Crusty River

As I sat on the bank of a river early in the morning, I became fully aware of the sights and sounds around me. The edge of the river was motionless because it was covered in ice formations that had built up from recent cold weather. In truth, this fall’s temperatures have been above average. Typically, Minnesota is under a blanket of snow and ice this time of year. Currently, where I live, there is no snow and a lot of open water.

The center of the river was flowing, very slowly, and a gentle ripple distorted the image of trees cast on the water’s surface. Silence was broken by songbirds – chickadees – perched on nearby branches. They called: chick-a-dee-dee-dee. It sounded like there were a lot of them. Probably teaming up to defend the winter-feeding area that will see them through the frigid months. Perhaps it was my presence that got them calling. Me, an intruder. Predator? I wished I could tell them: “I come in peace!”

Suddenly, nine ducks flew over the treetops and made a graceful landing on the river. Puddle ducks – they were mallards. The minute they landed they began to vocalize their quintessential sound. Quack, quack. I know ducks do much more than quack (coo, grunt…), they have a variety of sounds with various meanings, but their distance from me only allowed a few quacks to reach my ears.

I’m curious about this year‘s waterfall migration. How many ducks have left? Which will still leave? How many will overwinter? Their migratory endeavor is usually done by sometime in December. There’s still so much open water from the warm fall, more than usual for Minnesota during this time of year. Many mallards (and other waterfowl) will stay if there’s food and water. Perhaps there will be a lot of duck-observation events for me this winter. I hope!

After watching the ducks, I fixated on ice formations. They followed the edge of the meandering river, void of any straight lines. Near me, the very edge of one sheet looked like glass. It appeared to be thin, as if it wouldn’t even hold the weight of one of those ducks. Closer to the riverbank, the ice became white, crackly-looking and sticking up in some places. A crusty outer edge.

As I considered the river’s open water and icy ridge, I was reminded of some people I know. (At times in life, myself included.) A crusty outer edge, but flowing in the middle, and carrying who-knows-what in an unseen bedload. Like that river, some folks have an outer shell, an icy crust. I have been in this condition many times in my life. Protective mode when life has gotten difficult. The people I’ve met in this state, when I’ve had the chance to get to know them better, eventually show a fluidity inside them beyond that hard exterior. I think they are the folks that are harder to understand. I find, most often, they have been hurt by some event in life and maintain a shell to hide vulnerability.

But inside the flow of life, beyond the ice formations, is a bedload we each carry, just as a river does. Some things are heavy – big rocks – while other things are everyday occurrences, lighter and typical. It is a condition of simply being human. We all have a bedload. When I’ve taken the time to get beyond the outer shell of another, though, I’ve most often found a person who has a lot to share. A lot of experiences that have been painful, resulting in deeper insight and understanding. Wisdom. Friendship. Love. Getting to know someone who has an ice buildup takes something we are often unwilling to give. Time.

Don’t we each want that? For someone to take the time to know and understand us? I know I do. Beyond the ice-edge of the river is a life of movement. There are light things and heavy things. There are gentle curves and playful rapids. There are complex and diverse things that make up the entirety of the river’s existence. I keep going back to that river – living and moving – so I can get to know it better. And it is beautiful, crusty edge and all.  

Down the shore, I watched the ducks again, swimming and dabbling in the river’s open water. I love how mallards go butt-up when they eat. They were fun to watch. I couldn’t get over their playful manner, even though the temperature was right around the freezing point. They seemed content. Unhurried. I marveled at their simple task of simply being.

Winter is just around the bend. I can feel it meandering its way into the world around me. Perhaps that river will ice over, at least in my favorite spot, which I’ve been frequently visiting this fall. It is a slow moving part of the river. Vulnerable to cold weather. If it does freeze, I will remember there is life flowing beneath the ice and many things I cannot see from my vantage point. 

I hope I never forget to remember. There is always so much more than meets the eye. I never want to look at a sheet of ice – on a river, lake, or person – and neglect to remember what amazing thing is beneath the crusty surface. Life. Beautiful, flowing life!