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My Solitudes : Chapter Seven : River in Winter : Excerpts

When I do finally arrive at the area near the campsite, the first sight I catch of the river far down below the path isn't much different from what I saw in the autumn. The water colour seems to be a similar deep green, and there are many fallen leaves on the surface. That's no surprise, because today is extremely windy; on the walk from the station I actually have to lean into the wind to maintain my balance. This makes me wonder what the conditions are like down at my campsite beside the water; will the wind be stronger down there as it is funneled through the valley, or might it be more peaceful and calm? I find out as soon as I step out of the shelter of the woods at the bottom of the path. It's windy down here! I'm going to have to be careful when scrambling over the rocks towards my camp site. With this heavy pack on my back it will be all too easy to make a slight misstep and be blown sideways into the river.

As I look upstream, the sun is directly above the river, and the resulting reflections from the water surface are so bright that I can see nothing of the valley walls; the trees and bushes are all in deep shade. When I turn to face the other direction, the light is now behind me, and the rock walls are brightly lit; it is the water that seems darker.

Yesterday there was a fall of slushy snow back in the city, but that had mostly disappeared by the time I left home this morning. As I walked towards the station, I saw a few patches of left-over snow here and there in places untouched by the sun, and some of the puddles where it melted yesterday are still sheets of clear ice. But the sky is completely clear, and the forecast is for bright sunshine and cold temperatures, just what I want. Cold and sunny can be very pleasant; cold and damp is no fun at all. I made that previous autumn trip - to the seacoast - a bit late in the season, but there's no question about the timing of this trip. There may not be deep snow on the ground, but it's still plenty cold. This is winter!


My camping spot hasn't changed since I was here a couple of months ago. Seen from a distance, this riffle area of the river looks quite gentle, gurgling along as it tumbles over the gravel, but when you come close and stand at the edge of the stream, you see more of the violent interaction between water and rock. Just a couple of meters in front of me, there are a couple of rocks out in the river, one of them open to the air, the other just under the surface, with a thin layer of completely transparent water streaming over it. Between them, the water swooshes down a chute and dissolves in a cascade of foam.

The water looks intensely attractive - beautifully clear and green - and as always I feel an impulse to jump in, but there's no question that swimming is off the menu this time. I think I could handle being in the cold water for at least a few minutes, but this very stiff wind that is blowing today would make things murderous once I came out. And anyway, I've already had my swim today - I visited the sports club this morning before getting packed to come here. So I'll just be a passive observer of the river scene today, not a participant!

I dump my pack, but don't set up the tent just yet. The sun won't be shining on this spot for too much longer, and I'd like to enjoy its warmth while it's still here. I spread my little groundsheet, and leaning back against the smooth rock face that forms the back 'wall' of my camping area, start the process of sinking down into the peaceful mood of the valley. It's good to be back ...


Act 1, Scene 1. Cast: two hawks, and two crows. Location: directly overhead. Enter stage left: two hawks, floating along at treetop level, scanning the river for edibles. I've become quite used to seeing these birds; any number of times a day they make their passes down and up the river, occasionally landing in the dead tree on the opposite bank, where they sit and watch me sitting and watching them. But today, the script takes a rather different turn. As they float round the corner, high over the deep pool at the upstream end of this stretch of river, two crows sail out from the adjacent trees. The combat starts immediately. The crows, who are nearly as large as the hawks, fly straight for the 'enemy', and break up their smooth formation. The four birds dip and swoop across the sky, staying in the same area above the deep pool. Sometimes, both crows start chasing one of the hawks, but this is immediately broken up by the other one.

Are these birds seriously fighting, or is this just play? I don't see any actual contact between crow and hawk, there are no loose feathers flying, and at times it is not clear who is chasing who. After a few minutes of this, the action moves further down the river, around the bend, and out of my sight. This is very curious. Surely the crows are scavengers, feeding mostly around the houses in the village up on the hill, and the hawks are finding 'natural' food down here in the river. What reason could there be for conflict between them? And this is the first time that I have seen crows down here in the valley; are they trying to 'take over' the territory? I'll have to keep watching to see how this develops ...


... The only star pattern I can recognize tonight is the one known as Orion the Hunter; the three stars making up his 'belt' are unmistakable. I remember a few other shapes, but cannot find them; either they have yet to rise, or are hidden in that whitish glow where stars are invisible.

I enjoy watching the 'show' until the bitterly cold air washing over me becomes just too much to stand, and then reluctantly zip up the tent door to start to develop some semblance of warmth in this little 'room'. I guess the day is finally over; just one more hot drink, and then it's time to get ready for bed.

A night in February - as we all know - is going to be cold. Down here at the bottom of this deep valley the air will be even colder than up in the town, and with an icy stream flowing by only a few metres away, it will be colder still. So I make my preparations carefully; of course I wear comfortable and warm clothes: on my feet a light pair of socks, with a thick wooly pair on top of them; on my legs the tights and pants; and on my body, my shirt and a snug but not bulky sweater. As my sleeping bag is only a 'three season' type, I enclose the bottom half of it in a cover made from my zipped-up parka. This will greatly assist with keeping my feet warm. I inflate the air mattress to its fullest thickness to ensure that no part of my body will rest directly on the ground. And I leave the door open for ventilation by only the tiniest of cracks. I do all these things, then slide down into the bag with the drawstrings pulled up around my face. It doesn't seem so cold in here after all. I think it's going to be a warm and peaceful night!


... The mood here is dramatically different. I find a comfortable place to sit, on a large rock overlooking a deep green pool. Here the river is silent, in sharp contrast to the noisy stream that cascades over the riffle in front of the tent. And the warmth of the sun, even as low in the sky as it is, instantly has an affect. No more than a minute later my jacket is open, I can feel the warmth sinking into my body, and the day has begun ... At last the day has begun.

What a difference this sunshine makes! Where just a few hours ago the minutes were ticking by endlessly, now they pass in a smooth stream. Are our needs really that simple? A pot of oatmeal with a handful of raisins thrown in, and a comfortable seat in the sun, sheltered from the breeze? Well, at the moment I can't think of anything else I could possibly need; it's a wonderful morning! And over the couple of hours that I sit here, I see that I'm not the only creature to feel so. Up until now on this trip I have seen almost nothing else moving in this valley, but here in this sunshine, I see that the world is still alive, even in this mid-winter. A small red spider walks across my notebook, a fat fly lands on a nearby branch to wash his face and wings, and look - two ducks now sail down towards the surface of the pool directly below me, and slide in for a perfect landing. When they hear my "Good morning you two. How did you spend that long night?", they paddle quickly across to the far side, well away from me. ...