the steadily progressing explosion of mallards from where they sit silently among the flooded islands. As soon as one flock flies off, all gray and white and quacking, I get too close to another roost. Then they too burst from among the trees and climb toward the sky.
It’s mostly mallards today, with a few keening, crying wood ducks mixed in. Red-winged blackbirds call from a few cattail stands, while sandhill cranes croak high in the sky. It’s still too early for the big waves of migration, so I’m disproportionately excited when I see my first song sparrow of the season. There are also some mergansers, and always, Canada geese. The only songbirds are robins and chickadees, constant companions.
The ducks lead the charge. They are pulled north to nesting grounds as urgently as the river and I hurtle south toward the sea.
It’s good to be lost in this wild land for a while. One of the biggest benefits to spending time in nature is how it can pull all your attention toward its wonders and beauty. Looking for birds, navigating past fallen trees, admiring the world about to burst into bloom — it all occupies my brain enough that I don’t think much about this unprecedented pandemic that has affected almost every aspect of my life.
Not only are the parks some of the few places where people can go in these infectious times, they offer a special kind of solace.
These refuges that humans have set aside for plants and animals are really refuges for us. The natural world is normal right now, perhaps the only “normal” that persists. The spring cycles of melting snow and migrating birds, budding trees and continue unabated,
There is no wind, little other sound except the waterfowl. Occasionally I can hear a spring creek splashing down the banks. When my ears are not full of the sound of quacking ducks, all is silent.
Then the sky is full of swirling flocks again, climbing above the trees and turning north, straining forward as the sun warms the world. It’s dizzying to be in a small boat among this energy.
Spring can be a real rush sometimes. There is always the element of surprise, with change happening so rapidly you never know what you’ll see. Ducks bursting from the water is a small joy.
I am near a high bank when I notice movement, and see a beaver slip off the shore and start swimming. Its wet fur looks golden, maybe it’s just the sunlight. I reach for my camera and the creature slips under the water — no tail slap, just retreat. Later, I am walking past a small pond mostly covered in ice, but with a ring of open water at the edge, when I hear a small splash. I look down and see a frog in the water, having just left the sunny grasses, and it swims back under the ice in slow motion, sluggish in the cold.
Like the birds, beaver, and frog, the water is also shelter for people. I head home to my own home, restored by a respite on the river.