For the Love of Rivers

William Kent Krueger has informed us of his new novel, “The River We Remember”. that will hit the shelves come September. Another of his non-Cork O’Connor books. For you see I have a thing about river books dating all the way back to growing up on a Missouri farm some 50 miles west of Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi. Rivers are moving waters, and moving waters are the sources of dreams. 

I seemed to have grown up fascinated by watching the moving waters of what we called Billy Branch, an offshoot of the Salt River, of visualizing those waters eventually joining those from Montana in the Missouri River, then the Mississippi to eventually enter the Gulf of Mexico. Strong stuff for a kid growing up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, time when imagination fueled the soul rather than cell phones and instant, worldwide visuals via Google and 24-hour network news.

Then there was my mother, Mary Laurele White, the first college educated woman of our family who called herself a “river rat” having grown up on the Chariton River about another 20 or so miles due west. When I was a boy, going to the Chariton to set banklines for overnight catfishing with my uncles was a thorough joy. Where she grew up, and where a cousin still lives, the nearby Chariton was “ditched” back when she was a child, straightened and deepened to help with flood control, for the river valley is flatter than our prairie here at Listening Stone Farm. It continues to flood, though, because the reshaping of the river only goes so far before it melds back into the old river channel complete with its more natural twists and turns. This causes a backup of the coursing waters which means, of course, the valley still floods. Deeply into the basement of the heirloom house.

Catfishermen on a bend of the Minnesota River as the sun sets. Another outing with friends Tom Cherveny and Tom Kallahar, long time paddling and fishing buddies.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer entered my youth early on, and those moving waters of the Mississippi became quite a haven for my childhood cloud gazing. “Life on the Mississippi” by Twain took me as step deeper in high school, and years later Norman Maclean continued the odyssey with “A River Runs Through It.” I still have a well worn early edition. And the books, of every genre just keep on coming. “Course,” a beautiful book of poetry by a dear friend, Athena Kildegaard, “marries” the grief she experienced with her mother’s death with her mother’s love of her home along the Minnesota River. 

From prose to poetry, fiction to non-fiction, from fly fishing to canoeing, my home library contains a fine mixture of river-based books. Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time” takes me from Norway to Iowa’s author John Madson, whose “Up on the River”, is a long time favorite. Eric Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” is a few books away from Natalie Warren’s “Hudson Bay Bound”, the chronicling of her canoe trip with Ann Raiho as the first two women to do Sevareid’s “Cree” journey. Natalie’s book blends their paddling journey with the pratfalls and joys of friendship, and does so beautifully. 

A group of canoers on the Lac qui Parle.

Then there’s Thomas Water’s “Streams and Rivers of Minnesota” and Darby Nelson’s “For Love of a River … The Minnesota.” Both are nonfiction and beautifully written. The former a college course book, the later a remembrance. Darby came through doing research, and several of us Minnesota “River Rats” were called into Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo by his co-author and friend, John Hickman. We were to share our love and joys of paddling Darby’s home river, a story that he begins around Franklin, downriver a couple of hours of drive time and chronicles his and his wife, Geri’s, paddling the length of the river.

Now in the “autumn” of my life, those moving waters of streams and rivers still put me in the same circle as Maclean in that I, too, am “haunted by waters.” A few years back I was fly fishing with two wonderful friends, Joe Jost and Jack Griffin, on Maclean’s Big Blackfoot in Montana. Driving the two-lane highways, in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, his writing came to “haunt” me. A couple of years later I found “Home Waters” written by Norman’s son, John N. Maclean, that brought more clarity of the Maclean family and their home river, places I could now visualize from our meandering about looking for fishing entry points. Both books made catching three trout on flies I had purchased in a fly shop in Orvanda, just a bit east of the Clearwater Junction, really special. 

The Chippewa River from the Lentz Landing Bridge.

Yet, being here in our own home waters is heavenly. Oddly enough, when we moved to the prairie back in 1992 we debated on whether to bring our canoe. Living outside of Hastings on the near banks of the Little Vermilion River, we launched our canoe almost weekly. Paddling didn’t look promising moving to our little town where Hawk Creek, right in our backyard, was designated as a “Federal Ditch” back in the late 1960s. This was a long shot from the wild rivers on the eastern side of the state, where I had canoed almost all the major tributaries of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. And we were buying a house on a federal ditch? 

Little did I know that we were moving into Darby Nelson’s home country, although it would be years later before I would meet him. Not long after moving to the prairie Patrick Moore encouraged me to join the CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) board which introduced us to the Minnesota River. For the first few years we would paddle from Skalbakken County Park down to Vicksburg County Park, through the Patterson Rapids and past Big Eddy to our pullout. It was a beautiful river, cut through miles of gneiss outcrops and timbered the entire route. It was nearly unbelievable. Since I’ve paddled the Minnesota from the Churchill Dam to the near border of Nelson’s old hometown of Franklin.

Fly fishers on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, the home waters of the Maclean clan.

Then came the tributaries. Even Hawk Creek, which we found was almost continual white water from the US 212 Bridge to the confluence of the Minnesota. Once past the highway the little river was in basically enclosed within a timbered deciduous canyon, a stretch of wild water that thankfully survived efforts to dam it to create a lake. 

Lac qui Parle River came next with put in outside of Dawson. High walls of  prairie till caused a bit of neck bend with just enough small rapids to give a small thrill. This led us to the Chippewa, Pomme de Terre (Terror) and Yellow Medicine rivers, all different in both scenery and individual challenges. All with the coursing of moving waters. All rivers I remember. 

So thank you Twain, Madson, Sevareid, Maclean and the dozens of others, as well as my mother’s side of the family and eventually CURE and all the friends who shared those rivers with me. Rivers so full of stories and adventures, and more of each are added every year. In reality and from the writings of valued authors. Now we await Krueger’s next novel. I can hardly wait.

Our Weather ‘Up Top’

For awhile after the New Year I began to wonder about how to encourage my creative soul; if venturing out into the depths of a challenging winter would be worth my time. Typically I follow various seasons through the year, such as the beginning of the migrations to the pasque flowers popping up on a near barren hillside, of the easing into the delicate blossoming beauty within the woodlands … and so forth through the various wildflower appearances through to the vibrant colors of autumn. But winter? A winter like this one we’re experiencing?

Seasonal changes are among the joys of “flyover” living, and I’m usually seeing various seasons through to the end. Our winter, though, is beginning to test my resolve. This past week had us hovering around minus ten with intermittent staunch prairie winds that chilled to the bone. There seemed to be no end. Just walking from the house to the studio wrapped completely in sweaters and down outerwear was a continual test to that resolve. 

In case anyone should ask, I’m now officially tired of winter despite the knowledge that we’ve now moved into February and there is seemingly hope for more humane weather in the near future. We’re now about 40 degrees warmer today than we were at this time last week.

Wild turkeys few to safety on the edge of a frost covered ravine.

We’ve had a though winter. Those chilling days where we rarely were over zero, then about two weeks of hoarfrost, foggy snow after blowing snow, and eventually an uncharacteristic icy rain that turned all of that snow into crusted ice. The winds have taken us to an entirely different level. When we have “weather” a dear friend who lives along Big Stone Lake will often send a message: “How are things up on top?” She is about 11 miles due west of Listening Stones, and yes, her home and silver-smithing studio sits along the shores in a wooded hollow beside the big lake while “up top” we’re in the flattened prairie. Recently I received a lesson on the differences in our diverse ecosystems.

On that day of friendly conversation we were shrouded in a frozen dense fog here “up top,” which in these frigid temperatures means a hoarfrost, so my mind wandered to the Bonanza Education Center and its beautiful mix of an oak savanna and hillside prairie, all of which is located about a mile up that “coast” from her studio. My wandering imagination visualized the savanna deep in fog with tunnels of snow and icy frosted limbs and sticky branches of the majestic oaks being silhouetted against an endless and deep whiteness. As my car closed in on the edge of the prairie the denseness of fog began to dissipate. In another mile to the turnoff into Bonanza I was suddenly driving in clear blue skies. So yes, her “down below” is often much different than my “up top.”

For more than two weeks a hoarfrost seemed to cover every possible surface.

Before the hoarfrosts, blizzards fueled by staunch winds have reminded one of a freight train with blowing snow blanketing the ground. One of the blizzards was a three day affair with no interlude. White nothingness just past the mailbox at the end of the driveway. A deep drift was created across the edge of the woodland that blocked any possible traffic, a drift nearly five feet tall and about twice as wide. When the winds finally died down and the snow ceased, I tried to cross over the drift on foot to reach the mailbox and overturned garbage container. Those initial steps were across glazed, hardened snow and held my weight. Near the crest the snow gave way to drop me thigh deep into the powdery dune. By the time I had finally stomped and worked my way out I was famished.

After being bladed we had a day of possible “freedom” had there been a need to go somewhere, and sometimes just the going is therapeutic. Then the winds returned, and when they came they did so with a vengeance, hurling and tumbling snow crystals across the prairie; movement of snow like a desert sand. Over the years of living in the prairie I sensed there might be some natural art created by the wind, much like you would see along the sea coast or in an inland sandy dunescape. Yes! Dozens of interesting and beautiful snow waves awaited. Later hoarfrosts provided feelings of being surrounded by a whitewashed, frosty landscape. We were mired in a winter wonderland … if you cared to look. And, I did.

One of the images of the “dunes of winter … “

The other morning while laying under the deep comforting pile of blankets, I listened to the wind rumble outside with health advisories from Weather Bug concerning the ominous and intense and unbearable chill. At moments like these, among the possible positive vibes is knowing we’re protected, that we’re not homeless and trying to survive beneath a thin nylon wall of a camper’s tent in some wretched neighborhood. I can’t imagine how one would survive under such conditions and I’m forever grateful not to be in that situation. 

Then the aspects of art came to mind. Discovering beauty created by such horrid conditions filled the mind. Snow dunes and whispery formations, both of which can become even more pronounced and interesting when bathed by sunlight, and especially in the ambient light of a colorful sunrise or sunset. Hoarfrosts can coat everything in deep frosty ice crystals, and there were ample opportunities to capture many images here in the Listening Stones prairie and beyond. One of my favorite images from the hoarfrosts was of a flock of wild turkeys that flew off away from the roadside to safely land at the edge of a hazy, snowy savanna. 

Beyond the art some idle moments are spent at the computer dream-watching of trips to island beaches or another trip to central Nebraska in March to once again experience the sandhill crane migration. Will I find accommodations for an open blind to spend another night in what seems like a touch of prehistoric magical dawn along the Platte River; that drifting to sleep deep in a sleeping bag surrounded by the unique sounds from another age-old era? One must dream, for this is the other side of a deep winter when the conditions are such that you dream not so much of art as of escape. 

One of the rare occasions when we had a sunrise, this over the Listening Stones prairie.

In a few weeks the pitchers and catchers of the big league baseball teams will gather in Florida and Arizona, and the snowbirds will be abandoning their card games and margaritas to head back home with partial tans. They may wonder why some of us have stayed behind, thoughts we may suffer to find an appropriate response. Then, there’s this: come summer, when heat waves make us think of cooler times, I’ll search through the files of the snow dunes, the random icicles and come across the image of those turkeys seeking safety on a thoroughly frosty afternoon. I was there, here “up top,” and captured that image forevermore!