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Susan Ballinger | Head to the river for fun in the mud

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Photo provided Fresh beaver activity is visible on this young cottonwood. It’s one of the many sights you may encounter if you take a walk along the river during the transition season from late winter to early spring.

This time of year I think about our valley in e.e. cummings’ terms as “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” During this in-between season, consider heading to a local riverside park, swimming beach or boat launch to experience a muddy adventure.

The few weeks of mud season are times when we need to stay off our local trails in the foothills and mountains. Most have been built by volunteer labor, and the damage done by hikers when using muddy trails is significant.

On a muddy trail, we naturally try to walk on the higher sides to avoid the mud, and this widens the trails, damages native plants, and creates new places for weeds to grow. Plan to resist tracking up trail, and instead head to the river for an outing.

You may want to take a child along on your river trip to make sure to witness firsthand the delight of new discoveries. With a kid along, you may even take off your shoes and let the mud squish between your toes.

As you walk along the shoreline, scan the beach for fresh tracks left by a beaver, muskrat or otter. Look for the webbed prints of Canada geese, or the slightly narrower prints of common merganser. Use your nose to find the earthy sweet smell of a cottonwood tree. Glance up into the bare-branched treetop to see if a bald eagle is perching.

As you round a corner, you may flush a great blue heron from its bank resting place beneath a willow. Listen for the slow “whoosh” of its wings as it flies out over the water. If you stay for an hour, you are bound to hear the rattle of a belted king-fisher cruising by at eye-level above the river.

Water-splashed driftwood and rocks glisten against a backdrop of fine silts and it is hard to resist stopping to construct a temporary outdoor sculpture or stacked stone tower. Look for chiseled teeth-marks on a freshly cut green willow branch — evidence that beaver have been harvesting a next meal. Sharp sticks are just right for signing your name in the wet sand. Check-out the still leafless shrubs for signs of swelling buds. Look to see if mule deer have been browsing shrub tips, leaving behind roughly nipped branch ends.

Keep an eye out for the “just-right” flat skipping rocks, that fit into your palm. It takes me a few practice throws every time to get my rock to skip two or three times, but it is so satisfying to see the rock fly! Pocket a pretty rock to take home to display on your desk.

During March, take delight in mud, as proclaimed in the Charlotte Pomerantz poem, “The Piggy in the Puddle” — “Mud is squishy, mud is squashy, Mud is oh so squishy-squashy. Squishy-squashy, mooshy-squooshy, oofy-poofy mud!”

Susan Ballinger is partnering with Wenatchee Valley Continuing Education and Wenatchee River Institute to offer a 10-week Wenatchee Naturalist course, April-June. Learn more at