Wednesday, February 15, 2017

With Pancho and Lefty

I delay my start by 15 minutes talking with a goose hunter who is about to go out on the last day of the season.  He knows the area well and understands the terrain.  We have a good talk.

I head up the Neck River, the tide nearing high, with a good flood current aiding my progress and making the land swiftly pass by.  The Sneak will be an easy passage if it is ice free.  We had a recent snow of a foot or so that was followed by rain.  The weight has finally crushed the spartina flat and the marsh takes on a tired and worn look.  This is of course, just a pause in the life of the marsh before it grows green and lush and provides a place for the birds that will come with the spring migration.

The tune of "Pancho and Lefty" plays in silence in my head.  It is a good tune for the canoe, even if I don't know the words.  I read water as I paddle, tracking on bubbles and bits of plant material, watching it swirl or cross the channel, watching it shift direction to avoid some well submerged obstruction.  My favorite read is the delicate thin line, so fine that it could very well be a loose fishing line, a strand of spider web that shows the discontinuity between two currents that differ by almost nothing.  The lines can be 20 or 30 ft long and I try to steer clear of them in hope that they will go on forever.

There are a good number of geese in the center of Ox Meadow, the lower marsh now having a name...that I learned the name from one of the locals on one of those stream side chats.  Some of the geese flush and some of them stay. I'm never closer than 200 yards. 
At the big bends, something like 45 minutes into the journey, there is another large congregation of geese.  But, when they flush it is far larger than I expected and 200 geese and a 100 ducks take to the air. I notice that the honking of geese seems to make a place wilder than it probably is.

I turn at Foote Bridge with a quick greeting to two women setting out for a hike in the forest.  The tide is almost slack, hard to tell if it is ebbing or barely it makes no difference.

I retrace my route back to the sea having experienced one of the most beautiful days of the winter.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

An Act of Aggression

I turn the point and hear distant slapping on the water, not an unfamiliar sound, the sound of a swan taking off.  I look left towards the sound and instantly spot a swam heading directly towards me.  Only three days back this swan did little more than eyeball me as I paddled past.  But this, this is an act of aggression.  It sets down about 50 yards out and continues to close on me, neck laid on its back, head tucked, powerful kicks with its huge feet sending pushing a few inches of water in front of its breast.  This is an act of territorial aggression.  At 30 ft out it turns to swim parallel to me, herding me out of its space.

Weather changes the behavior of animals.  Two days ago we had a windy thunder snowstorm drop about a foot of snow.  I've set out at the peak of a trap tide again, but the debris in the reeds is no longer visible.  Temporarily nature has wiped the slate clean.  Soon, I flush a bird of prey.  It flies straight away and I can't ID it, but when I get to its takeoff point I find a kill, now just clumps of feathers floating in the water.

I head upriver against a near nonexistent current making good progress following the east shoreline.  I head to one island past the fourth bridge...I can never remember the names of most of these islands and it may be time to give them my names of my own making, names that make sense for the place.

I pause, I write, I return to the Feral Cat Park.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Trap Tide

I set out from the Feral Cat Park just after a trap tide.  A trap tide is a high high tide that washes over the low islands in the river.  Any plastic or floating debris washes into the phragmite reeds and becomes trapped.  It's impressive how much is here.  I did a clean up in Union Bay and people told me that it would be dirty again soon.  This turned out not to be true.  Plastic survives a long time and what one sees may have taken several years to accumulate.  I collect nothing today...but my irritation is slowly building and one day soon when the water is a few inches lower I will go at it with a vengeance.

The river current has returned with the ebbing of the tide.  It is a hazy sunny day with near calm winds and temperatures that are warm for winter.  It is so pleasant that I pay no concern to the current and paddle where I want, even if it means heading into a stiff current.

I have a talk to give this evening and what I might say runs through my head as I observe and move through my surroundings.  In short order, I have enough to out-talk Fidel Castro.

No one would call this a great bird watching day.  I have flushed some black ducks and a nice flock of Canada geese, spotted a kingfisher and a Cooper's hawk.  But, it is the swans that are the most interesting.  The juices are beginning to flow.  A month ago they would have ignored me as long as I kept my distance.  Today, they eyeball me warily.  They don't raise their wings or duck their head low.  None of the powerful pulsing swim kicks or heading toward me, the stuff they do when mating time comes, but they watch me and follow me until I leave their area. 

I return to the Feral Cat Park just as the wind starts to rise.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Lost Lake

Lost Lake

There's a strong wind off of the sea and a fast tidal current jetting through the narrow gap that connects the marsh to salt water.  But once I am in the canoe, seated low, the wind is not so much a bother and I ride in relative comfort inland towards my destination.

After paddling a half mile through a broad salt marsh I reach the road where I have to do a very short and easy portage into a small pond.  The culvert that connects the pond with the marsh is too small and fully submerged with a powerful current rocketing through it.

I quickly reload the canoe and head up to the narrow arched railroad bridge.  The keystone of the arch has 1891 chiseled into it.  There is little current as the culvert at the road is acting as a filter, slowing the passage of water that would have made this gap a fast ride.

It is a secret garden passage, a narrow arched tunnel that enters a beautiful lake surrounded by forest with short cliffs and steep hillsides descending into the lake.  I immediately flush a kingfisher and a great blue heron.  But soon I discover a problem.  Almost everywhere it is surprisingly shallow.  The water is 6 to 8 inches deep in most places with a soft layer of silty mud beneath.  When I lose the deep channel I decide to cross the lake at a narrows and probe for any depth.  Most shallows have a deep channel...but this does not.  I continue a shore ways and it stays shallow, so I head back out knowing how long it might take to extricate myself from a mudflat.
Lost Lake

At one time this lake was probably just an extension of the sea.  Then a railroad was built with just a narrow opening to let water pass.  For a 126 years the flow of tides have been restricted to a trickle of what it once was.  It has been slowly filling with silt ever since.  I suppose that the shallow water gets quite warm in the summer, the bottom absorbing the suns energy with no deep water or current to carry the heat.  It may possibly be too warm for a lot of plants or fish to survive.  Some day it might be a meadow - it's not much different than a large beaver pond.

salt marsh
On my return I poke around in the salt marsh.  It is quite spectacular even if it won't contain my canoe for much of a trip.  As I pull out I have one of those wonderful Connecticut experiences.  I meet a woman who lives a few yards off.  B and I have a very nice talk, a talk more than long enough for a chilling windy day.  She tells me that the tidal lag on the lake is 3 hours...the lake is deepest (about 15 inches deeper than on this trip) 3 hours after high tide. 
salt marsh

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ox Meadow Research

I pass by the new spot that I haven't yet explored thinking that it will be a longer and more predictable trip if I I wait for a high tide.  I return to the same place as yesterday. This time, I head up the Neck River, which connects with the East at the sea.

Posts at the big bend
This is a continuation of recording the exposed cultural remains at low tide.  I'll ignore the outside bank as it is currently used by nearby home owners.  The inner bank has no tenants.  At the first bend I find several wooden posts...inside of the bend just like I found in the East River.  But, I also find the first sign of the corduroy road.  And, as I continue up the Neck I come across the corduroy every hundred yards or so...saplings, branches and limbs sticking out of the bank horizontally and laid parallel to each other.  They protrude from the bank about 2 ft down below the top of the marsh.  The ends are cut at an angle - axe cuts, the thicker pieces have been split to crude planks.  This continues until I reach the broken tidal dam just inside Bailey Creek.  The last corduroy is lined up such that the path crossed this dam and then turned down river.  A few of the logs in this corduroy are saw cut, but most are by axe.

Corduroy farm trail
I don't know how fast a salt marsh builds up, but I guess that a 1/4 inch a year might be not too far off.  That dates the corduroy to a 100 years before present.  All things are connected however, and this bodes not well for the marsh.  Sea level rise due to climate change will easily outpace my 1/4 inch per year guess.  These marshes will disappear, its only a matter of time.
Very obvious corduroy farm trail

I head up Bailey Creek finding no more cultural stuff.  I chase off a few hooded mergansers at a couple of the bends and then I spy a half dozen black ducks up the long cut that leads toward the railroad.  I drift back for a photo and find only three.  Then, ten rise up from a hidden spot, then 20 more, and then 20 more.  There is more water up that cut than I suspected.
More obvious corduroy farm trail

On the way out I turn and head farther up the Neck.  After I do a couple of full circle meanders it occurs to me that I've not been here in a good while.  A guy and his dog come down to the water and I get my photo taken.  We start to talk.  It is one of those delightful Connecticut start talking with someone that you've just met and 45 minutes goes by.  R fills me in on some details.  The big marsh was once called (and still is by some people) Ox Meadow.  It was part of a large farm and the broken tidal dam was probably the bridge leading out to the salt hay (spartina).  This all dovetails in nicely with the corduroy trail...the only reason to build that would've been to keep wagons and farm machinery from getting mired.  Oxen pulled equipment makes sense with the guessed age of the path as well.  He also tells me of some foundation ruins that belonged to the last farmer.  He had an airplane and story has it that the foundation was for his hanger. 

On my last stretch of the Neck, I stop and talk with a guy getting ready to go out sailing.  And, I hear the hanger story again.

Friday, January 20, 2017


One of the advantages of wild places - even barely wild places - is that they can't get to you.  You don't have to listen to what they say, you don't have to worry about what they want you to do or what they think.  At least for the time being, they don't exist.  They don't like things that they don't control.  One of the unspoken beauties of wild places, aside from the beauty, is that they are rankled by its existence.

I set out at low tide in a river that I know but seldom see in this state.  The mud banks are fully exposed, the base of the spartina above my head, I always feel like I am going back in time when the years of built up primordial ooze is exposed.  I set my camera to sepia tone to match the mood.

planks - likely a tidal barrier to a long cut in the marsh
These conditions give me a chance to explore the "cultural" of the marsh.  As salt marsh, everything that isn't silt or grass is a likely candidate for cultural.  Masses of cobbles...cultural.  Wood firmly fixed in the mud...cultural.  And this is what I focus on, the wood posts and poles that stick out of the bank.  They are firmly fixed, set with intent and perhaps some knowledge and skill, but far from being engineered.  Coming from parts west, I see them first as fence posts.  But, imagining with my more recently acquired east knowledge I know that that is unlikely. 

Agriculture arrived here pre-wire fence.  By the time barbed wire was invented, everything that needed a wall already had a stone wall.  The forests here are littered with stone walls running in all directions.  The posts I am most interested in are away from any trails, roads or paths.  They are isolated.  I suspect that they might have been set to hold fishing nets, or to mark oyster allotments.  I find most of them on the inside of bends and usually grouped, a half dozen scattered about, probably set at different times.  Some are poles from tree limbs, some are sawn lumber.  None of them have any nails or fittings, not that I would expect to find them.  All of them are submerged daily.  Kept wet they rot slowly. Dating them would be difficult.
Cobbles - possibly a crude tide dam

I spot no birds at all until I get to the big bends.  Around the first bend I scare up 15 Canada geese and a couple of black ducks.  After the last bend, the third, I flush a hundred ducks...blacks or mallards by silhouette and call.  Just before the stone arch bridge I spy two blue jays and a kingfisher.  It seems like a lot of blue on such a grey day.

I turn back from the bridge intent on enjoying the calm air and easy paddle that I did not experience yesterday.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Memory Stick

I put in just upstream from Whalebone Cove near the ferry slip.  I often start on the other side of the river but try not to make crossings like that during the winter.  But caution aside, it is dead calm and the big river is near glassy smooth.  I head down with a comfortable following current.

It is an easy paddle down to the entrance to the channel that takes one behind Selden Island with little to note other than a long steady set of probable deer tracks that have been washed once by the river, and that I have forgotten my notebook.

Making my turn into the back channel I flush a great blue heron, twice.  Then, before entering the large pond at the bend I flush fifty common mergansers.  They go when I am still 300 yards away...skittish.  There's a good number of birds here, a couple swans, a flock of mallards and some Canada geese on the far shore.  As I head down the channel I spook some more ducks.  It shows that hunting season has just finished - they fly when I am quite some distance away.

Besides the birds, I keep my eye out for sign.  By the half way cliffs I find the first beaver sign.  It's not much, just one downed tree, and there are none of the other markers - scent mounds, lodges or obvious drags, but they are around.

I head up into the Elf Forest, a place I've not been into at low tide.  I find more than enough water to get most of the way in.  I find fresh beaver sign along the bank...very fresh.  But again, no scent mounds or lodges, no tracks or drags.  They're probably using the side channels that are dry at this tide level for higher tide they can just float their cuttings.

The wind has come up while I have been nosing about.  It doesn't seem too bad and the weather prediction was for light wind so I continue down to make my return in the wide main channel.  This turns out not to be such a good idea.  Hoping for better gets me halfway up the island with nothing but worse.  Both wind and current against me, it is a grind.  The camera gets put away - no time to mess with it.  It is bad enough that when I have a long stretch of beach I hop out and tow the canoe...more than doubling my speed while giving me a chance to beachcomb.  It takes twice as long for the return...but well more than twice as much effort.

Connecticut River and Selden Channel