I go walking: Flowing

As predicted, the ice jam came unjammed sometime in the night or early morning. By the time I headed out after breakfast, masses of broken river ice were flowing down the river.iceflow 8When I was a kid growing up on the bank of the Assiniboine River, this flow of ice was a big event. Every spring as the weather warmed we placed twenty-five cent bets on which day the ice would “go out.”  My grandfather generally won. This year the weather has been so erratic that I suspect even grandpa would have been hard pressed to call it.

Standingiceflow 4iceflow 3 on the bank just south of the bridge, I watched the ice crash against the bridge supports that just yesterday were bracing the ice jam. Huge slabs of ice crumbled against the supports which, I noticed for the first time, are shaped much like ships’ prows, no doubt  for exactly this purpose. Fallen trees, carried downriver with the ice, crashed and splintered like giant toothpicks.

As a kid, I always thought of the going out of the ice as a singular event. When I observe the river’s changes now, I see that everything about it is more complex than I once believed. The ice jams, and flows, and jams, and flows again, until eventually the last of it has melted. A lot of things that seem simple when you first look at them reveal themselves to be much more complex on closer examination.

iceflow 2

 

I go walking: Ice Jam

water risingOne of the lessons the river teaches is: Don’t assume that your singular perspective captures the whole story.

There I was, revelling in the view of open water from just outside my door, communing with ducks and geese and watching the spring river inching up the slope of the dike, and I totally failed to notice the ice jam.

Here on the north side of the bridge, the river appears to be wide open. But just a short walk to the other side of the bridge reveals that the southern span marks the edge of a sizeable ice jam.

ice jam 3

I’ve lived with prairie rivers all my life– I should know better than to take a spring river at face value. The ice jam is a reminder not to make assumptions based on the view before me– a reminder that, just around the curve of the river, the world might be quite a different place.

For all I know the ice jam may be gone tomorrow. At some point, the warming air will soften the massive slab of ice that is wedged against the bridge supports and it will break up and move northward, taking along with it the debris of fallen trees and garbage collected along its journey.

The ice jam ends as abruptly as it begins. Another short, southward hike, another curve in the river, and the water opens up again.

ice jam 6

The ice jam is a paradox– both solid and ephemeral. Ice is helpless against the heat of the sun, but it can do tremendous damage. An ice jam is unpredictable and dangerous. And then it’s gone.

geese 3

 

 

I go walking: At Dusk

I don’t have high expectations of Saturday Night.  If there’s an event to go to, I enjoy going out, but I don’t feel a desperate need to find an event if one has not presented itself to me. I’m introverted enough to be quite content at home with a glass of wine or a cup of tea and a good book.  I’m also just as apt to be doing something quite mundane like laundry or, as was the case tonight, marking papers. A party animal I am not.

One benefit to a quiet Saturday night is an evening walk. I love walking at dusk. I love the steady changing of colour in the sky as the sun slips below the horizon. I love the particular shade of deep blue that the sky assumes just before the last light is gone and it is night-dark. I love the way the air feels as it cools down. At this time of year it’s a very solitary time to walk, but in summer twilight brings out lots of walkers who have been waiting for a reprieve from the intense heat of the day.

Things come out at dusk. Tonight it was a lone beaver floating placidly in the icy river where the water is lapping up past the clusters of weedy shoreline trees. All I could think was how cold that water must be, and how relaxed the beaver was in spite of the chill.

I also encountered a pair of mallard ducks paddling near the shore. They were quiet, until a second pair of mallards flew in and, apparently,  landed too close to the nesting spot the first pair was scoping out. Then there was a huge to-do of quacking, which only calmed slightly when the second couple relented and flew upriver a little.  Even so, the first pair of ducks were still trash-talking the second in an indignant tone as I walked back along the dike towards home.

The geese were out too, but in the darkening sky I could only hear them.

The thing about dusk is that it’s ephemeral. Night stays around for a significant time. Day is a commitment. But there is something about dusk that evokes a conscious sense of time passing. You can only enjoy it in the moment. I don’t even try to take pictures, because I know there is something about dusk to which my camera will never do justice. I have to absorb it with my senses, knowing that my time to do so is limited.

When I go back and read that, it occurs to me that it might sound kind of depressing. But that’s not what I feel at all. For me, that ephemeral space between day and night is a magical moment of letting go of the busyness of day and allowing myself to float peacefully on the night like that beaver floating along the river’s edge. Not even caring how cold it is.

riverbank1

I go walking: Spring, actually

The numbers have been crunched, the stats tallied. We weren’t just imagining it. It really was the worst winter any of us had ever experienced. When it came to cold, we even managed to outdo the surface of Mars. It’s now the third week of April, and there is still a sizeable pile of snow on my patio.

ice floe 2But the river is opening up, so I’m declaring it spring, even if I do still have to wear gloves on the way to work in the morning. This is the season when I can scrape ice off my car window when I leave for work and turn on the air conditioning on the way home. In one afternoon I will encounter people out walking in shorts, passing people who are still wearing parkas.

geeseSpring has been so late this year that the first wave of geese to arrive turned back south again because we were still in such a deep freeze. They are returning again now — each day there are more and more of them, wading in half-frozen roadside puddles and looking perplexed by the piles of snow still dotting the brown grass.

Some of my walking routes are still such an awful mixture of mud and ice that I am, for the most part, sticking to pavement until the thaw ends. Wandering through residential streets affords me a view of the aftermath of plowing this winter’s exceptional quantity of snow. Huge chunks of curb, snapped off by the force of the plows, sit perched atop snow banks that are studded with the road sand and salt.

broken curb 2Everything is brown. The grass is brown.  The trees are brown. The geese are brown. The river is always sort of brown. Even the snow that remains along the side of the roads is brown.

Except the sky, which, in all its blueness, promises that no matter how seemingly endless this winter has been, eventually things will turn green again.

picnic table 1

 

 

 

 

 

Shirtsleeves and slush

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What do you love most about the city / town / place that you live in?”

It’s been a long winter.

Not that I’m complaining. Winter is a big part of the city that I live in. A big part of the constantly changing cycle of seasons. I like that I live in a place that is characterized by a blend of comfortable pattern and constant change.

One of the reasons that this has been a particularly brutal winter is that it has been too much of the same thing. Too much cold. Too much wind chill. Too much snow. Winter’s OK when the bitter days are broken up with moments of warm sun on your face. This winter has hammered relentlessly at us since late November. But today it finally felt like the worst just might be over.

Today, finally, the temperature crept above the 0°C mark. Today I left my down-filled coat at home, and went out in my fleece jacket. Today I took the garbage out in my shirtsleeves.  Today I turned off the baseboard heaters and opened up the patio door for the afternoon. The patio itself is still buried in a three-foot high snowdrift, but the air coming in felt lovely.

Today felt like spring was waking up.

One of the spring things I had to do today was put more washer fluid in my car to combat the muddy splash from the melting snow. Spring is messy here. Melting snow means slushy, mucky streets with puddles waiting for a bus to come along to splash unsuspecting pedestrians. This year we have a lot of snow, so we can anticipate a lot of slush. Spring is also all the sand that was scattered to provide some traction on icy winter streets, now piled in dirty mounds on boulevards. It’s litter–paper coffee cups and cigarette butts that were hidden under the pristine whiteness of the snow–now emerging as a soggy mess. To the untrained eye, there’s nothing beautiful about March in Winnipeg.

And yet all that muck and mess is a sign of better things to come. You have to pass through the grey slush to get to green grass and flowers. March is messy, because March is change  and change is messy.

March is, admittedly, my least favourite month. I am impatient with March. I want to be through the messy part and into the new growth of April. But I know I need to wait–need to give the snow time to melt and nourish the roots of the aspen trees outside my door and transform the grass along the riverbank into a rich carpet of green. You have to live here to really appreciate what it means to know that the bitter cold of January and muck of March will give way to the lush green of June and the intense heat of July.

Conjuring Canoes

It warmed up! It’s a balmy -14° C this evening (if you ignore the -25° C wind chill, and the drifting snow, and the storm warning, and the fact that for parts of the drive home I couldn’t make out the edges of the road.) It’s downright miserable out there. I’m glad to be home and not needing to go anywhere tonight, and I’m crossing my fingers in the hope that I will be able to get out of the parking lot to get to where I need to go in the morning.

This canoe passed by on one of my river walks back in September
This canoe passed by on one of my river walks back in September

And I’m thinking about canoes.

What, you are wondering, do canoes have to do with a blizzard?

Absolutely nothing, which is precisely the point. If I was sitting in a canoe right now it would mean that there was not a winter storm slowly imprisoning my car in its parking spot.

A couple of things have conspired to bring canoes to mind this evening.

I was sorting though some files of my long-ago writing, and I came across a piece I wrote when I was a teenager about canoeing in the rain. It’s not what you would call brilliant writing. OK I’ll be honest, it’s pretty terrible. I was going to quote some of it here, but thought better of it. Most of it is cringeworthy in an over-descriptive, trying-to-be-deep way. But it reminded me how much I love paddling in silence and observing things that you never see when you go crashing through the natural world in a motorized vehicle.

It also reminded me that my youngest daughter comes by her love of canoeing honestly.

Which is the other reason I’m thinking about canoes on this blizzardy January evening. Because camp registration always opens on the first Monday of January at 9:00 am. Last year I went to register her for camp on  the Tuesday and she ended up on a waiting list for her preferred session. (Thankfully she did eventually get in.) So my job on Monday morning is to boogie down to the YMCA near my office, as close to 9:00 am as possible, application form in hand, so that she can spend July in the blissful freedom of paddling, portaging and pitching tents in the Northern Ontario wilderness.

I confess, I’m a big-time planner and scheduler. Before the snow is gone, I will have the whole summer mapped out. I am always baffled by people who can get halfway through July before committing to a vacation date. The way I see it, when you live in a place that treats you to -25° C wind chill and four-foot-high snow banks for several months of the year, you don’t leave the summer to chance.

Once in a while I think it would be nice to take a more spontaneous approach to holidays. At work today I heard a story today about someone who got a last-minute invitation to escape the cold by visiting a friend in Phoenix, so she paid a huge extra fee to get an “emergency” passport. Who even knew there was such a thing? On the other hand, a study by a group of Dutch researchers demonstrated that the biggest boost to happiness occurs during the time spent anticipating the vacation. So it’s possible my lack of spontaneity is actually making me happier than I would be if I was running about doing things on a whim!

Paradoxical as it may be, the truth is that there is a lot of summer recreation that my family is able to enjoy precisely because I have spent cold winter nights plotting and planning. It’s worth conjuring canoes on a cold winter night if it makes it possible to paddle them six months later.

The video linked to below was made over the summer of 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the canoeing program that my daughter loves. The video makes it clear why she loves it! (And if you happen to know my daughter, you might just catch a glimpse of her in the video!)

The Way of The Canoe from White Noise Productions on Vimeo.

Ripples

The theme of today’s Daily Prompt is “Texture.”

Freezing 4Back in mid-November, when the river was just beginning to freeze along the edges, I stumbled upon a fascinating textural effect along the shoreline. There must have been a wind blowing as the clay along the river’s edge was freezing, because frozen into the ground were distinct ridges capturing in solid form the ephemeral texture of the water lapping against the muddy shore. I was lucky to catch this sight– the conditions must have been just right to create the effect. A day or two earlier the ground was still malleable. A few days later the frozen ripples were hidden by a blanket of snow.

When that snow melts in the spring it will raise the river and saturated the shore, so this particular texture will no longer be present on this surface. The surface itself will be submerged, hidden by real ripples of surging water.

freezing 2Even if I walked the same path every day, the magic of nature is that it continually offers up new gifts. Some of those gifts, like my rippling water frozen both in temperature and time, are ephemeral. If we don’t stop to notice– to accept the gift– we may not be offered a second chance.

I go walking: in the snow

riverscape 2It’s warm today by Winnipeg winter standards– the overcast sky holds in the earth’s warmth, helping the temperature to hover just below the freezing point. It makes for sloppy roads, but it is perfect for a walk, and warm enough to take off my mitts and take some pictures.

The river is frozen now. Almost. If you look closely you can see dark patches that signify an area where the water is still peeking through a thin layer of ice. The river is most dangerous in times of transition– in the early spring when the ice is breaking up, and in the early winter when it is still not fully frozen. But even in the dead of winter there can be treacherous open spots, especially near bridges and outflow pipes.

Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.
Note the dark patch. Not a good place for a walk.

My cousin fell through just such a patch of thin ice one winter when he was a teenager, taking a short cut across a river to go visit our grandparents. Thankfully the friend he was with was able to pull him out and help him up the bank. By the time Grannie met him at her kitchen door he could barely walk because his pants had frozen solid.

I make my way along my familiar southward trail , observing the way the snow hides some things and highlights others.  I’m pleased to see there is a well-trampled path. I don’t encounter any cyclists now, but the regular walkers are undeterred by the arrival of wintery weather.  Rabbit tracks zigzag around the trees. I watch for deer, but it’s too early in the day. I would be more apt to encounter them at dusk.

Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.
Even more beautiful highlighted by a dusting of snow.

The fallen tree that I wrote about in early October now lies adorned with a layer of white lacework that brings out the complexity of its structure. Everything that was lush and green a few months back is now either grey and angular, or hidden beneath a blanket of white.

As my boots crunch against the packed snow, I think about how grateful I am that the hours of hip-therapy walking I did to recover from surgery happened in the summer. I love walking in the snow, but it’s more difficult than walking on grass or pavement. Where it is packed down it is slippery, and where it is still fresh my feet sink and twist. At the same time I celebrate the fact that I can go walking in the snow. This time last year I was not walking anywhere but to and from the bus stop, and that was slow and painful and aided by a cane.

No one home to shovel the front step.
No one home to shovel the front step.

High in a tree, something catches my eye. A tiny birdhouse sits, abandoned for the season no doubt, while its inhabitants spend the winter months in more temperate conditions further south. The roof of the house is covered with snow, and there is a tiny mound of snow in front of the entryway.

It strikes me that I have no desire to fly south for the winter. No interest in tropical vacations or white sandy beaches. In spite of the cold, the ice, the inconvenience of snow covered cars and winter boots, I prefer to stay put in this wintery city. Even if it is more effort, I prefer to walk in the snow.

grass

Flowing

“You cannot step into the same river twice.” — Heraclitus of Ephesus

freezing 3

I can’t keep up with the changes. I managed to snap some photos a few days ago that captured the beginning of ice formation along the edges of the river. But they are already historical artifacts. The ice spreads and thickens daily, and the riverbank is now blanketed in snow.

I wanted to capture the river’s changes as it transitioned into winter, but it seems that the changes march on without waiting for my feeble attempts to record them. It’s dark when I arrive home from work now, and even if there was enough light left for picture taking, it’s difficult to fine-tune a camera focus wearing thick mittens. And you really don’t want to take the mittens off for long.

Under the forming ice, the river continues to flow. In the spring, when the ice breaks up, it will be a different river flowing past my door. It may look the same, but as Heraclitis sagely observed some 2500 years ago, it won’t be the same water, and I won’t be the same observer.

I talk about change a lot. I crave change. I find it energizing and exciting. Without a regular infusion of new challenges, I get restless. I probably use “change” as a tag more often than any other word.

I wonder if my interest in change was nurtured by growing up next to a river. Or  do I find the river soothing because its constant changing resonates with my thought processes?

I don’t suppose it matters. What matters is that the river’s lessons have seeped so thoroughly into my frame of reference that I know exactly what is meant by “you can’t step in the sane river twice.” Because the kind of change that interests me is not a change in what one does. It’s a change in who one is.

freezing 2A fellow blogger got me thinking about transformation this evening–  about the kind of learning that moves you into a place so different from where you began that you can scarcely communicate what the change is all about.

I know I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. The person I was twenty years ago would be surprised by the person I have become. The person I was 30 years ago would scarcely recognize me. In truth, she would probably find me shocking and perhaps a little frightening. Certainly she would be confused by some of the thoughts and things I now hold dear, and baffled by those I have chosen to leave behind.

But, like the continuous flowing of the river, all those versions of me are seamlessly connected. The paradox of the river is that, while it is constantly in a state of change, it is always in the same place. Likewise I am still me, in spite of, or maybe because of, all my transformations.

Winter is coming

bare treeThe wind was blowing from the north this afternoon with enough force to raise whitecaps on the river. I opted to walk northward, partly because the river trails to the north are more sheltered than many of my other walking routes, and partly so that I would have the wind at my back on the way home.

Winter is coming. I know it’s a cliché, but you really can feel it in the air. The wind bites through all my layers of clothing. The trees are skeletons of their summer selves. The leaves that made soft shushing sounds when they first began to fall a few weeks ago are now dry and curled, and rattle erratically as the wind sends them tumbling across the pavement.

bag leavesFor a person who likes change, I live in the perfect climate. Four very distinct seasons mean that there is always a transition about to happen. The signs of winter preparation are all around me. Leaves have been raked and bagged. Barbeques and boats have been covered. My patio pots have been harvested. I decide that it’s time to bring in the patio furniture.

On my northward walking route one of the river-side restaurants offers its clientele the option of arriving by boat. Now, though, the dock  has been dismantled and the sections hauled up onto the shore, where they are stacked like building blocks, far enough up the bank, one hopes, to be out of reach of the spring high water level and the crushing force of the ice.

potsRegardless of what the calendar says, around here winter starts when the snow arrives. We’ve already had a few flurries, but those don’t count. Winter is measured by the snow that blankets the ground and stays. And that can happen any day now. Or it can mess with our expectations and hold off until late December. I recall a few years when we waded through snow banks to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. I can also recall the odd year when the snow came so late that we wondered whether we would have a white Christmas.

But it will come. Because as much as the cycle of the seasons is about constant change, it is also about predictability. Fall always turns into winter, which eventually give way to spring, which is guaranteed to be a precursor to summer. And then around we go again.

riverbankThere’s a certain comfort in the cyclical. The river will freeze and thaw, rise and fall. Every spring the weather warms up just as I am growing sick to death of my winter wardrobe. Every fall I thrill to pull out my sweaters because I am so relieved at the arrival of cooler days. Each season has its routines– its rituals and traditions. Before you know it we’ll be clearing away the pumpkins and pulling the Christmas stuff out of storage.

Somehow the slow, familiar rhythm of the seasons provides an anchor for my life. I know where I am in the universe by where I am in the seasonal cycle. “Winter is coming” is not a dire threat of cold and hardship. Rather, it is a promise that the seasons will keep turning on their majestic wheel in spite of the small tragedies and petty dramas that clutter my days.