Rain falls from the heavens like the world is doomed to end tomorrow. Melting snow exposes brown fields, leaf littered forest floors, and the last remaining ice on lakes and ponds. Saturated soils cannot accept more moisture so the runoff seeks the nearest slope where it will slide along roughened surfaces until it reaches a stream or water body of some sort. As the runoff travels and dissolves frozen earth it turns the rushing rain water to either a muddy brown or silty gray. The receiving streams teem with overflow. Each drop off and channel angle in the brook produces a white froth that foams like a maddened sea. Downstream the gray and white rushing water jets through the channel splashing over boulders and tearing at the river bed.
The power of this torrential water movement is mesmerizing. It bends shrubs and small trees once enjoying open air on uplands and islands. It strips soil away from banks. The tumbling rocks rolling along the river bed crash into each other and thump along adding to the already deafening roar of the stream. It sounds as if all hell is breaking loose and I find myself just standing and staring; one small change in a violent world- really nothing out of the ordinary if all of this excitement is put into perspective.
As I glance up the channel of this raging brook I see a tree that has fallen into the brook. It rests at a forty five degree angle and diverts the mad water to the opposite bank. The toe of the slope is being punished. The stream is undercutting this section of bank impacting the adjacent upland vegetation on top of the bank. Time will tell if this scar produces new bank overhang habitat for trout or if the existing bank will simply tumble into the stream depositing silt, rocks, and vegetation down stream.
This small river drains from west to east and as I look upstream the rain pelts my face. The hood on my head flaps in the wind. I dare not stand here too long. The water is rising quickly and my feet, resting on large boulders, will soon be covered if I do not move upslope. I turn to climb up the steep rocky bank using my hands to grab onto hand grips on the boulders while I find secure footing on wet, slippery rocks. I am happy to have invested in some new Gore-tex rain gear. I am still mostly dry.
Standing on higher ground about 25 feet from the raging stream the sound is still deafening. Rolling rocks, rushing water, pelting rain all create sounds that provoke primordial instincts. My brain tells me danger is at hand, but my experience reminds me that I am safe. The power of this normally small stream is awesome. On quiet summer days one can linger in ankle deep water, although it is cold, and summon memories of brook trout fishing, picnics, and laughing children. Now the stream is capable of destruction. If not incised into a deep channel it would wreak havoc on the surrounding landscape. The brook is safely contained and I am glad that it is.
I picture brook trout and brook crayfish huddled behind rocks and boulders protected from the onslaught of the angry waters. Most native life forms will survive these torrent currents. In this area of steep mountains and straight-run streams these events are not uncommon. Still, I hope all will be OK. Perhaps a silly thought, but something that occurs to me nonetheless.
As I stand here, water filling my eyes and dripping off my nose, I remember something that happened to me when I was a boy. My father and I were fishing on the Deerfield River and really not paying attention to the water levels because the trout fishing was challenging. The Deerfield River has a series of hydroelectric dams due to the terrific elevation changes that occur along the water course. When they release water from impoundments to make electricity the water can rise fairly quickly. On this particular day I had waded out to a small island and fished from the east end into the down stream current. My father was working some pools along the shore about a hundred yards away. While fishing on the island I was concentrating on the various eddies to cast into and not really paying much attention to the water level. Suddenly I heard a sharp whistle from shore. My father was waving his hands for me to wade back to shore. At first I thought he wanted me to see a nice trout he had caught, but then I noticed the look on his face. It was a look of concern. I started to wade across the river channel but the current was too fast and it was getting too deep. I was a little hesitant to swim given it was still late spring and the water was frigid so I turned around and sought temporary refuge on the island. The island was really an area of deposition comprised of rocks, sands, and boulders. A few trees had found a home on this narrow haven where the soil had accumulated to elevations the waters did not normally cover. I concluded that this would be the best place to watch the river flow by as we waited out the dam release. My father watched from shore. He could see I had no choice but he went to his car and pulled out a long rope in case a rescue was imminent.
The river rose about two feet in a very short time period. The island still had a couple of feet of earth exposed so I was in no danger. After figuring out that this was going to take a couple of hours I resumed my fishing. I don’t remember if I caught anything, but I do remember that my father stayed immediately on the opposite shore keeping a close eye on the water level. About three hours later the water returned to safe passage levels and I returned to shore. It was now getting dark and I could see that my father was very happy that I got to shore before darkness fell over the landscape. On the drive home we talked about our not paying attention to the rising river. Although our experience never became a real danger we concluded it was best not to tempt fate again.
Another memory bleeds into my mind. My father and I were cod fishing on our 28 foot oak hull Pinson. It was a rough October day and the sea worthy craft rolled over each five foot wave. The fishing and been excellent, as it often was back in the early 1960’s. We had a boat load of fish that would be filleted and frozen for many a winter meal. We were three miles off shore. The seas were getting rough and my father decided to head back to shore and safe harbor at our mooring in Great Salt Pond. He started the motor and turned the craft to the north, the direction that led us towards shore. I remember the waves splashing over the hull of the closed bow boat. My father peered through the windshield, the wheel in his hands. Strong winds blew rain from the port side and he was getting a good soaking. He wore a suit made of yellow colored oil cloth. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. As he blew out the smoke he smiled. I realized my father was in all his glory as he piloted the small craft through the rough seas. I admired his tenacity. I admired the fact that he could look a storm in the eye and enjoy the experience. It was as if he was daring the storm to give him more.
As my thoughts returned to the present I wish my father were still alive to see the swollen waters of this stream. He was a man who liked the extreme, especially extreme weather. An old sailor he had survived several hurricanes while at sea on a naval destroyer. He had a deep appreciation for bad weather and he seemed to get an adrenaline rush whenever inclement weather was near. He would have stood here staring at the stream, dressed in his old oil cloth rain suit, marveling at its power and basking in its ferocity, much like I am today. There is little doubt from where I get much of my spirit.
As I walk away from the untamed waters the downpour still pounds the earth. The excess water still sheet flows toward the stream through small channels formed by gathering water. The stream is still swollen and ripping away at the river bank. And I still hold memories of my father standing with his face into the wind, water dripping off his face, just daring the storm to make the first move.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in March of 2010.