It’s Monday during lockdown, when the fact it’s Monday matters very little. The river is flooded and fresh snow fell the day before. The sun rises at 6:27 a.m., the same time as in late August. The land is lit brightly by 10 a.m., but there is still a slant.
The white stuff fell on slowly greening ground. The wind today still blows from the north, the water is still frigid, and the water is still high. Spring is arriving in fits and starts, but it can’t be stopped. Paying attention to the river, birds, plants, insects, sky is a way to give yourself reason for hope everyday.
The river has already come down a couple feet from its crest a few days before, but it still drowns the islands, letting a paddler slip between the trees. It’s a reminder the floodplain forest is part woodland and part waterway.
There is a red stripe of maple buds on the lowest part of the tree trunks. The trees bloomed while the water was high, the buds fell to float on the flooded island, drifted into eddies and trees and other obstacles, gathered in great maroon mats, and then stuck to the trunk as the water dropped.
Canoeing through flooded islands is something I’ll never tire of. It’s more fun than paddling the open river right now. The water is only a couple feet deep, and the leafless trees block both the wind and current.
It also immerses you in the river’s delicate system in a new way. My frequent paddling partner, who I call Slim, says being in a flooded floodplain is like being is a burning prairie. “You are witness to the process that defines the place.”
Most people avoid both fires and floods, and both are pretty fleeting. Easy to miss. But they are why the land looks and works the way it does. Fire is why trees don’t take over a prairie, and floods are why the trees that grow in the river bottoms are certain species.
To thrive in the floodplain, a tree must be able to tolerate low oxygen levels when their roots are underwater, and benefit from wet, nutrient-rich soil during the growing season. Mostly that means silver maples. The fertile soil is also why many of them have huge trunks.
It’s a delicate balance. The floodplain needs to flood, but also needs parts of the year when it is dry, so tree seedlings can get growing. If young trees can’t replace the old ones, the islands will wash away. More, bigger floods in recent years are disrupting this cycle, ultimately causing floodplain forests — and islands — on parts of the river to erode, and slowly disappear.
The loss of the floodplain would be a shame. It’s only here where I can weave my canoe or kayak between tree trunks that are 10 feet around. It’s also home to some of my favorite creatures: beavers, herons, cranes, prothonotary warblers, sandpipers, wood ducks.
Noisy Canada geese are far from my favorite, but even they display unique adaptations to this place that divides its time between moving water and dry land.
One goose builds its nest on an island, 20 feet above the ground in a broken-off silver maple. Its eggs are safe from fluctuating water levels. Then the goose sits on the eggs, and falls asleep, and stays there even while danger approaches, uncharacteristically holding its honks.
Only at the last moment it explodes off its perch overhead and splashes into the water nearby, letting loose a verbal volley like a man-of-war firing broadside.
No one enjoys the encounter, but it’s another part of life in the floodplain.
Much of the snow melts off after a few hours of strong sunshine, but the wind continues to carry winter for much of the week. Pushing south, it holds back a lot of migrating birds. They have no choice but to hunker down for a few days, like us.
It feels like spring is on pause. I am reminded that this is no single season, but a constant and often random succession of changing weather and wildlife. The atmosphere is unsettled, with snow followed by sun, followed by fluffy clouds.
Walking among basalt and hardwoods on the bluffs one afternoon, I get a different sense. Instead of being on hold, there is energy building up, ready to burst forth as soon as the weather warms up. The Earth is pulling back a slingshot.
I see tiny blossoms tightly closed on ground where there was a thick blanket of snow a few days ago. The weather last week prompted the first hepatica flowers to shoot up its delicate stem and fragile petals through the oak leaves on the forest floor.
Then it snowed, and then the temperature stayed below freezing.
The flower is bent over and its tiny petals are clutched together. It can only try to conserve its resources while waiting for fairer weather. It’s a time-tested strategy.
There has almost always been a hermit thrush or two within sight when I look out the window this week. Sandhill cranes are another early arrival. Both are signs of spring that do not bring a guarantee that spring is here to stay.
This is not the first year I’ve watched them go through a snowstorm. I am tempted to feel sorry for them, but their species have been early migrators for countless generations, surviving a steady string of surprises through eternity.
Instead I marvel at how they survive the squalls of spring. The hermit thrushes fluff up their feathers and scratch in the oak leaves for whatever they can find to eat. They stick to a small area. They are confident conditions will soon improve.
On an upland trail through oak forest and prairie, the ponds and puddles are more alive than ever. Frogs fill the air with a chorus of croaking that impresses me, and hopefully some female amphibians.
It’s remarkable that any of them can hear one frog from another in the din. It joyfully drowns out all other thoughts in my head, and I marvel at how loud they can sing when they sing together.
Listening closely to the chorus, I hear how it seems to always be changing, but is also always the same. One frog picks up where another leaves off, certain calls repeat while others are constant.
Only when I walk away from a pond can I hear anything else, like a ruffed grouse drumming on some hidden log, some distance away. These birds of dense forests have come up with their own way to be heard far and wide — beating their chests with their wings to make a female friend.
I stroll along, stopping to listen and watch often. This time of year, a short walk can take a long time.
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