Thursday, July 21, 2005

An Appreciation for Local Rivers

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For me, summer means time spent on local rivers, fishing whenever that’s possible. But I’m told fishing stories interest only other anglers, so let me tell about some of the other things I’ve come across on the river this year.

On a recent Sunday morning, ten miles upstream from Kickapoo State Park near Danville, a friend and I slip through a patch of forest undergrowth on our way to the Middle Fork River. My friend nearly steps on a wild turkey that’s hunkered down in the brush. Cover blown, the bird explodes into flight, like . . . well, like nothing else I know. Twenty pounds worth of swirling, booming black, on the wing and moving away so fast it’s out of sight before we’ve regained our composure.

Later that morning I’m in the river up to my chest, quietly positioning myself to fish a long, deep pool. Hearing some commotion in the fast water upstream, I turn that way. My brain won’t make sense of the image my eyes submit. A dark brown creature drifts toward me with the current. Curls of a fat, tubular body break the surface of the muddy water in five different places across the stream. There are no anacondas, no alligators in Illinois, but. The image resolves. Not reptile, but mammal, not one creature, but three. River otters, so engaged in games with each other that they are carried to within ten feet of me before they realize I’m not a stump. Heads up high now, they snort with displeasure, and make for the bank. There, they take cover in the tangled roots of a downed tree, peeking out at me in turns to assess the threat I pose, before they move on out of sight in the streamside vegetation.

Family outings involve less fishing, but ample opportunity to enjoy the other pleasures the river has to offer.

Canoeing with my wife and children, we glide past a towering sandy bluff, home to a colony of bank swallows. These birds nest in small burrows they excavate in the vertical face above the stream. There is so much coming and going from the line of little caves that it’s impossible to focus the eye on one spot.

In the shallows a great blue heron squawks as we approach and takes off downstream to avoid us. It seems as though we come upon the same bird time after time for the next five miles, but surely he has circled back behind us at some point, and it’s really his downstream neighbors we disturb.

The gravel bars where we stop to rest or picnic offer delights for everyone. The shells of mussels with names as interesting as their appearance: purple wartybacks, fat muckets, heelsplitters, pistolgrips. There are crayfish and tadpoles, too, fast enough to present a challenge, but not so fast that children can’t catch them.

At this time of year, when travel may take us to places where natural beauty is super-abundant, it’s important to remember that the river corridors of east central Illinois boast high quality natural areas worth exploring and protecting.