Signs and wonders

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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It’s funny how something out of place can stick in your mind for years. Something that’s just not right — and for me, one of those things happened on the Red Head River down below North Harbour on the road to Branch.

The day of the trout in the trees.

There’s a set of six rivers down there that have spots worth fishing. They drain great flat bowls of barrens and bog, and many, like the O’Keefe and the Barachois, the Little Salmonier and the Little Barachois, grow surprising in flow as you travel towards their mouths.

They’re fed by streams and trickles of peat-brown water, but also by near-constant seeps from the edge of the bog. There’s almost always something dripping along the line between fallen moss-edge and river rock, and the driest places tend to be drifts of river-rock that crop up in the centre of the flow — they’re the spots where rocks are deposited and shaped into berms by the big water-flow of spring.

Sometimes, if the stone piles last long enough, if they’re not carved away and kicked out by the next winter’s rafting ice, their surface begins to sprout threads of hopping wild strawberry or the small, hardy purple flowers with the yellow centres that seem to own the edges of river valleys down there.

The changing of the stone islands gives you some idea of the power of the flow of those rivers in the spring — but it’s not the only sign. On many of them, anywhere the rivers flatten and spread, there’s also a curious effect you find on the first rank of spruce and fir along the bank: the trees closest to the water often bear a mark where the bark’s been torn away, all on the same side, as if someone had walked both sides diligently blazing trail markers on every single tree.

The evenness of the marks — on some rivers, at knee height, on others, occasionally waist-high — made me think they were man-made the first time I saw them. They were too regular, too specifically shaped to be any natural effect — until, that is, I spent a fully miserable wet March day working my way to a pond I’d remembered seeing on a river trip, and realized that the marks were ice-scar. No other sign that the rivers had, at some point during the winter’s freeze-and-thaw, risen quite spectacularly and then had thrown their ice downstream fast enough to clip and mark every tree they touched.

So even though the vast bowl of bog that creates those rivers can hold an almost unimaginable amount of water, it’s not an endless reservoir. Especially in winter, when everything’s frozen on top, heavy rains rolling in from the Placentia Bay side can make the rivers peak fast.

Not in late summer, though. Big rains will raise the rivers, and a few days of heavy rain will make them unfishable and unwalkable, the water back into the brush so that travelling the sides leave you staggering into unseen bogholes and the twisted foot-traps of spruce roots. But you don’t see the water as high as your waist.

But back to an unseasonably warm weekend in early fall 2010. Hurricane Igor had done its thing, smashing into the province and doing an astounding amount of damage. People had been cut off, at least one man lost his life, and for many, the damage was simply astounding. Big trees down — along the six rivers, there were spots where whole blocks of trees lay flattened (I’ve written about that before, about the way it seemed as if one tree, one crucial tree, had given in and fallen during the storm, letting the wind amongst its fellows and toppling them in short order, too.)

At the foot of the Red Head River, the whole topography had changed; there was once a provincial park there, but it’s gone to wrack and ruin since the provincial government walked away and left it. Alders have shot up through the tent pads and Igor turned its gravel roadways into new river courses, carving out and undercutting banks, building new ones in other places. The water had risen behind the barrisway until enough weight collapsed part of the barrier beach, after which the water, tree snags and great clots of turf had been pushed out to sea.

It all looked odd enough — and then, and then, there were the trout in the trees.

They were everywhere: dead and drying, wrinkling like mummies, their marble-bright eyes wrinkled and flattened. On spruce branches, along the ground, woven into tree roots, scattered like caplin at the tideline. So many that the seagulls were sated.

There were big trout, too, not the pan-sized ones that usually work the shallows of fast rivers. Scattered everywhere, as if they’d gone exploring new territory and lost their way when the water sucked back without them.

It was a record-breaking rain — but probably not the biggest rain we’ll have, if weather scientists are right about the way temperature change will starve some places of water, while flooding others.

Maybe others will get to see trout in the trees — I assure you this, it’s not something easily forgotten.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Red Head River, North Harbour, Little Barachois Placentia Bay

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