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Nature is far from silent on many occasions

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Posted: Sunday, August 22, 2010 4:54 am | Updated: 1:18 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA — As my sister Miki and I sat on the bank of an ice-choked river last May, I remembered an odd statement I’d read a few weeks earlier. I don’t remember where I read it, or exactly how it went, but the author stated that other than the sounds of thunderstorms and of large animals in rut, nature really was a quiet place.

(I do remember checking the author’s gender. A guy. Am I chauvinistic or is it typical that he would think of rut?)

An ice jam had formed one bend below where we sat in front of the cabin. Chunks of foot-thick ice, rotted by the sun, ground to a halt on a gravel shoal. More ice chunks and pans drifted downstream to crash noisily into them and stop. Bigger pieces wedged in. A thinner sheet hit the jam and glided up to a halt on top. Smaller hunks bobbed at the leading edge for a moment before the current rolled them underneath the heaped ice. They rumbled bumpily underneath and emerged tinkling out the lower end, or crunched to a standstill when pinched between the ice and the shoal.

For six hours we sat watching the river and listening to the crashing, rumbling, thumping, groaning ice, and I had to laugh at people who think nature is silent. They must be part of the big disconnect we see between modern humans and the wild.

Sure, nature can be quiet. Those of us who winter in the deep forests of Alaska’s interior know this as well as anyone. We often hear ice and trees popping in the cold, the twittery flutter of small birds, or the wind drifting through the spruce, but on other days we step outside and hear absolutely nothing. Once your ears get used to that, you might hear the life in your own body, but the true silence around you is something to be cherished.

But in the spring, when the migratory birds return, look out! It’s not just the argumentative chatter of song birds, but also the thunder of wings when a few hundred geese take off in panicked flight, flapping and cackling as an eagle glides overhead. The sound makes the air shiver, a great din never to be forgotten.

Anyone who lives on a large body of water — a lake, river or the sea — would scoff at the thought that nature has few loud noises. The eternal movement of water sounds off as waves roll crashing into a beach or undercut riverbanks collapse into the current. Heavy rain shatters the surface of the water, rattling noisily and drowning out your shouts and even your thoughts. And you can’t argue about the loudness of nature over the roar of rapids or the gusty reverberations of a waterfall. I’ve listened to rapids wild enough to slam underwater boulders into one another with shuddering power, and heard waterfalls that overwhelm my senses. When rain or snowmelt loosens rocks and mud, whole mountainsides can come crashing down with deafening, destructive force.

Ice freezing in the Arctic rapidly thickens and expands with deep bellows, groans and cracks. Glaciers calve their icebergs into the water with roaring splashes. Snow loading steep mountainsides may slide off in thunderous avalanches that can fall thousands of feet, ripping up mature trees and crushing buildings.

Wind can be as deafening as water and ice. I’ve never witnessed wind over 60 or 70 miles an hour, but I’ll tell you even that speed is intense, too loud to communicate without screaming from a few inches away. I can’t even imagine the raging of a hurricane or a tornado.

While we’re at it, what about volcanic eruptions? These massive roars, booms and explosions can sometimes be heard thousands of miles away. And even a minor event like a tree falling in the woods makes an awful loud noise.

I thought of all this as breakup progressed on the river. As soon as one ice jam broke up, another formed. A slab of ice turned sideways and vertical, looking in profile like the jagged silhouette of a Chinese dragon. It ground between other pans of ice, undulating gracefully before slowly diving again. Another slab looked like the fin of a shark. A third was captured in a tiny whirlpool, circling round and round as the surrounding ice loudly ground away shards and sharp splinters.

A jam upstream broke, releasing a long line of ice that threaded down toward us. The scattered pieces rammed into the grounded ice with a drawn-out rumbling crash. Sheets of ice coasted over the top of the jam and shuddered to a stop, grinding the jam ever more securely into the gravel. More ice, driven by the current and ice pans pushing from behind, bulldozed up the cut bank across the river and crashed into the trees above, skinning the bark and shaking the fresh-leafed branches.

Dammed by the ice, the water began to rise, six inches and then almost a foot, building up until the 50 yards of layered, jammed ice undulated under the increasing pressure. Miki and I moved our up-turned five-gallon bucket seats out of the way as water rushed up to our feet.

Suddenly the straining ice at the downriver end of the jam lifted with the rising water, freeing the wedged ice with a loud grinding crunch. Pieces of ice jostled and crashed in their hurry to move, then gradually sorted themselves out to float downriver in a more orderly manner, like a traffic jam moving again.

Ice above the broken jam shifted and wedged, crashed, grunted and rumbled, protesting the enormous pressures that forced it downstream. As the current cleared the channel of ice, it left piles of ice bergs and brash heaped and scattered along the sand bar.

Normally we spend breakup on a lake, where the wind can push several square miles of ice into the shore, bulldozing beach gravel and stones (and sometimes boats) up into the trees. This last spring found us at a riverside trapping cabin, so to see that river ice move was really something. Still, however loud and impressive, breakup on a minor tributary is nothing like the drama and noise of breakup on a major river like the Yukon or the Kuskokwim.

In a few hours the ice was gone. The pleasant silence of our early morning on the river had given way to the reverberating din of ice on the move, and by early afternoon left us with the soft, steady whisper of water flowing toward the sea. Anyone who witnessed it would agree that the sounds of nature can range from sublime silence to thunderously loud — and I’m not referring just to thunderstorms and animals in rut.

• Horse update: we have no horse update. The two missing pack horses are still at large, north of Denali between the Foraker and McKinley Rivers. They have not been spotted since they ran away in June, although we have flown out to look for them and other pilots have been watching as well. Pilots with the Park Service and Kantishna Air Taxi have been especially generous with their time in searching for them, for which we are deeply grateful.

Miki is spending about two weeks back in the area, hiking and searching. So far no luck. We remain hopeful but realistic. It’s a big area, but Dropi and Meyla know how to take care of themselves. Predators pose only a minor threat; our horses have free-ranged for decades without serious run-ins with wolves or bear. We’ll keep you posted.

Julie Collins is a freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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