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Icy Exploration (Part I)

February 9, 2017

It was a cold day, only about six degrees when we left Larry’s, wind blowing out of the north brought the temperature a bit below that even – I didn’t really want to know what the wind chill was and I’m not sure Larry realized just how cold it was before we set out. I think if he had we wouldn’t have attempted a walkabout. We began around 8:30 am. Larry decided we’d go further up on McCarthy this time, going in from Highway 61. As we drove along the highway, I enjoyed the elevated view of the vast wetland of McCarthy Lake Scientific and Natural Area. It’s an impressive and beautiful sight. The bluffs rose up on our left.

Larry pulled the truck over to the side of the road, “How’s this look, do you want to walk around here?”

“Yeah, this looks great.”

“Have we been here before?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe a few years ago.” (After walking around, I think this is a spot I haven’t been to before.)

“I’ll let Hank out your door.” With that Larry got out, grabbed his walking pole from the back of the truck and walked around to the other side. I slid out, put my camera around my neck, long lens in one pocket and binoculars in the other and then stepped out of the way so Hank could get out when Larry gave the command.

We walked down the steep embankment, snow crunching underfoot, to the railroad tracks, then across the tracks and down another steep embankment, walking on springy aquatic vegetation and snow. Then it leveled out. A pool on our left looked like the ice had been open recently. There was a wall of small trees, a lot of alders.  Larry taped the ice with the pole to check for thickness before stepping on it. The ice here was perfectly transparent. Larry skirted around an alder, pushing past its branches. He then turned back toward me and instructed to follow exactly where he’d stepped. Then we were back on the crunchy snow, ducking under tree branches and pushing past them, careful not to trip on any lying on the ground. Our feet against the snow and reeds made quite a loud noise. We were quickly through the trees. The bulrushes came to a halt and ice stretched out before us and to the left and to the right a ways, with some wispy vegetation sticking up here and there. The ice had a very thin layer of snow carpeting it. The snow and ice reflected the sun creating a blinding glare; both Larry and I wore sunglasses. Hank ran out across the ice ahead of us preferring a full out run to a nice steady walk. We headed northeastward, and were blasted by the chilling wind. Larry commented several times, “Wow, it’s really crisp out here.” We could see the blue gray bluffs off in the distance ahead of us, bluffs far off in the distance to the south, southeast, and southwest too. Rimming the ice was a narrower swath of bulrushes and trees. There were muskrat houses among the rushes far to the right and left. Closer than the bluffs but still a long way off, down the ice, trees rimmed the marsh. Bluffs stood behind us and northwest of us, with again a wall of trees between the marsh and bluffs. Rushes became thick far off that direction too with a muskrat lodge on the outskirts. Only north of us, were no bluffs hemming us in. (The bluffs do part in the south but where we stood it had the illusion that the bluffs stretched east to west across the south end of the marsh.) It was fun to explore in a different area but the cold and bone chilling wind kept my thoughts from going very far beyond the temperature.

It only took us a few minutes to cross the ice and reach the trees on the other side. Soon we were crashing through rushes, cattails and other vegetation to the trees. The trees rose up, completely nude though some were starting to bud. Their branches interrupted the perfectly blue sky with beautiful squiggly lines. They stood with so much grace and poise. Each had a character all its own.

On the other side of the single row of trees very tall, giant rushes rose up above us, perhaps eight to ten feet tall. Their stems were rounded and segmented. At the top of the stem were thin blade like leaves floating and waving like flags. They clacked together in the wind sounding like reedy wind chimes, not quite like wind blowing cottonwood leaves but quite similar to it. It was a fun experience to walk past those tall plants. At our feet, bent, curved and tangled river bulrushes among pockets of ice and snow. Then the vegetation cleared a little more and we walked on top opaque ice, swept clean of snow. We passed by a short alder tree that was already adorned with catkins, like slender caterpillars dangling from the tree branches in pairs.

Pockets of vegetation filled back in the ice, with a few more small trees on our right. We saw more cattails again; Larry sometimes whacked them with his pole sending seeds everywhere, caught up on the wind. The vegetation clumped together thickly putting the ice more into a roughly defined channel, stretching southeast to northwest. Looking southeast, were a handful of trees along the channel immediately on our right, then it cut its meandering path through aquatic vegetation. We walked across the modest sized channel. Then I turned to look back northwest, up the channel. It appeared narrower that direction and meandered through the aquatic vegetation with more trees bordering it on either side, mostly short, small trees until further up. I could just make out a muskrat lodge among the tangle of rushes on the other side and further up the channel. I took it all in at a glance, not wanting to fall too far behind Larry.

The vegetation opened up again and fell away, a channel of ice easily twice, perhaps three times as wide as the other channel stretched out in front and northwest  (left) and southeast (right) of us. It narrowed through a thin patch of vegetation to the northwest but then gave way to a large area of open ice again. The ice here was mostly covered by a thin layer of snow ridge ripples like sand textured by the tide. Larry led us across the wider channel and up to a thicket of the very tall rush. Instead of skirting around the giant rushes like I expected, Larry walked straight up to and in them and then sat down among them, surrounded by them on three sides. He was blocked from the wind but exposed to the sun. He invited me to join him. So I also sat down in the shelter of the giant rushes, facing the intense sun. Larry asked, “Doesn’t that feel much warmer?”

“Yes,” I replied. It was amazing how effective the plants were at blocking the wind and allowing us to feel the heat of the sun. I had the pleasure of viewing the plants from a new angle. I enjoyed the sun on my face, warming it and shut my eyes to take it in. We leaned back further and then lay down, snapping off rushes in the process. The rushes swayed in the wind above us, again producing a reedy sound, almost cottonwood leaf sound. My eyes shut, it was amazing. I was connected to the marsh, dependent on it for shelter from the wind and therefore warmth. Hank doesn’t like to stay still, so he explored the area around us, walked on top of us to try to get us moving again and went crashing through the brittle plants not far from our heads, making quite an interesting sound as the stems broke, the sound louder with our ears close to the stems at ice level. Again it was a pretty amazing experience. We were lying there for a good twenty minutes soaking up the sun before we gave into Hank’s pleading that we keep moving. My backside was cool, resting against the ice but my front had warmed quite nicely in the sunshine. But as soon as we stood up and stepped out from the tall plants, we were once again cooled and chilled by the wind. Hank had found a small stick and was begging Larry to throw it, so Larry tossed it a couple of times. From there we turned northwest up the open ice, right into the wind. There were cracks in the ice where the ice had pulled away from each other but was still frozen solid. We walked around patches of rushes and cattails mingled together. I trailed behind Larry.

I observed bird tracks in the ice, like little tridents. I got Larry’s attention and he walked back to take a look. “Looks like a crow walked across here when the top of the ice was a little melted.” We continued walking.

Then Larry paused near a mound of snow on the fringe of rushes. There were tracks in the snow and possible slide marks. Larry said, “I’m pretty sure these are otter tracks.” The thought that they could be otter tracks was exciting; they’d be the first sign of otters we’ve seen all winter. Onward we walked. Vegetation grew thick on our left, clumps of rushes and cattails and alders, trees rising up a little further off, excellent habitat for muskrats. Larry thought we weren’t seeing many muskrats either. But he wasn’t too worried about them because of their reproduction capabilities.

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