Cold and cloudy twilight river reflections. Photo by local author Bill Lindeke.
Without barges, boats and above-water activity, our stunning stretch of winter Mississippi River offers a unique landscape. Our winter writing prompt inspired a variety of perspectives — from awe and mystery to beauty and calm — conveying deep appreciation for the ways our river supports us, while imagining what may lurk below. As the icy lid melts, we hope you enjoy reading.
The Winter River Speaks
When ice pans big as a kitchen table
or the kitchen itself slide by grinding edges,
that should tell you how cold and hungry I am.
A lifeless torso could be tumbling
along the bottom at this moment,
for I can assure you both upriver
and down I have snatched lives from the naive
and the just unlucky. Some bodies
are never found. I will scour my own bed
for only so long before I encircle
the roots of a cottonwood, the trunk,
then the crown. Or the foundations, walls,
and roof of a house: passing things
drawn into my indifferent current,
my ceaselessly perishing self.
All this past week those clouds
have been soaking their image
in the flat, frigid water.
They are now swelled up
with a stratocumulus dream
of vanquishing the entire countryside.
That shoreline moustache of brown bushes
will turn white and at bends and turns
the river will become too stiff to move.
Saying hello to this season has a good bye
buried in it. Just put away the boat
and don’t make any promises.
By Jim Larson
limestone crust and shale,
a yellow boxcar
plodding, slower than a raft of ducklings.
Pull toy, a model train.
Creosote, lumber and rail
where there should be floodplain,
cottonwoods and fluff,
under snowfall, white on white.
But these tracks are cleared
by a cattle catcher, the engine’s orthodontics.
Ties framed by yellow rock, bleached uniform by sun.
If I were to peer closely, laid a copper penny down like a tuile
on a rolling pin,
would I see fine soot?
Near west of the river,
we lived in St. Cloud, a particulated city,
where the trains ran too
in the switching yard up the block.
At dusk, all torque, the shunter
as overtaxed transmission towers do.
Reheated summer nights, these cicadas,
in periodicity, whined in need.
But no, I am here, now, and it is winter
in a saintlier place.
The water is silent streaming
and the trains and their burden
near silent too.
By Kathryn Ganfield
The Sleeping Mississippi
I feel that the Mississippi River is more peaceful in the cold winter. It is just pure, peaceful silence. When it’s frozen it finally gets to sleep after three seasons of hard work. After its long rest the spring arrives, ice melts and the river is awoken. After awoken, it flows continuously until the next cold winter. When it arrives again the river goes into a long peaceful slumber.
By Noah Sherman
How do you survive the cold that blurs the shoreline,
elements in synch with the clouds?
Teasing footprints float away into temporal darkness,
talented warmth of otter belly slips into the river,
weighing joy and death.
Goldeneye bobs and dives, keeping the question alive.
Look under the water and ask the turtles,
the frogs, the fish,
lilies and mollusks,
insects, worms and arrowhead, listen.
Keening, from a subterfuge of torpor,
“Ain’t life grand?"
By Sara Brice
A Winter River
A Winter river needs watching. It often plays hide and seek, shapeshifts between water, ice, clouds and dreams. Take Winter count of deep cold, cloudy days. Are you deceived in believing you can walk on water? Learn the truth. Be brave enough, crazy enough to discover yourself. From the snow-covered bank, watch a northwest wind drift fallen snow into snow-dunes’ leading edge. Meanders form across the ice. Shapes wisp into ghosts of Summer’s wavelets. Islands appear, disappear, reappear, float in mist, drift on the surface. Go. Traipse a glass-solid magic landscape. Do first steps onto river’s ceiling create no crack, cause no splash, no surprise? Take another, and the next…. Each one holds you—in suspense. Rivers, clouds, you – always changing. Be ever watchful. Enjoy
By John R. Harrington
A Walk Within the Gorge
Four days following solstice,
mid-afternoon, I left the house
to walk with tall trees on the bluffs
of the Mississippi.
From whose chimney
did the wind waft the smell of wood fire?
Cars tore snowmelt through the streets;
I walked an unpaved way. Approaching,
I could see the rufous leaves of
ironwood and oak.
I hiked a steep trail,
walking-stick in hand,
descending slick paths;
thawed mud oozing underfoot
I stepped down from bluff
to flood plain.
My tongue tasted
a salty trickle.
Thick mist draped the cliffs of the river gorge.
I thought of a friend
on a previous hike, holding a little branch
studded with green buds plucked
from a fallen mammoth––
Wending slowly north
through lowland, I heard water
prattling under crooked slabs of stone;
springs gurgled up from mud
streaming into clear pools
that fed the river.
Several paces on,
an oily orange gel glistened with
faint bacterial odor.
I came upon a young viburnum
disguised in coils of grape.
Gently, I freed
each thin limb from the vine.
Rested on a log
near the frozen bank––
and looked. . .
startled the silence over the river
when, flame-crested, the pileated woodpecker transcended
vanishing in the trees
on the other shore.
Thunder loosed upon the frozen chasm––
the river was breaking
trotted out to the edge of the softening ice,
stopped, raised on its haunches, and peered across
to the source of the rumbling:
heaping shards of shattered river
upon ice floe.
Squirrel and I gazed
til the rumbles abated.
Then Squirrel turned tail
making tracks to shelter
in the trees.
I stood up
unsure of where to go
I turned and left a pair of footprints
on melting trails of snow
By Aaron McGuire
A Love Note
My dear Mississippi River,
It has been a few months since we touched, and I miss you. Winter is always long without your caress. I watch from afar, yearning to embrace you once again when the summer’s heat bores down on me so hard that I run wildly into your cool, crisp waters. To quench my thirst for you, I walk along your banks, taking in the ebbs and flows of your daily pulse. I think of you as I watch ice jams cluster on your surface, narrowing your open waters and pressing against your shores. Afraid to experience your icy touch, I stay away, but I am always thinking of you. I am wondering if the natural cycle of winter creates your wrath in the spring. Once your waters are completely exposed will you push me away or will you let me enter into your darkness? I worry that this spring your rage will push your waters high against the floodgates, and you will rush downstream without me. In my dreams, your waters are calm, and we are able to connect once more. Oh my Mississippi River, please be kind to me and let me touch you again, soon. Winter is too long and I am lost without a piece of me violating your loving, murky depths.
By Jennifer Gruetzman
The Mississippi cleaves the Cities in half. Limestone bluffs rise from both her shores, spanned only by concrete bridges which transect the gorge every mile or so. These bridges stitch the Twin Cities together like they’re trying to sew shut the breach which divides them. Yet the wild river refuses to yield. I have had the fortune of growing up with this vibrant scar in my backyard, the half-way marker of America, the blue ribbon that bisects us down the middle.
After my first year of college, I returned home to my mother’s house in Highland Village. With an afternoon to kill, I decided to set off in search of the places that had been so important to me growing up, the nooks and crannies of my cities I remembered so well. I made the short walk from my mother’s house to the top of the bluff where the scenic bike trail overlooks the chasm of the river. The pavement is shaded by the gnarled canopy of Oaks which gaze out over the water below, waving to their siblings across the canyon. I climbed around the fence in the same spot I always did and began my descent. The bluffs are criss-crossed with deer trails and people trails, often giving way to right-angled ledges of limestone. It’s here, on these limestone jetties which stand forth from the clingy trees whose roots keep the whole landscape from sliding away, that I can truly see the majesty of the river. I stopped at one of these ledges on the way down, and from this pier, I could see the curve of the bluffs as they tucked themselves away in my special hollow, the creek I had come to reclaim.
There is a spot on the Saint Paul side of the river, a few blocks north of Ford Parkway, where the bluffs fold in to encompass a tiny nameless creek which trickles down a narrow ravine, filling in a swampy delta, before joining the Mississippi’s slow march to New Orleans. Just north of my limestone aerie, the steep walls of the canyon slope down to meet my creek, following the gentle curve of the miniscule waterway. The hills are lined with lovely and desperate trees; Sugar Maple and Basswood grow small but proud on the diagonal slopes, gripping to topsoil that is slowly eroding under them, slipping a little further down the cliff year by year. Their roots and trunks hold me as well, serving as ladders and stairs while I try my best not to contribute to erosion. All along the water’s edge, the sandy earth rises slowly at first from the river, as if hesitant to stray too far from the life-giving water. These are the long marshy stretches of flat sand and mud in which stands of curving Silver Maple grow like giant reeds on the bank. At times I’ve been down here when all of this is below the water level and the trees grow from the river like cattails, for the floodplain is regularly buried in storm water when the Mississippi rises. It is because of these floodwaters that the riparian forest thrives, with Silver Maples lining every shore, eagerly crowding for front row seats, their own waterfront property.
Below the green ceiling, I sink to my ankles in mud. My daily dose of Nature. Wildflowers grow around the tin cans and plastic refuse of the city down here. Some garbage is left here by inconsiderate adventurers, some is washed up from the river. The Mississippi has beavers as well as beer cans in its waters. Animals pass through neighborhoods on their way to patches of forest, Coyotes make their way into the local gossip, and once my family and I saw a flock of wild Turkeys the week before Thanksgiving! The natural and manmade mesh along the Mississippi. For one thing, the only natural waterfall on the river, Saint Anthony Falls, is indistinguishable from a dam now, with a concrete skirt built under it to keep it from eroding Another place our worlds cross paths are the Eagles. Once upon a time there was a huge Bald Eagle’s nest on top of an Oak tree less than a mile north of my hideaway. It was the size of a child’s treehouse and had been there for decades. One year (I must have been about ten), a bad windstorm came through and knocked the tree over and the Eagles flew off. In the morning, so the story goes, city maintenance cleared the brush and debris from the streets and found the nest spilled out on the road. Inside were shy of one hundred pet collars.
As a child, this hazy border of the human and non-human worlds was a day trip destination. My family and I would take our bikes down Mississippi River Blvd to The Monument, a big stone monolith on the scenic overlook. I never did learn what it was a monument for, it was only ever just “The Monument.” We’d park our bikes and lock them to the metal bars of the fence, the same fence we’d climb over to reach the cliffs. I don’t think anyone was ever supposed to go climbing here, but we always did and so did everyone else who came there. Past the chiseled sandstone, the initials carved in hearts, the neverending So-and-so-was-here, were the fossils. Gray rocks with the little Cheerio-rings I knew to call Crinoids, tiny sea shells thousands of miles from the ocean and totally unchanged in shape by the passing of hundreds of millions of years. If we were really lucky we might even find a trilobite. As a kid, I was going to grow up to be a paleontologist. I read all the books on dinosaurs and fossils, baffled to know that these things were just out there waiting to be found. But that was many years ago now.
Lost in thought, I finished my walk and hiked back up the limestone. As I summited the final shelf, I was met by an unexpected ambassador of the forest. A wild male Turkey stood face to face with me. An old man he seemed, with drooping red wrinkles and a calm patience for this ape which stood in his path. We held one another’s gaze for a time, he, the wild creature who had made this landscape his home, and me, the wild creature who’d left. Then, as unexpectedly as he’d appeared, the old man walked up to me and leapt over my head, wings outstretched as he flew, gliding down over the nameless creek I once called my own. The Turkey landed in a tree in the forest below with the swooping grace of a songbird. As much as she’s taught over the years, the Mississippi patiently peels back one more secret lesson for me. All I could think as I watched this massive bird sail elegantly through the air below me was, I didn’t know Turkeys could fly.
By Spencer Willits
Write to the River is a creative writing project to inspire artistic engagement with our river environment. We invite you to share an original poem or short prose response to seasonal images along the Upper Mississippi River. Our next seasonal photo prompt and call for creative writing submissions will be in an upcoming issue of our e-newsletter "Mississippi Messages."