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As many readers of this column are already aware, “The Old Hippie” refers to my wife, Stephanie. Her title is not entirely my invention. Rather, as a school bus driver, some of her early students perceived her as an aging flower child. However, before any lonely geezers take an interest, this smiling, sprightly and comfortably mature (ahem) lady isn’t re-entering the marriage market anytime soon, at least not that I’m aware of.
Even if the circumstances should develop that would make this possible, I’m not sure that she would take advantage of them. Her opinion might be similar to that of my Kentucky grandmother, Della Cornett, who bore an appearance reminiscent of Louisey Smith. When, after my grandfather’s passing, she was asked about her thoughts regarding re-marriage, she replied, “I done been drug through the salt mine onest.”
Moreover, the normal older gentleman and jolly fellow of prosperous girth may find being in the company of this character who doesn’t recognize her advancing age to be somewhat strenuous and maybe even a little dangerous.
A “breakup” refers to Stephanie’s sport of watching the ice on the North River breaking up and flowing downstream. Well, maybe there’s a little more to it than that — rather than a mere passive observation, the old Hippie has turned this sport into a mini-Iditarod. First, it has to be cold — that deep, wet, bone chilling cold. And did I mention wet? Yes — it has to be wet; freezing rain is ideal.
The river began breaking up last Wednesday at about 10 a.m. An ice storm had closed the schools and coated the trees. She noticed the movement of the ice floes — she always does — and throwing a coat on over some unlikely outdoor attire, she pulled on her “moon boots” and bolted out the back door and across the backyard to the river. By the time I caught up, the huge, foot-thick ice floes — some almost a hundred feet long, were
crashing into each other and piling up at the bend downstream.
She stood on an icy, unsteady pile of dirt, rocks and logs left by an excavator in order to avoid the rising water.
“There it goes,” she called over the sound of the colliding ice floes and rushing river. The wrenching, quivering mass started moving around the bend, picking up speed as it went. Through a gap in the grove of huge sycamore trees, I could see the ice floes as they reached the deeper water below the bend. They moved like race cars entering a straightaway and sped out of sight.
She sent me up to the shop for a measuring tape, and we watched the ice floes go by. Some were huge, others smaller as they broke apart. Some shattered and were riding atop other floes; some were large, clear blocks; other pieces were small enough to fit in a glass. We took some measurements — the river had dropped nearly three feet in less than five minutes.
Peering out from under her dripping hood, she pointed out some saplings that were now nearly devoid of bark as a result of getting run over by the floes. “When I got down here, there was still bark on those saplings,” she indicated as a barkless sprig popped up only to be dunked again by the next floe, “so we haven’t missed much,” she added with obvious satisfaction.
The ice floes, which had been passing like a long freight train for several minutes, began to slow down. The water started rising — the floes had jammed again somewhere downstream. This signaled the cross-country event.
“Let’s go,” she announced, then took off downstream, staying close to the shore, deftly maneuvering over logs and exposed tree roots and crashing through brush. I followed, more a bull than a gazelle. I nonetheless managed to keep up despite the occasional slap of a pine bough snapping back as she passed.
We arrived at the next jam, which soon started moving. Again we watched as the powerful mass passed, bending trees along its course and depositing thousand pound blocks of ice high on the riverbank. We followed the ice jam as far as the terrain would allow. To go further would require us to rappel across a sheer rock cliff. She stared thoughtfully at the rocks — she seemed to be considering it.
We walked back toward the house on the smooth, snow-covered road. The ice was falling from the trees, shattering on the road into a glassine mosaic. I had survived another Old Hippie River Ice Breakup event. Unbeknownst to me, she had been
texting daughter Leah all the while with the breakup’s progress. Leah suddenly appeared in her old Jeep. “Get in,” she ordered. “It just went under the bridge.” Until then, I wasn’t fully aware that Leah shared her mother’s fascination.
I climbed into the front seat, and the Old Hippie cleared a space amongst the woodcutting and landscaping tools in the back. With 4-wheel drive and marginal tires, we broke a trail through the snow to the private Fitzgerald campsite at Hanging Rock where the eight-mile long ice and log jam awaited. The jam began moving. The floes, many now smaller than they were upriver, twisted against each other sending pulverized ice flying into the air as they squeezed through the narrow bend. The sun caught the airborne ice, which shone forth with rainbow colors.
Into the Jeep again, we sped off down North River road to head off the jam at Tamarack. There, as low hanging ice-laden limbs shattered against the windshield, we skirted potential Jeep-eating ponds of water to arrive where the road meets the river.
North River Road continues on the far bank ending at Coldstream Road, across from my rented shop at North River Mills. The river ford washed out in 1985 and was even rather treacherous before then. It was never restored. It’s difficult now even to determine where it once was.
The river was low and dropping — or the rocks were growing. The ice had jammed in another bend somewhere upstream where we didn’t have access. We waited for several minutes, listening for that ripping, crashing sound of the ice jam’s approach, but lunchtime eventually won out and we headed home. As the day progressed, we watched the river from home for further action as more ice floes sped by. The late afternoon sun, shining low over the river, illuminated the clear, foot-thick blocks of ice that rode atop larger floes telling of other dramatic breakups further upstream. Some might feel inclined to tell the old Hippie to act her age (she has 60 surrounded and cornered in a boxed canyon), but she’s more likely to turn “Breakup” into an Olympic event instead.