On the last day of the year formerly known as 2022, my wife and I needed a little quiet time. We were in the midst of a gauntlet of year-end parties and revels, and, grateful as I was (am) for all the warm friendships that surround us here, I was happy to see an old friend stalking the waterfront, silently blanketing the Chester.
It had been an unseasonably warm December day, and when all that residual warm air moved over the cold river water, it produced that eerie, wispy, vaporous concoction we call riversmoke. In that languid moment, it gave our river a lovely dreamlike quality that played with my notions of what is real and what is imaginary. We all know that when the sun is out, the Chester can be sparkling blue, but under grey winter 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; it has, in fact, 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 slogging through the phragmites along the shoreline, or a Nanticoke fisherman out in the shallows tending his nets, 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 River Packet looked like character actors in a grainy film noir; I expected a gunshot, a splash, footsteps pounding along the wharf.
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 dry 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 its own special metaphoric quality. Perhaps because it’s the offspring of colliding physical forces—heat and cold—riversmoke has an inherent yin and yang aspect that transcends mere meteorology. Just think about it: wouldn’t it be miraculous if all our current polarizing differences would yield such ephemeral results as they evaporate into thin air?
But on that year-end day last week, the Chester’s riversmoke had a more soothing nature. Maybe it was just all that unexpectedly warm air hovering over the frigid water, but I thought I detected a whiff of spring. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been here long enough to know that the mercury in our thermometers will surely plummet before Persephone emerges from the underworld to make her welcome annual appearance. It’s even possible that when she finally does come to stay, she’ll be draped in a cloak of gauzy riversmoke.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.