This time of year something wonderful happens to the Sangamon River. With little rain, the river settles, clears up and the decaying leaves turn the water the color of strong iced tea. The black tannined water creates a mirror reflecting the world above, taking my mind back to the southern rivers, swamps and oceans of my youth.
I grew up in north Florida. Just behind our house was the Broward River, a mile wide, mile and a half long tidal basin that was fed by the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Across the river from my house, the St. Regis “pulp mill” belched out smoke and jobs while it turned Southern Slash Pines into paper. The mill has evolved. Now it recycles old paper into new. We could all evolve.
The constantly changing rhythms of the 12 and a half hour tides dictated our youthful excursions on the Broward River. At high tide the river was a brackish lake, and my friends and I could easily paddle up into the narrow waterways of the salt marshes, but it was always a challenge to get back to the dock before the tide went out turning river turned to an expansive mud flat.
We lived ten miles away from the Atlantic Ocean where we often visited Little Talbot Island State Park. The island’s North Beach was considered by locals to be the white beach and the South Beach was the black beach. And I’m not referring to the color of the sand. This too has evolved.
My Dad loved the ocean and taught all three of his kids to body surf. I’m still in awe of the endless power of waves on the ocean. Whenever I’m home, I’m certain to get out and ride the surf.
As kids we’d go tubing and snorkeling on the crystal clear Itchetucknee River as it wound through North Florida lowlands. The spring fed Itchetucknee flows as clear as glass and feels as cold as ice water. On the way down the lazy river we’d stare at the fish and turtles swimming below us through the eel grass.
During high school, my buddies and I would plan canoe excursions through the Okefenokee Swamp, paddling our canoes past ancient looking alligators sunning themselves on the bank. Days were spent canoeing for miles and nights were spent on simple wooden platforms above the swamp. Cypress trees draped with Spanish moss stood like prehistoric dinosaurs across great swamp prairies, and we’d imagine them traipsing slowly across the Jurassic landscape.
During college, we spent days on canoe trips down the Suwannee River of north central Florida, swinging from rope swings into the river, getting burned by the sun then drenched by the afternoon thundershowers of midsummer. Nights were spent by campfires on sand bars, fighting off mosquitoes and sweat.
After Carol and I were married, we lived in southern Illinois, and we’d pack up the canoe and head over to the Eleven Point River and the Current River in Southern Missouri. I remember camping beside the Jack’s Fork River and paddling with our four year old daughter towing behind on an inner tube.
While living in Philo, we paddled at Kickapoo State Park through the surreal but stunningly beautiful landscape of a badly reclaimed strip mining operation. In the early 20th century, they moved the entire river out of the way here to mine coal, then left it all behind when the coal ran out. But nature being nature reclaims it all anyway.
This past July, our family went over to Sugar Creek in Indiana that runs through Turkey Run State Park. On one trip, we went downriver slowly in inner tubes, then made another trip by canoe. Either way, Sugar Creek is one of the most beautiful places in this area. But here again, careless humans apparently enjoy nature so much that they forget to pick up their beer cans and plastic bottles.
And then I reflect on this past year on the Sangamon. The trip with our friends from the Sierra Club in May, our First Annual Duck Race in August, and a cleanup on “It’s Our River Day” in September, along with several other river outings, alone or with others.
Yes, the black reflection I see these days from the Sangamon that now winds through my back yard reminds me of the rivers that have always been a part of my life; rivers that remind me to go with the flow and not fight the current. Reflecting on the Sangamon also reminds me to respect nature in all her wondrous glories. Everyone should have the opportunity to have a river as part of their lives and their memories. This weekend, take a walk along the river, look into the water and ponder the reflections you see there.
Appeared as “Notes from the River” Mahomet Citizen, November 16, 2011, by Scott Hays