To those of us in Columbus, accustomed to dealing with winter storms for several days (or at most, a week) at a time, February was a long, harsh break with tradition. According to local authorities it was the snowiest February on record. Sometime around the end of January, the mild winter we were having disappeared under a foot of snow that has yet to completely melt. The nearly complete cloud cover we experienced during February (I think the sun shined two days) only made the snow and cold that much bleaker and our desperation for spring that much stronger.
So when we woke yesterday to a bright, cloudless sky, it almost seemed hallucinatory. The snow began to melt and the wet streets shone in the sun. The filthy winter hats that emerged from snowpiles on the street side only served to emphasize how deep February's freeze was. So did the sight of squirrels crossing the street and the sound of birds chirping once again — things we had started to forget.
To celebrate the change, my wife and I drove to Prairie Oaks Metro Park
, which is located on the western edge of Franklin County, along the banks of the Big Darby National Scenic River. Despite its location in Central Ohio, in an area devoted entirely to farming (and, to a lesser extent recently, building subdivisions), the river remains surprising healthy. In fact, it's one of the most bio-diverse for its size in the Midwest. More than 100 fish species
swim its waters and 44 species of mussels
are found along its floor. And along its banks thirty-four mammal species have been identified.
It's not hard to see why animals, of any kind, would prefer the Darby. Compared to nearby rivers like the Scioto or Olentangy, both of which run through Columbus, its waters remain noticeably more transparent. And the muddy brown tint that characterizes the Olentangy and Scioto is absent; instead, the Darby runs a deep green.
Because of its natural beauty and pristine qualities, the Darby has not had trouble attracting its own supporters and defenders. The Nature Conservancy
along with other local groups is working to keep the Darby's waters clean and its biodiversity intact.
Prairie Oaks preserves the Darby's rich bottomlands, which have remained partially forested, and in addition, land managers have converted nearby farm fields once again into thriving prairie.
When we arrived at Prairie Oak we headed toward the center of the park, to a large wooden and steel pedestrian bridge that crosses the Darby, connecting both sides of the metro park. It was easy to appreciate the river's olive green color as it slipped into the light and flecked off sparkles of sunshine. The slushy snow, which still covered most of the bridge, melted slowly and dropped into the water below. The plunking sound it produced reverberated back up slowly, as if coming up from the bottom of a well.
After soaking up the sun for some time we caught a glimpse of a beaver as it swam out from under a partially submerged tree trunk along the bank to investigate a chunk of ice as it floated down the river. It disappeared almost instantly but still we were glad to see that at least one animal was already out and about.
On the way back to our car we passed though a forest, half-buried in slushy snow, which reminded me more of July in the high Cascades than early spring in Columbus. In this part of Ohio, winters are mild enough that they blend into spring imperceptibly over the course of several months. This year, however, it's different. Just like in the mountains, you can feel spring's energy already buzzing in the air, nipping on winter's heels, before the last of the snow has even melted.