A North River dilemma

On its complex meandering course, the North River flows through our back yard. It’s called the North River, I presume, because its confluence with the Cacapon River is north of this river’s source. Therefore, it can be said that the North River flows north through, when we’re standing on its banks, it would seem to flow in every direction but north.

Sycamore trees line the riverbanks. I may be in violation of some unwritten law here but firewood doesn’t have to be oak for my purposes. I like for the fire to go out when I’m not around. Sycamore and elm suit me well and ash, with its lovely fragrance, is my all-time favorite.

I’m waiting for the river to freeze so that I can drop a large, dead sycamore tree onto the ice where I can then cut it up and retrieve the wood from the river. The tree is leaning too far toward the river for me to use one of my many loggers’ tricks to get it to fall in another direction. Moreover, dead sycamores tend to be hollow which would thwart any of these efforts. The tree has to fall into the river — now if it would only freeze.

It seems that Indian summer runs right into the January thaw these days but if we’re going to get a hard freeze this is usually the week when we get it. The last time that I felled one of these trees onto the ice, it was quite spectacular. The foot thick ice held as the tree crashed into it. The brittle upper limbs of the long dead tree shattered and flew into pieces. The tree fell near where beavers were known to be denning in the riverbank. I had seen these huge creatures, which are known to be aggressively territorial at times. As a precaution, I had Stephanie (aka Old Hippie) stand watch while I sawed up the tree, as I would be unable to hear the approach of a charging beaver over the sound of the chainsaw.

After the cutting was accomplished without a beaver attack, Stephanie went about her business. We reasoned that I would be able then to hear the approach of a monster beaver. My senses thus attuned, I went about gathering up the wood.

Our late beagle terrier, Bonkers, liked to play rough and bite just a little harder than was sometimes comfortable. If she got a purchase into the thick leather, such as the high tops of my leather work boots, she would apply maximum jaw pressure, which seemed hugely out of proportion to her small stature. She liked to incorporate a soundless approach with a sudden pounce during these assaults.

I suddenly found myself hamstrung by a snarling animal and, thus startled, lost my footing and fell on the ice. I was nonetheless relieved to see Bonkers rather than a beaver the size of a Volkswagen. Seizing this opportunity, Bonkers pulled off one of my leather work gloves then challenged me to try and take it back. That’s how they found me, lying on the ice, making entreaties to the dog and watching for an irate beaver, who, by then, would have a legitimate gripe over my disrupting his neighborhood.

“They” refers to daughters Leah and Emily, then around 7 and 8 years old along with an assortment of neighborhood children, each carrying a pair of ice skates. We keep a couple of bushel apple crates full of ice skates in the back shed and are thus able to outfit any potential skater who comes along.

“Are you going to build us a fire?” a tiny voice asked. As I lay sprawled among a pile of perfectly seasoned sycamore twigs and branches there could only be one answer.

I’m a non-skater having reasoned that a fall onto solid ice from my height could be particularly damaging. In contrast, the kids in their thick snowsuits were as wide as they were tall so a fall consisted only of a subtle change of alignment with the earth. Their mother, the then not-so-old Hippie, often skated with them, sometimes leading them the better part of a mile upriver. I was left on shore to build and maintain a riverside campfire and prepare a kettle of hot water for tea and cocoa.

Though the fire and kettle were more or less a given, I was assigned various other duties as well. One year, several inches of snow fell on the otherwise smooth ice and I was given the job of scoop shoveling skating trails. At sunset, the low solstice light turned the snow a subtle pink hue as the skaters moved about in a Hans Brinker-esque scene. As the days were so short, daylight was usually exhausted before the kids’ energy was. It was then my duty to light my large collection of kerosene lanterns and place them about on the ice. Every year seemed to be slightly different in one way or another, meaning that my duties were carried as well.

I seem to recall that the last year the river froze solid was 2005. Skating was short-lived that year and the kids were soon skating through shallow ponds of standing water on the ice. I built the requisite fire and put on the kettle. Soon, Leah, Emily and their friend, Heather, gathered around the fire to rest and warm up. My offer of hot cocoa was politely declined and I got the feeling that I was being regarded in that manner reserved for that elderly relative who forgets to account for time passing and keeps sending young adults bunny slippers. I looked up and saw polite smiles circulate among the group along with a half-pint of Southern Comfort. The roundish little snow-suited kids had suddenly become 20-somethings.

I may have to drop that sycamore during the summer and retrieve the wood in cutoffs and old sneakers. It can be a challenge to catch all of the pieces before they float away. The beaver would have the advantage if he catches me in the water.

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