Saturday in the woods with George


Rather than moan about winter, I went out to have a good look at it, and I did this on foot Saturday afternoon along a creek I call George, in northern Baltimore County. Six months ago, poor old George had been profoundly drained by drought.

Six months ago, acres of the creek bed had been exposed long enough to dry; you could hike out 20 yards without getting muddy boots. The flow was reduced to a relative trickle, no more than 6 feet wide in places, as Prettyboy Reservoir, which takes water from the creek, had been tapped and unreplenished.

In case you've forgotten, by the middle of last September, parts of Maryland had gone without rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Soybeans and corn were burning up in the fields. Lawns turned brown. We had a premature autumn.

When I last came through the woods along the creek, I could hike down to what must have been the original streambed, the one that was there before the city built Prettyboy dam, about 65 years ago. The dam backed up lots of creeks and runs and inundated lots of hamlets and farms -- all to give the Baltimore metropolitan area an additional water supply.

(Prettyboy takes its name from a horse, according to legend. A farmer's colt is said to have become trapped in mud and died on the banks of a creek. The distraught old man supposedly returned frequently to that creek and cried out, "Prettyboy." Thus the name of the creek and the reservoir it now feeds.)

Last fall, as the water level in Prettyboy fell, its basin could be seen for hundreds of yards. Great gobs of mud broke away from the banks of the feeder creeks, giving the place the aura of a prehistoric gorge.

What a difference this long winter has made.

The feeder creek called George is nearly full again, which means Prettyboy must be nearly full again.

I visited George on Saturday afternoon, when the only sound was a light breeze across my ears, the distant caw of crows, the occasional buzz of chickadees and the rattle of dried oak leaves that somehow had never fallen to the ground.

The ground, of course, was covered with snow, but only about three inches of it. I took the same trail I always take, the one marked by baby food jar lids, painted blue and nailed to trees. I was the first human through there since Friday's snow. One, maybe two deer, had crossed the path before me. Winter had snapped a pine tree in half and uprooted another; they formed arches over the trail.

Long degraded by runoff from farms and homes upstream, George has always been brown-green, murky and muddy, kind of homely as creeks go. When the reservoir it feeds is full, the flow in George is hardly discernible.

Some days in summer, it just looks like a long brown pond.

These days in winter, it's a sleeping beauty.

The top inch of water in George is frozen. If you look long and carefully, you can see small twigs and bits of leaves flowing, ever so slowly and somehow elegantly, just under George's icy skin. I saw one leaf shaped like a guitar flow by at -- I'm guessing -- 10 yards per minute.

In some places, bits of snow fell from overhanging trees and landed in powdery explosions on the frozen creek, like --es of confectionary sugar on a sheet of hard candy.

I saw a bowed, barkless log locked in the ice, forming an arch bridge with about 6 inches of clearance.

I saw what looked like a fallen bird in the snow; it turned out to be an old caterpillar tent, attached to dead leaves, folded and shaped like a robin.

I saw a Y-shaped twig sticking out of the snow at the creek bank, left there by a summer fisherman.

In a little while, voices bounced off the wooded ridges on both sides of the creek -- children playing in a yard somewhere.

My favorite trailside rock, 20 feet high, was shrouded in snow. I always saw it as a massive T. Rex head, with a million crevices and wrinkles. It's a geologist's show-n-tell, or a challenge for any budding landscape artist at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

After a long hike, I gave into the temptation to throw something at the ice, to test its strength.

The first branch I threw was light as balsa and blistered into a dozen pieces on impact. Another stick, a little heavier, slid clear across the creek and came to a rest on the other side. I heaved the third stick, which was much heavier and longer, like a javelin. And it landed like a javelin, punctured the ice and stuck there.

Then, I reached under a rock overhang and grabbed a thick stick someone had burned (illegally) during an attempted campfire back in the summer or fall. The stick was charred on one end. I was amazed and angered that anyone could have hiked into those woods and thought about making a fire during the dry seasons that preceded this winter.

So I threw the stick, end over end, high above the frozen creek called George. The charred end landed with a crackle, punctured the ice and turned the water immediately below it black. I stood there for the longest time, fascinated by the flow of a black cloud under ice. I watched until it dissolved and disappeared -- as soon this winter will.

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