Thursday, February 12, 2009
A HIGHWATER PERSPECTIVE
Do you see the great blue heron? Look close—the big bird is standing on the edge of the far shore, right at the point where the leaf-covered bank meets the water…almost smack in the center of the photo. The distance is a bit over 200 feet, across the river from the cottage, beyond one of the islands whose lower tip you can just glimpse peeking above the water to the right. The area where the heron is standing would normally be dry ground. Between the melting snow and a number of rains, the river is up a good 6-7 feet; not yet at a worrisome height, but fast expanding in width, as the shallower stream section between the island and the far bank merges with the mainstream portion on this side of the islands. Okay…I’ve enlarged the shot as much as I can without making it too grainy. Now the heron is easy to spot. I can’t imagine the fishing over there would be easy. When a stream is in spate, running high and fast, minnows and many fish seek shelter on the bottom. The hydraulics down at stream-bed level are different than that of the water higher up. Bottom water moves slower; the slower current delivers a lighter pressure or "push" against the fish. So a little minnow doesn't need quite the strength and effort to hold itself in place against the flow. Of course it also puts the minnows below the sharp eyes and vise-like beak of a hungry heron—good news if you're a fish, but a bummer if you're a feathered angler looking to score a meal along the shoreline. Yet what are the alternatives? The bird’s usual shallow riffles, where it normally wade-fishes daily, are temporarily buried deep underwater. There are no small feeder creeks nearby, no ponds that aren’t themselves now flooded. Sometimes a bad choice is also the only choice. Besides, high-water days are nothing new to the river’s residents. Inconvenient, maybe, but not critical. For the Canada geese, it may even be enjoyable. All morning I've watched them appear in noisy flocks, twenty or more birds at a shot, honking like about-to-be-late commuters stuck in a traffic jam. The clamorous clans set down on the backwaters above the island just upstream from where the heron in the photo is fishing. There the gregarious geese—still honking—mill about for a few minutes, paddling to stay in their flooded landing zone. Then they suddenly allow the river to take them—and as they come to the upstream end of the lower island, they divide into two groups. Downstream they go, lickety-split, speeding on the fast current, freewheeling along like kids at a waterpark. They honk back and forth across the narrow ridge of dry land, keeping in touch, maybe checking their pace against that of their fellow float-trippers. When they meet a half-minute later where the divided river's two streams merge into one at the island's tail end, they commence honking excitedly, almost in glee at the fun they’ve just had racing downstream. Then, after a brief rest, they flap back up to their starting point and do the whole thing over again. I don’t care what anyone says, I think those birds are playing. The river continues rising, another foot overnight. High water brings bad fishing for the heron, furnishes makeshift amusement for the geese, and now makes me watchful. Still, like so many things in life…what it boils down to is just a matter of perspective.