Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rattled along the river

The no-wake summer of 2014 continues. Rivers have flooded. 

Lake levels are high. Boats on some lakes are allowed to operate only at very low speed to prevent shoreline erosion.

Possibly the only waves being created are at Target Field. That's baseball central for Minnesota Twins fans. With our boys of summer blowing hot and cold this season the team needs all the waves we cheerers in the stands can make.

We were in Red Wing recently. We go there about this time every summer because June is so pretty there.

We found out that river flooding from our June rains has caught up to Red Wing, which is downstream from the Twin Cities.

The river has spilled its banks. The park we visit when we go to Red Wing is partially submerged. The road to it is cordoned off.

Park grills are up to their necks (so to speak) in water. Seat swings thoughtfully spaced along the riverbank for watching boat and barge traffic, and to catch a breeze, are like lost souls cut off and isolated by deep water that surrounds them.

Downtown, near the old train station where Amtrak comes through, cruise boats at the docks are temporarily without business. The docks are underwater.

The Mississippi River is now a dangerous conduit. Whole tree trunks, tangles of brush and other debris float on the galloping current.

Two women, walking back from inspecting the river at the docks, came my way.  
Finishing with some shopping at the stores of St. James Hotel I was rejoining Al who, in the meantime, zeroed in on a park bench in the shade by the river.

The women were in obvious discussion. They turned around and looked back at the river.

"Be careful,” they warned as we drew even with each other. “Don't go down there.There’s a diamondback rattlesnake in the river.”

Sure enough, disbelievingly though I heard them, a largish snake writhed and contorted in the shallow water at river’s edge.

The snake was strong. You could tell this by its vigorous movements. It looked angry, or perhaps it was how it used its body that made it appear menacing. The power of the snake was palpable from where we were.

Possibly the snake had been washed off a river island. High water may have swept it out of its hole in the bluffs or wrested it from a sunny ledge where it was snoozing in the pleasant sunlight.

It was almost on land. The necessary thrust to make it onto the riverbank didn’t happen while we stood with our eyes never leaving it.

I remarked, not very bravely, reacting in a bit of a daze at sight of the snake, that diamondback rattlers aren’t in this area. Where does a venomous snake like this come from was registering in my mind.

The answered was immediate. “Oh yes, diamondbacks are around here. We’re from” – the one who spoke up named a nearby Wisconsin town – “and we have them there. They’re in the bluffs,” she added.

I’m aware that the driftless area of southeast Minnesota – the Mississippi River bluff country which includes Red Wing - has timber rattlers. Terrain breeds its own kind of native life, and this is rugged, forested landscape. The snake in the water was therefore likely a timber rattler - diamondbacks, as the women called them.

I learned about timber rattlers at age twelve or so. My friend had her cousins, who hailed from this general area, visiting her.

We played and visited. We exchanged information as we talked of one thing and another, not  recognizing then that this is how one's knowledge base widens.

My friend’s cousins told about timber rattlers. They’re a regional fact. I grew up familiar with garter snakes. Of the venomous timber rattler I'd never heard.

Garter snakes don’t overly spook me, even when they slide unexpectedly out of the tall grass right in front of you.

It’d be nice if they didn’t do that but that’s their trick. A glance to confirm it is indeed a garter snake, and not something else, and I beat down my desire to flee and let them glide on by.

At twelve I knew rattlesnakes from TV westerns my dad liked to watch, and also from Western camping trips. Rattlers had more than my respect. Just the thought of them made me never want to meet one.

Discovering that the rattlesnakes of TV westerns (forever coiled and ready to strike at the bad guys), and the feared potential tentmates of my early camping vacations, had a shirt-tail relative in the form of the timber rattler made me glad 200 miles separated the Minnesota river bluffs from my home.

Despite many visits to bluff country we’ve not come across a timber rattler. Lack of sightings tends to make you forget they’re there. This made the rattler in the river a very emphatic image.

The snake appeared to debate whether to make landfall or not. We didn’t wait around to see if it did. It clearly had will in it to do whatever it wanted.

The current, which likely dislodged it, could with equal force shove it to dry land. It was as if the snake wasn’t yet of a mind to let the current assist it.

We didn’t look for rattles on its tail as it kept its place in the water. We can’t report it had a diamond design on its back. There’s no scientific takeaway at all from the chance observation of the snake, which came about from someone pointing it out.

Whatever reason the snake was in the water that warm June afternoon, it symbolizes the overturning of the day-to-day which a river in torrent can do.

The rattler, purposeful in motion as it gathered our attention at the riverbank, is for me a symbol of the disruption of life, and also the tenacity to hold on, in the flooded communities along the Mississippi River.

Ro Giencke – June 28, 2014

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