Strange Things Happening


I woke up this morning to a frozen Sangamon River. Well, nearly so at least. It was one of the first significant freezes of the year, which is pretty unusual, actually. It’s typically much more frozen this time of year and a lot higher.

I remember a few years back in January, the river was up at least 20 feet higher than it is now. Way up in the silver maples, mulberries, and white oak trees that populate Crooked Creek ravine.

That was the year we lost our old green Mohawk canoe with red seats that I’d had since my Florida days. Seems I left it too close to Crooked Creek.

Well, we were still in the process of learning of how to live with our river.

The rising water uprighted the upside down canoe, filled it with water, floated it back up into Crooked Creek and deposited it on the ground full of brown river water. Before I had a chance to dump it and pull it to higher ground, a hard freeze turned our Mohawk into a solid and quite immovable block of ice.  When the river rose yet again, the high water floated my Mohawk away downriver with it.  Never to be seen again.

Much of the river near our place is less than a foot deep now. But it’s clearly not too low to paddle.

A few of us set out downriver on an unusual Saturday morning recently  as the early January temperature topped 50.  But the ice formed along the banks reminded us that the water remains chillingly cold.  To get around a fallen tree blocking the river, we had to use the prow of our aluminum canoe to break up inch thick ice blocking a small side channel. Not something we do every day.

The rare combination of cold temperatures and low flow has made the Sangamon uniquely clear. We could plainly see the river bottom through the water down to three or feet. If you know the muddy Sangamon, you know how different that is.

We looked down into the water and saw huge schools of carp (up to several feet long!) swimming along beside us.  Hard to believe these impressive creatures are out there all the time.

And the river’s not the only thing that’s curiously different around here.

A couple months back, our lab Josh had taken me for our nightly walk down our long, dark driveway as he does every night.  Josh sniffs the ground intently identifying the night’s creatures while I stare at the moon and try to identify planets and constellations.

But on that night, off to the north, I noticed a distinct red glow in the sky through the trees. And it seemed to be moving, shimmering. Party lights? A fire? Plane crash? What?

After watching and listening, and hearing absolute silence, it dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I was witnessing the Aurora Borealis. I wondered how many people were sitting inside in front of TV’s or computers at that moment rather than out being walked by their lab. How many people missed this rarely beautiful and grand specter of Mother Nature? Thanks, Josh!

Carol and I walked down by the river after dark on the last full moon. We can only appreciate the power of the blue white brightness of a full moon until we completely escape artificial light. The glaringly bright moonlight creating eerie shadows from the leafless trees made it easy to imagine it bringing out the lunacy in all of us.

And then the next morning we were witness to a beautiful full moonset.

That morning, and indeed every morning, Carol and I take time together to wake up, enjoy the quiet and take in a few cups of fresh brewed French Roast, Columbian or Tanzanian.

That crystal clear winter morning saw the huge bright round moon setting through the tree tops just as sunrise lightened the morning sky. The river heads off west from here, placing the moon perfectly mirrored above the river with a shimmering trail of light pointing back to us.  Since living here, I can’t recall a more captivating morning picture.

Yes, unusual things been going on ‘round here.  

Does low water portend forthcoming drought? Or perhaps greater flooding later? Does a warmer than usual January provide evidence for a warming planet?  Are full moons affecting peoples’ voting in primary elections?

Well, I haven’t lived here that long. Maybe strange things happen all the time. Maybe in the scheme of things, the river isn’t that low and the weather isn’t unusually warm and there are plenty of magical nights and mornings.

And maybe unusual things portend nothing special at all.

Maybe a life of ups and downs is just life on a river.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, January 25, 2012, by Scott P. Hays

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