I’m twelve years old and venturing out on to Little Hunting Creek–a tributary to the Potomac River. It’s winter. The ice cracks into little shards beneath my feet and gives way to creek bed mud frozen into little mounds and peaks like black whipped cream. I wonder how cold it must have been in the night to freeze the mud like this. Soon, tiny rivulets of water will rush to my boots.
The tide returned every day, but not always at the same time. Nature followed a schedule I knew nothing about; the river obeyed some other voice that told it when to come and go, how fast and how high. The water seemed in a hurry to come but slow to leave. I organized my life around this tide. High tide meant canoeing and fishing; low tide meant creeping along the riverbed in search of turtle eggs and animal tracks.
In winter, the cattails froze too, and they’d snap in my hands, the sound echoing off the opposite embankment. I’d see snow tracks of raccoons and foxes that burrowed somewhere inside some fallen log or in a hollow tree trunk. I looked around me and knew that so much of what existed was here but unseen. I wasn’t alone.
The afternoon sun rose hotter than I could have predicted, and I shed my coat and gloves. I could hear the cry of the geese and the slap of a beaver’s tail on the water that now came in and swallowed up the ice. I’d hear him but miss his brown, slick head as I turned in the direction of the enormous beaver dam constructed just to the right of my backyard.
I loved the creek in winter. I sat on a log and listened and smelled the winter. It was solitude.
I think my soul grew here because I experienced a great process larger than myself–the tide, the weather, and the behavior of animals. I thought about things outside of my own life like how the fox hunts in winter and for what. I wondered why the bright red tail returned at the same time every single evening on the exact same hunting trail. For my science project in 7th grade, the one that went all the way to regionals, I tracked the hunting patterns of the red fox and how time, temperature, and weather did or did not affect his schedule (it did not).
Spring would come and I spent every afternoon soaked up to my knees as I caught turtles and frogs and minnows. My sister and our friends fished for perch and sunfish in our little green canoe sometimes using cheese or bread for bait.
I called my parents yesterday because I missed Little Hunting Creek. The house had long been sold as they retired first to Williamsburg and then to Florida. We talked on the phone about all the fishing and canoe trips, the red fox, and how I spent every afternoon searching the river banks. My mom reminded me of the day the beaver chewed down her precious weeping willow–the one she planted herself–and the day the raccoon came right up to the porch and stole a roasted chicken that she had placed there to cool. I remembered the goslings and the turtles and the treasure I once buried with my friend, Marie, that’s still there to this day.
I asked them to send me photographs of the creek because I could only find this one on the internet. I had been thinking about precious memories to share with my own children about my childhood, and I thought of Little Hunting Creek most of all.
The photo is Little Hunting Creek (Fairfax County, Virginia) from its east bank, looking south. (Public domain, Keytone16, May 27, 2007)