Friday, April 29, 2011

The Finest of Days

On my way to the south lagoon, I stop to talk with a man, J, who lives not far from me. At first, by his opening question, he does not comprehend that I am portaging "all the way to the lake" - as it is so often phrased. We have a very nice chat. I think, as I continue, how likely it is that this will happen again before I get to the water.

Three blocks further, just below the steepest part, T stops me. He has seen me before, so he already has in mind what is going on. We too have a very nice talk about the things that I see on my journeys. But, we talk long enough for me to tell him how important the portages are. How, without the portage, I would not meet so many people and get a chance to tell them about the wonderful things that happen in the marsh.

I was here not long ago, the winding dead end in the cattails, in the place I call the east marsh, because it is east of something. The sky is bigger today than it was then, last years cattails continuing their descent to the water as this years cattails rise up. They are knee high, if I could stand where they are, but if I tried to do that, they would be chest high. A mated pair of mallards weedled through as I reached this point. There is the ever present trilling of redwing blackbirds, two chickadees pull fuzz from the head of an old cattail - nesting material, no doubt. I saw an eagle by the south nest on the way in, but the sky in this place will never be open enough to see it. A crow calls, a marsh wren does likewise, and a dozen more noises are there that I have no name for.

I exit the cattails to find the floating island all rearranged yet again. The calved off south section has now drifted all of the way to the west, sealing off that channel, which I know has been open for over 20 years. Now, the eastern channel that closed last May is open to its original width of some 70 ft.

I head over to the Big Lodge to check the goose nest. I sit for quite awhile and the goose rewards me by standing up and rolling her eggs. She then sits back down and repacks the edges with plants that she can reach with her long neck. The eggs well protected once again from the drafts of this unusually cold spring.

the middle of the east marsh beaver forest

Then, I find myself lucky. The water level is such that I can enter the east marsh beaver forest. Two inches higher or two inches lower and the way is blocked. Only twice before have I been able to go the hundred yards into the tangled wood to the point where passage is blocked, no matter what. I have yet to take anyone in here, but only because the canoe will not make it with the extra person on board. With all the time I have spent in this area, this is still the most special and the most beautiful. There is no creature that could do better with this place than have the beaver.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Exhibitions in May

I'm a bit under the weather with the chest cold stuff that's going around here.
However, I have artwork from the View from the Canoe Project up in two Seattle galleries during May.

The Time Between Memories
a group exhibition at West Seattle's ArtsWest gallery.
Zanetka Gawronski, Rebecca Deren and Emily Cooper with my work in the alternative media platform (AMP). I'll be showing a 9 minute video loop and fourteen hand-carved functional art canoe paddles from my View from the Canoe Project.
April 26 - May 21 with a reception on May 12 from 6 to 7:30pm. for more information

E4C Gallery -
And, a custom four screen piece based on my video, 'The Drydocks', begins showing at the E4C gallery at the King County 4Culture space in Pioneer Square in Seattle. The E4C features the work of several artists, rotating all day long. The gallery turns on at 7am and runs until 10pm. The screens face the street and are viewed from the sidewalk.

There are also 4 View from the Canoe photographs on James St. between 3rd and 4th avenues. There up for a few more months and since they are 4 x 5 feet, or so, you can't miss them.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two Canoe Day

I rise early, too early for the head cold and raspy throat that yesterdays canoe trip extended. But, I have a meeting in the marsh to attend. I have to be at the big lodge at 7 to meet up with B and MA, two local activists working on having the ridiculous backwards plans for a new SR520 bridge redesigned (I often refer to the current bridge as the stupid bridge, which is an accurate statement - the new bridge plan is stupider) .

I put in about 6am at the east end of the ancient portage. It is still and grey but the clouds are not a solid blanket, a sun event may happen as the morning progresses. Two heron fly overhead and I notice them by the reflection in the water to the left of my canoe. A brief glance and I decide that I prefer the reflection. I watch carefully the surface of the still water. Moving animals such as beaver and otters are easy to spot on an unbroken surface. As I near the workbench lodge, I see nothing and I disregard the workbench itself as it is now under a few inches of water. I pass by listening to the zip of my paddle as it recovers submerged. A splash. I didn't see it, but there was a beaver near the workbench although all that remains is the expanding ring of waves from its tail slap.

Castor Canadensis - The North American Beaver

At the next point, now between the workbench lodge and the hidden lodge, I spot a beaver in the water, then a second and eventually a third. I sit. They spread out and then return. One swims directly to and into the hidden lodge. One swims behind me, near the point, slapping a tail every few minutes. Another disappears behind the point and then, if it is the same beaver, comes to the shore and rips a dry cattail out at the base and swims off with it. The tail slapper slaps again. I stay as long as I can, checking my watch and heading off around the burial island towards the meeting spot.

wind up for a tail slap

note the webbed hind foot

As I turn the cattail point near the big lodge, I find a large beaver ahead of me, swimming with a cattail, which it abandons as it slaps its tail 15 feet from me. It moves into the cattails, unseen now except that it slaps its tail three more times as I continue, the noise turning my head to see the last of the fountain of water as it falls behind the cattails.

Near the lodge, I find a big block of foam, a 75 pounder for sure and I just herd it to land with the canoe. I see the big beaver once more as it approaches the lodge. At the same time, a canoe is approaching and I am sure it must be B and MA, who I do not know, but who impressed me so much by their willingness to be in the marsh so early in the morning.

We chat some of the politics, the concerns, an exchange of information. Then we head off on a tour.

My new friends both have canoe experience, so the tour is mostly me pointing out the things that I have been noticing and watching, the things that I track on 3 or 4 days a week, a frequency that few get to experience. I point out the brand new goose nests and we find the scent of castoreum on the beaver scent mounds between the hidden and big lodge. They've not seen the hidden lodge before. I show them the feed spots where the beaver have left cleanly stripped branches and we head north where I show them the fine stand, or partially standing stand of alder trees that the west lodge beaver have been eating. At the NE lagoon I send them in first, knowing that they will flush any ducks. A dozen common mergansers come out as they go in. We sit here awhile and talk history. 150 years of so called progress has altered this area so much. Then we head back, finding more wind as we reach the main bay. I bid them farewell after a final talk at the ancient portage. My cold has the best of me and I need a nap, but I wouldn't have missed this morning for anything.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Guided Trip

SC joins me this morning. It is a grey and calm day. Rain woke me early in the morning, but that has let up although the heaviness of that event remains in the air. Before we leave the house, I show SC some of my drawings and maps for the area. He is a bit a bit of a nature boy, like myself, but we will be looking at some stuff that he is not so familiar with.

We walk the Harrison portage to the big lake, and as we paddle north, I point out how the lake is 10 feet lower than it was in 1915, how the seawalls prevent good habitat from forming, and I identify the various ducks as we go. SC spends time on salt water, so the fresh water birds are less familiar to him.

Our first stop is the Big beaver lodge. The goose nest looks great. We push back into the edge of the beaver forest behind the lodge. SC is quite verbal, so I know how much he is enjoying this. I point out how every bit of wood has beaver teeth marks. We find a branch with a crop of false pixie cup (lichen). This is a great trip going on here for sure.

The floating cattail island is rearranged yet again. The small 10ft sq pad has disappeared to who knows where. I can't really tell whether the new calved island is present or not. The south island is still off 35 feet by itself. Stuff is just all pushed around, the lines are unfamiliar. If there weren't immovable landmarks here, it would be an unknown place. We explore the nooks of the east marsh. I show him the redwing blackbird nest that survived the winter, the beaver scent mounds in the east channel, the hidden lodge and the workbench lodge. SC has nature eyes, eyes that spot things moving, trained eyes through experience, and now that he knows what beaver workings look like he finds them on his own.

We head up to the west lodge, checking the marsh islands as we go for new goose nests. One is on the Rockpile. Two pair of geese are still arguing over sites at Broken Island. Sc is duly impressed with the tree cuttings near the west lodge. We get out for these, they are so "textbook". Then across the north shore (where SC finds a duck nest and a scent mound that I had never noticed - #1 island) the north marsh... lots of mergansers out today...the NE lagoon. The nest there is also doing well, the goose holds still head down...come no closer.

Then, back the way we came. As we near a rental canoe, SC goes into race mode. His kayak ability translates easily into the canoe and we speed past.

We finish the trip in Portage Bay where I show off the beaver bank burrow, the other type of shelter that they build besides the more familiar lodges. And near the take out we check over the main lodge, as are a pair of nearby geese, who may decide to nest on it soon, or maybe not.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Time-motion study

I run the Harrison portage out to the big lake. 1/2 way there, I run into G, who I've not seen for several months. G and his wife headed up a really fine restoration of a piece of public land that runs out to the Big Lodge. We talk for a good half hour. A 1/4 mile later, I meet D, who passed by us earlier and wondered what I was doing with a canoe. We have a delightful little chat about canoes and marshes and stuff like that. I have not even reached the water and it is a wonderful day.

Finally in my canoe, I paddle 75 yards and spot it...a loon. It's not rare, but not a common sighting either. As I grab my camera, it dives, coming up a hundred yards south, then diving again and repeating. A wonderful bird, a wonderful day. A pessimist would go home, right now.

The gap in front of the bow is

As I round Potlatch Point, I find the 10 ft. sq. cattail morsel up against the shoreline. It is a good 1/4 mile from its origin. I stop to write at the Big Lodge. A call from inside the beaver forest needs to be explained. So still it was, I did not see it until I began to dip my paddle. There is a new Canada goose nest on the SW side of the Big Lodge, a good spot for a nest.

I move west to locate the floating cattail island. It is clear that it has completely reconfigured itself in the last 3 days. It appears to be breaking up. A piece is already over by Potlatch Point, a new "berg", maybe 20x40 ft is now east of the main. The south "berg" is back to being 35 ft south of the main. There are new fissures and nooks all around.

I fasten myself to the new "berg" and sit. It is moving. For the next hour I drift with the berg, watching it rub through branches, watching it drift east, watching it rotate clockwise. I end up 200 ft east of where I started and on the north side instead of the southwest. Wonderful stuff, wonderful day.

I head through the south lagoon, letting my original planned purpose drift away. There is another new goose nest, this one on the Workbench Lodge. I wave to my homeless friend as I pass at a distance on my way to the east end of the ancient portage. And, I meet two more people as I portage home. A most wonderful day.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Moving Island

I portage down to the east end of the ancient portage stopping as I near to talk with the homeless guy who lives in a rowboat out in the marsh. We've talked many times before. I always enjoy his strange interpretations of nature, the names he gives to various birds and animals and the personal relationships that he tries to form with them. He's from the south and doesn't know many of the animals by their correct names... but he is always learning and he does note their habits.

I cut straight across the bay to join in a work party that is grubbing out invasive blackberries and replacing them with native plants. On my last trip to do this we planted osoberry (indian plum) and something else (I am very much horticulturally challenged). Today, they put in fifty oceanspray plantings at a little higher elevation where the soil is dryer. A class of freshmen from a UW environmental science class make up most of the team.

Returning to the canoe, I watch a female common merganser in the NE lagoon for quite some time. The nearby goose nest is doing fine, so far. Then I paddle the headwind straight south to the east marsh.

As I enter the east marsh, two kayakers exit. (I do not know this yet, but they will miss the action).

The moving cattail island has once again moved (refer to the last few entries). Today, the small 10x10 foot patch of cattails is jammed under the bridge and the large (1500 sq ft) south chunk has rejoined the main. The opening on the east side has closed, although it is only a 10 foot bridge of cattail that seals it off. I hear cattails breaking and get out my camera, ready for whatever is coming my way. But it is not what I thought. It is not mammal or bird. Instead, it is the cattail island coming my way and the cattail snapping is from the two masses of bog rubbing against each other. I can actually see the island move. I try to catch this with the camera and when I finally stop peeping through the viewfinder, I see that there is now a 10 foot wide gap to paddle through. I watch and the gap closes to 5 feet before I move off. It was always interesting to watch this movement on a day to day time scale, but I never expected to see it move as I watched.

I head west, checking a dead end beaver canal as I go, teaching two passing canoeists how to hold their paddles (and telling them that without their pfd's they stand a good chance of drowning in 45 degree water - they don't put them on, they never do), then further west, through the south lagoons, through the crossing under place, and down Portage Bay to take out. A young bald eagle, sporting new white head feathers is sitting over the main Portage Bay beaver lodge when I arrive.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Rearranging the Map

I'm up before dawn, driven by my wife's early start. It is heavily overcast and my plans for an orange sunrise watched from the marsh are postponed. I think about paddling somewhere different, for a change. Saltwater sounds like a good idea. But, as I'm packing my gear, I think to myself that I don't need to go somewhere else to see something new. The idea of portaging my canoe through my neighborhood on my portage routes seems so fine. I know well enough that I will see something new, I always do. And I know that I will meet someone new while I do the portage, I always do.

The new design for the east marsh

East Marsh -
As I turned Potlatch Point coming in from the big lake, I spotted change right away. A small piece of the floating cattail island, perhaps 10 ft on a side, has broken free and floated north some 20 yards. This island is a good sized marsh island that started moving a year ago. It is anchored by sedges and tree stumps in the NW quadrant, but the rest of it is floating mass of cattails. Over ten days last year, in early May, the island moved and sealed off a 70 foot wide channel that I had known for more than 15 years. 2 days ago, that channel opened up to 20 feet. Today it is 30 feet. But today, the southern third of the island has broken off and drifted south about 35 feet. It is a remarkable change in my eyes. I wonder where it will all end up.

I paddle into the bottom end of the east marsh to photograph a redwing blackbird nest left over from last season. They rarely survive as they are usually built on cattail leaves and fall away as the cattails do. This nest was built in a tripod of willow saplings. As I near, a female pops up out of the nest. I did not think that they would reuse the nest, but then again, they almost never have one to reuse.

As I leave the south lagoon, I find a goose sitting firmly on the workbench lodge. It might be a nest sometime soon, but at this point there is nothing to protect and the goose doesn't lower its head like geese sitting on eggs.

I continue on, west and then south into the dead lake on what has become a fine spring day.

My new portage cart design - tows better, takes less space in the canoe

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The dominant mammal

On my portage, and not far into it, I meet two new (new to me) neighbors, E and B. They are active in their neighborhood with green things and such and we have a delightful long chat.

I put in at the south lagoon, a strategy to hide from today's wind. The festivities start with a survey of the hidden lodge. Few people know of its existence, cloaked in a blackberry bramble in plain site of anyone with a canoe. There is much more here than I thought when I get out an look at it from different angles. The beaver have excavated three channels that run into the low birch forest. This lodge probably started life as a bank burrow, but is gradually becoming a semi-attached island lodge.

the hidden lodge

I head east into through the long familiar "east channel of the burial island", yet it is always different. Somewhere on one end or the other lives a large and powerful beaver, one who marks the territorial boundary with surprising regularity. New scent mounds appear often, and today the scent of castoreum drifts in the air, with fresh trails, a dozen of them, running up the bank to a food supply that lies just out of my sight. This is the dominant mammal here, if one disregards our own species. I wiggle the canoe into the flooded beaver forest of the east marsh. It is gnarled trees, cattails and small hummocks topped with brilliantly bright green moss. But, there is a lot of wood, misshapen and twisted, bent and stunted. Nowhere is there any wood that doesn't show the distinctive teeth marks of the beaver. And, it's these same chewed trees regenerating for the umpteenth time from some old rootball that hold this marsh together. These are the anchors against wind and wave, at least until firm ground develops. It is construction where human eyes often only interpret destruction.

It rains as I sit wedged into a dead end, some 200 yards from open water. I write and because I am so quiet, unseen birds begin to creep back, moving closer, unaware of my presence. While redwing blackbirds trill, I hear a grunting call that I do not know. Then, a deep chortle laugh that I am not familiar with. A heron flies over, neither of us seeing each other until the last second. The deep chortle laugh calls out again, but from a different direction. The south nest eagles whistle at each other as they near their nest, some 300 yards distant. It hails for a few seconds, a noisy moment in the marsh, ice pellets hammering dry cattails. The sun comes out. The blackbird trills. I do not need to go anywhere.

Notes - the floating cattail island has become an island once more, opening a 20 ft channel after 11 months of being connected to land.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

First Nest

After 24 hours of rain, a cloudy and pleasant day arrives, and just as after a spate of weather, wildlife behaves differently, so do humans. All down the two mile portage to Portage Bay, people stop and chat with me, asking what I am up to. I talk ducks and beaver to them, as usual, and they are often surprised that such nature is so near. This is the city at its finest and I am so fortunate. I drop off an 8x10 print for J. at the community center (see yesterday's trip). His hospitality went far beyond his job with the parks dept.

Note - the entrance to the Portage Bay beaver lodge is on the NW.

I am surveying beaver structures today, data for series of drawings that I am making. As a friend told me, my maps are the outside of a nesting Russian doll, the drawings are the inside.

You find the entrance to a beaver lodge by probing the depth with a paddle. Beaver excavate an underwater canal so that the entrance comes up into the lodge from below.

A bank burrow
Dug into the bank, branches piled above for protection and to hide the vent hole. There is a maintained 3 to 4 foot deep channel leading to the entrance. The rest of the water in this area is about 18 inches deep.

After photographing and sketching the Portage Bay lodge and the Portage Bay bank burrow, I head out east. Entering the crossing under place, I look up to see ten white motor yachts coming through in a double line. It looks like the British Navy circa 1910. For a few minutes I paddle without making a foot of progress, just bouncing up and over their wave and wave echo.

I head up and over to the NE lagoon to survey the north lodge.

But, as I am about to enter, I spot two bird watchers, so I hold off and drift until they leave knowing that I will flush whatever they are photographing as I come into the tiny lagoon. There are quite a few common mergansers here in the north end, and with the water as high as ever this spring, I use the "summer sneak" instead of the main channel. I can paddle almost 2/3 of the way around the lodge in the high water. This lodge was built on land, probably starting as a bank burrow, but as the beaver continued to drag and excavate, they lowered the ground around the lodge. Eventually it may become a tiny island.

On the little island in the lagoon, I find the first definite goose nest. She has stuffed nest material around and under her and holds her head low and motionless, watches me intensely. I stay back 50 feet, take some quick photos, and leave them to deal with more important matters.

The video of this nest looks the same as the motion at all.

As with the "portage to", the portage back is one of short talks and waves with strangers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools

It's near dead calm and raining...but I don't mind the rain...and I love the calm. I planned on a salt water day, but haven't gotten my act together. Instead, I set out to Portage Bay to record and measure two beaver lodges. At the water, as I empty my pockets into the drybag where valuables are kept while on the water, I come up with two sets of keys. I have my wife's keys and she will need them soon. I find a fellow, J. at the nearby community center and he lets me use his phone. S. will drive down and meet me, saving me a 2 mile portage home. Then, while I wait, J. brings me a chair. Then he brings me a hot cup of tea. But, my wife never shows. I'm sure she can't find me, so I load up and portage home, knowing that she will feel worse than I do.

Once everyone is all back on level ground, I head back out the door and run the Harrison portage, which is just a mile. It is still raining. Finally in the water, the big lake is very calm and it is raining a light misting sprinkle that deadens the city noise and filters out the details of distant shores.

I spot a ring neck duck and this, as always, reminds me of my old boss, Frank Bell. He died a couple years ago at the age of 91. He wasn't particularly duck-like except that when the two of us were toiling away at some dirty work in the bowels of the machine shop, his hair often got messed up, rising in the back and matching the shape of the feathers on the top of a ring neck duck's head. The reference is purely geometric, but it is a blessing to find something in nature that reminds one of old friends. Frank always seemed to know more than he let on. I always knew that he fully understood my youthful wildness and misdirections and I guessed that it was through his own experience, as we never really talked about it that much. He did let stuff out at times though. He knew far more about Harley Davidson motorcycles than any other guy who rode a 3 speed bike 6 miles one-way to steel toed tanker boots. He told me once how while riding some old type of moped, a car handle, the old lever style - the ones that hooked forward, snagged his glove and flipped him end over end. I remember when he became the shop foreman and rated a parking spot amongst all the senior professors (this was at a university). He showed up in a beater $300 AMC Pacer. I always loved seeing that car parked next to the BMW's and Audi's. I'm pretty sure that Frank knew me inside out and backwards.

The ring neck gone, I decide to make rounds...just a survey to see what has changed since I was last here. At the alder stand near the West Lodge, I find that the beaver has nearly cut down another tree. It won't be long before it falls. That one change to the marsh seems to satisfy. I have paddled until I am just as wet as if I had fallen out of the boat. It is a wondrous day...a day that most will moan about. A day for screw-ups and ring necked ducks. A day for thoughts in the calm of a steady rain.