Meet the wondrous water ouzel

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A water ouzel perches on rocks before diving into the moving water to collect insects from the river bottom. (Photo by JASON WILMOTH)

I should have gotten to know John better, but I was too busy trying to get from one place to the next.

I loved working with him, though. He had an adventurous spirit that was like a fire turned to coals, calmly smoldering red, but occasionally bursting into flames.

He was retiring in a few years, an old school hydrologist, from back when they hung in carts suspended by thick cables over rivers, counting the ticks of their Price AA meters through headphones to determine the velocity of the water.

There was something about John that drew me in.

He always let me operate the cable car. He taught me his tricks for computing velocities in your head and had a disdain for the new instruments coming out that “did all the work for you.”

He would talk about sites where we conducted discharge measurements as if they were old friends, North Idaho’s version of John Muir.

Hydrologists spend a lot of time driving to work. The sites where they conduct their measurements are spread across the map, in locations seldom seen by anyone else except fishermen, tucked down long dirt roads or behind lumber yards.

These are sites like Leonia, where you had to snowshoe down in the winter and conduct your measurement just upstream of a lightning burnt bridge across the Kootenai River and where John always visited with the folks that lived at the top of the hill before heading down into the valley.

And Whitebird, where I was once conducting a measurement, and not paying attention to the storm that was blowing in from the south, when sudden winds blew the cable car sideways as I held on.

Or, on the Selway River, where John introduced me to the water ouzel, or American dipper, his favorite bird.

I had never paid attention to the birds that lived along the mountain rivers, swimming in the whitewater. Back then, I was too interested in paddling through the rapids, never slowing down enough to watch. When I slowed down, though, the water ouzel became my favorite bird, an old friend that I am always happy to see.

The water ouzel will stand on a boulder in the middle of a Class 4 rapid, bobbing up and down until he dives into the water for aquatic insects that live along the river bottom. I have seen them dive into the whitewater and disappear, only to pop up downstream on other boulders with caddis flies in their beaks. John Muir wrote of the water ouzel, “Indeed, no storm can be more violent than those of the waterfalls in the midst of which he delights to dwell.”

The ouzel is the only aquatic songbird. His will be the first song heard in the spring along the creeks and rivers, even while their edges are still rimmed with ice. I always have a sense of peace when I come across them in my wanderings.

John retired some years back. I’ve run into him a few times and once talked him into coming on a paddle trip with me and my brother-in-law along a section of the Kootenai River where I worked with John.

I have lost touch with him again, but when I watch an ouzel swimming in the currents I always think of John, and the sense of wonder for the outside world that he shared with me.

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