The river is a song in the solitudes of winter

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

The trail is a crystalline symphony.

Down the hill at Swan Pond, the Des Plaines River turns east near the library and off toward Lockport. But right at the bend the river pools and calms off the main channel and the water, up after Christmas rains, laps at the bank in quiet, chiming splats of overlaid chords. 

Doh-oy/d-doh-doy/d-oy 

The lowland floodplain of the park is full of geese and frost and a red-bellied woodpecker works a trunk overhead. But the bird life is limited and the river is the show -- its range of sounds in a cold and naked season when the water runs through a landscape of skeletal trees and stiff, gray, crusted grasses. 

There is less to see and more to hear in the absence of leaves and sun and the distractions of more verdant seasons, just the river and its tintinnabulations. 

No patterns at the bend pool, just random tinkling microtones. 

Down the path and upriver the channel is coursing and the sounds are more expansive with different colorations across the river's width, an astounding breadth and variety of constant and constantly varying acoustics.   

On the far side, near the banks of Riverside Lawn, the Des Plaines moves with a jagged, rougher rush, like a rolling, muted dirty maraca. The river water passes with speed over gravel and rocks and is audibly faster and splashier than in the center of the channel, which is just a series of disconnected burbling accents. 

Bloy/bloy-p 

On the near bank, the limbs of a downed tree drag in the river and play its shallow current like competing styluses -- four droning tones in the foreground, each defined by the depth of the current passing by and the diameter of the branch dipped into the flow. Bass and mid-range to thinner, more attenuated vibrations. 

Further yet upriver the near bank features several sizable rocks that form obstacles around which the current flows and then folds back on itself. The rest of the river rushes by in a wet white noise …

Raaa-shhhh/ra-sh/aa-sh 

… while the small pockets behind these stones play a different note, off-tempo and softer and more audibly liquid. 

Ooooo-kshh

Ohh

Owwhh-ksh-ksh

The deeper of these pockets, formed behind the largest of the riverine rocks, has a slight wobble and drip and it's hard to hear these sounds as words or letters. They are more fluid and abstract than that. The entire river is more fluid and abstract than that.

Its passing by is a musical performance of infinite depth and width, without pause. Song on song on song -- heard most clearly in the cold, in the solitudes of winter: 

The river gone as it arrives, its sounds played for no one or for anyone who will stand and listen.

Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside. Write to him at brett@rblandmark.com.

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