The Winter River
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
The winter of 2019 is just beginning to settle in with lots of snow, ice, wind, and cold weather ahead. But the winter of 2014 was brutal. I took this picture in early February 2014 and scribbled these thoughts about the winter river.
For most of the year the river flows silently, or at least quietly. Other than the gentle swishing of wavelets and the gurgling and swashing around rock ledges, islands, and fallen trees, the river yields the airwaves to wind, wildlife, and machines -- flopping fish, chirping songbirds, screeching raptors, booming thunderstorms, buzzing outboards, and chattering children.
But in the winter, when it is frozen from shore to shore, and the sound-makers are, for the most part gone, the river speaks to whom ever comes to listen. Today I drove along the Susquehanna from Harrisburg to Liverpool, a twenty mile stretch with the look of an alpine glacier -- a winding, striated gnarl of twisted and stressed ice -- here pushed up in steep pressure mounds, and there gouged with miniature crevasses that bottom out and expose the flowing stream below.
I stop at a deserted and unplowed boat access ramp to take a look at the spectacle. Grinding and crunching my way to the shoreline through the eight inch snow pack covered by a quarter inch of glaze ice is a noisy and inefficient chore. When I finally arrive at the little beach and shut off my engine, silence rushes in like a giant feather pillow. The quiet of a snowy wood at the edge of a broad, thick, sheet of river ice on a gray, windless day effects a sometimes soothing, sometimes disturbing, but always desolate aloneness.
This empty sound stage becomes a venue for the rivers's boreal voice of ice and shifting snow. The under riding current, the over rushing wind, the shifting floes, and collapsing ridges comprise the winter river's voice. One need only listen for a short while before a combination of forces triggers an explosive report that spreads across the frosty plain like lightning in the summer sky. Upstream a short distance, a narrow channel of open flowing water forms new slush ice and piles it up along the edges with the shushing, swashing sound of a child stirring a Slurpee.
Here and there one hears the staccato pops and grunts of ice hummocks expanding and contracting like a tin roof on a hot summer day. Near the shore, an overhanging tree drops shards of ice onto a smooth rink-like pool of frozen river. Upon impact those remnants of yesterday's ice storm, sound like little glass unicorns shattering on a marble floor. In the background powdery snow from a heavy morning squall fizzes and sizzles down the river on a piercing northwest wind, creating a white noise like the hiss of an AM radio.
But today I will not get to hear the most authoritative tone of the river's ice voice. That will come as winter winds down and the spring freshet arrives to clear old man river's throat. Warm temperatures and heavy spring rains will thaw the watershed's snow pack sending down a torrent of water, ice, and debris of all kinds. When this happens the ice voice will heave and roar, grind and spit, crunch and scream. This will go on for many days and will wreak great havoc along the way. But eventually his tantrum will subside and he will slowly transform. His icy voice will soon be gone, and the river will become quiet once more, as she waits for soft vernal voices to return.