I didn’t set off on my lunch hour on a wildlife expedition. I slipped into my spandex to get a little mid-day exercise and the bike path along the South Platte River conveniently passes right in front of my office. The riverfront is significantly more utilitarian than scenic, as the river winds its way through Denver’s urban-industrial core. Still, the city and adjoining municipalities have recognized the great value that such trails bring to urban livability, and the trail connects the southwestern-most suburbs with those in the northeastern portion of the metropolitan area. No stoplights, no road-crossings. A meandering strip of pavement eight feet wide and thirty miles long.
For me, this was just another ride.
As usual when I embark on these hour-long excursions, the first ten minutes I ride swiftly and try to avoid breathing in the rank odors of industrial production and landfills. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, this portion of the journey can be merely unpleasant or highly offensive. Today ranks low on the stink scale.
Exiting the city center there is one highway bridge after another. I-70, I-76, Highway 270, exit ramps, on ramps, railroad bridges and so on. Countless pipes lie ready to direct rainwater and road chemicals directly into the river.
Then suddenly, the river is gone. The banks and riverbed remain, but all that is left of the flowing waters are mud flats and murky pools of stagnant water. At this low-water time of year, the entire flow is being diverted for industrial purposes, only rejoining the riverbed a quarter-mile or so downstream in a tumultuous, foamy discharge.
But then, slowly, subtly, my attention is diverted. My perspective shifts. Riding northwards, the landscape starts feeling more natural. The river meanders and is permitted to assume multiple channels. There are no buildings lining its banks – no smokestacks, no McDonalds, no carwashes. Just a river, making its way across a formerly vast prairie, lingering fall colors on the trees and shrubs lining its banks.
First I see a few geese on the sandbars, beaks tucked into wings for an afternoon nap. Then, three red-tailed hawks circling. Ducks upon ducks spread out across the waters surface, gliding silently. Further downstream a flock of gulls stake out an island of sand. Then more ducks. Shorebirds I don’t recognize. A great blue heron, poised. Some may stay the winter, others passing through on their way to southerly climes.
This stretch of river is anything but wild, yet it continues to pour life into the landscape, feeding, replenishing bird and biker alike.
(Submitted to Freedom to Roam, October 2010 )