The new downstream view…
When I heard the first sharp double-crack, I immediately and correctly identified the sound of breaking wood—but mistakenly figured it was kids on the island across from the cottage.
Same view only hours earlier…
Young guys infrequently wade over from the public property on the opposite shore, looking to see what sort of adventurous mischief they can get themselves into. They sometimes pick up large fallen limbs or other half-rotted chunks and swing them like a baseball bat against the trunk of a nearby tree, just for the sheer pleasure of seeing and hearing them break. Since I was once of such an age and mindset, I'm familiar with both the urge and the sound.
It was about 8:00 p.m. and I was enjoying a comfortable sprawl on the chaise longue after a morning of work at the desk and an afternoon spent poking around and photographing at a nearby prairie.
My misreading of the situation was further abetted by Moon the dog, who immediately leapt up from her snooze on the rug just inside the cottage’s open front doorway, ran to the edge of the bank a few yards from my chair, and began barking furiously—tail up, nape hair bristled, ears and eyes aimed toward area from which the loud snap had emanated. The perfect picture of a guard dog warding off real or imagined trespassers.
The broken stump on the island side of the channel…
I thought it rather odd when such childish horseplay wasn’t also accompanied by gleeful shouts and laughter. However, I didn’t pay this much real mind, and simply went back to relaxing and watching twilight steal over the river.
During the next twenty minutes I heard several similar cracks and pops, though none nearly as loud. Each time, Moon resumed her barking. I was too blissed out and didn't question what I was hearing.
The downed hackberry temporarily spans the river…
Finally, there was another loud crack, a second, then a third, plus several lesser pops and snaps, all sort of strung together within the space of a couple of seconds. I realized immediately that what I’d earlier misinterpreted as kids messing around, was actually time and gravity having their way with one of the islands trees. I jumped up to see if I could locate the goings-on.
Suddenly there was a loud snap, a multitude of pops and cracks, and the unmistakable sound of a tree crashing its way through other timber. I saw one of the big hackberries on the edge of the island’s bank start to topple. After tilting perhaps thirty degrees, the tree abruptly stopped—caught by the limbs of several adjacent sycamores.
That’s not good, I thought. Such a tree becomes nothing more than a deadfall trap for the unwary or unlucky who might happen to be underneath when it completes the rest of its fall. I knew a young fly fishing guide and writer who was killed instantly when a tree on the bank of a trout stream he was fishing fell without warning. That’s why loggers refer to a half-fallen tree lodged in such a way a “widow-maker.”
As I stood considering the potential widow-maker, the big tree’s ponderous weight instantaneously took care of the issue. With a loud rending of snapping branches, the hackberry tore through the trees that had momentarily cradled it—ripping through the sycamore limbs and pitching over the low bank into the river. The crashing hackberry slammed into the water with a great roaring keerrr-whack! Shaking the earth and sending up a huge splash.
The hackberry shook and shuddered as lesser branches on the under-water side, unable to support the weight above, gave way over the space of a few seconds. The great tree rolled slightly, twisting as it settled. Finally, death throes over, it lay still, its leaves yet green and full, but arrayed in the horizontal instead of vertical, disturbingly incongruous…dead in the water.
The fallen hackberry spanned the channel straight across, from bank-to-bank. It will stay there only until the next sufficient high water rise relocates it to it final resting place.
It isn’t the first tree I’ve watched fall naturally, though all the others fell amid a storm or sudden wind.
On two separate occasions while camping, I’ve been awakened in my tent by the loud and chilling sound of a huge tree crashing nearby—once so close the earth beneath my sleeping bag shook at the impact. While neither of these incidents took place during any sort of precipitous weather—both times it was the middle of the night, and had I had sufficient warning to scramble from the tent in time, I still wouldn’t have been able to see them come down.
The island hackberry's final crash disturbed the turkey vultures off their nearby roost. They’d been snug at home and taking it easy for more than two hours. Now they all had to make several flap-glide inspections of the crash site before returning to their night limbs.
By then it was 8:30, almost dark. I made a couple of photographs, and while doing so remembered that just about fourteen hours earlier, I taken a several photos of this same stretch gilded by dawn’s golden light.
As a lifelong stream fisherman, there have been many times when I’ve waded around a bend and found a recently-fallen tree had fundamentally altered the landscape. Often, such downed trees change a pool (and the stretch’s fishing possibilities) by causing water to scour out a new or deeper hole, or perhaps filling a good spot up with silt. Under the right circumstances, a big in-stream tree can even cause the flow to resculpt a river’s course, redirecting current so it cuts across and eats away at an opposite bank.
I don’t think anything like that is apt to happen here—but who knows? I didn’t think I’d ever witness a tree falling all on its own in my own back yard. With nature, its always wise to expect the unexpected.