Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Swallows have Returned

The winds are coming and while I delay too long, I still can make the water in time for relative calm. My task today to check on the goose nests that were just being built two days ago. I put in in the south lagoon and as I paddle up the east channel of the burial island, I notice what are possibly scent mounds. There are four within 30 yards on the banks of the channel and I think they might be the workings of the beaver. This would be a logical boundary between the 520 lodge and the hidden lodge and I even found a dead beaver here not long ago. One of my books says that beaver will fight viciously over territory.

When I reach the big lodge, east of the east marsh, I find the nest abandoned. It is thinnest beginnings of a nest, just some out of place grasses. I find two geese, possibly the same ones, around the back and it looks like they might be scouting a nest site. There are numerous hummocks in this part of the east marsh and perhaps they will nest here. I did not think that their first choice for a nest was a good one being much too exposed. I skid across the bay in increasing wind. When I start it is small chop with shivers on the surface and in the 10 minute crossing the waves near whitecaps by the time I reach the cattails of #2 Island. Swallows have returned in force and there are dozens darting about in mid-bay where I saw a single solitary one just a few days back.

(This is the west beaver lodge nest)

I take refuge in the cattails, which rustle in the wind, and as my canoe squeals across a submerged log, two geese take flight from quite near honking loudly in protest of my presence.

The nest on the west lodge is still occupied and shows additional work. There is down mixed in with the grasses and the female does not budge as I near. The male moves toward me, putting himself between me and the lodge although he is much more interested in chasing other geese away and does so once. This nest looks like it will stay. I've seen geese nest here in the past and it is high and dry and protected from too much sun and too much wind. If there were eggs at this time, the male would have been much more forceful.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The First Goose Nests of Spring

Mike and I portage down and across the city to Lake Union on day of changing weather. There is some wind from the south, there are clouds that open for sun and then close up. It rains, it stops raining and rains again, but on the first leg, it rains on our backs. We head north, round the point and head south down into the bottom of Portage Bay. Then we head north and then east through the crossing under place, into the the south lagoon, and we pause for a few minutes and get out of the canoe so that I can show mike the distinct beaver trail that I found. It leads from the water over dry ground and back into a thin canal that leads into the short, dense and tangled forest that the workings of beaver tend to create. We continue east to the big beaver lodge where two geese are just beginning to construct a nest. We talk and decide to circle the bay. Coots are hiding near shore in the wind. A second goose nest is just now being built on the west beaver lodge and nearby, we find an eagle in the birch tree of #2 island, with many coots all to near for their own good.

It is a stiff paddle back into the wind to return. Such days are so full of life.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The First Swallow of Spring

A cold front has come through, but it only returns the weather to what it should be.

I put in at the west side of the 'crossing over place' and paddle east through the 'crossing under place', passing the only Native American marking of any sort in the bay. This once was a wealthy Duwamish village site and yet, the only notice of any history prior to 1855 is a totem pole from the Haida nation, which is several hundred miles north of here. I have a hard time reconciling that. I pass through Broken Island, a path that can only be taken in the high water of spring. Then I follow the east side of the West Islands, which are lit with strong sunlight coming through the gaps in the clouds. At #1 Island, I spot a lone otter once again and it makes itself scarce in a hurry. There is a good stiff SE wind and I work in chop and crosswind eastward. I spot one eagle near the last of the dirtbergs. It is the swirling of ducks and coots that signals its presence, as often is the case. I let the wind blow me into the NE lagoon where I pause in the calmness.

Then, it is time for me to go. The wind is rising enough to penetrate the brush and this means that I will have work to do to return. In mid bay, I spot the first swallow of the spring. It is alone and the only one I see today, but more will follow soon.

After grinding into the wind across the bay, I drag the canoe over 30 ft of marsh and sneak along in a beaver canal back into the east marsh

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It is Jean's Birthday

It's Jean's birthday and I must tell her what I see, because she is a thousand miles away.

I portage east to the big lake on a sunny and calm day, passing a man with a child on his shoulders who says with a laugh, "It's a long way to the water," and I can reply, "no it's not," with a laugh, and as our shoulders drift pass each other in opposite directions, we are amused.
The dry and brittle totally exhausted cattails still stand and their puffs remain, our spring and late winter dryer than normal and less stormy than most. The farmers east of the mountains are already beginning to count their water, and the mountain reservoirs wait for less than normal snowpack to melt.

I bump against the edge of the east marsh. The first new cattails are coming up, still less than a hand-span high. And a redwing blackbird trills and chips as I sit.

I head through the east channel of the burial island and into the south lagoon where I find four herons, although two of them are only seen after they take to wing. The fourth sits and lets me pass under with no obvious concern.

As I move north up the east side of the west islands, the scent of fresh water comes to me. The water is still too cold for that, so the sun must be heating the surface just enough to lift it airborne.

At #1 island, an otter swims parallel to me for a hundred yards. It is just a few inches from the cattails and I am 30 yards out. It only notices me when it turns in my direction. It's serpentine dive is the last I see of it.

I circle #1 and return towards the east end of the ancient portage, but first, I pass through the break in broken island, grabbing the last of the car tires as I go.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Out with a friend

My friend, Ann, joins me today. She is in for the full affair, and so we portage east to the big lake and set out on sunlit calm water, heading north into the lightest of cool breeze. I coach her briefly on paddling and she settles into it as if it is nothing new. Today's plan is to visit the five beaver lodges in the bay. There are more motorboats out and soon there will be a lot of rental canoes with the spring weather so unusually pleasant. The ducks are calm and settled and we only spot one bald eagle, which is perched on the ugly public sculpture (that we both agree is out of place). Ann is in no hurry and I appreciate that she has set the time aside to go with my flow. The treat comes when we are up in the north end of the bay near #1 island. There are many more herons than usual. We count 16 at one time on a 70 yard stretch of cattail shore. We keep our distance, but still, they all get up a fly off together. There are herons everywhere up here today and I'll bet that we have seen three dozen individual birds. Then we head back to the south lagoons, explore the depths of the cattails, circle the burial island, avoid a dozen rental canoes all coming our way, weaving drunkenly and in most marginal of control. We portage back up the hill, talking about art, our especially shared passion.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Duwamish River - I put in from a neighborhood called South Park. The tide is falling and the current will pick up for the next few hours. But, there is a stiff wind blowing up the river, the cause for me coming here instead of out on the sound. If I just sit, the wind blows me slowly up river against the current. This area of the river is all industrial. At one time, this part of the river meandered all over a mile wide river bottom. It would've have been part forest and part marsh land. It is very abused water and toxins will flow out of here for a thousand years more. There is even a taste in the air of grinding hot metal and sometimes, something plastic. The banks are fortified with old chunks of concrete and in places, rotting wooden sea walls of indeterminate age. A half mile up, the deadness gives way to a seal that surfaces and cautiously watches me as I pass. Then, I hear the piercing chirp-whistle of eagles and find a nesting box atop a 75 foot tall pole. The box keeps them from nesting in nearby power lines and the resident pair then keeps other eagles from nesting. I wonder what they eat, there are no coots in this river. As I continue, the river bank gives way more often to mud and brush. When I reach the big oxbow, the banks, at least the outside bank in the curve has taken on a primordial appearance with large silt impregnated drift logs partially buried in the mud. Almost everything is the same nearly black color. There is some life here. As I turn, some Boeing workers on shore crack a joke my way, but it has nasty undertones, just something not quite level about it. I acknowledge it and move on knowing, because I worked there far too long, what they are up against.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A calm day gone wild

Language advisory - the F word gets used a bunch down below.
It is gray, warm, calm and humid. It is a signal that the weather will change. I head out knowing that wind and rain will come later. Rain comes just as I set the canoe in the water.

I work out past the burial island. With the water up high right now, I can explore deeper into the marsh than in mid-winter. I paddle into a gap in the cattails that I have never explored before. It is just barely wide enough for the canoe and soon it becomes a beaver canal. Besides dams, beaver are known to maintain and even dredge canals to ease their movements through the marsh. I back out, because the beaver can swim under trees and brush that stop the canoe. I head a couple hundred yards north to the nearest beaver lodge. There, I follow another gap into the cattails and it too becomes a beaver canal with numerous gnawings along the sides. I pole on, deeper into this marsh than I had ever been and soon find myself just 30 feet from open water. Here I have to get out on the firm but floating bog stuff and drag the canoe. I am becoming increasingly familiar with the complex network of beaver trails, drags and canals that criss-cross the the marshes and islands in the bay. At 4 to 8 beaver per lodge, there should be something like 3 dozen in the bay. Most people are surprised that there are any at all. Even fewer understand just how much the beaver sculpt the appearance of this area.

I head west through the "crossing under place", across the top of Portage Bay, and into Lake Union, briefly stopping to tell two girls who are clearly rookie kayakers to put on their life jackets instead of strapping them to the rear deck of the kayak. I tell them that they won't swim long in 45 degree water and they turn their noses up at me. So be it. Half way down Lake Union, the rising wind finally stops me. I can portage out here, but instead I spin and surf the growing waves and wind. I also have a hunch that I might be needed. Soon, it is all whitecaps and handling the boat requires constant attention. I find the two rookies struggling in the waves, clearly out of their league. I find calm behind a bridge abutment and wait in case they need rescue. I am not happy to be involved in their ignorant stunt, but I do know what to do should they flip and I can get to them in less than a minute. It is messy and clumsy, but they struggle to shore just a few yards away and I vent, appropriately, on them, "When someone who clearly knows what they are doing tells you to put on your fucking life jacket put on your fucking life jacket you fucking idiots! I don't want to have to come over there to pull your fucking ass out of the fucking lake you fucking idiots! They are embarrassed (as they should be) and know that they got lucky (they did). Had they flipped, the kayak would have sailed with the wind well out of reach before they could grab it (rookies) and they would have been left swimming until I got to them. I run into rental boaters doing this kind of shit all the time.

Maybe they will never go in the water again. That suits me fine.

Portage Bay is breezy, but do-able being sheltered from the brunt of the wind. It is fresh and invigorating. It has been a great day, an ever changing day, even with the dumbshits.

FYI - I read that out of 115 kayak and canoe drownings and 95 of them were people without life jackets.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Mike and I portage to the big lake. It is early evening, very calm and overcast. We haven't paddled together, but once I get his cadence up to a normal pace it all flows nicely. We spot an eagle perched in a tree just before we get to Union Bay. I haven't seen an eagle there ever before. Things are different with a second pair of eagles in the bay. The eagle habits that I learned last winter don't apply. I tell Mike that we probably won't see the eagles hunting, they usually eat in mid-day. And then, we see one of the eagles, hunting. I spot the north nest pair sitting together on the largest dirtberg, so the hunting eagle is from the south nest. It seems less experienced, definitely less experienced. It circles on a coot, gives up, takes after a duck in flight, gives up, circles on another coot, then another. It's haphazard compared to the north nest eagles. When the north nesters hunt they circle on a coot. If it escapes or the eagle tires, the eagle retreats to a perch and lets the coots all calm down and regroup. The north nest eagles are very methodical, very deliberate. This south nest eagle just wears itself out. Down in the south lagoon, we spot a beaver swimming and just to make sure we close in and it slaps its tail. It then backs off to the small and hard-to-see lodge than most people don't know exists.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I set out from the east end of the Crossing Over Place on a windy day with dramatic clouds, multi-shades of white, gray and blue and moving across the sky. In the midwest, where I grew up, the clouds always moved across the sky, sometimes with amazing speed, but here, clouds usually move at an almost imperceptible pace. A very dense flock of coots and widgeons lies just north. Maybe it is the wind that causes them to form a denser group than normal. I drift with the wind and the widgeons get up and fly 200 yards east. The coots just swim, keeping their distance by forming a big black crescent to my left. (except for the coot below)The cattails are nearly white when the sun strikes them bright, all of the life bleached from them and just waiting for wind and rain and animals to lay them to the ground.

I work crosswind along the north shore. It is windy, it is fresh and energizing and the waves slap the side of the canoe while sun comes through and the lake shimmers and then the sun is clouded over and the water goes wavy green, and the sun returns and it goes on.

Outside of the NE lagoon, I lay the paddle across the gunwales and the wind carries me in. I should have coffee. Hot coffee is never better than when I drift downwind in my canoe. Ducks spook and leave when I get into the lagoon. I didn't see the heron until it got up and flew off, just 10 yards away. I write the occurrence because my camera is safely stashed.

In the brush are many red wing blackbirds, most of which I cannot see. They trill and chirp, overlapping and responding to each others calls. It may be me, or it may be the Stellars Jay sharing the bush. It is one of the bluest Stellars Jays that I can remember.

It is a good struggle with the wind to leave the lagoon.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stay in the Canoe

A cold front swept in yesterday bringing the fewest of snow flakes at first, but leaving some sleat on the ground where I portaged to the lake. This frosty morning, my head needs to go someplace where it can think by itself without my help. As usual, lately, this is more likely than not my canoe. The canoe is not for everyone, or hardly anyone for that matter, but it works for me and I don't question it, but just accept the fact.The water is up some more and I paddle the edge of the marsh in the south end of Portage Bay. In mid-winter, the water is too shallow for me to get within 30 yards of the shoreline. Then I head through the "crossing under place" into Union Bay, following the north side of marsh island, passing a favorite nurse log along the way. I turn south into the lagoons, and find many geese mixed with the typical ducks and two great blue herons. While sitting still, the geese come to examine the side of the canoe. I try to record some sound effects, but operating the laptop computer while canoeing is too damned difficult and it removes me from "the canoe". I put the bastard away and enjoy the rest of the paddle, weaving through cattails and taking a raw cold wind on my skin.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Pairing Up Time

I want to paddle someplace different, but I delay the decision and the decision is made by time.
I portage east to the big lake. It is sunny and clear and it will be warm enough that there will be a minor idiot-fest in the lake today. I aim north towards Union Bay, passing an occasional flock of buffleheads and sometimes, a common merganser. The buffleheads spook at 75 yards, but the mergansers stay put.In Union Bay, an eagle sits in the evergreen perch on the east shore. Rowers have scattered the ducks and coots and I figure that the hunting will begin once the flocks have reformed. I spot a thin black dagger disappearing into the water about 50 yards ahead. I slowly paddle towards it, wondering what that was. Instantly! an otter pops up just five feet from the boat. It is surprised as all get-out and dives away. I can't help but to laugh. Good thing it wasn't a polar bear. And the dagger? It was the otter's tail.

It is pairing up time for the Canada geese. Maybe six weeks ago you might have seen them in groups of 15 or 20, but for the last few weeks it has been pairs only. They are seen more often on shore also, a sort of shopping for a nesting site. In 6 or 8 weeks, they will set the first nests. Then they will get quite defensive about their space. By that time, many of the other ducks will be gone, heading north to build their nests.

At the mouth of the NE lagoon, I find and cast a good shallow beaver hind track. I find the bleached bones of two geese nearby. It was, most likely, an unleashed dog kill. The bones aren't scattered. The predator killed the birds and left without eating.

On the walk home, I meet an interesting fellow and we talk for quite some time about this canoe project. I say it over and over again, but meeting someone new is one of the best reasons to walk my canoe to and from the lake.
(Note on "idiot-fest" - I try to be nice about everything, but this refers to the dozens of people that will rent canoes and with very limited abilities paddle without life jackets in 45 degree water.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Beaver sign...and paddling

The peeled branches and logs are leftovers from the beaver. They eat the bark. In the center of the photo is a beaver drag (the thinner spot in the cattails). They drag the branches to the water where they can evade predators if necessary. The lodge is about 100 yards north from here.I portage to the lake during morning rush hour. It is a strange time to walk a canoe through the city. People in cars are so rushed and so cut off from everything else. Cars are convenient, but there is more than a monetary cost to them. I stop and talk for five minutes with the crossing guard at a school. We have seen each other several times before. This time he wants to know more, and so I tell him about my project and where I am probably going today. Mostly, I enjoy the brief unplanned meeting with someone that I don't know. It is something to savor. It makes the city a home.
The big lake is calm, the sky overcast, but the air near the surface is clear and distant features are distinct. As I paddle north, thoughts race through my head. Most have nothing to do with canoeing except that canoeing has brought them forth. Then I settle on paddle strokes, a remembering of an article that I read on wikipedia. The write told all about dozens of distinct paddle strokes. I think he was a Brit... it was neatly categorized in the way that British sports writing often is. He told about the power stroke, the J stroke, the Canadian J stroke, the feather, the draw and more. Nice and neat, clean and precise. Exactly like paddling isn't, at least once you have become one with the canoe. In reality, the power stroke merges with the J, which might or might not become a Canadian J, which slides into a feather if need be, and the feather becomes a C or a draw, to avoid a rock. They overlap, they merge, they blend. And they do it without thought, like piano players working a fast piece. The arm, the wrist, and the paddle simply do what is needed to point the canoe where it should point. It's hard to explain, it's pointless to teach. Put your time in. It will happen.