Big rivers are the home to many real and mythical creatures. Water is, after all, the source of all life. River riparian areas are veritable highways for wildlife of all kinds, and rivers spark the mind’s imagination to conjure all manner of mythical beings.
Rivers undergo dramatic changes with the seasons. Spring brings flood, with water overflowing banks and seeking new levels, nourishing the ground with fresh soil for lush grasses and sustaining the towering cottonwood trees, and moving downfall to strand on gravel beaches and banks and create blockages which weave new channels. Summer’s lazy, placid waters calmly flow within main stems, pooling along banks to provide fish with deep, cool refuges, and feeding water to sloughs from underground. Autumn’s cold waters come alive with birds as they migrate along their corridors to their winter grounds. The most dramatic river changes come with winter’s temperatures rising above and falling below the magical freezing point, forming ice and sending clouds of fog into the air, only to freeze and form hoarfrost.
Hoarfrost is, of course, the product of two winter river rascals: Jack Frost and his sidekick, the Frost Fairy. These creatures are more than mythical. While they themselves may be invisible, their presence and their handy work can be both seen and felt. Every winter these two spirited phantoms venture forth under the cover of night to turn an ordinary, but beautiful, world into an extraordinary, otherworldly and ephemeral vision of crystal. Last January, Jack seemed to be on a delusional high as he and his sidekick outdid themselves with magic.
Jack stayed at the river to play and do the heavy lifting, supplying the Frost Fairy with her pallet of crystals for her trips to the forest to adorn the trees. He magically levitated the warmer water molecules to hang effortlessly in the cold air, forming a thick mantle of fog to conceal his efforts and diffuse the warmth of the sun, thus preventing it from spoiling their fun. His organic brew infused the area with a musty, earthy, and heavy odor. Like a child in summer gleefully and casually skipping stones across the river’s surface, Jack delighted in forming delicate and airy frost lily pads that he then randomly cast in the thick, yet still flowing, water.
The Frost Fairy did all of the delicate work. First she flitted among the cottonwood trees along the river’s shore, painting their naked limbs and spindly twigs a sparkly white to starkly contrast with their dark bark. The dull grey sky seemed only to accentuate her talents. It was a scene of contradictions, with the feathery frosted trees reaching and reaching into a fog-laden and burdensome sky that was totally lacking in texture.
Moving up to an area we call the bench (because it is flat and overlooks the riparian forest), she proceeded to dress the ornamental trees, the buildings, and the fences, by painstakingly applying individual ice crystals to each and every needle of the pine trees, to the tiniest of the lilac twigs, coating every strand of wire along the fences, and turning ordinary ranch objects like gates and birdhouses into true works of art. She was meticulous and thorough in her duties, making sure that each crystal was unique, and delicately balancing crystal upon crystal to create cotton candy-like swirls on every tree branch. What an artist is she!
She clearly favored one lovely ponderosa pine situated on the bench offering a loverly view of the river corridor, near our wooden arbor with porch swing, picnic tables, and fire pits. She recognized it as a gathering place where she could parade her skills and show off her aesthetic sensibilities to all who might pass by. Every needle, every branch, every nook and corner of the tree was coated with layer after layer after layer of luminous sheets of tiny crystals.
It was her masterpiece. And, indeed, all who passed by took notice, stopping for a detailed inspection of her fine work, looking up and down to appreciate it from all angles. She entrapped me in her spell-binding artistry as I stood for long moments breathing in the cold and viscous air that she and Jack had used to work their wonders. As with all things of great beauty, especially things that embrace all of the senses, mere photos do not do justice.