Startled in the dark


When you live beside a river — literally within spitting distance — and pay daily attention to nature and the riverine environs just beyond your doorstep, you get to know that particular stretch of stream landscape intimately.

I certainly know mine.

From upstream of the cottage, the slow-moving water heads our way through a long, mud-bottomed flat. As it nears the house, the stream shallows and picks up speed. It then subdivides into a myriad of rivulets and runnels that purl and gurgle, splashing and percolating through the gravel, over stones and ledgy rocks, seeking to find the way downhill between the boulders of the big riffle which the neighborhood’s older residents refer to as “the falls.”

At the bottom of this very modest pour-over, the river noisily empties into what we call the Cottage Pool.

This is the premier fishing hole for several hundred yards in either direction and every passing angler — wading or afloat — gives it a try. Most, however, fail to read the water correctly and end up fishing it from the wrong side…which suits me just fine.

Below this lovely pool, there’s a sand bar along the far bank that morphs into a gravel shoal farther downstream. Fifty yards below the house, there’s another long glide preceding a second, smaller riffle, beyond the downstream end of our 300 or so feet of riverbank property.

Of course, I don’t just look at the stream itself — I keep track of the corridor through which this piece of water continuously flows. In the same way most folks know their own backyard, I’ve thus become familiar with the ranks of huge sycamores that line the banks, their often exposed and protruding root clumps, any temporarily mired log or driftpile, and practically every visible larger-sized rock in the water or along its edge.

My point is simply that I generally know exactly what I’m looking at under various lighting conditions, regardless of the season. So, I can often spot something odd or out of place even when it’s dark.

I get up fairly early — around 6 a.m. On my way through the kitchen, I switch on the electric kettle to boil water for a life-saving pot of strong, French press coffee. During cold months, I pause again in the main room to open the damper on the woodstove and maybe toss in a chunk of oak or ash.

Daisy the dog is always at my heels. After donning my old canvas coat, we step outside. While she goes about her business, I check out the river on my way to the bird and squirrel feeders at the opposite corner of the cottage.

Nowadays it’s still dark out; dawn doesn’t start leaking into the eastern sky for at least another half hour—though the recent solstice will eventually begin to noticeably push back that first-light timeframe.

Too, on the morning of this narrative, a heavily overcast sky prevented even the winter stars and waning Full Cold Moon from adding their feeble shine.

Yet it wasn’t quite pitch dark. There was an ambient, almost ethereal glow, a soft, nebulous radiance with no discernible source, but illumination nevertheless. I could see sufficiently to walk around — well enough to make out the surface of the water a dozen feet below.

I stood for a moment, watching the Stillwater’s silent but shifting surface, and the top of a rather large boulder near the bank.

Ehh-h … what boulder?

Peering closer, I suddenly realized that nearby bankside lump I’d initially mistaken for a stone was moving, coming closer!

It was early, dark, cold, and I was seriously under-caffeinated. Momentarily short-circuited, I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. Thankfully, after a few seconds of gaping like a gobsmacked fool at this approaching “stone,” my morning-muddled brain finally recognized I was looking at a beaver!

At the same instant, the swimming critter sensed something amiss and stopped — presumably looking up at me. I couldn’t tell for sure because I couldn’t really see the beaver’s eyes. However, beavers are nocturnal, and they can see just fine on even the darkest night.

I remained stock still and I’d guess we stared at each other a full minute, though it was a kinda one-sided stalemate. Then I maybe twitched, because the water-treading beaver suddenly slapped its broad tail and dove — a gunshot loud noise that caused me to jump and set Daisy to barking as she tore my way across the yard to see what manner of trouble I’d gotten myself into.

I’d actually been expecting that cracking tail-slap. God knows I’ve prompted countless similar reactions from dozens of annoyed beaver throughout my years of fishing lakes and streams all over North America.

In spite of this, I was still startled — though this was not the first beaver I’d seen on the Stillwater, nor even the first I’ve seen close-up in the pool adjacent to the cottage after dark … and frankly, not the only one to end our encounter with a tail-slapping “I’m outta here!”

Beaver are not common visitors, but they’re around and I spot one from time to time. They’re still a special treat.

Folks are generally surprised when I tell them there are beavers in the river. Not many years back, it wouldn’t have been possible to see one here in this part of Ohio. After being extirpated more than a century before, beaver have made a comeback throughout Ohio and can now be found in all 88 counties.

I don’t know exactly when they reintroduced themselves into the Stillwater’s watershed. We’ve lived here since 2006, and they were present then. I also remember seeing beaver sign miles upstream during smallmouth outings a decade earlier. So mid-to-late ‘90s would be my guess.

Regardless, I’m glad they’re here — even if they do sometimes give me a near-coronary scare amid winter’s darkness.

When you live beside a river, you never know what excitement stepping out your doorway will bring!

Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected].

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