And just when we thought we were winter-proof…the cold descended. Literally, one day it was near 60 degrees and a few days later came the snow, ice, and record-breaking cold. Although it has been a mostly mild winter in the Kentuckiana area…it has also seemed like a longer than necessary season. Everyone I know is winter weary. Cabin fever has me out venturing among the frozen willow trees at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. From winter’s past, I know that when conditions are just right, I can expect to see some interesting ice formations near the river.
The right conditions are also cold conditions and you need to dress appropriately. I find I’m in good shape wearing my vintage pair of Wind-Dodger goggles to keep my eyes from getting all watery. An old treasured scarf across my face and an all wool, German, military surplus, submariner sweater add to the many layers I have on. I bring along my trusty walking stick which I use frequently to test the thickness of the ice over frigid water-filled puddles. Outfitted in my best polar garb I feel confident as I venture forth over a hibernating landscape covered in snow and ice.
In the eastern section of the park, ice has formed on the dam’s wall. This wall is all that separates the full force of the Ohio River from impacting the lower levels of the park that I am familiar with. The true height of the river is many feet above my head. The more swiftly flowing water keeps from freezing. Debris of all description and the trunks of washed away trees build up on the upriver side of the dam. More than likely, all the pent-up driftwood will find release when the spring floods come and even the walls of this dam can’t keep the river from rearranging this area once more. It is a dynamic environment ruled by the river. If I were to contrast the scene before me with the way this spot will look like in six month’s time…you would think you were on a different planet altogether. I try to appreciate the variety before me which also has a way of keeping out the cold.
I find there is a surprising amount of life out here. Although I’m the only person around, I have already spotted several species of birds that don’t seem to mind these conditions. Geese have left there meandering tracks in the snow. In the air, I watched both a Peregrine falcon and a nice flock of Ring-billed gulls engage in aerobatics over the river. I come across other tracks in the cold mud that has me momentarily frozen in place. I sort of recognize them, but there is also something not quite right here that I can’t put my finger on?
To my eye, they appear to be beaver tracks, but they are too small. I run all the possible candidates through my mind’s mammal filter, but I’m drawing a blank. I chalk it up to my inexperience. Try as you might, you can’t learn everything from books and there’s no substitute for doing the fieldwork. I left the tracks and headed towards the spot on the river where I’ve seen good ice formations before. Along the way, I find many chewed up willow branches and cuttings near a stand of willow trees. Something has been dining fairly regularly in this area and with luck I may find other evidence identifying my mystery animal. As you may have already guessed…luck was with me!
If it hadn’t moved, I doubt that I would have seen it and I would have missed the first recorded occurrence of the Polar Beaver (Castor arcticus) at the Falls of the Ohio State Park! In size, this remarkable rodent is about the size of the common house cat. I stood transfixed as this all-white animal concentrated its intentions on the ice-covered willow trees near the river’s edge.
I wondered if the Polar Beaver could appreciate the varieties of shapes and forms that frozen water can take? In the background, the Ohio River seemingly “smoked” as the surrounding air is much colder than the water. This vapor or steam gradually coats the structures nearest the river. As the condensation freezes it creates the many shapes that I like to describe as ribbons, sausages, and candles in this beautiful wonderland. During these special moments, one can appreciate water as it exists in three different states of matter…gaseous vapor, flowing liquid, and rock solid.
Historically speaking, the Polar Beaver is a fairly new animal to be described by science. Although its beautiful snow-white pelt has been a valuable and prized trade item by the northern indigenous people…it was thought these rare white furs were taken from albino morphs of the common beaver. Ironically, crypto-zoologists looking for the legendary Sasquatch, instead brought to light the existence of this very rare rodent. DNA testing confirmed that the Polar Beaver is a truly unique species. Some of the first observations about this animal documented that this beaver’s coat turns white as autumn transitions to winter. This is a trait it shares with other polar animals like the Arctic hare and Stoat.
During this time at the Falls, I was able to observe the Polar Beaver feeding. Deftly, the beaver chose just the right willow twig and with a quick bite, severs it from the parent tree. Holding the stick with its front paws, the beaver than carefully chews away the surrounding bark revealing the ivory warmth of the wood. “Tool marks” left behind by the beaver’s teeth are recorded in the wood. Willow makes up a significant part of this animals diet, but it is now known that other tree species and plants are eaten “in season” as well.
If the Polar Beaver noticed me at all…I couldn’t tell because it seemed so intent upon feeding. I watched this animal carry a willow branch to a small “ice shelter” where it focused on the task on hand. The muddy Ohio River gently lapped the shoreline. When the beaver finished its meal, it continued to explore the immediate environs with its many ice formations.
I noticed the beaver sampling willow it had already chewed upon as it moved down along the river’s edge. I stood transfixed by this nearly mythical animal. I finally lost sight of the beaver when it went behind an ice formation and unseen by me…slipped back into the water and disappeared. I searched around for a couple of hours hoping to have another glimpse of this Polar Beaver or any others that might have been around, but ultimately was unsuccessful. I returned during the next two days, but this beaver apparently moved on for good. I was lucky to have seen it, but can you blame me for being greedy and wanting more time with this magical animal? Wouldn’t you wish for the same if you were me? When my reverie lifted, I realized that I could no longer feel my toes and my digital camera was also feeling the cold and not operating properly. It was time to go home and I will leave you with one final image from this trip. Here is a view of a favorite old willow tree as it appears during the heart of winter. Spring will soon be around the corner and I will see you again at the Falls of the Ohio.