On Friday my daughter Clare, friends Pat and Buzz, and I paddled a stretch of the Upper Iowa River. We chose the Upper Iowa because hardly anyone ever paddles it. Decorah is the only city within fifty miles, and with dozens of other rivers in the Driftless Region to paddle, it tends to get ignored. Except on Fourth of July weekend apparently. On some parts of the river, it was as if the coronavirus did not exist and social distancing was no longer an advised practice. The private campground where we’d planned to leave our shuttle vehicle was so crowded we never got out of our cars. Instead we drove away and found a nearby mudflat to use as our takeout spot. The significance of the mudflat will become apparent soon.
In spite of too many people on the river, we had a good trip. Two highlights of the trip, however, were a little unusual, certainly unexpected. First of all, Buzz noticed what we assumed was a beaver carcass floating in the river. As we passed by it, he noted that the dead beaver, with just its back above the surface of the muddy water, looked like the top of someone’s head. I knew the hairy object was a beaver, maybe a large muskrat, but Buzz’s comment bothered me. What if we saw a body in the river and did nothing? I reversed my kayak and paddled upstream. As I approached the thing in the water, I did not want to touch it, not even with my kayak paddle. I did get my paddle beneath the object. It was too heavy to lift, but I got it to rotate just enough for me to see that it was covered with fur, not hair. Still, as I paddled away, I was not completely convinced. I realized that I did not want to be lying in bed that night thinking about dead bodies in the river. (When I told the story to Manyu, she immediately said I’ve been binge watching too many creepy tv shows.) I paddled upstream a second time to make certain of my identification. This time I used my kayak as a fulcrum and was able to pry about half of the carcass out of the water. I then saw a pair of forelegs and was sure the object was not human.
An hour later the four of us beached our kayaks on the mudflat of our takeout spot. Some of the mud was solid and supported our weight. Some did not. Taking a short rest before Buzz and I climbed into his car to retrieve my car at the put in, I noticed a second carcass setting atop the mud. This time it was a muskrat. It was mostly decomposed, with a few pieces of skin and fur on an exposed skeleton. As I hovered over the bones to get a better look, a small garter snake slithered out of the muskrat’s ribcage. I jumped and made a little yip, which seems to me a reasonable response to a reptile slinking out of a dead body. Everyone else noticed my reaction, but Clare especially enjoyed it. I sometimes kid her about her irrational fear of spiders, so she welcomed the chance for payback.
I opened this blog by writing that the highlights of this trip were unusual and unexpected. Now that I think about it, most special moments in nature can be described that way.