Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Art, Animals, and Deep Ecology

Pocket Knife Corner
And so the argument rages.  My morning check in with friends on social media finds the architect writing that only humans are capable of art and an artist protesting that as an arrogant and incorrect statement.  Such is the thought seed for my trip canoe trip.

The Gravel Flats
Several year back, a good friend told me, I think while we were out wandering about in a large forest, that I was a "deep ecologist".  This was a term that I was unfamiliar with and even now can't fully explain.  However, I read up on the idea and agreed that for the most part, that is where I lay.  It is a belief that all species have a right to exist, and a reason to exist, and that those rights and reasons are rather equal to our own.  It's the idea that you should have respect for the natural world.  Use it, but use it with respect and care. 

So, from that place where I stand, I see that humans are not the only species capable of art.  What we have learned about animals in my lifetime is quite remarkable.  Once, tool use was the difference between animal and man.  Then we found out that apes and crows and who knows what else were modifying found objects to use as tools in their daily routines.  Then some scientists taught a gorilla to communicate with sign language.  We figured out that whales communicate with each other over great distances and that elephants and Crows perform elaborate funerals for lost members of their tribes.  Male Bower Birds gather and organize blue objects to entice a mate...and a Bower Bird's display rivals any home-made valentine.  And., many other birds compete through dance or song.  The reason for these other-species arts are little different than our own.  As an artist I make a fairly large quantity of art while making a fairly small quantity of income from it.  My main reason for my art is to draw others into discussion.  My reason is not much different than the animal arts.

The Long Cut
I set out from Foote Bridge on a spectacular sunny autumn day.  The morning 35F temperature and sunlit surface of the waters put a thin low fog over the marsh.  The tide is high and the current nonexistent up in the forest where the water is still backing up.  My course is often set by covering the harsh reflection of the sun on the water with the bow of my canoe.

When I get below the railroad bridge I take the alternative route into the Long Cut.  On my last trip here, a hunter asked if I'd seen any ducks and I told him that I often spot a lot of Black Ducks in the area near the Long Cut knowing that they weren't going to figure out how to get back there anyway.  So, I head back there today to satisfy my own curiosity.  It is an easy go with the water high and the narrow gap is about as wide as I've ever seen it.  By the time I am down to the confluence with the Neck River I have flushed no less than a 150 Black Ducks and half that many Canada Geese.  It's a pretty busy place today.

The state boat launch
From the flooded state boat launch I return up the main river. 
Pocket Knife Corner
A squat shorebird draws me over to the bank at the first railroad bend.  It looks somewhat snipe-like.  Then, it stands and stretches out and it is a Yellow Legs that had me fooled.  I spot a couple more off behind it.
Foote Bridge...also, the old stage coach ford

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Low Tide East River Day

It is windier than I expected, somewhere in the 10 mph range, but according to the weather service this is the calm day of the week and so it goes.  According to myself, this is also the sunniest day in the last week.  I head out with a light chop on the water, the result of the ebb current going opposite to the wind.
The west bank has been exposed to the sun for several hours and it is now populated with fiddler crabs.  While the air temperature is about 40F, I suspect that down in that inch of air where the fiddlers live the sun on the dark silt has raised the local temperature to maybe 60F or 65F.  It won't be long until they stay burrowed all day.
Fiddler Crab
A Hawk circles low near Cedar Island.  I don't get a good enough look to ID it, but I suspect it is a Harrier.  But, without a better look it remains just Hawk.  The bird of the day right now is the Yellow Legs.  There aren't more than a few sighted as I head upriver, but they are content to let me pass and then get back to picking the mud at the water's edge.

At the bottom of the Big Bends I flush a large Hawk from the trees on the outside of the bend.  It gives me a good enough look that I can ID it as a wintering Rough Legged Hawk.  The dark patches on the bottom of the wing leading edge were quite obvious, even if I didn't get a photo.

I pause for coffee in the Big Bends.  It's been an hour against the current, but more to the point I have found a small spot near the bank where the canoe does not drift.  There are a good many raccoon tracks in the silt.  Some are fresh from after the tide started dropping but there are many more older tracks that have had the tide wash over and fill them.
I turn from above the Arch Bridge on a line between Duck Hole Farms and the smallpox graveyard.  The water is getting shallow enough that my paddle is touching bottom on most strokes.

The return is unremarkable except that it is an easy cruise with the current and wind, and with the wind dropping the lower marsh is particularly calm and peaceful and a sense of solitude washes over my soul.

Friday, November 15, 2019

First Autumn Loon

The local art festival season just finished and that along with inclement weather when I did have a day or two free has kept me out of my canoe.
I waited for high tide which arrived not long after noon.  That extra time also brought the temperature up from freezing to about 40 degrees.  I made the short drive across town to marsh put in.  And, for the first time since spring, I put on my cold water gear - my drysuit.  I set out into a fairly steady stiff west wind.  I suppose it was 12-15 mph.  But, with the sky clear and sunny and the cord grass spartina having turned gold, it felt much warmer.  I paddled the grind into the wind to Milford Point seeing no birds other than a few Ducks.  They were all true quackers - either Mallards or Black Ducks.  From Milford Point I turned upriver into a channel. 
 This marsh is a low salt marsh - about 90 percent cord grass that floods daily.  On a higher than normal tide like today, it is possible to push the canoe through the grass, but it is also more difficult to figure out exactly where you are as it tends to all look the same.  I;m heading for Nell's channel, but I miss the correct turn.  So, I follow the long blue fingers of water deeper into the grasses.  When the path splits, I follow the one that looks longest. When none looks good, I peek up over the grass for the next patch of open water and forge on through the grass....just keep heading west.  Without warning, the broad Nell's channel appears.

Upstream a hundred yards is a wintering common loon.  It has already lost its speckled back colors and I need to scope it to make sure its not a cormorant.  It stays a hundred yards ahead of me all of the way up the channel until we go in different directions.

To add to the Loon and the dozen or so Ducks, I spot 3 Great Egrets and 2 Great Blue Herons.

I try to round Cat Island, but the spartina is too dense and perhaps the water is just a couple inches too low.  Anyway, it doesn't go.  I back out and continue to the take out.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Off River Vehicle

October 28, 2019
"Near record high tide at 11:30, we won't have to stay in the river.  You want to go?"
Heading into the cattails
I coax M out.  It's a fine fall day with temperatures in the 60's, a very light wind, and a sky with just enough clouds to be interesting.  We put in from Foote Bridge knowing that the state launch at the bottom of the river will soon be awash with a foot of water.  Watching out for her paddle, M asks as we come out of the narrow forest if she has to watch out for rocks.  I tell her that normally there are some boulders in reach and at low tide this section is a wade, but right now there should be four feet of water between us and the highest rocks.
Easier going over the flooded spartina
We flush some Mallards from the top of the Gravel Flats.  Farther down it looks like some Black Ducks have also flown.  The Blacks are always more skittish than the Mallards.

Most of the leaves are still up and some are still changing from green.  But, enough of them are down that I can point out the wall of the old smallpox graveyard across the river from Duck Hole Farms.

Below the arched bridge we turn off the river following a narrow channel back into the cattails until we are close to the forested hillside that hems in the marsh.  It was the wrong channel and we end up poling our way through the cattails with me standing up every so often to look for the next small patch of open water.  The cattails have gone tan and being where no one else bothers to go is positive thing for the spirit.  With a little effort we get to where I intended to be.  The cattails yield to the spartina, which is much easier to paddle through.

We return to the river and then cut once more across one of the Big Bends before returning to the river and paddling down to the railroad bridge.  We follow the river along the rails until it bends away.  High tide has peaked and with this much water we paddle right off  the river heading.  I've only been on this patch once before.  I plan to take us to the head of a long meandering ditch that will return us to the river, but with 12-15 inches of water over the spartina we keep going following the forest that bounds this part of the marsh.  Then, we follow a cut back to the river that puts us just below the state launch.

We return via the Neck River, Bailey Creek and the Sneak.  We have a stiff counter current to work against until we get past the railroad bridge.  Record tide levels cause a 2:1 current during the max ebb and flood.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Lewis Gut and the Great Meadows

The burned swing bridge
Just as I pass the burned swing bridge a dark hawk skims across the mouth of the gut, its white butt patch confirms it as a Harrier.  Having crossed the water, it pulls up and rolls to the right slipping through the gaps at the tank farm.  Higher up, an Osprey crosses over and perches in a tree letting out its familiar whistling call.  I figure that I'd better perform a visual scan and I locate a pair of mature Bald Eagles perched together in a tree on the south end of Pleasure Island.  But the facts are, what sounds like a good bird day was already a good bird day before I left the house.  As I went out to load my canoe I was surprised to find a Virginia Rail staring up at me from no more than 5 feet away.  This was so unexpected that I returned to the house to check my bird book while it calmly walked under my car.  I told S about it and she came down and got down on her hands and knees to look at the Rail, which was still under the car.  Then we realized that not one bird or squirrel was at our bird feeder.  That only happens when there is a hawk in the area.

Bald Eagles
The Great Meadow salt marsh in the Lewis Gut is the largest untrenched salt marsh in the state.  The trenching in the other marshes was done some 50 years ago to eliminate mosquito breeding spots.  By draining the shallow tidal ponds, the trenchers also eliminated prime shorebird feeding spots.  It's all connected, everything is connected.

The tide was still quite high when I started.  Being a very high tide the ebb had a pretty good current against me.  But, there was plenty of depth as I explored the side channels.  I flushed about 15 Great Blue Herons - there was one group of five that stayed together and I flushed them twice.  Back in the trees were a couple of Great Egrets, and three more out in the meadows, and a few more farther in.

Back in the longest of the side channels I spotted a Hawk and a Great Blue Heron sharing the same small tree.
On the way out I spot an immature Snow Goose (aka Blue Goose).  I've never seen on of these before.  They only migrate through this area.
Immature Snow Goose (Blue Goose)
Looking at the burned turn bridge, I wonder if the bridge was in the closed position when it the Pleasure Island side caught fire.  Did the bridge tender swing the center span to save it?  Did the tender know that it would never turn again?

Monday, October 21, 2019

The French Hunter

I set out just short of midday from the Patterson end of the swamp.  It is a spectacular autumn day, sunny with a light north wind.  The river is about mid-level, a good height for clearing deadfalls.  I haven't been here since early summer.  The water is already cool and clear with the summer algae and plant growth gone.  There is only one other car at the put-in.  There is a good chance that it is a duck hunter as the season opened last weekend.

The first mile is narrow and twisting.  For the most part, the river is about 20 ft wide and the turns are sharp and frequent.  I paddle steadily keeping a good rhythm while changing my stroke every to or three dips.  J-stroke, reach forward to draw the bow into a turn, a sweep with the canoe heeled, a draw, a j-stroke, another sweep, etc.  It is a delightful exercise in efficiency and placing the canoe exactly where I want it to be.

The autumn colors have erupted although little of that is in the grey stick trees of the swamp, those trees long standing ghosts, the roots drowned by the machinations of beaver.  It is the marsh shrubs that have turned a brilliant rust red while the cattails are still fading from green to tan.
New beaver lodge below Cult Tower Hill
Not far below Cult Tower Hill I find the owner of the other car.  He greets me with a thick French accent that I did not expect.  We both stop and talk for 15 minutes.  He's in here duck hunting and tells me that at 84 years old, he's not much of a shot anymore.  Neither of us has seen a single duck in the 2-1/2 miles from the car, so I have to take his word for it.  As far as I am concerned, 84 and paddling a canoe solo to this spot is pretty good, period.  He's had to cross one beaver dam and a bank-to-bank deadfall.  I let him know that I've cut that deadfall out leaving a good 6 ft wide passage.  Then we part.
The French hunter
I head down to the halfway point, the Rte 22 bridge.  The 200 yards above the bridge reconfigures itself fairly often and I'm always curious to see how old passages have closed and new ones have opened.  The log tangle below the bridge is still intact, but I'm turning back and don't need to deal with that mess.

I catch up again with the hunter at the only beaver dam that needs to be dragged, although I propel my narrower and faster canoe up through a gap without exiting.  He has it under control...frankly, he's enjoying wrestling his canoe over the dam, so I head on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


I set out from Ely's Ferry Road heading up the east side of the river.  But, this seems to be the last day of fast boat driving for some people, and while their wakes aren't a problem for me, they are annoying.  I cross to the other side of the river and put a couple hundred yards between us.
There is some wind out of the Northeast but it doesn't slow me down much.  There is also a fairly good chop on the water, more chop than I can attribute to the 5-10 mph wind.  Thirty miles south and thirty miles east of yesterday's trip, the autumn colors here 8are about a week behind. 
When I get up even with the bottom of Selden Channel I cross back over the river and head up into the relative peace and calm of the narrow passage.  There are very few birds and soon enough I drift off into a meditative paddling.  I spot a Hawk, two Swans and four Great Egrets.  When I get to the top of the channel I turn back, exploring one of the side inlets, but mostly just content to let the colors go by.
Just 200 yards from taking out, an Osprey flies over.  It's been almost  a month since I've seen one.