My friend C joins me. She has driven all the way from Atlanta on a round the country tour to deliver artwork from a huge collaborative exhibition on the Iraq war that she organized...and did pretty much everything. People made gloves, 6 for each week of the war. No one knew that so many gloves would have to be made. C did hundreds herself before asking for help.
We portage down the hill to the east end of the ancient portage. C's dog, EJ comes with. I have never canoed with a dog. It is a cloudy, warm and calm day, an ideal summer day, a truly peaceful summer day. A heron sits on the dead birch that sticks up out of the Workbench Lodge...I've never seen one sit there in 3 years of steady paddling.
This time of day is not a busy time for the marsh, but there are many herons around and they are always a wonderful bird to watch. EJ enjoys the trip, having never been in a canoe, I can tell it is exciting and the dog is well alert to everything that goes on. When we get back in the dead end of the East Marsh, the backside of the beaver forest, EJ launches herself from the canoe in a ridiculous attempt to outswim a few ducks. We haul her back in and clip her leash to my backpack. EJ can now launch herself all she wants, but she will only swim two more feet once she hits the water.
The little pile of "salad" at the water's edge in the center of the photo is the nest of a pied billed grebe. As we approached, she quickly covered the eggs with vegetation and then slipped off of the nest and submerged herself without a ripple, as only pied billed grebes can do. We hurried past so that she can get back on the eggs as soon as possible.
We cross to the NE lagoon, and skim the NE shore to the mouth of Ravenna Creek. There are a great many great blue herons today. I find and point out one of the marsh wren nests near the osprey tree and we are lucky as the hole in the side is facing us. EJ launches herself a second time somewhere in here and then decides that it is best to sit on my backpack and watch the world slowly go by.
I have so much to show C, a visitor to this town. My tours of Seattle have a tendency to take on adventure/epic proportions....and my visiting friends sleep well. We pass by Dale Chihuly's little shack and head down the dead lake to show C some of the working boats.
Our friend B joins S and I for an evening picnic paddle. We portage down to the south lagoon for a put in. A late start, or an early start is best on a warm summer day when the lake is full of toy ships and aluminum rental canoe mayhem. Everyone is heading for home by the time we start, but I know that the life of the party is just getting its legs. We put B in the middle of the canoe. A fully loaded canoe is really a pleasure to run, it carries its momentum so much better than a light boat.
We paddle up to the Workbench lodge, and while I point out some features, a beaver slaps its tail behind me...nothing makes a splash quite like that. It isn't long before we spot another. It's still a little busy here, so we head across the bay up to #2 island to show B the wren nests. Then, as we sit near the West Lodge, S spots a lone beaver swimming back from where we just came.
We skim the north shore to the NE lagoon. Again, S spots a beaver swimming right next to the North Lodge, while a heron feeds on the north shore where the heron always seem to be feeding. The female bald eagle flies past on its way to the nest and a moment later the smaller male flies by on its way to the bay.
We eat our picnic.
When we leave, we find the male eagle on a drift log at the north marsh. It gets up and flies low, just 3 ft off the water, out across the bay. I tell the others to watch - it is flying as if it is hunting. A half mile out it dips to the water and comes back, passing us and heading for the nest with something small in its talons.
We see two beaver as we near the Big Lodge. Then, as we head to the take out, we stop back in to see where the beaver from the Workbench lodge are. We find one sitting almost out of the water eating lily pads...one after another.
We saw beaver from the Workbench, West, North and Big Lodges. The pied billed grebe is still tending its nest in the north end of the east marsh. When we come near, it hastily covers its eggs with vegetation and silently dives. We hurry away so that it can return.
I wake to the dripping of water and the day brings a heavy sprinkle or a soaking mist, depending on when you are out in it. I have finished a couple of projects and fell unburdened. The calm day gives me a chance to explore some new wetland that I located on the far side of the big lake.
I head out for the portage in my red wool jacket, an old item that sheds rain as well as most raingear, an old item that my dad gave me. I wear it on special occasions, such as anytime I am in my canoe or outside. It always brings me an inch closer to my dad, a foot closer to the forest and lakes of my home state, and it moves me well back in time.
At the lake's edge, the rain stops and I pack the wool jacket away. I have a 2 mile crossing ahead under calm grey skies. The wetland is another mile. When I looked at it on a map, I saw the potential for a healthy spot. It is a "patch" and not just a transition zone, so it has the possibility of having a vibrant interior with a fair amount of plant and wildlife diversity.
There is an inlet that penetrates the shoreline. It is guarded by some cattails and a shallow mud bar, but the canoe passe by with ease. In my layman limited knowledge, it appears to be quite a healthy spot. There are cattails and the appropriate shrubs and alders. No blackberries....and lots of birds. The inlet ends in a high grass wet meadow, the continuing passage too twisty for the canoe. As I paddle back, I hear running water up a brushy opening to the right. I can get in, but not far enough. It appears that there is a beaver dam ahead, although it may not be well tended.
I have seen some trimmed branches on the way in, but no evidence of a lodge. Then, I see a large mammal serpentine swimming. But, I only get a glimpse - otter most likely, but maybe a beaver. A second later, a muskrat swims towards me (no confusion here, a muskrat is much smaller than either an small otter or a small beaver).
I spot a Virginia rail and a cedar waxwing, neither of which I've ever seen in person before.
The wind stays down and I have a calm crossing back to my home marsh with little to note other than an osprey passing overhead as I neared Wilson Point.
My friend W arrives not long after noon and we set off on a portage down to Portage Bay. The day is in the 70's and sunny. I don't need to show him the main lodge, as you can't miss it from where we launch the canoe, but the bank burrow on the west side needs explaining. W probes the water depth as we near the burrow and finds the deep canal that the beaver keep open to access the underwater entrance.
That chore accomplished, we paddle through the crossing under place for a clockwise tour of Union Bay. There are a good number of heron still out, maybe one every 200 yards. An immature bald eagle passes by and a mature one circles high. When we are cutting across the bay from north to south, two herons fly towards us in a single file, veering away when they get near. But, the 2nd one circles tight and dives to the water catching a fish. It sits in the water, 8 or 10 feet of depth, while it swallows the fish and then flies off. This is the first time that I've seen a heron hunt in deep water let alone land, float and the take off. When we get to the Big Lodge, there is a heron on a dock hunting. It leaps off and into the water catching a fish just as the previous one did, floating a few seconds, and then flying off from deep water.
I find the homeless man with the rowboat in the south lagoon and we stop for a good long chat. We have mutual friends. He is much more knowledgeable about wildlife than he was the last time we talked. I am impressed. He is learning about wildlife the same way that I have, by watching and carefully observing what goes on. He recently saw the pied billed grebes mating dance. I have not seen this although I saw a nest and both of us are familiar with the unusually loud whooping call that many people are unaware of (the bird is so small that I suppose most people cannot believe the call comes from it). Then W and I take out at the ancient portage.
On the way back, we divert a few blocks to visit our friend A, who is a local archaeologist. It has been too long since any of us have seen each other. While we are there, G, another friend and archaeologist as well, shows up. It is a splendid 45 minutes or so. The canoe parked on the sidewalk amuses all.
Just short of the house, a woman does a U-turn in her car to ask us what we are doing. She has seen me many times go by with the canoe. It turns out that she is a neighbor and we have a good short talk. The portage remains one of the most important parts of any canoe trip.
Yesterday, S decided that she would like to go see the beaver. I get her up at 4:30am and she looks at me and says, "you suck." But, she laughs that line out. We put in on the west edge of the Workbench Lodge territory after a very quiet portage. We don't paddle much more than 50 yards before I spot one, then another, and then the first one surfaces 10 ft away and slaps tail. Now, S knows what a beaver looks like in the water (a moving log) and she starts spotting them on her own. We stop near the Workbench Lodge after the first two beaver have disappeared on us. A newborn kit, perhaps one or two months old is in the safety of the workbench, a tangle of semi submerged trees. An adolescent comes in towing a lilypad. They don't need to eat bark at this time of year as there is plenty of green vegetation available. By the time we paddle away from the Workbench, we've seen six or seven beaver. They all come from this same lodge.
A heron waits on the recently downed tree in the east channel, which we cross as if it was a beaver dam, getting out and standing on the log and pulling the canoe over. It only takes 30 seconds if you do it correctly.You get wet if you do it incorrectly.
There are a lot of marsh wrens and red wing blackbirds calling in the east marsh.
As we round the bend to go to the Big Lodge, we sneak up on a Big Lodge beaver that is eating a lily pad. It submerges and we watch the lily pads wiggle and tug as it swims direct to the cattails. It doesn't surface and I figure that it has slipped under the floating cattails and come up in a safer spot.We sit behind the Big Lodge for a half hour watching two, maybe three beaver watching us. It is getting near the time when they retreat into the lodge. The last one to watch is quite large and when it no longer shows itself we set off down the big lake in calm water under a fine sun.
I wake early, planning to reach the south lagoon in time to watch the beaver finish their activities. But, rainfall on the roof changes the plan. I roll over and sleep another hour and some.
I start again at the unnamed lagoon. It is 7am and there are no beaver to be found. But, I see my first green backed heron for the season, flushing it from a branch on the Workbench. It pauses on a snag on the nearby lodge and then gets up and flies a big circle all the way around the lagoon, following the edge of the trees.
The highway that penetrates my wilderness is closed today and it is comparatively quiet in the marsh. The carp have begun their mating thing and the big fish root around in the shallows with a stirring of their back fins and frequent explosions of water. I visit many of my favorite spots just so that I can listen to them without the din of automobile. I go out of my way to get into and sit in the sedge meadow at the north end of the east marsh. It is a beautiful spot that receives the full blast of the highway noise but today is quiet except for a steady wind blow through the cattails. This beautiful spot has not long to live. Sometime in the next few years, the state will build a retarded bridge here and wipe it away. I try to record it in sound and image as often as possible.
I cut straight across the bay in a steady tailwind with the light sprinkle of rain moving almost horizontal but at my back. An eagle sits on the lunch counter. It has been a very long time since I saw an eagle there. The mate is at the edge of the north marsh watching the commotion that the carp are creating. It's rather cat like...the fish are way too big, but the eagle can't help but watch.
I leave the house before sunrise and briskly walk the portage down to that unnamed lagoon that lays between the ancient portage trail and the Workbench Lodge.
A homeless man shouts unseen, unintelligible from the shadows, back under a bridge and reminds me of my most dangerous moment in 400 days of canoeing - when I faced down a man of criminal intent on one of my portages. I would rather face a grizzly bear than go through that again, the grizzly being much more predictable than the man. This preoccupies me as I set the canoe in and load my gear.
No sooner than taking up my paddle for the first stroke do I spot a beaver swimming past. I am on the west end of the Workbench Lodge territory and starting here means I traverse the area that they claim. A second smaller beaver is grazing in the shadows next to two mallards. A tail slap is all the notice I receive of a third. And, finally reaching the 100 yard point of the trip, a fourth slaps its tail back in the felled trees that line the point. As I near the lodge, a fifth beaver clambers over the submerged workbench island from which the lodge gets its name.
I continue into the south lagoon, towards the hidden lodge. I saw several beaver here the last time I was down here so early in the morning, but today there are none, until I head into the east channel of the burial island. A beaver comes swimming straight at me. I stop and it swims esses back and forth, raising its nose clear of the water at times to catch my scent. Then, it dives quietly and I sit still waiting for a minute. I watch the water beside the canoe in case it swims under and past. After a minute I spot it 10 yards behind me. It has passed under without showing any wake on the surface of the still water.
The East Marsh is spectacular in the sunrise, as it always is, the cattails flaming to the sounds of redwing blackbirds and marsh wrens while a great blue heron silently hunts (it makes three catches) in the shadows. The main channel in the big dead end is only a half canoe wide today, cattails on the move again. The dead end is in the shade, so it has not yet woken up so I head around to the Big Lodge.
I pass the two resident dead beaver along the way and park myself just southwest of the lodge. A large beaver slips off of a rootball and there are a couple of tail slaps announcing my arrival. A mother wood duck herds her brood back into the safety of the beaver forest. The beaver return to their business after I sit still for a few moments. They keep an eye on me, but don't seem to be overly bothered. Two nuzzle each other in passing and I hear one let out the clicking chip of their call.
I stop at the north end of the big lake but decide that this is not where I want to start my canoe trip. The mouth of the Samammish River is a bit over a 1/4 mile east, but I do not want to be on the big water today, even for that short distance. I want to be hugged by the land, with only forward and back as my choices of direction. I want the comfort that comes with two near banks, green and lush with the spring growth. I want to be held within.
I set in at Bothell Landing and head upstream. Here the river is rarely more than 30 yards wide. I find mallards and quite a few Canada geese, and like other trips here, I find a great blue heron every couple hundred yards or so. The current is light with the big lake being held high by the dam masters, and the water is sifted with the seeds of cottonwood trees - it is the summer snow and the water reminds me of early ice when the dark water of depth shows through the transparency and the first scatter of snow is strewn in windblown designs.
As I go, I watch the banks closely for wildlife sign. Occasionally I spot some beaver marks - two felled trees, some gnawings, a possible drag or two, and a large old scent mound. But this is over a few miles of river. It shows that they are here, but it doesn't say if there is an established colony. Anyway, the river suffers from encroachment. There is no place along the route that could be described as a patch of nature - it is just a narrow meandering transition zone boardered by some houses, some sport fields, business parks and at best, a farm or two.
But still, it serves my need. It holds me closely by the land. And I feel that I am held in the arms of the earth.
S portages with me to the Harrison put in. It is a summery day, warm and calm, and as a Sunday, it has brought the toy ships to the water more than any other day this year. But, we expected that. So, we bob on rounded dying wakes as we paddle our way north.
It was a late start, so the time has come when the wildlife lays a little low. I take S into the beaver forest behind the big lodge for the first time. She gets a kick out of ducking as flat as possible to pass under two low trees, her pfd clearing them by no more than a half inch. Irises are in bloom, cattails are up but not producing the signature seed pod, yet. A pair of woodpeckers, black, red and white, flit in and flit out. A few herons rise up out of the brush. I tell her that I need to come in here someday for dawn. Dawn is when the marsh explodes with life.
We explore the east marsh for awhile and then cut straight north across the bay, where the waters are always a bit less crowded. We find a cinnamon teal. I show her the marsh wren nests near the osprey tree. I watch a heron eat a small bluegill and S misses that.
I recorded my blog today, in the canoe while I was busy paddling into a light headwind.
"whoa! that was a seal, really close. I set out today, off of Magnolia, in Elliot Bay. I was thinking about how I had done this trip when I had rediscovered canoeing. That was some three years ago. I hadn't canoed for almost 30 years, and I kind of wished that I had, and I'm kind of glad that didn't, in the same way that reading 'Moby Dick' in high school because it is required, is a waste of time, while saving it and reading it as an adult, when you're more mature, seems to make more sense. That seal has just come up behind me to my left, not more than 15 feet away. I'd spotted him earlier and I thought it was a bit of drift log, bobbing in the waves, before it decided to submerge. Then I spotted a second one farther out, maybe a 150 yards. This one is watching me quite carefully...I don't know where he is...oh, there's the mate right now. I think I need to get my camera out.
When I rediscovered canoeing, this is one the first trips I did here in the salt water. I remember how my wrists hurt. My shoulders and arms were fine, but the constant pull on the wrists....There he (the seal) is...oooh he is camera shy. It took nine months for the pain in the wrist to go away by steady paddling, 3 or 4 days a week.
Western red cedar stump. 7 feet in diameter at the right end. The rectangular notch is for the lumberjack's springboard - They stood on a board stuck into that notch while cutting the tree.
This is a great place to come and paddle. Today there is a rising tide. And, the wave action on the rocks is just enough to really damp out any city noise. Even the houses here don't bother me much, they slip into the trees and hillside, into the woods. There's been some landslides out here this winter, like there always is. A pretty good sized one is back in Elliot Bay and there's another under a fine piece of sculpture at the last house on Perkins Lane. Their two neighbors...they're gone now, the remains of their houses are on the beach. I stopped and picked up a pump rotor from an appliance, something I'll put into some artwork. It's always amazed me that the city didn't make those people come and clean up their mess. They built their house on view property that has long been known to be landslide prone, expensive as hell, dumb as hell to build on, dangerous as hell to build on. The city gave them approval...they probably sued the city for giving the approval after they sued the city to give them approval and now their whole shitpile of house is on the beach and they just leave it and walk away. For a couple of years I'd be walking the beach north of here and I'd find window frames, pieces of clothing...and I'd wonder where it came from, until I started canoeing and found exactly where it came from."
As much as I love the marsh, today I need new waters.
I put in on the NW end of Mercer Island, a good sized chunk of land in the southern half of the big lake. It should be 12-13 miles around. I know most of this island by land, having ridden a bicycle around it about 200 times, but only a few sections of the shoreline are familiar.
I find the west side quiet. It is actually quite peaceful, especially compared to the highway noise that invades my marsh. It is houses all the way, but here in one of the older neighborhoods, some of the residents have let hedges and trees grow between the lake and their windows. A few have even let reeds grow in the shallows. Many of the houses are painted dark earth tones, so that they blend in to the side of the island. There is not much for wildlife, a heron every mile or so, a kingfisher, and a northern flicker. Trees and hedges or not, there's simply not any space for a diverse wildlife experience. But, whether they know it or not, the homeowners here have made this a pleasant stretch where I can easily ignore their houses and imagine myself somewhere more remote.
In the newer neighborhoods, especially down in the SE end of the island, the shore is choked with the absurdity of McMansions with seemingly more money spent on "look at me" than on creating a home. I just watch the bow of the canoe and paddle steady when I see that stuff.
On land, the east side of the island is a couple of miles of wooded ravines, the road essing in and out. I always dreamed that those ravines would run down to the shore, wooded valleys with seasonal creeks draining the rather tall island. But, it's not that way. It is so tightly developed that from the water there is no hint that those ravines even exist. There's no shoreline park land. Frankly, it's a shit hole of wealth.
I stop after 3 hours for a break and take time to write in the shade of a towering bridge. I held off on writing until now. It seemed a better idea to let my thoughts come and go without treating them as something precious. I often think that such unrecorded thoughts will come back so that I may experience them again. It is a hopeful something to look forward to, even if it does not always come up true.
After the pause, I am along familiar shores, although it has been a couple years since I was last here. I pass the house with the bronze Native American statue. They now have an art collection, a crap load of bronze, most of which is, pretty much, crap. Their neighbor still has the 100ft. beast of a yacht parked in front of everyone's houses...look at me...look at what I got.
I get to paddle the full length of Luther Burbank Park (probably more than a mile). Here, the city is doing something really good. Rather than build seawalls to protect the shore from boat wakes, they have installed LWD...large woody debris, a process of cabling drift logs and fallen trees to the shore. It's a technique that can be used in rivers to not only protect the bank, but also to improve fish habitat. There's even some hints of a wetland or two. I paddle close because they have "beaver wrapped" the trees, but I don't see any fresh sign.
It was a nice trip, but I didn't see anything worth taking a photo of, so I didn't.
I'm playing guide today in the marsh. S and I portage the canoe down the hill to the east end of the ancient portage. It is windy and before the class of 7th graders arrives, we head up north a 1/4 mile to the marsh wren nesting at number two island. It is stiff work coming back, so I change the route to avoid a long paddle into a stiff headwind with beginner paddlers.
We have ten canoes (mine is eleven), each with an adult and two kids. S. has to leave my canoe to substitute for a missing chaperone. The kids have paddled before, but not in a while. In calm weather it would be much easier, but the wind, in the upper teens, redirects them. There is a subtleness to paddling in wind and current that only comes with time, the catching of the canoe just as it goes awry, the little twist of the paddle that keeps the corrections minor and gentle. If you sense the motion at the first instant, it looks effortless. If you don't detect the yaw as it starts, you play catch up. The kids zigzag wildly, as they should in such difficult conditions. There's not much I can do except keep them out of trouble. A sense of control will come with time.
They are having fun.
We stop at a spot of beaver felled trees where I explain and point out that every piece of wood in sight has been gnawed off by beaver. I tell them that the trees have fallen into the water, stabilizing the bank and in time adding land. I point out that all of the branches from the downed trees have been dragged away to a safe spot where the beaver can eat the inner bark. Next we stop at the workbench lodge to discuss the colony. Even here, the wind blows us around. I find it a bit hard to control my own canoe in this breeze.
Herons stand and let us come pretty close today. They are plentiful and busy walking and hunting in the shallows.
We stop for lunch at the west end of the burial island channel. A large tree has fallen across the channel and blocks passage, which turns out to be okay as it is time to return after the break. By foot, I take a few parties over to the bank to show them the territorial scent mounds that the beaver make, explaining that there is a big powerful lodge a quarter mile east that enforces its boundaries. A northern flicker drills away at the big dead snag in the south lagoon.
As we head back, I hear, "help!" I turn and after a second or two figure out that the last canoe must be about half full of water. It is. I join another canoe and we stabilize it while the passenger in the middle bails and bails and bails with my bailing scoop ( a bottomless bleach bottle). They're wet, but not too wet.
The rest of the trip back is uneventful. They are beginning to get it.
I head down to Portage Bay armed with scientific explanations for one of the nagging observations that I've made during the past three years. I even woke up last night thinking about what I could now articulate.
My first few strokes leads me to a pair of pied billed grebes. One dives while the other seems reluctant to follow suit. I take my camera and turn the canoe quietly to follow their motion. The second grebe dives, but only for a brief moment. Coming to the surface, a tiny head pops up on her back, between the wings. She has a new hatched grebe (and probably more than one) riding on her back. Baby pied billed grebes are amazingly small, not much more than sparrow sized, the smallest that I've seen of the water fowl, so small they are hard to spot, and I don't get a photo.
Pied billed grebe - the babies are on the back under the wings
Mosaics, patches and transitions Several times I have written about the differences between the wetlands in Portage Bay and those in Union Bay. From my canoe, Portage Bay has always appeared to be a healthy, although much smaller marsh. But, size for size, it never seemed to have enough wildlife, particularly in winter when so many migratory ducks are in Union Bay.
The Portage Bay wetland is a 1/2 mile long strip along the south shore with the rest of the bay choked by houseboats and marinas with some working shipyard areas on the north end. It is rarley wider than 50 to 70 yards, a quick transition from lake to shallows to marsh to trees to mowed grass park land.
Portage Bay transition - lake, marsh, trees, mowed grass park, in 50 yards
Union Bay wetlands are either fairly large areas of cattails and beaver forest or narrow strips of wetland with a large nature area attached. In the south end of Union Bay, the east marsh is over a 1/4 mile E-W and a bit more than that N-S and its west side is a forested island with more marsh on the other side.
Landscape Ecologists view land as a mosaic. You have a patch of farm field, then a patch of forest, a patch of marsh land, a patch of urban area. The patches can be any size or shape, but each of them has a border area - a transition zone. Wildlife have preferences. Many like the transition zones, some like the middle of big patches, and some like transition zones attached to big patches, etc. So, as a patch gets larger, it will have increased diversity of wildlife, up to a point, and it will have numerically more wildlife. If a patch gets too small, it loses its core and all that remains is a transition zone. This is what the Portage Bay wetland is, all transition zone, no core. So, the diversity as well as the numbers are lower than one might expect given the appearance. The large patches and rich transition zones in Union Bay are the reason that almost 200 bird species have been sighted in Union Bay. It is why there are a few thousand ducks there in winter while only a 100 are found in Portage Bay.
So, I pass through the crossing under place, the water route from Portage Bay to Union Bay, because like some wildlife, I prefer to be in the transition zones of larger patches.
As I take out, a woman cruises up to me in a kayak and asks, "are you the guy that looks out for the beaver?" I have to think about this a second, stunned by a reputation that seems to have gone farther than I knew. But, it must be me. M and I have mutual friends and it turns out that M helped with the fine restoration of a strip of public land that leads up to the Big Lodge. She is worried about disturbing the beaver, so we chat a bit and I assure her that they will not mind her presence. I also take a moment to fill her head with lots of beaver facts that will keep here busy on the look out as she returns home. I liked, especially, the way her eyes lit up when I mentioned the musky odor of castoreum...she was already familiar with the scent but did not know where it came from.
Notes - lots of marsh wren activity today. Nesting in action at #2 island, across from #2 island, by the osprey tree, and new nesting in the east marsh at the entrance to the big dead end.
The first 300+ entries in this blog were from the Seattle area on the west coast of North America. Starting with October 5, 2012, my blog (and myself for that matter) has moved to Connecticut on the east coast. I have a lot to learn about my new home. I paddle solo most of the time, but I do take others on many trips. Photographs are shot from the canoe on the day of the trip. The writing is done by pencil and paper in the canoe.
I am an interdisciplinary artist creating content-driven and concept-driven artwork in a diverse selection of materials and themes with a very strong recent emphasis on nature and ecology. I was the Rubicon Foundation/Smoke Farm Artist in Residence for 2011-2012. I now live in Connecticut.