Rivers of Runoff

On the Dakota plains, frigid winter weather and snow give way to warmer temperatures and running water — both equally entertaining for a farm kid.

| March/April 2018

  • Miniature rivers formed by melting snow were fun to play in.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth Illustration
  • Giant piles of snow are cause for celebration among children.
    Illustration by Dennis Auth Illustration

After enduring a long, cold winter out here on the prairie, the arrival of the first warm days of spring are an elixir. The true Fountain of Youth, as far as I’m concerned, is the sight of meltwater trickling from the base of a decaying snowdrift.

Winter might have its high points, but they become more difficult to find with each passing year. It lifts my heart to see the backside of that season as it beats a retreat.

As a youngster, I saw winter as just another excuse to have fun. Dad would clear snow from our farmstead with his Farmall M and loader, making a snow pile that would rival the Himalayas — or so it seemed to my seven siblings and me.

That snow pile immediately became our Everest. We intrepidly blazed a trail to its craggy peak. This pathway was used by subsequent adventurers who longed to soak in the breathtaking vista of our dairy farm as seen from the summit of the snow pile.



One winter, a gargantuan snowbank formed close to our farmhouse. It was so huge that a kid could have climbed out a second story window and directly onto the top of the drift. And we might have, except we knew that our parents would have scolded us for allowing precious heat to escape out the window.

We discovered that the humongous snowdrift was ideal for making snow tunnels, so we set upon it like a bevy of burrowing beavers. The snowdrift was soon honeycombed with tunnels and shafts, dead ends and secret entrances. It was like having our own 3-D maze.

April arrived upon a balmy southerly breeze, causing an almost-forgotten sensation to flood our brains. It took some effort, but we eventually remembered what this feeling was called. It was something known as “warmth.”

Our heavy winter clothing soon became unbearably hot. With great timidity, we removed the outermost layer of the armor that had shielded us from the cold since time immemorial. To our astonishment, we didn’t become chilled. On the contrary, we seemed perfectly fine. We swiftly shed layer after layer, marveling at how light we felt and how easy it was to move. Our spirits soaring, we whooped and galumphed like freed prisoners.

There was a downside to this shift in the seasons. Our mountainous snow pile soon withered into a grimy, slushy foothill. Overnight, the 3-D snow maze we had spent endless hours constructing was reduced to a forlorn gray smudge on our greening lawn.

But there was a tradeoff for these losses: the wonder of running water.

The rising temperatures made it possible for liquid water to flow across the surface of the planet. Miniature rivers formed on our farmstead and driveway, tiny streams that practically begged to become the objects of civil engineering projects.

Using what little equipment we had on hand — sticks scavenged from the grove, a broken hoe, the toes of our boots — we created intricate water diversion projects. Mighty rivers were rerouted, dams were built, and vast artificial lakes created. Some of these reservoirs grew quite large, encompassing an area the size of a car and reaching the third buckle of my five-buckle overboots.

These were the same overboots that I had worn all winter. They had carried me through belly-deep snow, helped me conquer the snow pile, and protected my shoes while I carried buckets of feed and water to our livestock.

Sadly, the constant wear had caused the overboots to develop holes. I became aware of this when I was fording a water puddle and my feet began to feel uncommonly heavy. This heaviness was quickly followed by the icy sensation of meltwater seeping through my shoes and into my socks.



I immediately reported this footwear malfunction to the authorities. My parents seemed unmoved by my plight.

“It’s your own fault,” they pointed out. “You shouldn’t be spending all that time stomping around in those water puddles!”

A solution was offered in the form of used bread bags. I discovered that plastic bread bags placed inside of my overboots did a fair-to-middling job of keeping my feet dry. However, the bread bag failure rate was quite high. I made a mental note to take up this issue with the bakery.

We’d been learning about geology in school, and I somehow retained the fact that all rivers run to the sea. It dawned on me that this included the little rivulets that we were damming and diverting.

The water that had soaked my feet would eventually flow into the Big Sioux River and then to the Missouri and the Mississippi. Our artificial lakes would someday laze their way past New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico.

I thought it would be fun to put a message in a bottle and see how far it might go. Who knows? Maybe some kid in Morocco would find it and we would become pen pals. Although communicating via oceangoing bottles might be a bit cumbersome.

I wrote my name and address on a piece of notebook paper, and stuffed it into an empty soda bottle. After corking it — we used actual corks back then — I took the bottle to our south field and tossed it into the shallow meltwater creek that formed there each spring. I hoped for a reply from some exotic locale, but would have been happy with a note from a neighboring farm.

A few days later, my little brother rushed excitedly into the house. “Look at what I found while I was playing in the water down by the culvert!” he exclaimed. In his hand was a corked soda bottle that had a message inside. My bottle and my message.

I was disappointed that the bottle didn’t make it any farther than the culvert, but I wasn’t discouraged. Because I was already making plans for the next spring, when I would build a raft from scrap lumber and sail off to visit my imaginary Moroccan pen pal.

Related: American rafting takes on new forms in Nebraska — "tankin." Think canoe float trip in a stock tank.


Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. He enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere A. Jerry’s new book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.






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