A mountain stream is the artistic virtuoso of the natural world.
During summer the cascading water gives a constant concert, a stirring performance that spans the musical scale from the treble tinkle of a riffle to the thundering bass of a plunge pool.
In any season the interplay between flowing water and sunlight paints ever-shifting scenes, none of which is ever duplicated. But in winter the brook adds to its repertoire the skills of a sculptor.
Prolonged periods of chilly weather transform even the most modest of streams into a series of ice sculptures, their shapes as eclectic, and ephemeral, as those of clouds.
I was reminded of this particular attribute recently while snowshoeing beside Pine Creek, one of the prominent streams draining the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City.
The temperature was in the low 30s — this was several days before the current batch of arctic air barged into our region — but Pine Creek, as is common with mountain streams, lies in a narrow canyon where sunlight penetrates for just a few hours during the already abbreviated midwinter day.
The creek — or “crick” as the word is often pronounced hereabouts — meandered between rocks which, with their 18-inch-thick cap of snow, looked to me like nothing so much as marshmallows. (Or in a few cases, toadstools.)
The variety of the frozen concoctions, in shape and in size, was considerable.
In several places where the stream narrowed — Pine Creek is rarely more than 15 feet across anyway — it was bridged by snow.
On the downstream side of these bridges the melting snow had frozen into a staggered row of stalactites.
Some of these were the classic dagger-shape familiar from limestone caves, but in several places the thin shaft widened at its bottom into a fan that dipped into the water and created a miniature, and musical, eddy.
In the case of rocks that barely protruded above the stream’s surface, the water that occasionally surged over the stones prevented snow from sticking — or so I surmised.
These boulders were mantled instead by a scrim of ice, in some places perfectly transparent and in others turned a milky shade of silver by embedded bubbles.
We learn at quite an early age, of course, what sustained freezing temperatures do to water.
But it seems to me that we never completely lose our fascination with, and appreciation for, the unique shades, textures and forms that result from a confluence of frigid weather (even if it’s the artificial environment inside your freezer) and water.
I walk often along the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway, the paved path that parallels the Powder River through Baker City, and in the cold months I’m always eager to see what a polar spell has wrought.
The Powder is a sluggish stream during winter, as much of its flow is held back by Mason Dam.
Its gradient, as it runs through Baker Valley, is also much flatter than Pine Creek and other mountain creeks.
As a result the Powder frequently freezes from bank to bank.
This isn’t quite as fetching, perhaps, as Pine Creek, with its series of minor ice-encrusted waterfalls.
But the Powder’s solid layer of ice can yield its own interesting phenomenon — especially if the ice isn’t buried under fresh snow.
Earlier this winter I watched, while crossing the river (on a sturdy steel bridge; I have no interest in testing my ability to extricate myself from a hole in the ice), as a single cottonwood leaf, trapped beneath the crystalline ceiling, tumbled downstream, its pale yellow edge brushing occasionally against the imprisoning ice above.
It was an otherwise ordinary episode — rivers tend to be bordered by trees which release leaves into the water, after all — turned into a slightly peculiar, and thus compelling, one by a simple, natural process.
This week’s ongoing stretch of chilly weather, even as you read these words, no doubt is redesigning streams across the region, from the littlest rill to mighty rivers such as the Grande Ronde and the Wallowa.
Which means you won’t have to go far to enjoy this seasonal show.