The Ripple: How Rivers Still Flow When It’s Way Below

Ice-Walking Bugs, and the Lessons They Teach Us

(Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield)

For the next two months or so, if the weather isn’t too bizarre, we’ll be knee deep in snow, and our rivers and streams will be flowing beneath their softest, whitest blankets, like restless kids dreaming of bodysurfing at the beach. When it’s really really cold outside, the river becomes the warmest part of the biome—kinda like our beds become the warmest part of the house when the frost creeps over the windows.

A few weeks ago, when the temp was in single digits, I saw bathtub steam rising off the Westfield River. In the squeaky-snow brilliance of the unclouded morning, more vitality in a deep breath than a whole pot of coffee, I had a flashback of some Rocky Mountain hotsprings, arrived at after two days of backcountry snowshoeing and skiing. Like a chrome grasshopper off the top of an ear, a gleaming sliver of myself leapt to that river steam, magnetized by the delicious feeling drifting in the wavering mist: of the coincidence of opposites, wet/dry hot/cold, manifesting as a high country hottub, as exclusive and elegant as they come. I wanted to jump into this fantasy, but didn’t—because I knew that water was so cold that it burns…

The greatest mysteries occur around and within us so constantly we don’t perceive them often enough, much less inquire into them; they comprise the “background,” the movie set we perform our roles in/on. Steam on a freezing river is a miracle, isn’t it, especially when the steaming water is below freezing? And even if it isn’t steaming—it’s weird and amazing that water continues to flow when it’s way below freezing, and has been so for weeks. Isn’t it?

The kinetic downstream energy caused by gravity makes it difficult for water atoms to coalesce and become ice; so, the go-with-flow river bends the laws of physics: when the air is 5 below zero, the liquid river-water can be in the high twenties.

What’s even weirder, and surely more wonderful, is that some of the benthic invertebrates who live in the river love the ice and snow so much that they have developed, via evolution by natural selection, “sugar-blood” that doesn’t freeze. You’ve seen them, strutting around on ice floes, bergs, heaps, light crusty glass wafers and frosty frill lace.

Look closer next time and you’ll see an inspiring cast of romeos and juliets trying to get their acts together in the few hours they have to fall in love at first sight. Scientists haven’t really studied the winter-time mating rituals of our cold-loving river bugs, so the field is open for discovering new and amazing things, not only about them, but also: how during the coldest days, the bios thrums in the flows, and rests on the white blanket beds, of the warmest place in the biome, the river.

Residents in these parts for about 12,000 years, descending from family going back 400 million years, the lovely ice bugs are tougher than anything we’ve ever built. Yet, look at how small and feeble they are. They don’t fly and can’t run away. We could squish them with ease if we wanted to, but we wouldn’t be able to spend 10 minutes living their below-freezing life.

When we think of strength and power, how seldom does the image of the ice walking benthic invertebrate come into our minds. Though it should.

Look for them now, and keep looking until winter ends—their lessons have not yet been learned. They are a sign of a healthy river or stream. And if you can, please take pics of them; I’d love to see ‘em! (Send to; I’ll post them on the Biocitizen website.)


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

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