Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Short Loins: "The Crick"

The crick is high out back.  That's how one properly pronounces the word "creek" around here, by the way.  If an otherwise upstanding and well-adjusted looking person pronounces it to rhyme with "sleek," beware.  They might be from Minnesota... or worse.  Yikes.

We've recently enjoyed a tantalizing respite from lingering winter gloom -- it even got above freezing a couple times.  The melt started.  The creek swelled and went muddy.  It's high and robust still, with that cold steel cast a stream will sometimes take from a distance when it's newly invigorated and ripping through.  Not yet out if it's banks, the big runoff was cut short by a dip back down below the freezing mark, and it crested well below flooding.  Last year it topped its banks and filled a couple acres of low forest almost overnight, but it appears we'll avoid that this year.  Unless, of course, April becomes a month-long deluge as it sometimes does.  We're back to grey sub-freezing temps and gentle flurries for the moment.  All the mud is refrozen, winter refusing to let go for just a bit longer.

It's just a small farm country creek back there, fed by one spring at the head and a couple feeder trickles between here and there.  Down here in the lower wooded stretches it's warm and meandering before it goes through town and dumps into the big lake.  It's wide enough in a couple outside bends that wood duck pairs and singles will sometimes spend the night in fall.  I can hear their sharp, raspy zeep zeep whistles at dusk, and occasionally catch a bit of that brilliant drake plumage in the binoculars when the leaves start to fall.  There are no trout -- no game fish at all barring the occasional wayward spring walleye who made a bad turn somewhere in his spawning run.

When the water returns to summer levels you can cross in the riffles without getting your calves wet.  You can also go down there and catch creek chubs till you tire of it on, well... basically anything small enough.  The males turn rosy orange and get little bumps on their heads while spawning.  When you're twelve you call those bumps "horns," and giggle.  Then they're horny fish, and that's resoundingly hilarious because it's true.

The one time the creek is absolutely full of writhing life is during the the spring sucker run.  They pack in the riffles and runs, splashing up nearly out of the water when you approach the bank too loudly.  One could mosey down there with a net, and fill buckets with suckers sometime around the start of May.  I haven't done that yet, and I probably won't any time soon.  Firstly, I'd have to check the regs to see if it's still legal to dip suckers.  Nextly, I'd have to want to eat smoked suckers.

A long time ago, when we were much more malleable, Roadkill and I rafted this very water (though in a section farther upstream) during the spring runoff.  "Rafted" is a generous term, in this instance.  The raft was a flimsy purple and yellow toy, hastily purchased months before from a beachfront shop in Tampa Bay through the generosity of my father.

We were both broke college kids, which led to one of the exchanges with Dad that I hold fondly nearest my heart to this day.

Standing on the beach in Tampa, "Dad... um, I need some more cash."

"What for?"

"A prank.  Something kinda... mildly not legal."

Eyeing Road and I with equal parts suspicion and amusement, "Will a hundred cover it?"

The remainder of that story will have to remain a mystery unless you get me drunk around a campfire someday, but I will say that it involved covering the gaudy raft in black garbage bags and duct tape to remain unnoticed under the cover of darkness, a nighttime aquatic assault on municipal infrastructure, and narrowly avoiding the sweep of a bow-mounted search light while paddling like hell just like in a prison break movie.

So we were feeling pretty invincible the day we decided to run this creek in the midst of a full spring tempest in that raft, little more than a beach toy.  Road spent his youth in a small town, kicking at the dirt and playing in the mud just as I had, but he'd not spent nearly as much time in canoes, kayaks and rafts as I.

Naturally, that meant he took the bow of the raft, and I manned the stern.  I would've suggested this set-up in any case as the more experience paddler generally takes the back seat to do the steering around strainers and not drowning everyone part, but I don't mean to imply that I didn't have a good idea what was going to happen.  Or that I "forgot" to mention it to Road before we got started.

We put in up near the county road, and were almost immediately swept away in the high water.  There were standing waves and holes and pillows just like the Ocoee and Nolichucky runs of my youth, and we had a time of it keeping our nearly shapeless raft out of trouble with plastic toy paddles, but seldom have I had more fun.

The highlight of the run featured Road's world-class cussing talent, repeatedly rendered in the highest volumes humanly possible every time we bashed against a midstream rock.  There was little protection for him, kneeling in the front of our tiny craft never intended for this sort of use -- a few mils of vinyl between the repeated high speed collisions of patella with Ordovician dolomite.  His howling epithets were drowned out only by my laughter, and that raft was sinking fast by our journey's end.

We soon exited river right, fully drenched and shivering, but we were young and laughing and alive.


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