Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Taking the Neighbor Kid

J calls the night before.  I'd offered him a trip and our schedules finally connect.  We do the portage to the aptly named Portage Bay, although we are not using the portage that the bay is named for.  It is a cool wintery day and while the wind is calm when we leave the house, it is coming up by the time we meet the water.  We spend some time before canoeing admiring a very large alder that the beaver have cut during the last month. It is more than two feet across at the base, neatly cut in a cone a foot from the ground.  Since they've taken it down they have removed almost all of the bark from 60 foot of tree.  It is beautifully patterned with teeth marks over the entire length.

I show J the work trails that the beaver leave on the lodges when they do fall home repairs - the 3 or 4 obvious trenches leading from the water to the top of the lodge.  It is how you know beaver live in the lodge even if you haven't seen them.  Then we head over towards the bank burrow, but the shallow water keeps us well away.  this winter the Corps of Engineers has lowered the water an extra 3 or 4 inches, which makes a big difference in marsh paddling.

Wind is still rising as we aim for the 'crossing under place'.  We head up the west islands and stop briefly to look for tracks at one of the muddy shoreline spots.  Lots of fresh raccoon.  Then we make rounds through my usual places in the north end, then cut south across the bay after I make J promise not to tip us over in the under 50 degree water.  We get out again in the east marsh where J teaches me a few things about mushrooms.  He's spotted edible oyster mushrooms here, but I notice that while he's pointing stuff out they aren't so different from some poisonous ones.

In the south lagoons we find some northern shovelers, green winged teal and a northern pintail.  Before taking out, we stop and chat with 3-Stars and compare notes with what he's been seeing.  It is windy.  The day has become raw.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


It is quite calm, so much so that I can spot shed feathers on the top of the water from a couple hundred feet away.  As I cross the mouth of the bay from Portage Point to Wilson's Point, two kayakers pass by just far enough away that a greeting would be a disturbance rather than a pleasantry.  So, we all stay silent.  They cut a route straight across the widest part of the bay, deliberate and purposeful as if they are en route to someplace.  I paddle the shorelines, the edges of the landscape where most things are and most things happen, and I watch for something, anything, different.  It seems as if I, too, am en route to someplace.  But, unlike the kayakers I don't know where my someplace will be.  I may even paddle right past my someplace without recognizing it.  It may just be that my someplace is always someplace ahead of me.  I find this uncertainty comforting.

Near the West Lodge, I stop to check the mud for tracks.  I find beaver, raccoon, duck and some small mammal with sharp little claws.  By the Workbench Lodge my ear catches a bird call that isn't quite in my memory.  I paddle on, but catching a glimpse of it through the brush, I double back.  A pileated woodpecker comes bobbing up in its stubby winged flight pattern from a dead birch.  It is where I do not expect to see it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Winter has arrived in my marsh and frost and the first skimming of ice greet me at the water's edge.  I spend little time here in the shade of Portage Bay but instead head through the 'crossing under place' to meet the sun in Union Bay.  It is calm.

Across from Birch Island I spot 4 raccoons.  I was just about to coast the east side of the cattails in hope of flushing a snipe or two, but the sighting of a mother raccoon and her 3 kits drew me over.  They are as curious about me as I am about them.  We watch each other for nearly a half hour.  When the canoe drifts too close, they walk back into the cattails.  When I back away a few feet, they return.  They stand on hind legs trying to catch my scent in an almost windless day.  One plays with an old skinless tennis ball.

I paddle north 75 yards and pause to write, just after flushing a snipe, in my notebook.  I look back towards Birch Island and see something swimming across the gap.  It is too small for an otter and not serpentine enough in motion either.  Fortunately, I see it exit the is a mink.  I have traveled less than 400 yards in this bay and already I have seen 4 raccoons, a mink, a snipe, a cackler goose (a mallard-sized Canada goose subspecies I am told).  I could go home right now and it would be considered a most excellent day.

This is the season in the marsh that few know about.

On #1 island I find a kill sight where an eagle has dismembered what probably was a coot.  I find my bird expert friend, C, near North Point and she points out 2 swans that have come in with the cold (they usually only come here on the coldest of days) and warns me to watch for a bittern that she has seen recently.  As we chat, I pull a 1950's whitewall tire from the cold water.  They always look better propped up in the center of my canoe than in the lake.

I continue my rounds, checking the wild parts of the bay for change.  I feel the winter cold in my feet, which is to be expected, but the calm makes the trip comfortable.  The migratories are present, the teal, the common mergansers, hooded mergansers, widgeons, gadwalls, northern shovelers, and coot.  Winter is back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I paddle up the big lake in a following wind and foot high waves.  It is a grey day, but beautiful in its fallness.  The moisture haze that dims the far shoreline still shows the golds and yellows and reds of autumn foliage.

I pass...well, no one actually "passes" a flock of buffleheads.  Rather, they get up and circle forward when I'm 50 yards away.  They do this once or twice until they finally get up and circle back behind. But, yes, that happens.

male bufflehead
At Potlatch point I spot a male common merganser, the first I've seen this fall.  And, I wonder if the remaining mate from the south eagle nest is still around.  I have not seen that bird for quite some time.  I see two scaups among the buffleheads, coots and gadwalls, and a wary pied billed grebe nearby.  I head straight to the big beaver lodge, and as I get near, the whistle of an eagle comes.  I quickly spot it in the tall alder that overlooks that lodge.

I have a new project that puts me in the forest and shortens the number of days that I spend in my canoe.  I am still a visitor with that forest project, although it is gradually taking on a homey feeling as I continue to work it.  But this, here, kneeling before the world with a well worn paddle in my hands - a religious symbol for myself if there ever was one...this is where I am.

Postscript -
I stop for a long talk with 3-Stars who helps me identify a small gull that I saw in the big lake (Bonaparte's gull).  On the portage home, I run into P. a climate scientist grad student that I met while making a collaborative piece about climate change.  I see several of the "regulars" as I walk and I go a block out of my way to talk to the old man with the crutch and tiny lap dog.  We always have a fun chat and I haven't seen him in some time.  I tell him how the eagles pick out which coot to attack when they are hunting - It's the one talking on the cell phone.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Soul food

I hem and haw my way into motion having a project that I should work on but knowing that my soul needs to visit the marsh.  A minor head cold slowing me down sends me to the lake with the canoe in hand, walking the Harrison portage and paddling in a light chop caused by a low SE wind over the big lake.  A brilliant fall sun warms my back when the clouds move aside.

I spy pied billed, eared and western grebes, buffleheads and Canada geese.  Nothing great in numbers, just present and accounted for, everything important.

In the NE lagoon, I get out and check for tracks finding only one set, which may be from a opossum as one toe is unusually splayed out to the side, but it still might be a raccoon.  The other tracks were erased in last nights heavy rain.  The beaver aren't feeding inside the lagoon either.  Instead, it appears that they are working the edge of the swamp just outside the entrance.  Some of the cattails here are still green to the tip, which is odd as most cattails go brown at the end in early September.  This little lagoon is protected from wind and a bit warmer, and it may always be like that....I haven't paid enought attention...the difference between science and art, yet they can compliment each other so wonderfully.

As I cross the north shore, I notice that there seem to be fewer ducks in the bay than I would expect.  But, this may just be my memory not registering.  I'll worry about it in a month if more don't show up.  Just as I set my notebook down and take a stroke with the paddle, an otter appears near the tip of #1 island.  It's wet head is shining in the sunlight as it dips under a drift log, surfaces, and disappears around the point.

Near Broken Island, an eagle perches watching either me or the 500 coots that float halfway over to Marsh Island.

I take out in the south lagoons spotting a solitary northern pintail as I unload the canoe.