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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

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 desire.

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, too.

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 remembering.

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.

Tamia's River

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, in fact.

Birth of a Sweeper

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 current.

Round the Bend

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?

Not by a Dam Site!

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 reserved.

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