Over the River and Through the Woods

You know the river’s at flood when you wake up to a pair of mallards swimming around in your backyard.

When the Sangamon’s at flood stage, water consumes the forest and it becomes a swampy Louisiana bayou. The River spreads out beyond its banks and becomes lost, flowing somewhere in a clear spot through the swampy forest.

So obviously it’s time to head out over the river and through the woods.

Water is everywhere! I am reminded of the many victims of flooding throughout the Midwest. Once water decides its rising, there is really no way to change its mind. Sometimes all you can do is wait it out, make the most of it, and try to stay dry.

Most of the river’s creatures aren’t exactly sure what to do when the river’s at flood. The mallards in my backyard are swimming around in places that were forest just a day or two before.

Wild turkeys wander the forest edge of this instant lake (just add water), seemingly a little confused about where they are supposed to go and what they are supposed to do.

Even to us humans, floodwaters seem both a little scary and oddly inviting; attention grabbing. Like craning our neck as we pass an accident. Yes, it can be a terrible tragedy, but a river at flood still draws our attention and our curiosity toward the unusual and unfamiliar.

So we set out in our canoe where my little dirt road ends under 4 or 5 feet of water. In drier times, this dirt road goes down into our ravine and to our canoe launch. Crooked Creek is down there somewhere.

Not far into the woods we spot a Cooper’s Hawk landing on a branch above us, high above the floodwaters, a furry lunch in its talons.

More than the usual number of hawks seem to be hanging out around Sangamon bayou. Hunting must be good when the river’s at flood. Small, ground dwelling four legged creatures have a distinct disadvantage to the ducks, geese, birds of prey and fish when the river’s at flood. They become helpless, stranded and vulnerable as they search for higher ground, their dens and nests flooded.

Like this stranded ‘possum we spot curled up on a fat horizontal branch of a silver maple; the maple’s trunk surrounded by several feet of water. He lay there perfectly still as we approached quietly in our canoe, not wanting to frighten him into falling in the temporary lake.

But as we paddled past, we could see his little round marsupial eyes wide open, his round ears up, and his head resting on the branch, merely pondering us as we snapped his picture and passed by in the slow current. He’s apparently just going to hang out there waiting for the floodwaters to recede.

Now we come upon County Road 2500 where it crosses Big Ditch. At flood, Newcomb Township closes 2500 to wheeled traffic since the roadway becomes a boat ramp that disappears into a swampy lake. But we just paddle across and beyond, noting two lonely looking parallel guardrails sticking out of the middle of the lake lined up between the two boat ramps. I guess Big Ditch is down there somewhere.

Eventually, we turned around and paddled home, following the current, getting stronger as we got closer to the channel of the Sangamon somewhere down below us.  The strong current of the river carries us home in less than half the time it took us to get upstream, even through the woods.

Later that day, I walked outside to where I had spray painted a bright orange line on one of our silver maples right at the surface of the water.  Now, only eight hours later, the river had already drained off more than a foot of water across acres and acres of forest.

The Sangamon River, created to drain off the last of the great North American glaciers as it retreated back to Canada, is nothing if not a very efficient drain for the floodwaters of the Grand Prairie of the Illinois.

But the floodwaters were still plenty high. A pair of Canada Geese now paddled around our backyard pond, honking noisily at me as if my backyard was now their space, their pond. It certainly did seem that way.

I like nature. Nature keeps us humble. Honest. The past several years have seen devastating damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and other disasters both naturally caused and disasters brought on by us humans.

Perhaps in the face of our seemingly ceaseless efforts to exploit, disrupt, deface, and ultimately perhaps even destroy our planet, every now and then nature fights back, reminding us of who’s really in charge here after all.

As for me, I like experiencing the power of nature, when nature shows us what she’s capable of doing. And once she makes up her mind, we are stuck with the realization that there’s little we can do to change it. We can only wait it out and try to stay dry like a possum in a silver maple. I like that reminder. We need that reminder.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, May 2, 2013, by Scott P. Hays

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