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January thaw seen in a melted droplet of what used to be frost at Good Earth State Park.
January thaw seen in a melted droplet of what used to be frost at Good Earth State Park.
American tree sparrow at Good Earth State Park.
American tree sparrow at Good Earth State Park.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Downy woodpecker at Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Downy woodpecker at Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snow or no snow, a squirrel’s gotta eat.
Snow or no snow, a squirrel’s gotta eat.
Colorful berries along a Big Sioux Recreation Area trail.
Colorful berries along a Big Sioux Recreation Area trail.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
A bend in the Big Sioux during a peaceful snowfall.
A bend in the Big Sioux during a peaceful snowfall.
A northern shrike atop a tree along the Big Sioux River.
A northern shrike atop a tree along the Big Sioux River.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Snowfall at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
Bird tracks in the snow at Newton Hills State Park.
Bird tracks in the snow at Newton Hills State Park.
Mouse tracks in the snow at Newton Hills State Park.
Mouse tracks in the snow at Newton Hills State Park.
Frost about to fall from a grass stalk during a January thaw at Good Earth State Park.
Frost about to fall from a grass stalk during a January thaw at Good Earth State Park.
Frosted sunflower heads at Good Earth State Park.
Frosted sunflower heads at Good Earth State Park.
Frost weighing down some ornamental grass along the trail at Good Earth State Park.
Frost weighing down some ornamental grass along the trail at Good Earth State Park.
Northern cardinal in the cedar trees above Newton Hills State Park horse camp.
Northern cardinal in the cedar trees above Newton Hills State Park horse camp.
A curious (and quite plump) squirrel at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.
A curious (and quite plump) squirrel at the Big Sioux Recreation Area.

A Walk Along the Wintry River

Feb 12, 2020

Sickness has kept me indoors for the last two weekends. I guess it is that time of year. Even though we are in the heart of winter, it doesn’t always mean that folks like to stay cooped up during their free time. I’m no different, and sick or not, as crazy as it may sound, I’ve come to enjoy the variety of winter weather we experience along the Big Sioux River around Sioux Falls. A quiet walk along one of the local river trails helps clear away a lot of the anxieties and stress of the work week. On a recent trek along bottom trails of the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I was accompanied by a straight down, steady snowfall. It was like silent words of a poem falling on and around me.

With winter weather making travel difficult, I’ve started getting to know a few of the local “river parks” as I like to call them. Good Earth State Park, Newton Hills State Park and the Big Sioux Recreation Area are all close enough to get there and back in most winter conditions. Each offers a great deal of winter birding opportunities, long trails to hike, solitude and interesting photographic opportunities that can be a bit of a challenge to tease out. 

Be warned, it’s not usually normal hiking conditions. The trails can easily ice over with winter thaws and re-freezing. The Big Sioux was still high and running with open water when I hiked in the snowfall in mid-January. It didn’t take long to realize that navigating the steep trails alongside the riverbank with gear in hand was a bit more dangerous than I anticipated. One awkward footfall or lean to get the right angle for a photo could easily result in a slip down into the water. Thankfully that did not happen, but it did make for a couple dicey minutes. I learned once again that I’m not near as young and nimble as I want to be anymore.

While walking trails at the Newton Hills horse camp area a couple weeks later, I discovered a new language — or, at least, new to me — written on the snow. The day was quiet with very little bird sound or living activity (besides me). It wasn’t for lack of wildlife; I saw various animal tracks in the snow. Birds, deer, raccoon, rabbit, even mice tracks were everywhere in the recently fallen snow once I started looking. I realize that hunters have learned this language of tracks in the snow for thousands of years, but I hadn’t really paid much attention until that day. I guess I never really had to, knowing my next hunt consisted of reaching into the freezer for the next frozen pizza to throw in the oven. Even so, just taking a half hour to study the variety of tracks and try to figure out an interesting way to make a photograph or two became a bright spot to that particular winter walk.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pining for winter to be long and drawn out. I’m not hoping for snow to last through April. But I do appreciate the less-than-obvious beauty found in a winter walk. So, here’s to a few more healthy, feel-good, carefree treks into the winter wonderland this season. Then let’s have a nice slow thaw and enjoy that glorious springtime weather, which I know is on the way. It always is.

Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midco he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.

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