A PLACE in mind
By Leath Tonino
Little Otter Creek
The hot months, the green months, the bug-loud
months of summer – I don’t enjoy these so much
as endure them. Born in December, winter’s cold
lives somewhere between my heart and bones.
To recall a favorite place is to recall a favorite
season, a favorite place in time. If you ask me,
Little Otter Creek is best explored on a negative-twenty evening, the sun going down orange in
the west, the sky purple, a stillness everywhere.
It’s not just the mood – that lovely, lonely
mood, the breath before your face a drifting
cloud, coyotes yipping in the distance. Practically
speaking, you simply can’t access all the wetland’s secret spots without the help of ice and
skates. Each autumn, I pace the creek’s sere shore
in anticipation, studying the surface on sharp
mornings, waiting, watching, feeling pent-up and impatient.
Geese cut south overhead. Painted turtles bury themselves in
the mud. The namesake otters blink and roll and disappear.
Then, finally, the wind dies and the temperature falls for three
straight days. Once again, like last year and the year before,
When my mother moved to Ferrisburgh a decade ago, I was
less than thrilled. Houses in a row? A neighborhood? You’ve got
to be kidding me! Sure, it was only a dozen houses, and sure, the
development was built on an old orchard where the apples and
pears continued to thud against the grass, but still. Woods-lov-ing teenager that I was – backpacker, burgeoning Thoreauvian
– I wanted nothing to do with so-called civilization. Rather,
I wanted room to roam, to wander and perhaps get a bit lost.
Heck, I wanted to be done with rooms altogether.
To my great surprise, I found the lostness I was looking for
a mere half-mile away – across the field, over the train tracks,
over the barbed wire fence, down through the brush, down the
steep bank, down in the ground’s low crease. The Little Otter is
intricate, fringed with acres of wild marsh. Besides some duck
hunters in October and some bass fishermen in flat-bottomed
boats come June, it sees and is seen by few humans. Put it this
way: I’ve encountered far more raccoons and turkeys back there
than I have fellow skaters.
Every outing is different, every outing alike. It’s dusk, the sky
purple against the horizon’s orange line, the cold burning at my
cheeks. I’m shuffling onto black glass in rubber boots, jumping,
listening, strange sounds spidering through my ears. My backpack holds a thermos of tea and a pair of hockey skates, nothing else – no headlamp, no cell phone, no leftover thoughts or
concerns from the long day of cars and computers and work and
talk. I’m sitting on a log, lacing up, yanking with all my might,
tightening the skates until they’re part of my body. Tightness is
speed and speed is what this is all about. Plodding nature walks
are well and good – pause often, pay attention – but not tonight.
These blades are freshly sharpened and ready for the blur.
That first winter on the Little Otter was a revelation, an
opening of my mind to the watershed and the possibilities of a
tailwind-billowed jacket. Beneath the bridge on Little Chicago
Road, rapids tumble down a gorge through rotten ice. Four
miles north, having bowed left with an oxbow and leapt a
pressure crack, I stop short where the broadened creek meets
Hawkins Bay’s violent chop. This is the interface – mashed up
plates and blocks refrozen into a mosaic too dangerous to touch,
sloshed over by waves, a long view across Lake Champlain to the
Adirondacks beyond. Shiver. Spin. This is the turnaround, the
beginning of the homeward push.
Whether with friends or alone, whether under bright warm
sun or night’s first stars, I always notice the same giddy tingle
running up my spine when I glide and sprint on the Little Otter.
Would it be trite to call that tingle freedom? Yes, probably so.
But what to call it, then? Nose dripping, eyes watering, a glimpse
of pale fish beneath my skates – things blur. Am I swimming?
A great horned owl swoops low and veers away. Am I flying? Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe we don’t have the words to
describe this kind of experience.
Okay, fair enough. Open the thermos. Sip the strong tea. Call
it gone, I guess, so gone. Call it right here, once again, like last
year and the year before.
Born and raised in the Champlain Valley, Leath Tonino writes for Outside, Men’s
Journal, Orion, and other magazines.