Monday, December 15, 2014

When the Wild Rice Lays Down

The wild rice was laying down, a fuzzy matt of tan fibers and stalks.  The river was getting wider, the winter edges pushing back to the edge of the cattails as the summer growth of rice disappeared.

The big river was running 2 to 1, my shorthand for twice as long against the current as with the current to cover a distance.  But, with such a fine sunny day, a spectacular late autumn day for sure, I went farther up the river than necessary, rounding all of Wilcox Island before entering the Mattebasset on the way downstream.

The trees and brush have long since dropped their leaves, exposing the surface of the wetland and most of what is there, and what has been left there.  It's a time of dormancy, but I always find it a time of hope.  The trees are just waiting for the right time to regrow their leaves, they are just adding one more ring to their measure of time. 

There are just a few big birds, a couple great blue herons, a few hawks, two swans.  Mostly, it is smaller songbirds, and woodpeckers - lots of woodpeckers, primarily the downy, but I also spot one of the larger hairy woodpeckers. 

The near lack of breeze creates clear reflections of the silver grey trees on the water and sometimes I just navigate by watching the reflections instead of the actual river's edge.  It's all the same except upside down. 

I turn at the tavern put-in, where the tavern no longer stands.  I have no reason to push farther up the river, and I have good reason to take my time and explore unvisited inlets on the way out. 

I turn up a backwater that has a thin sheet of ice, using the bow of my canoe to create a small vee.  The view of frozen water and the sound of frozen water cracking will never cease to hold me.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Underdog

The front of the tide was still well below me when I set out upstream against a stronger than usual current.  While the temperature was above freezing, a light breeze made the day raw.  Along with the grey skies, it made the upstream paddle into more of a grind than it should be.

The Quinnipiac is one of those abused rivers, an underdog that tries its best to return to what it should always have been.  It reminds me of parts of the Duwamish back in Seattle.  At low tide, the irresponsible discards of industry can be found on the banks.  At all tides, the noise of nearby highways can be heard.  It takes some time on the river to make that stuff disappear and to start to appreciate the underdog for what it still has. 

I labored upstream for an hour and a half, and then I turned and sped downstream with the current, and the beauty of what I worked for came out.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

When You Get There You'll Know It

It starts at the first bridge under a very thick blanket of clouds with calm air, temperatures somewhere in the 40's and a light sprinkle of rain.  The second bridge, the railroad bridge, is guarded by typically animated and noisy kingfisher.  I collect an empty beer can from the weeds - this being a popular fishing river, cheap beer beer cans are all too common.  Five feet from the can is a liter backpacking water bottle.  I dump its contents and the odor of rum hits my nose, a hint at how the previous owner may have come to lose his bottle.

At the first bay are 24 swans.

I can go to the sea on such a calm day as this, and I ride a surprisingly fast ebb current - apparently I have the timing of the peak tide all wrong in my head.  Great Island, a large and level island of spartina grass and a few small tree outcroppings, is awash.  I am sure that I have not been here when I have had such an elevated vantage point over the island.

I'd been studying some old maps of this area and I just could not remember the Black River, although I knew that I had been up it.  So, that became my destination, the last river before the sea.  And, as I passed under the railroad bridge, the landmarks appeared.  I could not remember what was ahead, but I always knew where I was when I got there.

I've been here before

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Day of the Gift Horse

It is an if-not-now-when day, sunny and in the 40's with a cool but not troublesome breeze with a weather forecast that says, "land bound for the next few days".  I end up at the Salmon River with hopes of collecting the rest of the swan feathers that I need.  On the way into the cove, I spot and flush a great blue heron, and then I see that lone osprey that has been hanging around.  It whistles, I watch it is an osprey, no doubt about it.  I wonder how well it will over-winter and why it is still here and not a thousand miles south.  It seems a little small, but it is not injured and flies as well as one might expect.

As I watch the osprey, four swans round the point in flight formation and pass by.  But, there are almost no feathers to be found.  It seems that the fall molt is well over and my project that needs the feathers can be put aside for a few months.  There are about 50 swans in the cove today.

All the same, the tide is still high, lagging an hour of more behind where I live, the 20 miles of river between here and the ocean constricting the ebb.  I head up to the Moodus, which comes in from the east at the top of the cove.  With the tide up, the current will be near slack in the short forested river and it will be paddleable bank to bank, the gravel bars well deep enough for a canoe to pass over.  I turn back where Johnsonville comes into view, where the first cobble shallows would require me to wade, and I pick up three specimens from elbow deep winter water - a fresh water mussel, and two broken pieces of ceramic.  My bare hands don't sting from the cold and rewarm in a few is not really winter.
mouth of the Moodus

On the way back out, I tuck into a shallow marsh bay at the head of the cove that seldom has enough water to float the canoe...and I collect a vagrant duck decoy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Pill for Restlessness

It rains a no account sprinkle - drops making well spaced circular patterns in the river, but barely wetting my gear.  It is cloudy, a thick overcast creating a dim and windless world, the rain degrading the vision just enough that the spartina marsh could be a midwest wheat field. But, it is spartina, thousands of years of spartina probably going back to not long after the glaciers receded.  It seems odd that something so stable provides the relief for my restlessness.  It also seems odd that as soon as one writes "no account sprinkle", it begins to rain.

The tide is going out and the current is fast, faster than I remember paddling against.  This is winter...short days and many of them too windy to paddle.  Waiting for favorable tides might mean waiting a week.  Deal with it.

I paddle up the insides of the bends, slicing across the river as it meanders and taking in the weird sideways slide relative to land that the fast current creates.  Winter in the salt marsh is quiet with most of the birds gone and all of the turtles and fiddler crabs put away until spring.  As I near Cedar Island, a rather large mature bald eagle takes wing and flies a 1/3 of a mile west to take a perch on an osprey nesting box.  A couple of yellow legs watch me from the shore until they decide to put me out of view.

At the big bend above the third bridge, a second mature bald eagle comes from a tree.  It takes a big wide circle around the broad marsh that defines this section of the river and then flies back and past where I first saw it...gone.  At the next bend I roust 14 Canada geese that fly farther upriver where I can bother them again.  I spot a couple kingfishers.  They are unusually quiet today.  The normal chatter and flying back and forth from bank to bank just isn't what they have in mind.

At this point the day brightens, although the clouds remain solid.  Something is happening above and the extra light comes with the first breath of wind.

What winter does in these parts is let one look into the past.  The forests bare, the old dry stone walls of former farms can be seen, their layout not one of grids and compass headings, but more an undecipherable wandering of convenience for a farmer that moved those stones by hand and walked the hills to keep track of his animals.  I notice one that stands out more than others.  I beach my canoe and walk up the hill to find a well built rectangular enclosure, the walls still square and solid, but no longer used.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


For awhile and at times, it almost didn't make sense.  The wind had come up as I drove in on the beautiful, winding and narrow Joshuatown Road.  The wind that was building on the river would not show itself in those dense eastern hardwoods, even with the leaves off as they were.

I started near the Chester Ferry, which was running for the last day this year.  The two of us were ready to go at the same time, but the ferryman waved me past...and into the teeth of the wind as I rounded the dock.  And so it was a claw into the wind, but near shore and without much in the way of waves.  The worst that was likely to happen was that I would be blown to shore and have to walk my canoe for a distance.  And every time the wind seemed too strong to make much headway, it dissipated and convinced me to keep going as it was only a mile to the inlet behind the island, where I knew that I would find comparative tranquility.

Once in the narrow channel, the wind lessened and I could bask in the sun and rest without being blown backwards.  Two swans occupied the entrance bay and a single female mallard was near shore.  Most of the other waterfowl were probably out of the wind somewhere out in the marsh.  But, with the tide at its lowest, those side channels were not paddleable.

I saw a couple hawks, but at such a distance that I could not identify them.  I spotted two downy woodpeckers working rotten trees near the shore.  I photographed one that was fully inverted on the underside of a tiki-log.  They did not seem to mind me or the wind. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Before Ice Up

I came up here to check on the beaver dam that lies a mile or two up the river from the mill pond.  It had been breached early in the summer, but whether by man or nature I do not know...I was curious to see if it had been repaired.  There is a thin sheet of ice over 3/4 of the pond, but a narrow channel where the current runs stays open.  The thin ice at the edge sings in wake of the canoe - sand or sleet of a sheet of glass with an underlying "twang", 30 feet behind as if I'm being followed.

the mill pond

There is a lot of beaver sign as soon as I leave the pond.  Stumps of saplings and half cut full grown trees are frequent.  There is also the peeled sticks left behind, pencil to thumb diameter, with the obvious scooping cut of a beaver incisor...having been rolled in the dextrous front paws just like corn on the cob.  Winter is coming, it is a busy time.

A few blue jays scold me as I paddle, but the first bird of note is moth a moth with 3ft wings, blunt headed, big bodied.  It rises from the shore, unseen until it moves, and easily, instantly identifiable by the absolute silence...not a peep, not the slightest woosh of owl.  It perches a hundred yards off and I can see it's "mule ears".  A great horned owl.

At the tight left hander where the water always runs a little swift, it is running fast.  A new beaver dam has been built and while it doesn't cross the river completely, it constricts the flow to a narrow channel.  It raises the water upstream water level a foot.  The new lodge, the reason for the dam, appears within 50 yards of paddling.

the beaver pond
 The old dam, the one that had been breached, is repaired.  But, it is no longer two feet high like it was in the spring - the new dam downstream of it having raised the water level on it's lower face.  I cross it on the right side as usual, scaring up a flock of mallards from the beaver pond.  The lodge near the dam didn't look good in the spring and now it looks worse.  Clearly, it is abandoned and I would guess that it was abandoned when the dam was broken.

Beyond the pond is a section of meanders...narrow with deep water, but very tight turns, almost doubling back on itself.  It's a labor for me in my long lake canoe, calling out every stroke that I know...sweeps and pries and well forward draws to pull the nose around...slow down, speed up.  Paddling, but without rhythm.  Response to the situation.  It's a busy time.

food supply to the left, lodge to the right
Past the second bridge, I find a new lodge on the outside of a turn, just past a small dam.  Mussel shells show that raccoons have been using the outside of the lodge for a feeding spot.  A massive brush pile - branches and saplings jammed into the bottom of the river are beaver preparations for for when the river ices over.

I probably won't get here again before it ices in.