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Even a frozen river has stories to tell

On frigid days when I gird myself for an inspection of the riverbank, I note the tracks of rabbits and others. When I retreat to the warm side of the kitchen window, I occasionally see the animals themselves.

By Robert Klose / March 16, 2005



As I look out the kitchen window, the river behind my Maine home lies frozen under 18 inches of ice. The ice itself is covered with shin-deep snow. In fact, the snow continues from river to land in a clean, unblemished, wind-sculpted meld.

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Perhaps I take a bit of license in saying "unblemished." When I put on my boots and parka and wander down to what - in the warmer months - are the muddy banks of the Penobscot River, I see ample signs of activity: tracks of all kinds of interesting animals who are on the move.

When the river is open, there is fairly cosmopolitan traffic to and from the river. Terrapins - both the gentle eastern painter and the solitary, aggressive snapping turtle - visit my backyard, scraping at the ground with clawed feet to look for their eggs. Garter snakes slip from land to water and back again. The occasional hedgehog lumbers through the brush. Raccoons, in search of crayfish, range the banks as well. In fact, their five rounded toes make neat impressions in the mud, offering textbook-quality proof of their passing.

I have to be careful about the raccoons, though. They tend to get into mischief. Just last summer I was wandering by the water when I heard a snapping of branches in a silver maple. As I looked up, a large adult came crashing down, landing in the tall grass not even three feet from where I stood. I watched as it shook its head to dispel the shock of the fall and then ambled off, little the worse for wear.

As winter approaches, there is increased activity along the riverbank. Muskrats, their long black tails acting as rudders, ferry branches to their nests; a solitary great blue heron gorges itself on fish while the fishing's good; ospreys prowl from on high; and squirrels do their collecting with hurried vigor.

But all is not pleasant poetry where land meets water. Back in November, when the river was alternately freezing and thawing, trying to make up its mind, I awoke to a scene that brought my hand to my head in grief. One of my apple trees - an "antique" variety with the promising name of Wealthy - was lying on its side, cut off at the knees. The stump bore a spear point and scalloped markings - the unmistakable calling card of a beaver. What could I do? I quickly threw chicken wire around the base of the remaining tree (my Cortland) and then, with a heavy heart, I cut up the Wealthy for firewood. (It burned long and hot, as if saying, "Remember.")

By December the river was frozen in earnest, and in the interim, snow upon snow has blanketed it to form an insulating layer that will keep the ice intact into April. I used to believe that once the river froze, all animal activity came to an end. But on frigid days when I gird myself for an inspection of the bank, I note the evidence of carousings. Rabbit tracks are strewn out in short sprints. The dainty prints of cats sometimes intersect them. Here and there I find the most delicate markings of all: those of moles and mice.

When I retreat to the warm side of the kitchen window, I occasionally see the animals themselves, sometimes replete with drama. Just the other day I looked across the river and saw a bald eagle perched high in a pine, like a sentinel. A squirrel darted out onto the river snow below, its mad dash an exclamation point for the raptor. The plot was set. The eagle turned its head. I watched, waited, and then - nothing. There was no swoop of talons, and I was happy for the squirrel (but what a way to live).

I look forward to the breakup of the ice. Such in-between times, when the landscape proclaims both winter and spring, can be the most interesting. Last year, on April Fool's day, I was watching the floes sail by. And there, on a sheet of ice still attached to shore, a large black otter reclined. It was eating a freshly caught fish. But not for long. As I watched, an eagle alighted on the ice, walked over to the otter, evicted it, and confiscated the fish.

Living at the interface between two worlds, I have a box seat for an ongoing story, irrespective of season.

Is it any wonder I never seem to get anything done?

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