Visiting the Poudre River

Visiting the Poudre River

As many of you know, I began my graduate studies this fall at Colorado State University in creative writing. An assignment in one of my classes required that I choose an outdoor “site,” which I am to visit on a regular basis, take notes, and then journal about it later. I’ve been visiting the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through Fort Collins, via the city-owned Poudre Trail, for a little over a month now. On my last visit, Friday September 30th, I took my camera along with me. Here are some excerpts from journal so far, along with a few photos.

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A sign for the Poudre Trail via Lee Martinez Park in Fort Collins, CO

August 20

I arrived at my site at 3:20PM. It was 86° Fahrenheit and mostly sunny, with puffy white cumulonimbus clouds in the north. I was sitting on the south bank of the river, the water flowing east. The river appeared almost a copper color because of the stones in its bed. The current was rather swift –as I could tell by the passing inner tube floaters—like a slow jog. According to the markings on the underside of the Poudre Trail pedestrian bridge over the river, the water was just under three feet deep.

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Willows and cottonwoods on the Poudre’s north bank

All around me were dogs, children swimming, and more people walking, running, or biking on the paved trail. Through the trees and over the sound of rushing water I could hear people cheering, laughing, and chatting. There was a constant sound of crickets chirping, and an occasional whisper of breeze through foliage.

In the water, a fresh four-foot Russian Olive branch with all its leaves floated by. I noticed stray, straight spider-silk threads in the grass and in the elm branches above me. Slowly a dragonfly flew by me toward the east. Some individual sparrows crossed the river as well. Dogs barked in the distance, and thunder could be heard coming from the north; the clouds grew darker across the river.

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September 12

I always thought the Poudre River was named after snow powder, especially since it drops 7,000 feet in elevation from the Rockies through a narrow, chiseled canyon, to conjoin with the South Platte River east of Greeley, Colorado. It actually refers to French Canadian trappers, in the early 1800’s, hiding their cache of gunpowder there during a particularly bad blizzard. The Poudre River is Colorado’s only nationally recognized “Wild & Scenic River.”

Behind me, a woman running west clears her throat. Two bikes tick east. The sun clouds over.

September 17

Today the Cache la Poudre River is just over one foot tall, the pedestrian bridge informs me.

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This means about 775 gallons of river water, of Rocky Mountain snowmelt, are flowing beneath that bridge every second. What seems like a humble stream to the eye—especially with monumental rivers in my mind, the Colorado and Snake nearby, the New and Mississippi and Chattanooga out east—is really a powerhouse, always on the move. Small yellow leaves are floating downstream, to the east, away from the Rocky Mountains and toward the South Platte River, toward the heartland. I read that brown trout spawn here in the fall, but I see no fish in the clear water down to the copper-y bottom, littered with round granite stones. Sometimes I hear the fish—a sudden catch of water, white flash slap above the surface.

Along the bank two blue jays stutter squawks at one another. One flies into view and lands on a yellowing cottonwood branch. His body is a jewel blue and he wears a white collar just above his breast, beneath a blue cockscomb. Later I learn this is the edge of the blue jay’s livable range, as far as they come; the foothills of the Rocky Mountains halt them the way they halted railroads, the way they still halt clouds and precipitation.

I think about the river, about the trout. What would it feel like to live in water constantly flowing in one direction? Not like an ocean where the tide is a rhythm of give and take, but always east, the way our ancestors felt pulled westward continually. I ask a fisher friend about the trout—the brown, the rainbow, the cutthroat. He says you can often go back to the same spot on the Poudre or Snake or wherever, the same hole or stone, and catch the very same fish—they don’t stray too far. My concept of fish life has been shaped mostly by the story of spawning salmon and—let’s face it—Finding Nemo, so this was news to me, that fish don’t drift or migrate or explore in spite of the debris that floats right by, that the river doesn’t become their timeline on which to travel. I thought a good metaphor might be that little conveyor belt in sushi restaurants that slowly slides enticing sashimi and rolls right before your eyes, for the taking. I guess a river might feel more like that to a fish—food constantly coming and going all day, all night, abundance set spinning by the engine of gravity, by the churning of season, of freeze and thaw.

September 22

I count thirty-five bleats of train horn in the span of several minutes. A helicopter hovers somewhere to the south and car engines rumble to the east. Behind me, bikes pass and dog leashes jingle. Occasional bits of conversation slip through the weeds—two students stressed about the new semester, a mother making safety-related requests of her young child on a miniature bicycle, two middle-aged women building each other up. A propeller plane’s engine rattles from above, behind cover of low, gray clouds.

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Cottonwoods framing the Poudre River Trail

I have just heard how little land in this country remains untouched by human-generated noise. If not an interstate, then a highway. If not a highway, then a railroad. If not a railroad, then trails for ATVs or snowmobiles. If not a trail, then a reservoir with a marina. And if no marina, then planes etching their contrails above, or helicopters leading rescues of people lost in the wilderness. Silence deserts. The scarceness of silence. This must have devastating effects on animals, especially those who rely on their hearing to find prey, to hunt, to stay safe, to not become prey, to survive.

When I hear a sound—a splash of water, birdsong, crackle of twigs or dry grass—I hope for a sighting of an animal—a trout, a blue jay, a crow, a grasshopper. When animals hear our omnipresent noise—engines whirring, tires squealing, horns honking—what do they hope for?

September 30

All the vegetation and leaves are more yellowing today, rustier—oxidized colors. There was a light drizzle all morning. My field notes are speckled with the occasional raindrop ink-stain. The Poudre River was measured at two feet high, higher than my last visit because it’s been raining up in the mountains, to the west.

Little white wildflowers upstream catch my eye. I walk over unsteady pebbles and a large cottonwood root to get to them. The root is far enough away from any trees that it’s impossible for me to tell to which it belongs. Each flower is in various stages of unfurling—some are fully open, dripping their petals into their watery reflections.

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As best as I can tell, the flower is Carolina Bugbane, or Trautvetteria Caroliniensis, which is native to this area

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Carolina Bugbane is in the Rananculaceae family, or the buttercup family, and seems to prefer wetter habitats

I find myself thinking how it would feel to live in a river that can get as low as one foot deep—to have distance infinitely available to you (seemingly), but know your explorations, your knowledge, were all limited to one foot by the width of the river by its length. I suppose human life, until the inventions of the airplane and rocket-ship, is fairly limited in that way as well—we’re basically stuck to the earth’s surface, most of us. This, I think, is the origin of the desire to fly, our envy of birds. We can’t see the earth’s rotund nature from our limited depth, the slice of air in which we live. We’ve had to escape this space to see the world for what it really is—a sphere remarkably like and unlike any other.

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Announcement: Grad School!

Reading and writing are two of my earliest loves. My mom is fond of recalling how, on my first day in kindergarten, I read aloud Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat for the entire class. When I was perhaps 8 or 9, my dad gave me an old IBM Thinkpad that ran Windows 95. It sat like a immobile black cinder-block on my desk in my bedroom. I would either play Solitaire or Minesweeper, or compose an endless string of short stories in Microsoft Word- historical fiction, mysteries, etc. In the third grade, I hand-wrote a 40-page (wide rule, obviously) novella that supposedly took place in Europe during World War II, inspired by my collection of dolls. I remember swelling with pride at its length while I stapled the pages together; it felt like a true feat.

I don’t remember the first time I tried to write a poem. I know I played with composing lyrics for songs first. I would sing made-up melodies while pumping my legs on a backyard swing, then share the ones I liked most with my neighborhood friends. I was constantly imagining vibrant backstories for things I encountered- people, trees, animals, cars. One of my favorite recurring daydreams was, while my family drove anywhere out of town, to imagine what my life would be like if I’d had some connection to any of the little places we passed by. What would I be like if I lived behind that sandy shrimp shack? What if I’d gotten lost as a little baby and been raised by the foxes in that abandoned field? What if I’d grown up in that old farmhouse on this Christmas tree farm in the Appalachians?

In high school I was lucky enough to find a year-long elective course focused solely on creative writing. The first time I took it, I was a sophomore. The second, I was a senior, and my counselor informed me, concerned, that I couldn’t receive any credit for this course the second time. Fine by me! We were assigned powerful readings by the likes of Mary Karr and Annie Dillard. Anyone who’s taken public high school English knows how seemingly anything written after 1985 is excluded from the canon, making this all the more incredible. Literature was alive, and it was still beautiful.

During my undergraduate years, I knew I wanted to study English and creative writing, and pursued them fervently. I took a creative writing class every available semester, eventually culminating in a year-long poetry seminar with some pretty amazing folks for whom I’m still so grateful (you know who you are!). After graduation, my writing grew as aimless as a broke teenager set loose in a shopping mall. I published a couple poems in local journals, and tried writing without anyone to tell me what worked, and what sucked. I knew I needed to enroll in a MFA program to further hone my skills as a reader and writer.

All this to say that, come fall, I plan to enroll in the Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing program, focusing on poetry specifically, at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. This is a 3-year program offering excellent faculty, intensive writing workshops, courses, and many opportunities for work and studies in teaching and publishing. I am excited to be taking this substantial step forward in pursuit of my passions.

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Though the details are obviously still in flux, and will be for some time, know that Fort Collins is just over a 1-hour drive from Laramie, which is in the realm of totally manageable for Matt and me (and Boone!) now that I own a car with all-wheel-drive. While it won’t be the easiest transition in the world, 3 years doesn’t seem like forever to me anymore and, moreover, the prospect of spending those 3 years working on something so dear to me is exciting.

Thank you to for your part in helping me get to where I am, whether it’s been years of work (thanks, Mom & Dad!) or a couple minutes reading this blog post. I appreciate you.

Love to all.