By Mitch Mode
The water runs dark and cold, the color of gunmetal; running smooth and steady.
It is cold; 8 above zero when I got up. Crystal clear. Sun bright over fresh snow. Day before had storm, big weather, rough weather with falling snow and hard winds. Wild weather. November came in April.
Now daybreak; clear and bright and January cold. Where has gone the promise of spring? Where the warm days and mild nights? Where the scent of spring, so sweet and light? Where? Gone on that morning, blown away by the north wind like smoke whipped from chimney top.
I stand alongside the river as the sun breaks the trees to the east. There is new ice where two days before the water was open. There is snow where there had been bare ground. The air is chill and the wind biting. I think of the old poet who told of April being the cruelest month and wonder of that on this day.
Then I load the kayak with camouflage netting and camera gear and ease into it. I break ice for 20 feet then find water and turn the boat with the current.
It is a day of striking beauty. The crystal white snow; the low angle sun. The world shines as diamond.
There are birds about on this day, migrants; mallards and mergansers and swans. Birds that have taken residence here for the season; herons and blackbirds and cranes. I like the cranes best I think. Large and stately and regal with their crazy-wild calls.
I paddle for an hour as the warmth in my hands fades to chill. I photograph cranes, an eagle, a mix of birds. The air is barely into the teens; the water runs cold.
Then a robin where no robin should be.
I almost missed it. Drifting with the current like a leaf on the breeze; kayak moving easy; I was looking downriver. Then I saw the bird in the water, next to the kayak. A robin. And robins do not belong in the water, especially in water cold and mean.
“To hold a robin in April is to hold springtime and hope” -Mitch Mode
It took me by surprise. The kayak drifted past. I raised the camera, found shutter button and focused. A photo, another.
The bird did not move, only floated like a small boat in the stream.
I turned the kayak, thought: This makes no sense. In this water the bird will die.
I paddled up to the robin and reached into the water and lifted it. It did not resist.
The bird seemed ephemeral as morning fog, as fragile as a ray of sunshine, as insignificant as a falling snowflake. It was light in hand and yet not light, for any bird in the hand carries more than measured on scale. All birds carry mystery and stories to tell and are weighted with meaning beyond measure.
To hold a robin in April is to hold springtime and hope. It is to hold disappointment and despair for optimism of spring brought to earth by snow and cold. It is to hold the promise of better times come smack up against the reality of spring storm and late snow. There is more to a robin in hand that mere feather and wing and bright eye.
I set the bird on the camouflage mesh and it did not move. It sat there in the thin sun that held scant warmth. I looked across the cockpit to its eye. I wondered: How did you come to be here?
How did the bird come to the water? How far had it flown from winter to spring and ended up, at the end, back in winter? When had it last held high in tree and sang its song of spring joy? What could the bird tell me?
Robins, in the realm of birds, are nothing special. It is rarity that drives our perception of things special. It is, of course, an unfair measure. For what is more special than a bird, that miracle of feather and muscle that can fly, fly from tree to tree and from north to south and back north again. Is that not special?
We have a robin in the yard that is splotched with white patches, leucistic is the term I believe that describes it. This is the third spring running we’ve seen it. In the days he will sing from the tree next door and the song echoes in the darkness of the predawn in April. What did he overcome to sing his song to me?
The birds of spring push against the odds, moving north to claim their territory and the big ones, they make the flight earliest. They get the good turf. They rule all that they can see.
Until the weather turns from springtime warmth, until the weather turns bad and the winds blow mean and snow comes heavy. The birds that made that passage, those birds weaken. If a break in the weather does not come they die.
The robin rides in the front of my kayak like a figurehead. It hardly moves. I wonder if it is close to death.
I wonder what I will do with the bird. If it is weakened it will die. If I carry him home to warmth, well, my dogs are hunters and they would kill the bird. I watch the bird; our eyes meet. And I think to myself that if the bird is too weak to carry on for itself would the merciful act be for me to kill it? To spare it the slow, lingering death as the cold works to the heart of the bird and stills if forever?
I put the bird into paper bag in my truck and turn the heater on. And then think; I’m just down the road from Wild Instincts where they provide care for all manner of animals and birds. I drive into their lot and carry the bird in. They tell of the robins that people have brought in, tell me that my robin is emaciated and weak as are many robins and woodcock and all spring birds.
Then they take the robin away. I never see him again.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.