I have experienced a lot of death in the last week. My life outside of rivers includes responding to medical emergencies as a paramedic. We see people at their worst and most days I am able to manage that well. But the other day I let the emotional intensity that accompanies seeing people die entirely too young out of its cage and significantly mismanaged the resulting emotional shit storm. I headed to the river to lick my wounds, to retreat, to help sort it all out. Rivers help me put things into perspective. When I immerse myself in the ancient processes of the river I get reminded that I am part of something much larger, something much greater than myself. I am reminded that there is a plan to all the madness whether it makes sense to me or not.
This section of the Principio is dramatic as water tumbles over a stair step 20 foot falls. It contains deep pools, swift flats, and water worn bedrock that is covered in a seasonally changing flora just like the woods, but unnoticed. Principio is normally full of life. Today it was covered in foot thick frozen water spray ice. There were a few open pockets where the water moved too fast to freeze. I scooted across the ice, sat on the edge and let my feet feel the cold as I masked up. The sting of ice cold water on my face was familiar.
Water tore through this unfrozen riffle. I could feel a little work its way past my neck seal and stab my neck with cold. Brilliant green algae grew on glowing amber cobbles and it felt like I was swimming through a bright oil painting. I crawled upstream and really struggled against the current. Water occasionally squirted past the seals on my wrists and neck, but that didn’t matter. I was in the stream, and enjoyed the feel of holding against a current that has been at work here for eons, a force that will be here long after I am gone. It’s a kind of immortal comfort, a reminder that life goes on even after one ends.
I reached the upstream extent of this section of open water, flopped out onto the ice, wriggled over it like a seal to the next hole, and plopped back into the water, careful to not get into current too strong. I didn’t want to get pulled under the ice sheet. I’d probably pop out at the downstream hole, but didn’t want to test that theory.
The deep hole was devoid of fish. No darters or cats, suckers or sunnies. But there was a luxuriant growth of rock weed that captured islands of sand in each patch, and caddis fly larvae clung to the plants. My head crunched into the edge of the confining ice sheet a few times before I sealed over the ice again, and floated feet first through a riffle to control my descent. A sucker head stuck out from between cobbles and for a minute it looked as though it was alive. Its pupils were still clear back, not milky, and the colors on its face weren’t paled. But only half the fish was here. The other half was reincorporated into the rivers food web long ago. This sucker gave life to the river through its death. Life dies, and life goes on. Death is a fact of life, and as hard as we might try, we can’t ultimately stop it. We don’t have that kind of authority. We can appreciate life while it’s here, help it through the rough patches, and recognize that death is part of the process, and that even in death there is life.