Riversmoke by Jamie Kirkpatrick


Warm air moving over cold water produces that eerie, wispy, vaporous concoction we call riversmoke. It gives our river a lovely dreamlike quality that plays with our notions of what is real and what is imaginary. When the sun is out, the Chester can be sparkling blue; under grey skies it takes on a muddy, turgid aspect that gives it a sorrowful cast. Either way it’s a beautiful river, but to my eye, when the temperature differential produces riversmoke, the Chester has even more character; in fact, it has soul.

Fog is fog but riversmoke is different. It’s romantic, mysterious, otherworldly. It challenges our perceptions of space and time. For example, when the river smokes, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see a dinosaur sloughing through the phragmites along the shoreline or a Nanticoke brave out in the shallows tending his fishing net or a British man o’ war tied up along the wharf at the foot of High Street. Just the other day, even the dismasted Sultana and the Packet looked like character actors in a grainy film noir; I expected a gunshot, a splash, footsteps running along the dock.

Within the confines of the river, riversmoke may be a beautiful and benign condition, but to a waterman out in middle of the bay, I imagine it must be a disorienting, lonely, maybe even fearful thing. I suppose that modern miracles like radar or sonar offer some solace, but even they can’t be all that much comfort when your dead rise is enshrouded and cut off from the world by thick fog or smoke and all manner of things can go dreadfully wrong in the blink of a blind eye.

And then there’s this: riversmoke may be a perfectly natural phenomenon but I find it also has a inherent metaphoric quality. It’s the offspring of colliding physical forces—heat and cold—and to my mind, that gives it a yin and yang aspect that transcends mere meteorology. How I wish all our current polarizing differences would yield such a magical result as they evaporate into thin air!
But back along our own pleasant waterfront, riversmoke has a more soothing nature. Maybe it was just all that unexpectedly warm air hovering over the frigid water for a couple of days last week, but for a moment, I thought I detected a whiff of spring. Not so fast! That wistful dream turned out to be just another mirage when the mercury plummeted again and all the ice that had melted away last week reformed and made another unwelcome appearance this week. Still, take heart, friends: it’s only a matter of time before Persephone emerges from the underworld, maybe even draped in a cloak of gauzy riversmoke, and comes back to stay.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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