“We are in the season of unpredictability, in that time of wonderful unease of lingering winter edged with a touch of spring.”
BY MITCH MODE
SPECIAL TO THE STAR JOURNAL
The rivers are restless, running like wild broncos under the darkness of ice. The rivers run in the blackness of a vault, have since ice locked them down as the cold days of winter came down and the dark nights grew long. All winter they have run silent and dark as arteries ‘neath skin.
Ice fractures; a fissure forms; water seeps to the light of day. Small, inconsequential cracks at first. Riverlets of water break the ice, flow under March sun. Every day, more. The river breaks the bonds of ice, widens, pushes back the ice, runs free in late winter glow.
The rivers are restless and they are strong and they are gaining strength, fueled by snow melt. River water runs blue under clear skies, runs gunmetal gray under cloud, but runs, always runs now in the waning days of winter. The days of the river ice are numbered.
I, restless myself with season change, ski along the edge of the river on shelf ice until the nascent channel of blue water dives back under solid ice. There I ski from shore and onto the ice that stretches ahead like a wide avenue. The open water is at my back; ahead only snow crust on ice, crystalline under the morning sun. I ski easy and fast. Late winter snow is icy and the skis glide as if winged and even I can feel fast and light.
I ski downriver along wooded banks where the hills rise from the river valley like the backs of a beast of my imagination, ragged with trees that stand stark, their trunks rising from the snow to reach for the blue above. There are scattered white clouds and the lofting spire of a white-headed eagle. There is this: the snow and the ice and the sun and the sky and silence.
It has been a very good late season for skiers, has been, in fact, a good season all along. Mid-December for a start; holding on, even now, near 100 days in. Ski season is a variable thing; one never knows when it will come nor go. I leave the snow flush with the wind and the sun, leg-weary. All of that is good.
The next day I ski on a trail near town as the crusty snow turns soft under the heat of sun. When I come home I lean the skis in a corner. I am not ready to hang them up for the season. Not yet.
We are in the season of unpredictability, in that time of wonderful unease of lingering winter edged with a touch of spring. In two days time I see the first robin and first grackle, see chipmunks in the backyard, stealing remnant bird feed under the feeder. On the ski trail the faint but unmistakable scent of skunk. In the tall trees at daybreak the cardinal calls; the male bird vivid red in morning sun, its song clear and defiant.
In the evening of a warming day we fill buckets with maple sap that drips ever slowly from the gray-barked trees that stand tall and straight under late winter cloud. The trees are like the river; the powerful current of change moves strong and vital in the darkness until the tap opens the world and the sap seeks the air and the sun. The trees stand, rooted solid beneath the snow but restless with change as the rivers are restless under the shroud.
We are into an unsettled, restless time. Change is coming, no, is here, is happening; startling under a 50 degree day; lethargic in hard freeze at night. Change that is inevitable but uncertain and in that uncertainty we feel the tingle of anxiety and restlessness. It is in the air; it is in the puddle of snow melt; it is in the running water of the river now glistening under sun. It is everywhere.
In the low angle sun of late afternoon wild swans rest on shelf ice near river water. The light catches the moving water, shines on regal swans, brings a glow to the far off trees. The swans take it all in. They seem content and restful. There are five that we can see. They are the vanguard, the advance arrowhead of the migration flight to come. Birds are staging south of us waiting for the ice to yield. Then they will come through in a rush as if a season-changing wind and be here and gone.
But on this day the swans sit on the ice, white bird on white ice. They look as if they could stay there forever. But one knows one thing for certain: It is a restless time and those things which look permanent are not.
A swan calls, once, across the river air; the sound of the restless heart of the wild bird in a season when nothing remains as it seems.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.