A Scream in a Chorus of Sighs

The stars aligned Friday: sun, fresh air and a free day. I had hoped to be hiking in the morning but my plans for a nearly 8 mile hike in the Columbia River Gorge fell through as snow pounded the area mid-week. I can do snow, and in fact I love it on a well-trodden familiar path, but I actually spent some time lost on this particular trail the last time I did it and that was in ideal conditions. This one will have to wait for another day. 

I’ve been listening to The Salt Path by Raynor Winn and I’ve been swept up in story for days. This book is about walking and healing, grief and unfortunate circumstance. But mostly, for me anyway, I found that it was about the human condition and the indomitable spirit of two of the loveliest humans. I’ve got just two hours left so my drive has to be at least that long. I planned well, I think. Or rather, I had a well chosen pivot: Theler Wetlands. Some snow, frigid temps and a touch of familiar. Perfect. 

While I love new places and experiences, I also love the familiar ones. We can hold the history and stories of these places close enough to slowly allow them to become a part of us. Sometimes at night as I am trying to calm my wild mind I search my memory for a place and walk the path. 

Rattlesnake Ledge trail I learned in early morning darkness. In the absence of light, the landmarks become the things beneath my feet. Here, you can feel a place rather than see it. Skyline Divide trail in July was an explosion of life and color that I won’t ever forget. I go back in memory for that one too. The extravaganza of yellow, purple and green sent me swooning. I can almost smell that sweet air. And then there is the warm comfort of Nisqually where I could walk with a blindfold and still describe exactly what is in front of me. It’s like running your fingers over the face of someone you love.

I’ve only been to Theler Wetlands one other time. It was cold that day too, but shrouded in fog. I couldn’t fully appreciate the morning view because a look down the boardwalk saw the water fading into a white nothingness until all form and figure disappeared. This time was different. 

Only the hardy are with me in the early morning light. It’s just 24° when I arrive and with a sharp wind the temperature trails off into what feels like the teens. I’m prepared: layers of good gear, earmuffs and microspikes for the frozen boardwalks and trail. I brought a fistful of batteries for my Nikon knowing the frigid air may cause them to discharge quickly. I have no science to support that, only history. And whatever the reason, I chose right. 

I spend an indulgent amount of the morning chasing kinglets and marsh wrens in the thicket. These delicate creatures with booming calls are among my favorites. I say chase, because it is the proper description of how I flail around with my camera, lens pointed here then there, here then there, here then there. There are butter butts in the mix and spotted towhees and sparrows. There is a Hutton’s vireo in the trees but it is the most elusive of all. 

I see just one Great Blue heron all day and hear a kingfisher that I never spot. There are killdeer and mergansers, Canada geese and small flocks of diving buffleheads. Eagles soar in the crisp blue sky and I capture a couple hawks perched near water that is still moving beneath thin layers of ice. The big surprise of the day is a (Prairie?) Merlin. I don’t see them often and this one was a charmer. 

Everything tender is brittle. Small branches and thin limbs are covered in ice and I hear them crackle and fall as I walk. The trees groan in the wind. It keeps me on my toes, all of this winter noise. The colors are icy: cool blues and purples, frosty greens and orange. Even the yellow is muted, gathering crystal-like flakes of ice. The only color that really pops in this landscape is red. The holly berries are like a scream in a chorus of sighs. 

Again, I come looking for the long-eared owl. I have an idea of the woods it may be hiding in, but no confirmation of location other than “off the path in the wetlands”. With nearly 140 miles of protected salt marsh and over three miles of walking trail, it’s moved into “needle in haystack” territory. Undeterred, I pay close attention to every snapping twig, muffled sound and shadows of broad winged creatures above me. No owl, but I’ll be back. We are kept curious and patient by challenges like these. And while wanting the things we can’t have isn’t a productive endeavor, it keeps us engaged with our selves in a way only longing can. 

If I am to return again at daybreak I need to remember to commence my walk counter-clockwise. As it was, I had the sun in my eyes for a good portion of the longest stretches. As a walker, it’s not a big deal. As a birder/photographer I have a different priority, and this ain’t it. (Although truth be told, it teaches me to listen more closely for what I might be missing in the glare. It’s the silver lining in my otherwise poor choice). 

As I followed the path of the salmon, there was a deep thrumming in the distance and my mind fell upon the idea that it could be drumbeats from the ancients. The Skykomish Indian Tribe cares for the waters of this Union River area. Always, in these places, I feel reverence. In the spots where the water pools, it is frozen over with sheets of ice. I stand on a railed footbridge over just such a place and watch sheets of ice melt and crash into the water below. 

There is art in the ice. 
And geometry. 
And physics, too.
Nature’s classroom.

There is a kind of learning that happens subconsciously that engages your mind in visual appeal, studies of angles and a demonstration of what it looks like when force and constraint meet and the result falls away. (Well, and simple gravity I suspect). Maybe there’s a metaphor here. You know I am always looking.

I circle the wetland trails three times before I head for home. It’s warmed to just above freezing as I leave. I tuck $10 into the steel cannister as a donation. If I had more, I would have left more. These wild, wetland places are priceless in every way. 7 hours, over 20,000 steps and over 500 photos. It’s a really good day to be me. 

* I finished The Salt Path with ten seconds to spare as I pulled into my garage. There is some perfect timing.Highly recommend this one It’s a new favorite.

Reflection in the River

11 Comments on “A Scream in a Chorus of Sighs

  1. The holly berries are like a scream in a chorus of sighs.

    I cannot tell you how much i loved your essay this morning… your gift left me wanting to underline phrases and passages…♥️ And the images are cherries atop a delicious confection of phrases and word images. Top o’ your game, Nygren! Top o’ your game! ♥️

    • Thank you so much, Mare* Just as I always hope my love for a place comes through in how I see it through my lens, I also always hope that my words find a soft place to land as well. 💕

  2. Wonderful piece, beautiful place, exquisite photos, both long shots and close ups (that ice is amazing!). It feels like a perfect moment in time for you, looking out and looking in, in the exact right place. Your love of the wilds comes through so clearly.
    I knew you’d like Salt Path! How I want to do some sort of pilgrimage like that (without their circumstances!).

    • Thank you for recognizing that love of the wild. I always wonder if it comes through, so it’s such a wonderful affirmation to hear this. The Salt Path was wonderful and I felt completely swept away. The book that follows is not grabbing me as much even though the author is reading this one. I’ll hang in there. Sometimes I just need the voice to become familiar so I can relax into it. Thanks again for putting it on my radar.

      • The second one isn’t as good for sure, it wanders a bit and doesn’t have the same focus. But it has its moments and is worth the listen. I am looking forward to the third though, not yet out in the US last time I checked. “Enchantment”

  3. Beautiful as always! The ice crystal shots are my favorite and the Merlin is a stunner. 😍

    • Oh yes, the ice and crystals were really stunning. Thin shelves over the water. I would see two Merlins in two days this past week and I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen one once before in my birding life. Serendipitous!

  4. Beautiful storytelling. It looks like it was just the right place for you to be. That one GBH, though. . . You made the most of the photo! It looks more like a penguin, all dressed for the weather.

    • Thanks, Gretchen* It really was the perfect place for the day. Cold and crisp and clear. I could almost feel my stress falling away like those sheets of thin ice.

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