Anatomy of a River
By Tamia Nelson
March 25, 2003
April is the cruelest month. That was T.S.
Eliot's notion, anyway, and I agree wholeheartedly. The nightly news may be
coloring my feelings, of course. How could it not? But there's much more to it
than that. After all, the seasons keep their time without regard for human
triumphs and miseries. Eliot had other things on his mind. March is drawing to a
close, and the sun has returned to the northern hemisphere in force. Yet even as
the spring rains stir "dull roots" to life, they also awaken memory and quicken
Too high-flown? Let's just call it cabin fever, then. It's been a long, hard
winter, and I'm looking forward to being waterborne again. But spring can't be
hurried. "How slow this old moon wanes; she lingers my desires"
Shakespeare, this time, and not Eliot, but I know the feeling. I imagine you do,
Still, it won't be long. The river at my door is breaking up. The towering
crystal sculptures at the falls in the Narrows are shrinking by the hour, and the
well-worn otter-slides in the snow over the frozen channel have nearly melted
away. Upstream, ice-pans the size of football fields grind against the shore,
muttering and grumbling as they're hurried along by an impatient southerly
breeze. And on the Flow above the dam, empty plastic bottles, bait-tubs, and
other forsaken treasures bob vigorously in the swirling eddies proof
positive that winter's grip is loosening at last.
Geese and ducks are also heeding the sun's call. Buffleheads and ring-necks
return first, then woodies, mallards, and mergansers. And Canada geese, honking
high overhead, their wavering Vs forever dissolving and re-forming, stream north
toward the St. Lawrence and beyond. The sun's tugging at me, too, and as
soon as the ice is gone, I'll answer the river's invitation. But April is
the cruelest month. Disappointment and danger lurk
half-concealed behind the season's seductive smile. That's always worth
Of course if you live in more favored latitudes, and if you aren't waiting
anxiously beside your phone for news from some far-distant, waterless wasteland,
you may already be paddling. If not, however, why not join me in a virtual river
walk? We'll explore an imaginary stream, and while we're at it, we'll reacquaint
ourselves with the anatomy of a river. Then, when our home waters run free at
last, we'll be ready to scout our favorite streams in earnest.
Ready? Let's start at the headwaters and work our way down, beginning with the
stretch of river in the red box labeled A in the sketch map below.
Got the picture? Spring is in the air. The sun beats down on our backs as we
walk along the trail. Our favorite put-in on the beaver pond is just ahead, and
out in the middle of the open water, a raft of rotten ice drifts with the breeze.
It's cold in the shade of the white pines, though. Snow still blankets the woods.
But the sun's handiwork is all around us, nonetheless. We hear running water
everywhere. Solitary droplets pioneer new routes down the faces of mossy
boulders, splashing into the shallows along the shore. Rivulets drain small
snow-melt pools. And a brash little stream leaps into life below the beaver dam.
Now let's get closer to the action. Here's a more detailed look at the
headwaters of my river, with numbered boxes indicating areas of special interest.
We'll touch on each one as we scout.
First, though, let's dip our hands in the pond. Brrr! The sun may be warm, but
the water's mighty cold melted snow, really. We make a mental note to wear
our wetsuits when we come back for a paddle. "Dress for a swim, whatever the
season," that's my motto. We don't want the first trip of the year to be our
last, do we? And while we're at it, we'd better pull all our gear out of storage
and look it over to see what repairs are
necessary. The riverbank's no place to be stitching up a paddling jacket.
But that will have to wait till we get home. Now we'll want to check out the
beaver dam. (You'll find it in the box labeled 1 on the map.) We'll have
to cross some marshy ground first, however. I'm wearing my wellies. I
hope you are, too. (I'll take 'em off when we come back later to run the river,
of course. Then it's the "dynamic duo"
sneakers and wetsuit booties for me.)
Just as I hoped. The dam's in fine shape. That's good. It'll be the first obstacle
we'll come to on the river, and we don't want it giving way beneath us while
we're lifting our boats over, do we?
Let's follow the fisherman's path downstream to the first junction. It's an
easy walk. See the riffles on the straight-away? The water's running high, but
it's not bankfull yet. If the river were at summer levels, those riffles would be
a tricky rock garden. At this stage, however, we'll have no trouble floating over
the rocks. We'll need to keep an eye on the weather, though. There's a lot of
snow left in the woods, and once the meltwater-swollen river rises over its
banks, it'll be time to go somewhere else.
Here's why. See the bend just ahead? (It's in box 2 on the map.) Good.
Now look for the big poplar hanging down into the water on the outside of the
bend, right where the cutbank slumped. Do you hear the hoarse whisper the river
makes as it runs through the waterlogged branches? That's the sound of "whispering
death" a deadly sweeper. And once the river's in flood, there'll be
sweepers and strainers everywhere. Not good. Not good at all. Double-plus ungood,
But the river's not in flood today, is it? We could run the bend at this
level. It would just be a question of keeping on the inside and avoiding the
thalweg, or main channel, with its fast
Piece of cake, really. The back-ferry
makes it easy but only if you know how.
Let's keep walking downriver, shall we? Couldn't ask for a nicer day. Damn!
Just look at that! See how the river seems to drop out of sight up ahead? It's as
if somebody drew a straight line across it from one bank to the other. Of course
you know what that means, don't you? There's a dam there, or maybe a smooth
ledge. (See Box 3 above.) Let's take a closer look.
Hmmm. An old dam. Must be the one the locals call the "eel-weir." Not much of
a drop, to be sure, but it's still a dangerous place. Check out that reversal!
See the birch log in the crease? It's spinning round and round, and it's been
there a while, too it's lost almost all of its bark. There's no doubt
about it, the drop at the eel-weir is a real "keeper" at this water level. If you
dumped going over the dam, the river would keep hold of you and your boat a lot
longer than you'd like.
No problem, though. When we run this stretch, we'll take out above the dam and
eyeball the drop before we go on downstream. If the water has risen a little in
the meantime, it might even wash out the reversal. Then we'll be able to run it
safely. If not, we can always portage around the dam. Better safe than sorry, eh?
Either way, we're in luck. This is public land. There's nothing preventing us
from scouting or carrying around the dam, if it comes to that. If this
were private land, on the other hand, we'd need to talk to the
owners first. It's common sense. Trespassers don't make many friends.
Look at that! The river gets wider up ahead. Seems a lot livelier, too. Must
be the water from the tributary coming in on the opposite side. The rapids have
been pretty tame so far not much more than riffles, really but I'll
bet things are going to get more interesting from here on out. Glad we decided to
scout the river first, before we ran it. It's getting pretty late, though, and we
don't want to walk back in the dark. Anyway, we can't see much now. What do you
say we come back and finish the job on another day? That's OK with you? Great!
See you then.
Copyright © 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights