An Escape to an Ice Floe Ballet

Across the near water where the eagles soared singularly or perched in packs on ice floes, a blueness, a cyan yielding to violet, blanketed the river in either direction as evening grew ever closer. Yet, above the Mississippi River, the sky would have made sweet fruit happy with glows of amber and orange. Somewhere back over the Read’s Landing bluff the sun was nearing a distant horizon. At that moment, though, our ambient light at the foot of Lake Peppin was fit for gods. 

Ignoring the dozens of eagles were numerous swans, especially in the distance near a wooded island across from Wabasha. Dozens, and certainly more than 100.

If the eagles were from the “hood,” the swans offered contrast by creating a sweet ballet, long necks often in symmetry, always poised with grace. Thoughts of Tchaikovsky? The contrast couldn’t be more bold between the raptors and floaters, though each were equally captivating.

These birds and colors were to be celebrated only briefly, for nightfall would come ever so swiftly. Our planet spin never slows though we’re often unaware and even immune in both deep darkness and blinding light. Sometime watch a shadow as it moves either side of mid-day, for shadows move with the same swiftness as a setting or rising sun. One mid-morning I was captivated while watching shadows move across the crevices and archways of the St. Paul Cathedral from a hotel window. Ever moving, constantly changing.

Other than Read’s Landing my month of January was unlike planet movement due to some health issues … which actually began after that near perfect afternoon while visiting fellow journalist friend, Anne Queenen. Her second floor apartment windows offered a perfect photography “blind” just a roadway and a set of railway tracks from the western bank of the Mississippi. Freighters and Amtrak’s Empire Builder between St. Paul and Chicago ply the tracks, and the roadway is a frontage road off Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 … again revisited.

After Christmas I had fought a cold/flu with sneezes that rattled the soul, although swabs of the nostrils indicated no Covid. Now, several tests later, I’m still negative, although the health issues have me cornered here on the prairie. Blessed with a catheter since my trip to Anne’s, my home here on the prairie is where I’ve been, my camera and my writing unattended. My isolation has felt rather extreme for an extrovert like me. I had thought the autumn and approaching winter was slow. One keeps learning.

All of this isolation has brought, strangely enough, a sudden and growing pressure … a sudden sense of seeking escape; to explode and explore. Ah, the three “e’s.” Escape. Explode. Explore. 

Isolation from the flu/cold was what I was feeling a few weeks ago when someone posted a picture on social media of swans in flight from Read’s Landing. By then I was healthy and fit, and felt a strong urge and acted on it by sending Anne a message after a thought, a bit of recall. When we had last communicated in the autumn she was living somewhere south of Redwing along the Mississippi River. I couldn’t recall where exactly, so I sent her an email. She responded almost immediately. “I actually live in Read’s Landing,” she wrote back, “and yes, you are most welcome to stay here with Bode and me.” 

Bode is a lovely though incredibly shy dog of blended breeds and kept a close eye on Anne’s guest as he moved from window to window looking for new images of the eagles and swans. Which the visitor did until nightfall.

After darkness settled in over the river, Fred Harding, Anne’s close friend, joined us for a wonderful dinner. All this beauty and fellowship were mere moments before my more serious health issues revealed themselves after a totally sleepless night. That would come later, though.

Thankfully Anne was happy to see me. Although we have corresponded infrequently over the past several years, it has been some time since we’ve seen one another in person. Over the years we have jointly though independently reported on many of the same issues: A rock quarry proposed on the original outcrops “released” by the Glacial River Warren at the headwaters of the Minnesota River; issues of soil erosion and water quality; and most recently, on cover crops. She was actually working on a cover crop story when I arrived.

While I walked from window to window focusing on the beautiful eagles and swans, she talked about possible places we could go for even better and closer views. On the other side of Lake City I had passed Fondulac State Park, and I promised myself I would stop on the way home. Another time, perhaps, and Anne has promised some beautiful trails. While being treated by nurses at the hospital in Wabasha, one had talked about pull out spots near Alma, WI, down the road from where she lived. The list kept growing … and Anne promised on my next visit we’ll take it all in. Whenever I’m ready to “explode” from my isolation. To escape and explore!

Now, nearly a month later my issues remain and I’m yet blessed with a catheter. I’ve been reading. And reading, and more reading. So many friends have reached out since learning of my condition, and have added much light to the darkness I’ve been feeling. Then, ever so slowly, the pressure pokes through along with those urges of the three “e’s.” Pressure or hope?

All fall I’ve looked longingly at my small camper trailer. I haven’t used it since my former fiancee and I returned from a trip to Washington state back in July. I simply couldn’t convince myself to hook it up and take off somewhere. Not even to a nearby state park. For two years now I’ve wanted to escape and explore Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. And there is always a winterish escape to New Orleans, or more specifically, the Cajun Triangle across the Atchafalaya Basin. I have so many wonderful memories through the years from the Triangle, and if there is a place in the South that feels close to home, this would be the place. Now my eye is meandering toward returning to central Nebraska and the Sandhill Crane migration. Or, to the Loess Bluff National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Missouri. And, an invitation is open to revisit Read’s Landing to fulfill those promises of a special friend.

No, I’m not out my funk quite yet, although as we ease past what is hopefully the worst of winter my mind has begun to wander once again. Hope. There are taxes to do, and hopefully there will be some answers to my health situation. A large part of my hope is that this overbearing isolation is merely temporary and moves with the speed of our revolving planet, and that I will soon feel the welcoming bumps of the byways. That I can explode from this isolation. Escape, and then explore whatever awaits. Whatever may be.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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