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The Scenic Route

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Photo by Richard Tomlinson Photo by Richard Tomlinson

Spring's hydrologists

Spring is springing. I feel it underfoot, seemingly seeping up from underground, though I know it’s a function of solar gain. Walking between my house and my mother’s feels like treading a plush carpet, excepting that this sticks to my boots. 

The planet is sneaking into the house one mud particle at a time. Not enough care or caution can be taken to stop its ingress in these first days of the thaw. Wipe your feet, take off your shoes, and your pants cuff drip aqueous muck onto the kitchen floor. There is no escape, unless you count Mexico. Mud season is upon us, as our world gets a super-injection of hydromass. 

I made that word up—I think. Feel free to use it at will. Someone came up with biomass one day, out of the blue, and spell-check doesn’t even blink at it any more. I fully expect hydromass to reach the same, mundane state, but for now, I like its fresh appearance. It seems a properly constructed and, furthermore, descriptive noun, though that’s not what nouns are supposed to be. Nouns in their pure form just are—objects or subjects—and adjectives describe them. Hydromass could get the adjective union upset. 

A favorite hydromass of my childhood was Clayton Creek, a very seasonal stream along the road that led to my grandparent’s home. My sibs and I did amateur hydrology experiments in that stream. In spring, the creek (pronounced crick in Montana, and no argument from any transplanted flatlander has convinced me differently) in the ditch became the best current excuse for dawdling on our way to fill grandma’s wood box. We built dams in the ditch and waterbars in the road—before we knew what waterbars were—all designed to interrupt, modify, pool or channel hydromass. 

If a dam-building session began after school, with receding light and impending chores mitigating factors, the material of choice was snow, of which there was still plenty most years. We packed it into blocks and boulders and laid them across the stream, creating pools that sometimes reminded us that galoshes are only waterproof to the top. 

Galoshes, if you don’t remember them, were made of rubberized fabric with buckles that closed the throat of the boot once you got your foot, complete with shoe, pushed in. Most were black, but if you were a little kid, yours might be red or yellow. They were viewed as armor in my family, completely necessary in the battle to conquer Clayton Creek, and, except for being sometimes too short, very reliable—unless the dog chewed on them. 

There was something both uncomfortable and satisfying about slopping frigid water over the top of a galosh. You might have at least one wet foot, but wading that deep in a pool of your very own hydromass was worth it.

A galosh that was wet inside caused the shoe to stick in the throat when you tried to pull it on, and you could break a fingernail trying to force the issue. The kid who remembered to put his wet galoshes close enough to the stove to dry overnight—without making them smoke—was ready to go in the morning a lot sooner than one who forgot.

Weekend hydromass projects involved sophisticated building techniques and materials. If you are allowed to use a hatchet to split kindling, it follows directly that you are allowed to use a hatchet to cut down saplings with which to build dams. Permission to do so was implicit, and taken full advantage of. Making off with a handsaw was risky, particularly if you were cutting down pitchy grand fir or ponderosa. Grandpa kept a shovel near the ditch for his own hydromass projects, so that was never a problem.

A weekend dam project might produce a dam of sufficient size and impermeability to activate some of the waterbars in the road downstream—hopefully without actually washing the road out, which could make life dangerous for amateur hydrologists. 

Most dams, even those built of saplings and soil, were short-lived. There is something about a homemade downstream disaster—however small—that budding hydrologists find fascinating, so we became dam removal specialists, too. In some manner or another, we would weaken the structure a bit at a time—we never could get hold of dynamite for the purpose for some reason—until the entire pent-up hydromass would push the dam out of the way and rush downstream at once, while we followed the flood and observed. 

It was fun, pure and simple, and a practical lesson in hydrology we would never have gotten playing with an X-Box. Sometimes, we got more than a little wet and more than a little cold, but that gave us hardy immune systems. Hydromass manipulation was also a cooperative, nonviolent activity, though we did get in a fight once—which we won—with some city boys who knocked out our snow dams before we could during a dam-building stint in Spokane. Dam building makes you tough in more ways than one. 

Hydromass manipulation on a small scale is still fun, and part of the rites of spring. I am never surprised—in fact, I am somewhat pleased—to see a few kids industriously creating diversions and containments in creeks along their pathways home, though I don’t see many galoshes. The newer rubber boots have tops, too, though, and ice water is still as refreshing now as it was when I was an amateur hydrologist working in Clayton Creek on my way home from school. 

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

spring, weather, rain, childhood, Clayton Creek

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