Creative nonfiction – Yvonne Rutford

Minding the River

Ice-out on the Sucker River begins with a trickle of meltwater atop the ice, washing clean my snowshoe trail and all the animal tracks that interlaced it.

Warm days and March sun bore a channel through the thick, frozen layer. The suspense builds.

And then, at a moment so sudden I’ve witnessed it only once, the river breaks like thunder, and ice is set free. I dropped the phone and ran outdoors to watch.

In layers, shelves, and plateaus, a full geography of ice begins to creep downstream in a giant clot, like a glacier in time-lapse. Ice rips young balsams and poplars from the riverbank, cracks the trunks of cedars, and scours the soil. Ice holds boulders in its underbelly and drops them downstream from where they rested last year, a slow, annual migration of rocks toward Lake Superior.

Ice from miles upstream jams along my stretch of river, diverting the flow of open water onto my narrow floodplain. Days later, when the balance shifts and water wins, the raging river heaves ice rafts the size of queen beds up onto the bank, piled and leaning against each other, tangled and akimbo.

Ice-out is tension and release, tension and release, rampage and devastation, unpredictability.

What will my river look like when it all subsides?

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One week after ice-out. I’m wearing rubber boots and gloves, though I know they will get soaked. I have with me a thermometer, a camera, a bucket, and a Secchi tube. I plunge the thermometer into the river, and the current wants to rip it from my hands. The water is thirty-two degrees. I dip the bucket and fill the Secchi tube, then drop the disk into the column of water. When it comes to rest at the bottom, I stand with my back to the sun and peer down the tube. I can still see the disk. I write “100 cm” on my data sheet, exceptionally clear water.

I’m part of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizen Stream Monitoring Program, one of about four hundred volunteers across the state who gather data on water transparency, temperature, appearance, and recreational suitability, data the agency uses to determine trends in water quality. The program gives people like me the opportunity to participate in something we care about: Minnesota’s waterways. My interest lies in knowing how my river might be changing, or staying the same – a layer of data to add to my lifelong relationship with this river.

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My great-grandfather happened upon the Sucker River in the 1930s. He would take my father and my father’s siblings on winter hikes up the river when they were children. When I was a child, my father continued that tradition. He would tie an old toboggan on top of the station wagon, my mother would pack snacks, and off we’d go up the shore from Duluth, parking at a bridge crossing near Lake Superior and plodding upstream through the snow. At a small clearing beside a frozen waterfall, we cooked hotdogs over a fire, bundled in blankets and inadequate winter clothing. The land was thickly forested, rocky and rugged, and our treks there seemed like expeditions into the deepest wilderness.

When I was twenty-four and living in the Twin Cities—where I’d moved, believing it held more opportunity—I happened upon the Sunday classifieds on a visit north and was astonished to see a house for sale on the Sucker River. It had never occurred to me that a person could not just visit, but live along that river so wild and remote in my memory. Within three months, I had closed the deal, found a job in Duluth, and moved back north with my eleven-month old son.

I had come home.

In summer I walk out the door in my pajamas and head down the trail to the river to sit on a rock and enjoy my morning coffee. In winter I ski out my back door, the river as my trail. Ten thousand mornings I’ve awakened to the river; ten thousands nights I’ve fallen asleep to its song, or its winter silence. There are times when the frogs are singing a frenzy in the wetlands, and minnows are thick in the shallows, and bees are bumping around in the blossoms on its banks, and I can believe all is right with the world.

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My sampling site is straight out from the house, down the bank, across the narrow, shaded floodplain to the stream’s edge, directly in front of the Big Rock, a four-ton chunk of basalt in the middle of the stream, broad enough to hold two people and few wet dogs. To us, it has served as the stream gauge long before I began making official note of such data: “The water’s almost to the top of the rock,” after a heavy rain or spring melt, and (spoken in awe) “It’s crested the rock!” when we know we better make sure our sump pumps are in working order.

Most of the Sucker River’s bed is made of basalt, ancient volcanic flow turned to rock turned to rubble by the brute force of glacial ice, rubble ranging in size from rocks that fit in the palm of my hand to monumental boulders like the Big Rock. The stream averages about thirty-five feet wide and is shallow enough to preclude travel by kayak or canoe.

To navigate the Sucker River is to practice a combination of rock-hopping and blind-wading. Where no rocks rise from the surface dry and flat enough for footing, I must wade in dark water, where unless the sun hits at just the right angle, I cannot see beneath the surface and blindly feel my way across a creek bed whose rock are loose and tumbled so that my step can never land flat and steady. Blind-wading does not hold the grace of rock-hopping, traversing the trail of boulders that rise above the waterline.

My body knows rock-hopping instinctually from childhood years spent navigating the great, fractured slabs of volcanic rock on Lake Superior’s North Shore, where we picnicked in the summer, and the rocky bed of Tischer Creek, which flowed through our backyard in Duluth. My limbs carry the memory of how to leap lightly from rock to rock, maintain balance, assess a rock’s inclinations with the soles of my feet, mentally gauge the distance to the next one, and pick the best route. It is a maze, and to follow one path of rocks could lead to a dead end, a deep pool with the nearest stone much more than a leap away, and the need to turn back, reverse my leaps, and try again. Rock-hopping requires that I look ahead enough to know the best route but pay attention to what lies directly in front of me in order to make the jump and stick the landing. The trick is always in the momentum.

On many hot summer days when I was younger, triumph was to rock-hop the entire three-hundred-some feet from the Big Rock to the waterfall upstream without getting wet. These days my limbs’ instinct is most often to take the dirt path along the bank.

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A strange thing happens when you’re monitoring the clarity of a water body. You start wanting to have interesting data to report. The truth is, my water clarity data is boring. Once in awhile after a rain, there will be enough turbulence to stir up the sediments, and the little disk dropped down the Secchi tube will disappear from view before it reaches the bottom. I get excited; suddenly I have a number to report, “87” or “40,” not the “>100 cm” that appears over and over again in my data columns. But those sampling events are rare. The river is almost always clear. And I have to remind myself that clarity is good; boring river data, good.

By the time the Sucker River reaches my home, it has traveled eighteen miles from its headwaters at Paradise Lake and has flowed past fewer than two dozen homes or cultivated areas. For the most part, the river runs wild through forests and wetlands; satellite images show a thin dark thread wandering through a vast green carpet.

Since it formed following the last retreat of glaciers, the Sucker River has flowed much the same for nearly ten thousand years. The Ojibwe called the river Namebini-ziibi after the long-nosed sucker, a fish native to the stream. Translated by white settlers in the region, the name became Sucker River, or Big Sucker Creek. In 1861 a general in the U.S. Army decided it should be called the Carp River; by 1873, however, the name Sucker had reappeared on maps. It’s a toss-up as to which of those names is less appealing.

Over a hundred years ago, Minnesota’s largest white pine forests grew in the Sucker River watershed. Grainy black-and-white photos show loggers stacking what ended up to be millions of board feet of pine. Just north of where I live, thirty-three million board feet of logs were cut from a single section in the Sucker River watershed, a state record.

The few remaining groves of ancient pines only hint at what the forest looked like before the clear-cut. Most of the old-growth trees were already gone by the time my great-grandfather first visited the river.

The white pines that grow on my land now would have been seedlings then. They stand tall alongside the ash, maple, spruce, aspen, birch, balsam fir and balsam poplar—mature second-growth species that now shade the stream.

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Where the river skirts our property, there is just enough slope to keep it bubbling and frothing along. Just downstream begins a series of waterfalls that toss the river another six miles to Lake Superior, losing six hundred feet of elevation along the way. Just upstream is a small waterfall, and at its base is a bowl carved out of the basalt and now a pool of water chest-deep at its deepest point: a perfect swimming hole just 130 steps from the house along a path past turk’s-cap lily and turtlehead, ostrich fern and buttercup, lady fern and the late-season remnants of nodding trillium, jack-in-the pulpit, forget-me-not, and wild oats.

When he was young, my son, Andy, and I would explore the river and its banks, often on our hands and knees, beneath the canopy of bracken fern, to see what the view was from, say, a cat’s perspective.

On warm days, we waded in the river, and on hot days, we swam.

By the time he fledged, Andy had spent nineteen of his twenty years on the Sucker River. When he left, I was forced to adapt to a new landscape, a river shades different in character.

Though a river can sometimes appear motionless—the shape of moving water creating the illusion of stasis, a standing wave ever standing in place—it is always, always, flowing past.

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My monitoring data show summertime river temperatures typically in the sixties. In 2013 the highest water temperature I recorded was seventy; in 2014 and 2012 it reached seventy-six. In 2011, seventy-three. I have no hard data from the many years before that, just my journal and the memory that the water was rarely warm enough to swim in comfortably.

To enter the river is to monitor it with flesh and bone, to measure its temperature in goosebumps, to gauge the stream stage by the force of water against your thighs, how urgently it wishes to carry you away. You know its appearance above the surface and below, and straight ahead, eye level with the bubbles swirling past you. You are intimate with its recreational suitability as you float on your back and watch dragonflies in the circle of sky above you. To emerge from the river is to smell faintly of fish and algae and all the organic matter the river has distilled—cedar berry, balsam needle, water strider, frog—and to carry home on your skin tiny samples of the river’s sediment load.

In her poem musing on what is considered to be living and what is not, Mary Oliver writes, “But water is a question, so many living things in it, but what is it, itself, living or not?” To enter the river is to know the answer; you become the river and the river becomes you, all one fluid organism.

“Oh, gleaming generosity, how can they write you out?”

To know the river is to also know its many rivers within, to follow with your eyes its individual streams wending their way past a maze of rocks here, converging into a wide pool there, singing past rocks and hollows. The river is dark and mysterious, with nooks and crannies, shadows, water that does not reveal what might be lurking in its depths. So you wait for the angle of the sun to render it transparent. You wade its edges and examine its shallows. You hold your face to the water to see what it holds.

Minnows. The Sucker River is a trout stream—brook trout downstream and brown trout in my stretch of river—but I don’t fish. I’ve never felt the tug of a trout on my line. The fish I know in my river are the minnows, and I could watch them for hours at a time. In the shallows over a rock ledge, they dart and flash their silvery sides, dozens in synchronized motion, circling in the clear water, mere inches from me but in a world so different from the one I inhabit, but one that I’ve known in dreams: a recurring dream of being in the river myself, swimming in water clear and shallow, like the minnows, years of dreams of living in the river, not just alongside it.

Maybe the soul that resides in my body is that of a minnow, and I connect with that soul in my river dreams, in watching minnows swim, and in my fascination with hidden pools, clear and shallow enough to see to the bottom—places where a minnow’s soul swims—and whatever physical form comes next, it is the minnow’s soul that is the thread, that I carry in me now until it swims into the next life.

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During the 1960s and early 70s, the years my parents took my siblings and me on our treks up the winter river, the Cold War loomed. Unbeknownst to us, just one mile west of our picnic site, nuclear warheads twitched in missile silos, at the ready in case the attack came across Canada.

The Bomarc missile site was active from 1961 until it was abandoned in 1972. The operation was so secretive, few people outside the military were aware of it. From our station wagon, all we saw was a water tower that rose above the treetops on a distant hill, a friendly looking landmark that told us we were almost to the river. It wasn’t until decades later I learned that our trail into the “deepest wilderness” lay in the shadow of a nuclear missile site, that the seeds of my love for the river were being planted side by side with those seeds of annihilation, opposing realities I still struggle to align.

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I love the river best on soft summer mornings when the sun is aligned with the stream and gleaming. When trails of bubbles drift past and I can follow the path they pick around the rocks. When the river’s song is muted and gentle. When the day spreads out before me with no obligations but to be by the river.

I want to be the blue heron I see standing on the Big Rock, spotlighted by sun, preening my feathers with my long beak, almost iridescent. I want to do this for a long time, just stand on the rock in the sun with the river flowing around me, the clear water catching my attention now and then, maybe a fish for lunch, but I’m not in a hurry, I’m not hungry. I return to my preening. When I shake, a cloud of white down is released and drifts with the breeze downstream, like someone shaking her comforter from a porch railing. Time stretches and slows and the world pauses as I watch the water. There is no disturbance to send me into flight, no anxiety, just me on a rock in the sun with the river flowing around me on a warm sunny day.

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On June 18, 2012, Andy returned home for the summer. It was the first time he’d been back since leaving two years earlier for Saipan, on the other side of the world, where he was teaching high school biology. He arrived the day before the flood.

The Flood of 2012 hit with the force of a thousand ice-outs at once.

Ten inches of rain fell over a two-day period on already saturated ground. It was a “500-year storm.” On the North Shore, flash flooding was made worse by the impervious soils and bedrock and the steep gradients of the streams that flow into Lake Superior.

The force of a thousand ice-outs tore full-grown trees from their roots and flung them downstream. The force of a thousand ice-outs rolled giant boulders like marbles and raised the river five feet over the top of the Big Rock, filling the floodplain, and our basement, with water.

Five pumps ran night and day in our sump wells while more rain fell. And then the sun came out, and we began to clean up.

From the basement we hauled our saturated storage: electronics, appliances, camping gear, ski boots, clothing, papers, a saxophone, artwork. All that we held valuable, and therefore held onto, looked like squatter’s garbage when spread on the lawn to dry.

With nostalgic melancholy I sorted through Andy’s waterlogged childhood books and was able to salvage only a few.

But Andy was here, he was home, and amid all that was lost, I counted that blessing.

My first sampling event after the flood was June 26, a week later, when the waters had receded enough that I dared get near the flow. The river was still high but running clear. In fact, in the years since the flood, I have had more “>100 cm” readings than ever before. The riverbed was scoured of its sediment. Satellite images of Lake Superior showed water the color of chocolate milk for weeks afterward, a sediment plume that extended along the shorelines of the entire western tip of the lake to depths of up to one hundred feet.

The raging river carried away many of the rocks that comprised my rock-hopping routes and delivered new ones. It deposited a thousand stones at the edge of our bank, giving us an ample beach where before there was none.

The river is forced to follow new paths.

It wasn’t until I skied the river the following winter that I saw the wider aftermath. Just downstream an extensive crescent-shaped slope of glacial deposits was sheared to nearly vertical, exposing striations of soil and rock that had not seen light in thousands of years. Tangled clots of dead trees—not just broken limbs but entire trees—remain piled against the banks for miles, left high and dry in places where the river bends.

At home, the high bank on the far side collapsed, sending its first line of trees into the melee, and an undercut line on the slope shows where more and more bank will slump, sending more trees into the river. The flood carried away so much soil that tree roots are now suspended several inches above the new soil line, and tiny rootlets like capillaries lie in an exposed web all over the river plain.

A “500-year storm” is one that has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year, based on historical data. But the gauge is in flux. Minnesota is seeing its climate change at a faster rate than most other states. Against what history do we measure such storms now?

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To mark my fifth year as a citizen stream monitor, the MPCA published my name and a photo I’d taken of my stretch of river at dusk in the agency’s annual Transparency Times.

I am not an exemplary citizen stream monitor. My sampling dates are inconsistent. Some days the presence of algae makes me downgrade the “recreational suitability” because I wouldn’t want to swim in it; other days I have philosophical arguments with myself about the varied meanings of “recreational suitability.” Fishing would probably be fine. Every time I’ve sampled, I’ve taken photographs of the water, but I’ve never uploaded them to my computer and sent them in with my data. Once, the bucket slipped my grasp and was carried downstream out of sight toward Lake Superior.

But I bumble imperfectly onward, gathering data, taking the river’s temperature, serving as a witness to my river, ever hoping for its changes to be subtle, for my river to remain the river I’ve always known, the river my father and great-grandfather knew.

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It is June 2016, a warm evening, and we are celebrating. Andy is back from Saipan, this time for longer than a summer. He has brought with him his family: his fiancée and their two daughters – one, my granddaughter by blood. They are living with my father in the house I grew up in while Andy studies for a master’s degree in biology; his focus is fish.

After dinner, we all head up to the swimming hole. The flood of 2012 washed away much of the path, and my father, now eighty-five, makes his way cautiously on unstable ground.

Four years have passed since the flood, four winters of ice cover, four ice-outs, four summers and autumns of river life, four monitoring seasons with blessedly boring data. We have adjusted to the changed landscape, though the torn banks and tangled trees still appear like fresh wounds; Earth has not yet folded them into its geologic history.

Andy enters the water as he always has: without hesitation, with none of his mother’s aversion to cold. He lifts his twenty-two-month-old daughter from my arms and holds her tightly as he feels his way with his feet across the creek bed toward the waterfall. Recent rains have raised and churned the water, and the bubbles flowing fast past them fascinate little Maisie.

I stand at the river’s edge with my father, watching. Eighty years have passed since he first stood on the banks of the Sucker River with his grandfather. Four generations of us are gathered there now on this solstice evening.

Andy sits with Maisie on a rock in the spray of the waterfall. She is grinning as she reaches her hand out to feel the river’s pull.