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92 Floating into Summer By the end of April, canoeing is still mostly good on some of the southern Flint Hills streams, but only if spring rains continue to supply a floatable current. When they do, it’s hard not to stop often and take pictures when large purple violets line the banks of a stream like Salt Creek, their rich hues intensified by a backdrop of pale gray limestone. Scattered throughout the stream bank are veins of spent mussel shells, many as big as a man’s hand, the nacre as shiny as if machine polished. Some are a milky white, some pink, some purple. In places where the dark earth has been peeled away by the current, pale layers of accumulated mussel shells form distinct veins in the exposed banks, almost like albino seams of coal. Sycamore trees, limbs pale as aged bone, fly new grayish green leaves as April fades into history . Spotted sandpipers perch on larger rocks in the current, pumping their nervous posteriors, fluttering more than flying downstream when alarmed. Longer, deeper pools hold flocks of ducks—mallards, wood ducks, teal. The nervous wood ducks erupt into the air with a splash of wing tips, flying downstream only as far as the next pool. Sandpipers teeter, wood ducks keen, mallards quack in wild disharmony. Around a bend the mood is more somber—a fox squirrel and a big water snake are 93 Floating into Summer locked in what appears to be a battle to the death amid the exposed roots of a massive bur oak. By midmorning, the warming water has induced an airborne mayfly ballet, the insects’ wings catching the sunlight as if cut from tiny shards of glass.Shrubby buckeyes with yellow-green leaves grow below the limestone bluffs where the soil is deepest, and several banded water snakes snooze in the sun on a big limestone slab hanging out over the current. In places where the woods open up to reveal the rolling prairie beyond, limestone outcroppings pop up through the grass like rows of small gray tombstones. The grass, green as any fabled Irish dell, provides the perfect landing strip for an upland sandpiper. The graceful migrant drops from the sky to settle upon one of the limestone outcroppings . Once at rest on this upright chunk of gray stone, the longlegged sandpiper stows each wing with a motion that’s almost theatrical . Not far away, a farmer cutting alfalfa hay captures the interest of a northern harrier. The hawk flies slow and low behind the tractor, watching for mice or rabbits frantic to escape the roaring machine. Two barred owls gaze with indifference from atop a spreading streamside sycamore, while a longnose gar weighing twenty pounds or more creases the surface of a quiet pool. The slightest splash seems to inspire rapidly twittered couplets from a male indigo bunting, a small songbird whose dark feathers glow iridescent blue in spring sunlight. A red-headed woodpecker hammers away at a dying streamside tree while a crow-size pileated woodpecker flies overhead. The pileated ’s alarm call recalls the urgency of a woman’s frantic screaming, the bird’s bright red Woody Woodpecker topknot gleaming like a crimson banner. Nearby an ancient bur oak, a grand old tree with a circumference of ten feet or more, appears ready to abandon its role as historian of Salt Creek’s centuries. Beavers have girdled the oak, and soon it will topple into the pool to serve as fish shelter, the final chapter in a life that began before the time of George Washington. Even as it dies, the massive oak will dominate the stream bank until a strong wind finishes what the beavers started. An impressive skeleton soon to be, the tree’s lower limbs seem bigger than most of the trees it overshadows. BylateMay,lifeinandalongSaltCreekbeginstoreachaseasonalclimax . Orangethroat darters, bottom-hugging minnow-size fish clinging to rocks lining spring-fed feeder streams, display bright orange 94 Floating into Summer and blue breeding colors. Red shiners flash crimson fins. Blanchard’s cricket frogs announce mating urgency in tones sounding more like the metallic rattling of insects than the seasonal calling of amphibians. On this humid afternoon, clouds skating on a south wind deliver the low gray promise of thunderstorms. Gray tree frogs trill that rain is inevitable. Butter yellow and brown wood duck ducklings, alarmed by a predator either real or imagined, disappear into a thick patch of aquatic herbs called water-willow. The plants, which produce...


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