I grew up on a river that swells in spring, shrinks in summer, and swallows drunks year-round. On the edges of its muddy shores are clams and cow jaws, beer cans and broken trees. Rising from this mess are steep, vine riddled banks of beaver slides and nesting holes. These lead to grassy weeds and cattail marshes. From there the land becomes a thick forest whose towering oaks drop bitter nuts by the thousand. In cold times it all goes bare, leaving vistas to roads and fields laid over in drifts of windswept snow.
From the window of a second story bedroom, my sleeping spot from two to twenty, I can peer across the Red River into Minnesota. This murky brown northern flow acts as the state divider between ten thousand lakes and my home state of North Dakota. Its wet reach extends all the way to Canada. The size of the river changes throughout the year and is hard to measure. The section I grew up with is perhaps on average fourteen feet deep and eighty steps wide from mud border to mud border.
I can run from my window to the water in a minute. The temptation is there as the river is always in sight when I look out. My bedroom vista also yields views of a sizable woods-enclosed yard. Its grassy slopes lead to my mother’s garden. Beside that on the woods side are rows of evergreens my father planted as babies. He’s raised them to be house high. On the other side of this tended plot the land cuts down in a diagonal toward the river.
I spent a lot of time in youth sitting on my bedroom windowsill, looking out at Minnesota as I read books. I was forever fascinated with the idea of living on a state line — a watery, liminal space. A new world lay just a hundred yards off. We called it the Minnesota side. Somewhere deep in that land lived my Minneapolis cousins. This other place was so close I often heard its cars driving on roads I couldn’t see. Its roaring tractors working fields like the ones all along the countryside I knew. If my family heard coyotes we’d try determine from which side of the river their elongated, throaty screeches emanated. These noises, both the meat fed and diesel fueled, were enchanting signifiers of other life.
When down on the river there are no buildings or signs of man in sight beyond the worked fields. It is almost always our own private world, though one occasionally shared with puttering boats and wound up snowmobiles. Since it’s our domain we’re allowed to shape and then reshape the way it’s used within a day, these forms only limited by imagination and the natural forces. I’ve played naked in its mud. Lit fireworks off its shores. Screamed curses down its way, attempting to create a vulgar echo. I sometimes go to the garden with my dad’s old clubs and try send golf balls to our neighboring state. Few ever hit the Minnesota mud.
In a cold winter the river freezes, forming a bridge between the two lands. There is a decent downward grade from the garden to the bend that is our section of the river. Perhaps it’s a hundred steps from where zucchini grow in summer to this frozen fish tank of winter. As a child I watched the ice slowly form over a month until it enveloped the last bits of open water. From there it thickened. Around January my dad walked down our hill and tested this new sheet. If he determined it to be safe we got to sled from the garden’s edge to the river’s snow covered middle.
My cousins and I were groomers, making sled trails between cattail marshes and the docking pole for my father’s pontoon. We had races and crash derbies where everyone grabbed each other’s slide from the get-go to create the wildest accidents. If someone broke from the group they could pick up speed and slide out thirty feet on the ice. The first kid down often stood at the bottom of the bank and let a full speed, snow kicking sled crash into them.
We sometimes walked to Minnesota to play but over there the bank was steep and possessed no hill. We had to pack new trails and oftentimes just beneath the snow was grass or weeds that slowed our sleds. The ice bridge was instead better for walking the length of the river rather than across. My mother and I have spent countless hours of our lives trekking down on that ice with ski poles as walking sticks. We often overdress and so leave trails of clothes as we pass through bend after bend.
The ice is rough and glazed over with crunchy snow. Sometimes there are snowmobile tracks to follow in but most often not. We tie grocery bags to our feet to keep them dry and walk for hours, one person making tracks for the other to step through. We carry water bottles and sometimes journey until well after the sun has set.
In winter everything is so bare it’s easy to look up and see well beyond the banks. Woods that are impenetrable in summer become a series of naked sticks. Through this the moon might hover over white-tailed deer startled into action from our noise. Along the way we point out things we know. The area at the treeline where I camp in summer. Massive trees half slid down from the woods, their giant roots exposed out the side of the frozen mud bank. Others whose journey to the river is complete, their roots desperately licking at the ice for a sip of water. The shack where a lonely man named Ozmond lived when my father was growing up just a mile away.
It was near this house of boards that sixty years back my grandpa took a horse-drawn sleigh to gather ice. He used manure to slope out the bank in fall. Months later he led his pony team down this leveled ground. There he loaded ice cut into slabs with a massive saw. These were hauled back to his farm, then stored in sawdust for later use.
So it wasn’t long ago my family used the Red for more than leisure. But the river has more memories than I’ll ever know, giving it a timeless quality. It sometimes feels like an experience from a distant century when we’re journeying between its banks below a jumped up moon.
Our dogs come along and cross freely from border to border. They go up into the woods for a sniff, only to come back down with hunks of a deer some November hunter didn’t care to keep. Soon enough the dead leg moose is forgotten and noses are dropped to locate burrowed mice. But once these curious tail-waggers have their bone-chewing instincts fully sated they’ll lick their ice paws and come trot in our tracks. They listen to my mother and I talk, pausing when we stop to farmer’s blow our runny noses. The dogs love it and so do I. My times on the river are the only part of a North Dakota winter I embrace.
Come spring the river outgrows its banks due to an endless thirst for melting snow full of piss, sticks, and frozen rodents. Oftentimes this means the Red River Valley will flood. Our yard fills up and so when it seems a high crest is coming I help my dad prepare. We move equipment, ready boats, and test the sump pump. Even with our precautions it’s hard to know what’ll happen.
Our home is built high but water fills the surrounding woods. All of the yard beyond our house’s lawn gets it, transforming this living space into an island. My mother moves out to be with her mom and sisters for up to a couple weeks. My dad stays put, keeping watch with the dogs until the river slurps its excess back down. When it does the trees are ringed with marks where the water crested and ice banged against the bark. These scars are visible for years and tell the stories of past floods.
In the melting phase the river is full of ice leftover from winter. It floats in big sheets upstream and smashes into whatever it pleases. From our yard one can hear the crashes when the ice hits another sheet or rams into trees. These sheets are monsters that destroy everything in their path. Sometimes I’ll come across a big log jutting from one and it looks like a spaceship frozen into hunks of an ice planet. One could probably cook up a mug of cocoa and hitch a ride to Canada on the alien craft. I’ll let my dog, Xouirteeee, do the initial test run. She’ll need Laika’s guiding ghost, a few leaves to bark at, and one puppy passport baked into a dish of dog food lasagna.
Since I was born in March this time of year reminds me of my birthdays growing up. Many times the river started its rise right around the time of my annual party. I’d have a bunch of friends from elementary school over and we’d horse around in the yard. We lit bonfires, played basketball, looked at the Sunday paper bra ads before burning them, and exploded empty hairspray cans in the woods. We also listened to the ice boom. People thought this was neat, especially when it really got loud. We’d stand down by the garden to hear the endless crashes, each one managing to startle us. After a bit we’d run back to our games so the river could keep growing on its own.
At times the flood gets so large my dad has to boat for a mile through fields just to reach untouched road. My furry fish of a dog swims behind to get in on the action. We sandbag my grandma’s yard to protect her house. In 1997 it destroyed parts of our nearest big town through both water and fire. The river’s reach in springtime often just means a hassle for nearly everyone in the Red River Valley.
Despite this destructive power I now like parts of the spring flood. The sun comes out and I get to wear just a t-shirt for the first time in months. It can disrupt my normal living and every now and then give me a bit of renewed perspective on the life and land I know. Sometimes my dad and I will go down to the water and hang together, chuckling in tandem at the river’s immense power over us. It’s going to do what it wants so I try to squeeze what joy from it I can.
There’s a big log the flood washed up one year at the end of my mother’s garden.
I sit on it as the ice goes by. It’s a beautiful sight that only comes once a year. The river cubes drift away from my perch and I watch them go. When they’re all gone it means the river can begin the process of fitting itself back within its banks. This return to normalization is an indicator that summer is soon approaching.
Summer is when the river feels most alive and inviting for use. The water flows unhindered and I get to play with it in so many ways. I sit in the bank’s mud and let this goop slide me past rocks, sticks, and calcified buffalo skulls. Swimming means letting the current carry me as far as I want to go. When I’ve gone far enough I slowly walk back against the flow or crawl up to land to make better time. In the grass I kick off what mud I can and let my shoes dry in the sun to clap them out later.
My father has a red pontoon we use for traveling up and down to eagle nests or wads of beaver stuff coming off the bank. He kills the motor and lets the boat float by these animal lodges so we can voyeur. The mosquitoes are thick and come out to bite but when the boat’s alive its speed keeps them from latching on. Sometimes we tie up on the bank and step off to pull potatoes from some stranger’s field. My dogs stand at the front and act as sentry, scanning for deer swimming across, fish plopping in and out, and farmhands wielding pitchforks.
This summer a dozen people swam twenty-seven miles in the river and my parents’ yard acted as the public gathering spot for spectators. Sometimes a drunk person takes a dip and never comes out, though that didn’t happen this year. For fun I canoed the corpse free waters several times.
My dog followed along on shore and through water, sometimes swimming up to me so I could pet her as she crisscrossed from state to state. I live on the Minnesota side now and so she brought me mud from both my new home and the old. Splitting the two was the water I’ve always known, and it was the shallowest I’ve ever seen. I got stuck once or twice. At times the woof woof machine could walk in the river’s middle before we each paddled off for more adventure.
In September I set up a tent in the woods for camping with friends. Over the years I’ve roughed it many times on the high bank, both by myself and with others. This time we drank gasoline flavored booze while telling old stories around a fire. We stacked chocolate and marshmallows on crackers, then fed them in sacrifice to the flames. The smoke billowed in our faces then headed to the treetops. Their leaves were starting to turn but the wind hadn’t blown many off the limbs just yet. There was still a lot of green in the season, each hue of that life filled color hanging on for just a little while more.
We let our dogs splash in the water as we scooted down the bank, looking for the last bits of sunshine. Fall was coming and that meant I’d have to start spending time on the snowmobile trail above the river instead of being down on it. I went to bed wrapped in many blankets. The next day I gathered more wood and had another fire with my parents.
We reminisced on all the ways we’ve enjoyed the river over the years and how we can utilize it more in the future. Later I came back to clean up and put the fire out. I used a spade to heap dirt on the coals, their dying warmth the color and feeling of fall. I didn’t want summer to go away. Didn’t want to think of how the next turn of seasons meant winter. There’s little to look forward to nowadays as the floods have ruined my sledding hill and the river often fails to freeze. I thought on all of this as I worked my spade. It took a lot of scoops to put the embers out. Each one killed the fire a little more. I shoveled as slow as I could.
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