Saturday, January 9, 2010

Playing on the River

A summer day on the river may involve fishing, dipping your toes in the water or lashing logs together to form a raft so you can escape southward. In January the river behaves a little differently, prohibiting these activities and creating new adventures and activities.

Along the Mississippi in the cold winter months bald eagles can be seen drifting on the air currents high above the icy water looking for food in the changing ice floes. The eagles attract visitors each year to the Alton Illinois area for viewing. The complexion of the river morphs from the gently flowing wavy patterns to harsh angled chunky broken ice lined up almost in rows like the plates on the back of a stegasaurus. The promise of viewing eagles drew us to the Mississippi area. There were also reports some of the tugs had gotten stuck in the ice and we thought it might be interesting to watch them get freed. We gathered up our friends Jeff and Sophie for the trip.

A bright blue sky framed the gold tension lines of the Clark bridge and the mellowing sun started its slow climb down from its highest point to hide again beyond the horizon. We drove past the lock and dam south of Alton spotting an adult eagle perched high in a tree on the side of the road. The eagle's bright white head stood out against the blue sky. It was shaping up to be a fine day for viewing eagles. We drove over the Clark bridge to a park on the Missouri side of the river. The kids rebundled their coats in the car and jumped out, not sure which direction to go. The parking lot sat on the western side of a levee and the river was not visible from the car. We walked over the burm and scrambled down a hill to the ice. There were no eagles in site but the kids noticed huge chunks of ice on the edge of the river. They did what only come natural next and lifted the chunks of ice over their heads throwing it down on the river ice. Each piece shattered impressively with a great crack. We forgot about the eagles and set straight to destroying as many of the ice chunks as we could free. The bigger portions of ice sheet broke more dramatically but were more difficult to lift. We took turns helping each other lift the larger pieces and watching them shatter and spray ice chips all over the river.

The cold started working on us so we headed over to one of the bird sanctuary areas to see if the eagles were up for their viewing. Most of the eagles were at a good distance from the road making them impossible to see clearly without binoculars. We had binoculars so we watched a few eagles drift in and out from the trees. Several people were set up on the road side with high powered camera lenses and tripods. We finished off the trip with a visit to the migratory bird area at an overlook near Ellis Bay. The sun was nearly set and the cold was biting deeper so we left for home.

A day on the river in the winter wasn't quite what we had expected it to be. We had seen a few eagles but the highlight of the trip was smashing the ice. Jeff had brought some hot chocolate and we shared it on the drive home. Everyone finally thawed.