Zig Zag River

Saturday September 22, 2012

More than a year after Irene left an indelible mark on our lives. Some of us are still trying to understand the depth of all the changes wrought by that devastating force of nature. With the sun at a mid-September angle, I saw the light playing along a seemingly stalled section of the Saxtons River today. Some pattern recognition part of my brain could clearly see a consistent zig zag of rocks and still water. This is the new river bed? The section I’m referring to was near the I-91 bridge on Route 121 while I was driving west. It was one of the most ravaged sections of the river, near the site where three homes had been lost.

As we drove westward I said to my fiancee, "One good mini flood might bring that meandering mess back into some semblance of the old current, but it’s never going to be the way that it was." Regardless of what happened to our flooded rivers when heavy equipment was brought in to clear out the mess, it would be an undertaking of massive proportions to bring back the rivers the way we once knew them. But the simple truth is that all rivers are constantly changing. As a teenager, I swam in the White River for at least four summers, day after day, rain or shine. Each year that first swim at Payne’s beach was one of pure discovery. While the big, submerged rock about 20 feet from shore never changed, everything around it did. From deposits of sand to stuck logs, the bottom of the river meandered and changed each and every year. While those changes were noticeable, they weren’t ever radically different. Not like the changes we’ve seen from Irene.

Swimming holes along the West River, the Williams River and the Saxtons River have been altered, and I’ve even noticed a couple of new ones that have established themselves. While Irene made this possible, a lot of it had to do with the banks. If enough vegetation gets removed, access to the river opens up, and that is exactly what has happened in a few places. Local swimming holes along rivers seem to have gained in popularity in recent years. Just off Route 30 where the Rock River meets the West River near Williamsville, "Indian Love Call" as we know it, often has over a hundred vehicles parked along both sides of Route 30. For a time it even had a hot dog stand. Irene did not dampen folk’s enthusiasm for this swimming hole, but a glance over the bridge looking down at the Rock River Delta tells you it has changed. The sandbar on the south shore has enlarged, and all the fine rocks that once edged that sandbar are now either buried or gone.

I’ve been wondering what these changes have been doing to fish populations, and how standing water has been utilized by breeding mosquitoes. Is there an increase in the mosquito population along flooded Vermont rivers this year? Will we be experiencing increases in the occurrence of West Nile Virus and Triple E that these insects vector? It wouldn’t surprise me if it did. It’s obvious that all the funky little pools created in Irene altered rivers may be good for fish spawning, and estimates of recovered fish stocks may prove to be quicker than three to four years. It’s all new to us. Either way you look at it, the flow has changed.

Is this change good or bad? All I can say is that it was caused by nature, and if you believe that nature finds ways to correct itself, we will soon see examples of it, but one year is too early to know for sure. Right now there are more questions than answers, and time is the only factor that will tell us what will happen. I hear the debates about using heavy equipment to change the course of streams and rivers and I have to say that there are valid points being made by both sides of that argument. We’re talking nature here, and it is going to go the way that it goes.

In the meantime, observing the changes and keeping an eye to the rivers has become a source of interest for many of us who live here. Regardless of how much "use" we got from these rivers, we pass by them each day as our roads follow their meandering paths, and they are a key part of our landscape. To see them so drastically altered is still a jolt to the senses. How they evolve from here will be even more interesting, but in the end it is a reminder of how important our rivers and streams are, whether they follow an ancient path, or they zig zag in some wounded, retreating direction. It will all change again.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for 20 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM every weekday morning at 8 a.m.


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