California red-legged frog (Rana aurora) drawing by Suzanne Baird.
Sometimes the best way to deal with a fear is to grit your teeth, clench your fists, and jump back in with both feet.
Up A Creek was published on January 13, 2017, in the on-line magazine Fiction on the Web. (http://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2017/01/up-creek-by-clifford-hui.html#more)
Up A Creek
“Those eggs are from a red-legged frog, all right. And it’s a good-sized mass, too. Earl was completely right yesterday.” Gil, leaning on the wall across from Rob’s open office door, balanced his coffee cup in one hand and folded his arms over the middle-aged paunch that pushed out against his red plaid flannel shirt. “We haven’t surveyed Desdichado Creek yet. When do you think we should go?” He stroked his handlebar mustache, grey like his hair.
Rob pushed back from his desk, stood up, and moved to his office doorway, almost filling it. He dangled his wire-rimmed reading glasses from one hand as he rubbed his short salt-and-pepper beard with the other. He answered in his soft west-Texas drawl, “Well, the sooner the better. It’s going to take several efforts to be sure we got a good count on that creek, and we want to be done before they migrate outta there for the winter. We can do our first effort tonight if y’all are clear with Mary to go.”
“Mary’s spending the week with her sister in Yountville. I just have to go home to feed the dog, so I can be back here anytime.”
“Did you hear that, Joanna?” Rob called across the workroom towards Joanna at her desk. “If you’re free, you could get your first experience hunting California red-legged frogs tonight. And we’ll show you how to put in pit tags and read ’em.”
Joanna Mark was now two weeks into her first full-time job after college. Until next year, when she will start graduate school, this job will expand her herpetology experiences. Her eyes lit up as she looked up from her computer. “I’m free to go. I don’t have a husband, a boyfriend, a roommate, or even a dog.” She grinned at Gil.
“Count me in.”
“Good,” Rob said. “Knock off early this afternoon and get something to eat. We’ll meet back here at seven. Plan on being out until ten or eleven or so.”
Gil looked over at Joanna. Her light brown hair was pulled back and clipped behind her neck so it hung down between her shoulders. She was wearing her usual blue work shirt and jeans. Cycling, softball, and backpacking hardened her athletic figure. He smiled and sidled over to her desk. “You’re going to learn how to grab frogs tonight with your bare hands.”
Joanna had told her mother that she was amazed when she first met Gil because he looked and sounded just like Uncle Max, her mother’s older brother. The pseudo kinship provided an underpinning for the friendly bantering between them. With a sparkle in her eye and feigning alarm, Joanna retorted, “Grab frogs? You mean I’m going to get warts?”
“No. Warts are from toads. We don’t do toads. But if you concentrate, maybe you’ll get a rash.”
“Thank goodness for small favors.”
Gil smiled, then nodded toward the storage room in the back. “Sometime today pick out a set of chest waders your size for tonight.”
“Chest waders? How deep is the water?”
“We’ll be walking near the edge where the frogs are mostly. It’s shallower in that part. But we’ll be crossing the creek, and it’s deeper in the middle, too deep for just boots.”
“Oh. Okay. Fine.” Her smile seemed a little tense. “I’ll check out the waders later.” She turned back to her computer as Gil walked off. Her fingers trembled as she flipped through the pages of data she was entering into the computer. When she started to type, her hands were trembling so badly she had to pause. She bit her lower lip. She squeezed each hand into a tight fist for a moment and then shook her fingers loose. She closed her eyes and took three slow, deep breaths. When she turned back to her work the shaking was worse.
Joanna got up from her desk, shaking out her hands, and walked to the storage room. She looked through the waders hanging upside down by their ankles and pulled out a pair with a size one greater than her shoe size stamped on the bottom. She pulled them on over her sneakers to check the fit before she took them back to her desk.
When she sat down at her computer, her hands were still shaking too much to work. “Damn,” she muttered. She got back up and headed toward the door, announcing to everyone and to no one, “I’m taking a break.”
Outside the sky sparkled at her as she paused to take some slow, deep breaths. They didn’t help. “You’ve got to do this,” she muttered to herself as she sauntered down the sidewalk. “If you can’t even wade up a creek for work, your career is over. Over!” She tightened her hands into fists. “Pull yourself together. You can’t be captive to a childhood accident forever. Take control of your life. Take control!” She stopped, closed her eyes, and tensed her whole body. When she opened her eyes and released the tension she said through gritted teeth, “I am wading that creek tonight and nothing is stopping me.” She paused. “Nothing!” She slammed her right fist into the palm of her left hand. She marched back into her building without so much as a glance into the drainage water rushing along the gutter.
* * *
Joanna, in the fourth grade and walking home from school, crossed the street and looked into the drainage ditch. Occasionally she saw frogs and ducks in it; sometimes butterflies and dragonflies on the reeds in summer. Today it flowed swiftly, carrying the run-off of the recent rains from the far side of town towards the river. She smiled as she looked up at the blue sky so clear it seemed to speak to her and listened to the cacophony of male red-winged blackbirds announcing their territories in the field beyond the ditch. It was spring and the world was alive and sparkling. She looked back down into the ditch where, to her delight, she sometimes saw fish and garter snakes. At first glance, there was nothing obvious there. She looked harder, leaning over to gaze into the water.
As she leaned over the edge she started to lose her balance. She jerked herself back before actually falling, but the jerk caused her foot to slip on the muddy bank. With a surprised “Ohhh!” she fell onto her back and slid slowly down the bank. The bank wasn’t steep, but it was slippery with new mud. As she slid, Joanna grabbed at the few short grasses on the bank, but couldn’t stop her slide. She slipped into the water up to her waist. She dug her fingers and toes into the muddy bank, but it was still too slippery to climb out. She called for help. There was no response. She called again and again. The only reply was silence.
Mud and slimy water soaked her favorite dress, the blue one with the little white flowers on it. She shivered. Her feet weren’t touching the bottom, and every time she tried to climb up the bank, she only slipped deeper into the water. She looked to either side for shrubbery to help her climb out, but the regular grooming of the ditch sides kept growth to a minimum. She was stuck. She called for help again. She paused and called again. The response was the same: silence. She shivered more.
As the sun continued to move across the sky she cried great sobs. She rested the side of her head on the muddy bank as her crying settled into a whimper. Then a couple of small clumps of mud rolled down the bank onto her head. With tears making paths in the mud on her face, she looked up to see two paws and the brown and white face of a floppy-eared dog looking down at her.
“Wuff,” it said.
From somewhere up above came the voice of her neighbor, Mr. Branson. “What is it, Rosco? What’s down there?” His face appeared over the edge. “Joanna?… What the … Hold on. I’ll get you out. Everything’s going to be okay.”
He lay down on the bank and stretched out an arm to her. As she reached up, he grabbed her wrist. He pulled her up as she pushed with her legs. He carried her on his shoulder for the half-block to her home. She cried most of the way.
She stayed away from that ditch and all other ditches all the way through high school. And when visiting home from college, she showed no interest in it.
* * *
That evening they parked the agency truck under some aspens near the spot where Gil had checked out the eggs. As they busied themselves pulling on their chest waders and adjusting their headlamps, Gil moved closer to Joanna and cautioned her, “Be careful you don’t step in any holes. If you step in a deep hole, the water will come over the top of your waders and fill them instantly. They’ll be so heavy that you won’t be able to climb out. And if the water’s over your head, you won’t have time to get your waders off before you drown. This water is clear enough to see the bottom, so shine your light down there and watch where you’re stepping. Stay close to one of us.”
Joanna’s breath quickened, but she managed to calmly offer, “Maybe if you tied a rope or belt around the top of the waders, if you fell, you would have time to stand up before they filled with water.”
Gil looked at her. “What? And break with tradition?” He smiled and then told her he thought that was a good idea, but it was too late for tonight. “We’ll get some belts for next time. Tonight stay close to one of us and watch where you’re stepping.”
Joanna nodded. She pursed her lips as she listened to the rushing sounds of the creek. The air was still and crisp. She shivered and her hands shook, but not from the cold.
When they were ready, Rob announced the procedure they usually used: “Gil, you check the left bank, and I’ll do the right. Coming back we’ll switch sides. Joanna, you bring that backpack and stay close to me.”
They walked along the creek a few steps to a place where the growth of rushes wasn’t so thick. Rob and Gil stepped into the water, but Joanna hesitated. She stared down into it, biting her lower lip. She took some slow, deep breaths.
Noticing her hesitation, Gil stepped back to her and grasped her elbow. She stiffened, but stepped into the water. “You’re shaking,” he noted. “Well, a little stroll up this creek will get you warmed up. In a few minutes you won’t even notice the cold.”
“I’m fine. Fine,” she said through gritted teeth, and pulled her arm free.
The water pressed the uninsulated waders against their legs, reminding them of its coldness. They sloshed away from the bank until the water was just over their knees and the bottom no longer sloped, and then proceeded to wade upstream. The moon was more than half-full, and the sky was clear. They could easily see the banks and each other. Except for the sounds of the water in the creek and their sloshing, it was quiet.
Joanna periodically took slow, deep breaths and clenched and unclenched her fists. “So far, so good,” she murmured to herself.
The three of them scanned the banks with their headlamps, looking for the pale blue eye-shine characteristic of red-legged frogs. Rob turned to her and said, “The eye-shine is light reflected from the frog’s eye directly back to the light source. So if you’re holding a flashlight at your waist, you’ll never see the eye-shine because it will be reflected back to your waist. Our headlamps are close enough to our eyes so that we can see the eye-shine. Remember that for the next time you do this.” Noticing the anxious look on her face, he asked, “You okay?”
Joanna nodded. “Yeah, sure. No problem.” She flashed a smile.
After a few minutes of wading and scanning in the quiet, Rob whispered, “I see eye-shine.” He started moving to the right bank, the light from his headlamp fixed on a spot below a bush on the bank. Gil and Joanna stopped to watch. The frog sat in the light as if frozen. Rob stopped when he was within arm’s reach. Then he made a jabbing motion with his right hand. When he pulled it back, a frog was in it. Gil and Joanna offered congratulations for the first catch of the night, and then they all moved to the bank and sat down. Joanna let out a deep breath.
Joanna opened the backpack and pulled out a short pole with a ring about the diameter of a dinner plate on one end and a box with a small data screen and some switches on the other. Rob put the loop antenna, encased in the ring, over the frog to see if it already had a PIT tag, but the digital readout was blank.
“I’ll do the first one, and then you get to practice on the rest.” Rob told Joanna.
Rob showed Joanna the frog and pointed out the smooth contours of its eyes, the ridge along the side of its body, and the red striped pattern on its legs that identified it as a California red-legged frog. He opened the plastic tackle box and pulled out a PIT tag. It looked like a gray plastic grain of rice.
Joanna had a curious expression on her face. “How does this work?”
Rob held the tag under the antenna to make sure it was working and to get its number while he answered Joanna’s question. “Pit stands for Passive Integrated Transponder. The tag is an integrated circuit with no battery, so there is no energy source to run down. It’s energized by the right radio frequency – and this transmits the right radio frequency.” He tapped the circular antenna. “The tag uses that radio energy to transmit a response to our readout as a unique six-digit number.” Then he loaded it into a special syringe-like device and injected it under the skin of the frog between its shoulder blades. He put the frog under the antenna again to double-check that everything was working.
Joanna watched intently and wrote down the digital readout numbers and other relevant capture information in the logbook. She looked up just as Rob opened his hand. The frog hesitated for a couple of seconds then jumped into the water with a plop. It swam away heading towards the bottom, using, appropriately enough, the frog kick, and it was gone. Rob turned off the readout monitor and put the syringe back in the tackle box.
Joanna asked, “So why do these frogs need tagging?”
“Well, they’ve disappeared from about seventy percent of their historical range. They’re not endangered, not yet anyways, but because of their rate of disappearance everyone interested in conservation is watching them pretty close. These guys migrate over land during the winter. It’s important to know their migration patterns and routes, because, if they’re blocked by roads or other development, the range of these critters will be even further reduced. And sooner rather than later they’ll be …” Rob snapped the tackle box closed and took the logbook from Joanna. “You know the rest of the story.”
He continued, “During migration they rest under bushes and other damp spots. When we find them, we just have to wave this antenna over them to get the tag number. We don’t need to actually grab them. That way we can follow a frog during its migration and not disturb him by grabbing him. Then we’ll know more about dispersal patterns, gene pool mixing, potential for repopulation of former ranges, and anything else related to their movement.” Rob stuffed the box with the tag equipment into the pack.
“And you know all those new homes they’re building along Route 152?” Rob gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. Joanna nodded. “That kind of development can be modified to accommodate migration corridors an’ habitats after they’ve been identified. But if the homes are built before the corridors and habitats are identified, and the development blocks a migration corridor, you know those homes won’t be taken down.” He stood up. “The red-legged frogs will disappear that much faster.” He looked around him to make sure he didn’t leave anything and headed back toward the creek. “So tonight we’re laying the groundwork for some corridor identifyin’.”
Rob and Gil stepped back into the creek, but Joanna hesitated, biting her lip. When she noticed that Gil turned to see about her, she stepped back into the water and waded upstream, shaking out her hands.
It was only a few moments before Joanna said, “I see eye-shine.” Rob and Gil pointed their lamps at the same place Joanna was pointing hers. A pair of glassy blue eye-shines reflected back at each of them.
Rob told her, “This one’s all yours.” He reached out and relieved her of her gear, and said to her, “Get ’im.”
Joanna waded over to the frog, keeping it in her light. It just sat there on a thin, barely-submerged branch, as though mesmerized. She got within arm’s reach and paused, giving it a good look. Then she grabbed for it. The tips of her fingers brushed against a hind foot as it launched itself, landing in the water with a plop. Her light penetrated the water as she watched it swim for the bottom. She muttered a quiet, “Damn,” and sheepishly looked up at Rob and Gil.
When she’d waded back to Rob, Joanna started to say something, but Rob interrupted her with, “There’s a special technique that works for me for catching these guys. I should have told you earlier, but I just forgot. Sorry.” He shifted the gear bag to his left shoulder. Joanna watched him hold up his right hand with the fingers open like a claw. “When you’re getting ready to make the catch, hold your hand up by your shoulder like this.” He put his right hand up to his right shoulder, claw facing forward. “When you make the grab, jab your hand straight out the entire length of your arm. Jab through where the frog is. As your hand gets close to him, he’ll jump into the air. If you’re hand keeps on moving past his sitting spot, you’ll grab him in midair.” He jabbed his arm forward closing his fingers at the end. “If you try to grab him where he’s sitting, your hand will slow down before that spot and that will give him just enough time to jump away.” Joanna nodded and practiced a few jabbing-grabbing motions.
They continued to wade upstream. In some places the creek was wide and the water moved slowly. In these places they searched the banks carefully because frogs prefer the slow-moving water. It was at one of the wide places where Joanna sighted her second frog.
Rob once again told her, “Get ’im,” and she waded toward the eye-shine. As she neared the frog she flexed the fingers of her right hand, opening and closing them. She could see a few branches of a sandbar willow hanging in front of the frog and a lot more behind. It was perched on a root of that bush, its feet submerged. She took a step to the right so she could jab between the branches. When she got within range she formed her right hand into a claw and raised it to her shoulder. She set her jaw. She jabbed. She turned toward Rob and Gil, a smile on her face and a frog firmly gripped in her raised hand. They gave her a cheer. A minute later Joanna had tested and inserted her first tag.
After Joanna had passed the antenna over the frog to ensure that the tag was working in its new home, Gil nodded toward the frog and said to her, “Y’know, that frog’s kin to Dan’l Webster.”
Joanna looked up at him, a puzzled expression on her face. “Daniel Webster, the orator and statesman from the eighteen hundreds?”
“No, not Daniel Webster. He’s kin to Dan’l Webster, the frog Mark Twain reported could out-jump any frog in Calaveras County.”
“Really? That frog was a California red-legged frog?”
“Well, Mark Twain didn’t say so exactly, but considering the distribution of these guys back then, that’s the common assumption.”
Joanna looked down at the frog in her hand. “Okay, Kin-To-Dan’l-Webster, let’s see you do your stuff.” She opened her hand, and the frog launched itself into the air in a low arc. Glistening in the light of three headlamps, it sailed out over the water, splashed into the creek nose first, and dove to the bottom out of reach of frog-grabbing hands. Joanna smiled at Gil. “She … is a contender.”
With a puzzled look, Gil asked, “Why do you think that frog is a ‘she’?”
Joanna’s eyes narrowed as she looked directly at Gil. “Why not?”
Gil shrugged. “Why not.” He smiled at Joanna. “She is indeed a contender.”
Joanna stepped back into the creek without hesitation and waded upstream. Where the creek was narrow and the water moved faster, they didn’t look for frogs, but focused their attention on where they walked. It was in these places that the creek was deeper, and the bottom more uneven. Joanna moved closer to Gil or Rob in these sections.
The moon continued to rise, and the shadows got shorter. After a couple of hours, they waded to the bank for a break. They sat down to give their legs a rest from pushing aside all that water, and pulled out a container of hot chocolate. They poured out three cups and switched off their headlamps.
They gazed around at the colorless landscape, and spoke softly, in keeping with the mood. The small canyon formed by the creek had a dreamlike quality in the flat moonlight. Its granite walls were a luminous gray, and the crowns of the white alders cast pyramidal silhouettes against them. In the more open areas, blue elderberry and mugwort obscured the ground, and dogwood trees threw their bushy branches into the dark sky. After a few minutes, they were back wading up Desdichado Creek.
Joanna smiled as she muttered to herself, “This is working. I’m going to be okay.”
She continued to get more practice catching frogs and implanting PIT tags. Both Rob and Gil let her catch and tag the frogs they spotted. Joanna wasn’t walking as near to the edge as in the beginning of the night. After she had done about a dozen, Rob announced they would turn around and head back when they got to the bend up ahead.
Once again, Gil softly announced, “I see eye-shine.” He started to move to the left side of the creek. “I’ll bring it back for you, Joanna.”
“I want to watch your technique,” she said as she followed a few steps behind. Rob, now carrying the pack, moved to the gravel bank on the right. The frog sat on a branch of a sandbar willow, low over the water near the muddy bank. The stream was wide here, and the water moved slowly. It was almost like a pond.
Gil kept his headlamp on the frog to keep it too mesmerized to escape. In the middle the creek was deepest, and the bottom roughest. As he approached the middle, Gil felt along the bottom with his booted feet while keeping his light on the frog. The water was up to his waist. Joanna kept her light pointed at the bottom, eying every contour. She bit her lower lip.
With a short “Aah!” Gil disappeared under the water.
Joanna gasped. A quiet “Damn,” escaped from between Rob’s clenched teeth, followed by a curt “Stay put” yelled at Joanna as he waded into the stream.
With her light pointed into the water, Joanna saw Gil trying to crawl up the side of a gravel trench scoured into the bottom. With his waders full of water and the gravel loose, Gil wasn’t making much headway.
The look of alarm in Joanna’s eyes gave way to focused concentration as she examined the creek bottom between her and Gil. She set her jaw and stepped closer to Gil. In an echo from her childhood, she muttered, “Hold on. I’ll get you out. Everything’s going to be okay.” She stayed back from the edge of the trench. Then she took a deep breath, gritted her teeth, and squatted straight down into the water. The ice-cold water rushed into Joanna’s waders and over her head. Her headlamp went out, and they both were in the rippling grayness of moonlight under water. She grabbed Gil’s wrist. She clamped on to it with both hands as she stood up. Gil pushed with his legs. They both burst to the surface gasping and shivering.
Rob was there like an oak tree, supporting them with a thick arm under each one. It took a moment for them to get stabilized. Joanna and Gil pulled down the straps of their waders to let the water flow out over the top. They leaned on Rob and waded back, pausing to pull down their waders as they entered shallower water.
When they got to shore, they both sat down and propped their feet up on some rocks, letting the icy water run out of the boots of their waders as they shivered violently. Rob pulled out two cups from the backpack and poured the last of the hot chocolate. For a few moments everything was quiet except for the sound of slurping.
Between shivers, Gil said, “Thanks, Joanna and Rob. I owe you guys.”
“And don’t you forget it,” she replied. Rob just smiled.
After resting a few minutes, they seemed to be settled into a stable level of shivering. Joanna nudged Gil and said, “You know, I understood what you said back there when you told me about being careful when using waders. You didn’t need to demonstrate.”
Water still dripping from his hair, Gil said, “I wasn’t sure if you were a slow learner or not.”
“I got the basic concept now. You don’t need to do it again.”
“Thanks. That’s a load off my mind.”
“Good. Glad I can help.” She patted his sopping shoulder.
They trudged back along the bank to the truck. Rob led the way because he had the only headlamp that worked. Joanna and Gil shivered all the way back, but Joanna’s hands no longer trembled.