Paul Andersen: Fair Game
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Ever seen a beaver surfing the crest of a surging ice floe? I had to rub my eyes to make sure it was real.
I was driving down Two Rivers Road from Basalt on Jan. 4 when I glanced over at the Roaring Fork River and noticed rapids where usually placid water flows. The river channel was engorged with ice that was scouring the banks. Distracted by this natural phenomenon, I nearly drove off the road.
At a pull-out half a mile down the road, another driver had already stopped. I joined him on the roadside above the riverbank. The flood soon arrived with a standing wave of ice. The unfortunate beaver was swept around the bend scrambling for its life atop the broken floes.
By then another guy had joined our perch, each of us mesmerized by the ice floe as it swept past. We felt badly for the beaver but worse for any fisherman who might get caught with his waders down.
The Roaring Fork River was in flood stage. An ice dam must have broken upstream, releasing a huge volume of water, icebergs, trees and whatever the river caught up in a slushy surge.
The unfortunate beaver must have been dragged from its lodge and carried away by the ice flood. Talk about a species relocation! Such is nature’s way of spreading the beaver population downvalley in an Uncle Tom’s scenario akin to sweet Eliza leaping icebergs toward freedom.
The struggling beaver was swept around a bend, which was the last we saw of it. We were in awe over the force of the river carrying its payload of ice, so we jumped in our cars and drove downriver to Hooks Lane Bridge to watch it come over the low falls.
By then a dozen spectators had gathered to watch the show, including several Basalt police. Cameras and cellphones clicked off frames as the first rush of water raised the river level by 3 feet and the ice chunks began gnawing at ice plates lining the shores. The ice creaked and cracked as it was swept downstream.
Thick river ice has covered most of the Fryingpan where I live. Even the resident bald eagle has had to move upstream to find open water for fishing. The winter cold wave that has chilled us for nearly a month has made rivers steam at night while layering green ice over river rocks.
On New Year’s, a few of us skied up to Margy’s, where the thermometer read almost 20 below. We were 15 people with two fires going in both heat and cook stoves, and the hut was just comfortable. There was vicious hoar frost on the outhouse seat and frozen eyelids on ski tours that reminded us of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” by Robert Service.
In the book “Black Elk Speaks,” Black Elk referred to the month of December as the “Moon of Popping Trees.” That allusion was to deep freezes expanding the moisture in trees and causing arboreal explosions.
When I was in college in Gunnison, I saw the downtown bank thermometer hit 50 below more than once. The air was frosted, every speck of moisture hanging in suspension, where it glinted against the sun. I can truthfully say that I walked a mile to school in that extreme climate because my old Volkswagen wouldn’t start.
My college journalism teacher published an article in the Denver Post titled “Caution directs his feet to the sunny side of the street.” He explained how essential it was to walk in the sun for whatever wan warmth it offered.
I love this cold. I love the return of what feels like real winter. Skiing, splitting firewood, watching the steam rise off the rivers – I find a rare beauty in intense cold. And as the pine bark beetles freeze in their multitudes, I know cold is good for forests and that it thickens the coats of the bighorn sheep that routinely walk around our house blissfully unaware of cold as they bed down in the pinons and junipers for a cozy night’s sleep.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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