This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wood Duck Thoughts

What is the difference between a thing and the idea of that thing? When we look at the picture of a wood duck, a close-up picture, one that fills the frame with the wonderful colors and feather patterns, what do we mostly think? Most of us think that this is a pretty duck, a very pretty duck that makes us wonder that it could be so colorful, and so finely detailed in every way. It is the structure we think of – the physical being of the wood duck.

I suggest that there is another way to look at wood ducks. It is the idea of wood ducks, rather than the reality of them. When you stand out on the river at first daylight, they fly up and down the river – sometimes landing in a tall tree, sometimes just swooping low to the water and then high over the trees – always making that wheep-wheep call that so much identifies them. At times like that you can believe in the idea of something that otherwise we think of only in physical terms.

When they fly together in small groups of four or five you can get the feeling of the wonder of flying. The idea of flight is so alien to us because we cannot do it, but it is so natural to those that are equipped for it. Freedom comes to mind when we see them fly. Freedom is an idea, a thought, not physical.

When ducks sail they can be making their final decision as a living being in duck form. Sailing ducks have a particular meaning for those who think ahead to rice and gravy. If they are sailing toward decoys, a hunter is experiencing that rush of emotional energy that precedes a successful conclusion to his efforts. Food comes to mind at that moment. The idea of food and that feeling of contentment following a good meal are ways to think of the wood ducks sailing.

As they land up in the trees, the ducks fly in the face of all we are taught to believe about ducks. Ducks land in water, not in trees. Except that wood ducks do land in trees. So the idea that these are different from the ordinary comes to mind, these animals that deviate from expectations. So maybe it’s ok to be different, we think. The idea of difference being something to be glad for is an idea that wood ducks bring to us, I think.

When the resting ducks find a place in thick branches they can be hard to locate. They can represent elusive beauty, or the idea of something worthwhile that we must hunt for instead of having it thrust into our awareness like a loud unexpected noise. That kind of beauty is often more satisfying because it is we as individuals who found it. Not having to share it with the crowd makes some things more special, somehow. Finding two wood ducks in a thickness of tree branches can be that kind of experience.

And then sometimes the wood ducks just stand up on top of the tallest dead willow tree they can find and announce themselves to the world. It is easy to see this and think of the ultimate grace in our relationship with wild things. The ultimate grace in knowing that there is something special up there in that dead willow tree, and we have been given the chance to appreciate it. The fact that we can look and smile at this indistinct image , knowing that the ducks are just as meaningful to us as they were in the close-up image I spoke about before, is what I mean by the idea of something.

The river is at 19.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 20 feet by the 22nd. This is the highest it has been since we moved here in 1999. I have set out a tightline over what was our lawn – caught three catfish where I normally cut grass. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling above Vicksburg so things should level out next week, and maybe start to fall after that.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Eighth Line, and Floods

Beyond ownership;
A place where a great river lives;
Where most of our crawfish used to come from;
Where commercial fishermen make a living;
A place of memories for a lot of people;
A home for ghost stories;
A place of great living complexity;
A controlled spillway;

That is the eighth line of “Atchafalaya Is”. How appropriate that it is time for the eighth line and here comes the high water. This is the highest water since we moved to the river eight years ago. And the spillway concept is in use.

There have been many seasons of high water on the Mississippi, and hence the Atchafalaya. Looking back at the records, there seems to have been a major flood about every ten years. That was tragic for those who lived along the rivers but there weren’t many who did, and the rising water was often an expected thing. And anyway, there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. You just tried to live on the highest land you could, knowing that the river would come to find you, eventually.

In 1927, one of these big periodic floods came. By this time there were a lot people living in low areas, and there was a lot of potential loss to lives and property. And there was a great loss. It was a disaster in human terms, and after the disaster, the federal government had the resolve to try to do something about future floods. Congress passed the laws that provided for the construction of levees to contain the floodwater in the future. This included levees along the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya too. And the Corps of Engineers was there to do the job. But what was to be the role of the Atchafalaya? It was to be a controlled conduit to direct water spilled from the Mississippi out to the Gulf of Mexico, and they called it a spillway, the Atchafalaya Spillway. Spill – like when some liquid is handled carelessly. Spillway – when something carelessly handled is done so in a specific way. Just wordplay, that.

The main levees in the Basin were finished in the mid to late 1930s. The biggest test of the levee system came in 1972, during my first year as a fulltime commercial fisherman. I can still see that water roaring down (actually not roaring) the main Atchafalaya channel and I’m wondering if I have the ability to learn how to cope with that, I mean out there in it. The main levee at Myette Point was about 30 feet high and the water was within two feet of the top. You could put your hand against the levee and feel it vibrating. I’m not sure what was causing the vibration except maybe just the tremendous pressure against the levee. You could walk around on the flat land outside the levee and it would quake in places. It would jiggle like jello sometimes. That is a weird thing to see. Most everyone knows about what nearly happened to the Old River Control Structure that year. It almost failed at the peak of the flood, and if it had we would not be living here now. The Mississippi would have cut a new channel south to the Gulf and Butte La Rose would not be. The Corps of Engineers believes that they have strengthened the control structure so that the thing that almost happened cannot. Because we like to live here, our money is on the COE. The Butte La Rose gauge registered about 28 feet in 1972, and that’s the highest it’s been since 1927. It actually didn’t get that high in 1927. There were no levees to contain the water then, so it just spread out and flooded the surrounding countryside. It went out, not up.

So the spillway idea seems to be working. This spilled, carelessly handled liquid does find its way to the Gulf. But it leaves a legacy of silt that has transformed a huge lake (aptly called Grand) into massive sandbars that have generated much public land that was waterbottom before. I guess you just have to decide which you prefer – land or water – to determine whether you think this flood control has come at an acceptable price.

The pics here show the water last summer during a falling river at about a five foot stage, and at the present levels of 16 to 19 feet. Our dock is OK because it floats, but the deck is submerged about a foot and turning into a sandbar of its own due to silt deposition. The crest is currently predicted to be about 22 feet so we may get another three feet before the river starts to fall. Not sure about that. I had to build some “bumpers” onto the outside of the deck so that the dock would not float over the railing if the water gets that high. They may not be needed, but if they are it will be too late to do it then.

The river is at 18.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 19.5 feet by the 14th. The Mississippi and Ohio are not rising above Memphis so it will take additional rain in the Ohio watershed to keep the rise going. Right now it looks like this will crest here in a week or so and begin falling. We’ll see.

Rise and Shine, Jim