Hiking Schmoker’s Channel (Part I)
January 29, 2016
Larry and I finally hiked Schmoker’s (down the channel we tried canoeing but were unsuccessful). We pulled off the road just before the bridge, walked through deep snow down the ditch. Larry’s young dog, Hank, scouting ahead of us. Cautiously, we picked our way down the bridge embankment, mindful of the rocky terrain hidden by the snow. Larry slipped on one rock near the bottom, but didn’t fall completely. I took note of where he fell by the tracks and walked with extra caution around that spot. The embankment wasn’t very high so it only took a couple minutes to reach the ice.
Before setting off down the channel, we walked around under the bridge peering through the translucent ice. It was clear like glass; we could observe objects under the ice like pieces behind glass at a museum. Larry seemed surprised by the thickness of the ice and marveled at it. Wonder and awe filled me, being able to clearly look into this whole other world below us. A handful of small, slender fish laid side up beneath the ice, they were mostly blue gills and clearly dead. How exciting it would have been if they were alive and swimming, as we stood on the ice observing them. Several pockets of frozen bubbles dotted the ice mosaic like a modern art painting, though far grander in design and meaning, and therefore so stunningly beautiful. Lines divided the ice in places, making its thickness more apparent. Rocks of various size rested on the bottom, some as large as boulders, others small pebbles; all worn and shaped by the current. Larry pointed out the old bridge pilings. How old were they? I hadn’t even thought to ask while we were looking, but a question that may be worth asking for the story it may uncover. I couldn’t help taking in and appreciating the breathtaking patterns in the ice, etched by the Master’s hand. On the other side of the current bridge pilings, Larry said, “A bunch of mystery snails.” I came up next to where he stood and gazed through the ice. A cluster of mystery snails rested on the silty bottom of the channel among stones and pebbles. It was difficult to make out their actual size. “They are not native snails. They’re big snails.” Larry explained. After a good look at the snails, we continued our adventure on the channel.
Trees border the channel on either side, stark figures against the sky, stripped of their leaves. The channel isn’t exactly clear cut, defined by definite banks. There’s a cut of seemingly open ice (water) like a small stream, but instead of being held by banks, the water diffused into surrounding vegetation making a wide swath, the true ‘banks’ were further away. The thick tangle of vegetation on either side was a combination of river bulrush and wild rice.
“There’s a lot of wild rice,” Larry noted with something near awe in his voice, most likely thrilled at seeing the aquatic grain thrive. Wild rice is not actually a grain or rice, but an annual water – grass seed, once a staple of the Chippewa and Dakota Indians. It provides food for numerous animals such as waterfowl and muskrats and therefore is important in this complex ecosystem of marshes and sloughs in the Mississippi River bottoms.
From the moment he stepped on to the ice and continuously throughout our adventure on the ice, Larry tapped and poked the ice testing its thickness and strength, putting much thought into our chosen course. Hank was too eager to explore to be mindful of where he trotted, he ran ahead of us following his nose. In some places the ice was cleared, in others there was a thin carpet of snow. Larry and I paused, bending to examine some tracks in the snow.
“A raccoon. They’re beginning to move,” commented Larry. “Looks like a big one.”
“Hmm. Interesting,” I stood taking it in, truly interested in the tracks and the rascally creature that left them. (I tend to take things in in silent wonder, a trait that can be mistaken for indifference or disinterest, Larry knows me well enough though to know this tendency of mine.)
As we continued walking, I joked, “From these tracks, there appears to be a large canine wandering about.”
“That’d be Hank.” The black lab went racing by, nose to the ground. Smiling, I watched him thoroughly enjoying himself. “Have you thought of recording and publishing the sound of the place? Movement of snow and ice. Owls.”
“I hadn’t thought of doing the sound, but it would be pretty neat.”We kept walking enjoying the sights and sounds around us. The wind was blowing and although we were protected from the full force of it, I was a bit cold, my eyes were watery and my nose dripped. It was colder than I thought.
“The ice was broken up. Probably an air boat. I don’t like air boats because they break up ice,” commented Larry examining the geography of the ice where it was broken and refroze. (It’s hard to describe but every so often there’d be a dull thunk sound as the ice beneath us would crack, not crack as in break but more like huge chunks split and shift away from each other.)
Halting to take photos frequently, I would fall behind Larry and I’d have to speed walk to catch up to him. Sometimes he stopped to wait for me, usually when he paused to show me something and I photographed it. I was really paranoid about falling on the really slippery patches of ice (especially since I did last year with Larry), embarrassing yes, but more because it would hurt and might damage my camera.
There were spots with open water, we were careful to avoid those. Larry was a bit surprised by the open spots given the thickness of the ice. We came across a hole in the ice, which Larry thought was a bit strange. He poked the walking stick around in it, “De-animation going on, organic decay, breaks down at the molecular level, oily fat, hydrocarbons – precursor to oil,” he explained. (Later, he instructed, “research oil formation; it will help your writing.”) As we continued walking, I noticed bird tracks in the snow, too small to be a turkey but too large to be an ordinary song bird, perhaps a crow.
With a crash, Hank fell into the thin ice and open water along the bank, breaking more ice as he tried getting out. I wondered if he intentionally jumped into the water or was it a careless mistake? Either way, he didn’t seem to mind too much. “Well, we know Hank isn’t scared of thin ice,” commented Larry. Hank proceeded to fall into the water a few times. Larry rubbed him down with snow to dry him off, and encouraged Hank to roll in the snow. Satisfied Hank was dry enough; we continued walking down the channel enjoying the hike.
Our next exciting discovery was a well used otter hole, situated among trees. Piles of otter scat surrounded the hole. We walked up to it to observe it more closely. “The otters are here; they really use this. Sit here awhile and you’ll see an otter.” Larry spoke as he was poking through the scat with the stick, “Look through the scat. Fish scales and indigestible stuff.” He leaned on the stick, “I don’t know if it’s for hunting or living quarters but they’re using it. They eat fish, frogs, turtles…” He trailed off. I had a strong desire to sit and wait for an otter to appear in the hole. I really want to observe otters; I’ve seen them at zoos, however, I want to see them in the wild. It would have been a cold and most likely long wait. Hopefully, I’ll spend some time just sitting and observing for long hours this year in McCarthy Lake, the surrounding marshes and the prairie. I am eager to do just that.
We didn’t linger long examining the otter hole, there was still most of the channel to walk. The channel meandered about, making bends and turns. Just before a curve in the channel stood a majestic dead tree, riddled with holes, a pile of shavings around the base of the tree. “Pileated woodpecker’s been drilling it.” Larry said as we walked by. Again, I was distracted by tracks in the snow, this time they were left by an otter. I was trying to soak it all in, think of how to describe it. At first glance it appeared barren and dreary but it really wasn’t. There was life and beauty here. The otter track on top the ice and the many other tracks and signs we observed, the trees lining the channel were all proof of the life in this place.
Note: This is another long story and will be posted in at least four parts.