Walking on the River!
February 3, 2022 | Topics: Stories
By Eddee Daniel
When I was a child I didn’t need to try to be free. The door slamming behind me proclaimed my freedom. The creek beckoned at the bottom of a precipice. Untethered, giving in to impulse, I clambered down with abandon. Using tumbled boulders as stepping stones, I followed the water upstream … or down. Direction mattered less than the sensation, more real than imagined, of walking on the water … and of walking into wilderness. No matter how many times I went, over many years, the sensation was always new. No matter who was with me—siblings, playmates, usually no one, never parents—or how often I would hear a car pass by up above, it was always wilderness.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve had to work to regain what came so naturally then; I’ve had to try to find that freedom. But there’s one thing I can count on to facilitate that feeling: water. It can be another creek, or a river, a lake, an ocean; wilderness lives in moving, restless water. Ah, but when water becomes perfectly still and rock hard, well, that enables another kind of freedom. I don’t mean the perfectly ordinary cubes from the freezer you put in your cocktail, but the increasingly rare times when it’s possible to walk on the river, not on stepping stones, but on the frozen water.
Winter arrives and I wait. The temperature falls, but so often now, rises again. It takes a week, at least, of below-freezing temperatures. Single digits are even better. And although I love snow for the beauty and recreation it provides, the real magic of the frozen river is only visible when there is clear ice. Since this doesn’t happen every year, as snowfalls cover the ice, its eagerly anticipated occurrence is greeted with particular enthusiasm—by me, that is. It happened once this year.
I chose a stretch of the Menomonee River between Burleigh and Mayfair Road, although, as when I was a child, it could have been almost any part of any waterway. I was pretty sure it would hold my weight; nevertheless, the first step onto ice is wisely tentative. I put one foot down to test it. Stamp. No give; no sound of cracking. I step out onto it. Within moments I am slipping and sliding, sometimes deliberately. I haven’t worn my YakTrax for this very reason. Taking a step or two for a gently running start, I push off carefully and feel my whole body—my whole being—glide on the soles of my boots. Suddenly free again.
For a moment. Then another … and another. These days I don’t slide far each time, not wanting to risk my ever-more-fragile bones; remembering younger times when I would work up some real speed and glide over dozens of feet of smooth ice. Then I am distracted from this pursuit, which has been undertaken on smooth but opaque ice, by a patch of black ice up ahead. Or is it open water?
When I am convinced it is in fact ice, I approach ever so slowly, alert to the faintest sound of cracking. I ease out away from the opaque ice onto … flowing water! What appeared to be black is in fact eerily transparent, like a sheer pane of glass between me and the fish. Well, I look for fish. None immediately appear. Still stepping gingerly, I can’t shake the conviction that I’ll crash through at any moment. This despite the fact that I can see bubbles frozen into the transparency at a depth of several inches. What appears utterly insubstantial and indisputably fragile is actually as solid as stone.
I am intent on photographing a galaxy of bubbles underfoot when I hear someone nearby say, “what are you seeing?” Startled, I look up to find a woman on the bank peering down at me. I tell her, “bubbles in the ice.” Her visage clouds with brief disappointment before she shares brightly, “I’m looking for the ducks. I haven’t seen them yet today but I’ve brought them bread.” She brandishes a bulging red plastic bag. I smile and she wanders on.
My whole physical being nearly shudders with relief when I cross back onto an opaque surface. Farther on, a light dusting of snow reveals footprints. And pawprints. I am neither the first person nor animal to have walked up the middle of the river today. At least the human prints lead straight up the middle. Most of the animal tracks, from mouse-sized to what is likely a coyote, cut a transverse line from bank to bank. Now and then I see a squirrel sprint across. After a while the many tracks are joined by a curiously wide mechanical tread. It looks like a tire tread, but being single is more likely something being pulled along, like a snowboard or narrow sled.
I shuffle through a patch of crystalline snow crusted over the ice, listen to the faint tinkle and crunch. I catch myself. This is where I need to be most careful, I think. The illusion of fragility gives way to the illusion of solidity. Sure enough, the ice under the crusty snow creaks for the first time. I back off, then skirt around an open patch of black water, exposed by an irregular hole in the ice. The footprints lead me on, but can I trust them?
I find myself absorbed so thoroughly with the lacy geometry of the frozen world underneath my feet that when I raise my eyes, the intensity of the blue sky is nearly overwhelming. The brilliant winter sun, near the horizon even at mid-day, blazes through the trees, casting a lattice of shadows onto the ice ahead. Immersed as I am in this vision of freedom and wilderness, when I occasionally wrench my gaze away from my vertical and longitudinal tunnel vision I am surprised to see houses, segmented by the riparian screen of trees along the Menomonee River Parkway.
And people. Some walking or jogging on the Oak Leaf Trail, clearly visible through the barren woods. Others walking dogs along the riverside path right next to me. No one, since the seeker of ducks, pays me any mind, as if a person walking up the middle of the river is the most ordinary of sights. My wilderness is thin. It is also vast. Between the river and the sky, lit by the radiant sun, everything becomes clearer … in my heart. I can take a stand—quite literally—on the river today … and believe in freedom …
And wilderness: Without warning, I am standing in water, one foot punched cleanly through a boot-sized hole in the ice. The river flows around my boot in silence. Those who venture onto rivers must expect, now and then, to end up in water. I quickly yank back my foot and turn around, retrace my steps down the middle of the river to find my waiting car. But in no hurry … and taking the occasional glide …
On the way back I was enticed off the ice by Mark, Larry, and Wally (above), who invited me to join them for a picnic by their fire. It is a regular Friday event for the three retirees to gather next to the river and socialize in the comfort of nature and the Menomonee River. I’ll raise a glass to that!
Related story: Milwaukee’s Thin Places, from Eddee’s previous blog, Urban Wilderness.
Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and author of Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, a journey of exploration along the Menomonee River in all seasons.