Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Coming of Winter

The cloud layer is thick and heavy and the quality of the daylight reminds me of my days walking in the deep cedar forest of Smoke Farm - twilight at noon no matter what the weather.  A single male bufflehead owns the mill pond, not just alone by species, but the only bird in sight.  Back in Seattle, buffleheads seemed to send one or two of their kind ahead of the main flock.  Maybe this one is a leader, but with the water as cold as it is, and it feels like it is in the forties, maybe this bird is a laggard.  As I set out the bufflehead leaves.  That is the day - the temperature, the clouds, the damp chill, the heavy wool trousers I'm wearing along with the extra shirt, this day is not a fall day, this day is the coming of winter.

Just a hundred yards up the river, I spot what looks like hair frost (another thing that I've only seen at Smoke Farm).  I paddle over and find that it is a white cottony fungus that I've not seen before.  As I turn away, I spot a partially cut tree that has not too many days ahead of it...the work of a beaver.  It reminds me to turn on my nose and pay attention for the scent of castorium.  With winter, the beaver begins to rely more on the inner bark of trees as a food source, and the scent of the castorium changes for the better.  It seems that I know way too much about beaver secretions for my own good.

It takes an hour of not too focused paddling to reach the beaver dam that holds back a fine and established beaver pond.  It is about 30 inches high today, the water on the downstream side a little lower than the last time I was here.  It is an easy crossing, just a short drag over the top between a couple of trees that provide firm footing.  But, before doing that I pause and listen to the water filtering through the dam - the sound of a small cascade that might be around a corner from where you stand.  They always make more noise than you expect.

This time I find the circuitous "best" route through the pond - I don't have to get out of the canoe and log dance over deadfalls.

this lodge is notable in that it has the best packed mud sealing job that I've ever seen
Most of the leaves have dropped in this northern part of Connecticut and my sightlines extend farther back from the bank.  There is beaver activity everywhere.  In fact, there is no place on the river where I cannot see a lodge, or a cut tree, or cut limbs, or drags (trails leading to the water) or feed zones.

The air warms rather suddenly.  The calm passes and the wind begins to blow and gust.  In 20 minutes or so, the calm returns.  Not long after that the air returns to its coming of winter temperature.

The bufflehead is back in the center of the pond when I return.  It leaves while I take my canoe out of the water.  It will be back.

Somersville Mill Pond and Scantic River.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Other Side of Fall

Today is the other side of fall.  My last trip was sun and warmth and bursting autumn colors of red and yellow and pink and orange.  Days like that hide the fact that the water and the earth have been giving up their store of heat collected over the summer.  A month ago, an overcast day like today would have still been warm.  But today, without that sun and on the other side of fall, the day will carry through with the morning chill.

I set out, resizing my life vest for the pile jacket that is going underneath it.  I like my fall weather clothing.  It is comfort clothing, the garb I wore ten months of the year back in the Pacific Northwest.  The wide brimmed felt four-dent hat goes on as do the knee length rubber boots.  The only thing I leave out is the wool pants...its not that cold, yet.

There are some new birds for me today.  The nesting willets gone, the yellow legs have come in for winter.  They are not nearly so numerous, but there are plenty of them and they seem particularly vocal today.  I flush a kingfisher from the rocks of Cedar Island.  Kingfishers usually do short 75 or 100 yard hops ahead of the canoe until after 2 or 3 of them, they circle back to their starting point.  This kingfisher takes to the air and circles and bobs, scolding me nonstop until I pass.  If the general public and Southern California animators had known more about birds, we would've grown up watching "Woody Kingfisher" cartoons instead of "Woody Woodpecker" - woodpeckers being rather shy and retiring and anything but smart alecks, unlike the kingfisher.  At least they got "Heckle and Jeckle" spot on.

the other side of fall

The river changes most when I pass under the stone arch bridge.  The underbrush has lost its leaves and I can see that the hill to the east is actually a 75 foot high outcropping of stone.  To the west I see a dry stone fence running through the forest - two things that were hidden from me by summer foliage.  But, more is going on here.  The river is tree lined and there are forests behind the line in many places.  I see and startle several large schools of fish...200 or more at a time it seems - so many that they disturb the surface as they flee.  And those two things draw the third.  There are some medium to large hawks on the hunt, and two or three immature bald eagles, standing out just by their size.  I'm in the lunchroom.

I stop my ascent at the deadfall just before the little flat bridge knowing that at this tide level, the water is just inches deep on on the far side of the passage.

On the return, I turn east up an inlet in the marsh that I have passed several times before.  A flock of black ducks that jumped out of there earlier has my curiosity up.  The inlet meanders back to the forest and I find the remains of an eight or ten foot tall stone and earth dam.  At the base of the dam is a channel built of two long and shaped boulders forming a fairly precise flume with a deeper basin on the downstream side.  It is a shape engineered for a purpose, no casual spillway.  I'm guessing that a mill stood here once upon a time.  If so, it looks like it had had an undershot wheel...the dam not being tall enough to have the more common overshot wheel.

It rains lightly for the last 15 minutes of the trip, just to remind me to start packing wool gloves.

East River

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Edge of the Straight Line World

The three hunters are ending their day just as I put in, loading their camouflaged boat onto the trailer, the driver, the grouchy demanding one of the bunch, probably fixing his mood to the lack of birds in the boat instead of the fine morning in the marsh that they just experienced, has removed his waders so that he can grumble at the poor guy who is trying to get the boat positioned on the trailer.  We pass without words.

yes, it does really look like this

I think that I like this river because of its proximity to man (yes, I also like it because the fall colors are absolutely unbelievable).  It's a complex relationship of the straight line world and nature that gives me so many things to ponder.  Once past the obvious, the bridges and industrial fringes, the intrusions are still obvious if one is paying attention to the details.  There are a couple of things that don't exist in nature - the straight line and the perfect circle, things that not only exist, but make up the bulk of the man made world.  Although, come to think of it, the perfect circle does exist in nature.  Maybe that is why the eye of a bird can be so fascinating.  Perhaps we see ourselves in that perfect circle.

Near my previous high point, I come across the old stone walls once more.  I checked some maps after the last trip and it turns out that there was a small neighborhood in this area during the 1950's.  I don't know when it started or when it ended, but it shows up in a 1955 topographic map and it had to flood on an almost annual basis... a great place to live if you didn't try to live there.  People do the damnedest things around water. 

I reach and pass the high point on the river that I had gotten to two days ago.  I had hoped that better timing on a very high tide would make a continued upriver trip easier, but it seems that I have gone past where that high water will reach.  The river becomes a tangle of downed trees and branches.  I have to step out to get over a low log once, and farther on a short portage and crawl under a downed tree is necessary.  The final half mile takes a half hour and it is not going to improve.  This part of the river needs another foot of water.

Southern Connecticut Inuksuk

The return is easier.  The high tide line is not far behind me and except for the short portage, most of the woody debris is submerged.  Near the point where the river leaves the forest, I meet J.  I had almost snuck past him on the river two days ago (it's a game I play...I'm curious to see how alert people are and how quietly I can move... and I see no reason to disturb someone unless I have a good reason).  We have a good long chat in the middle of the river and exchange contact information so that we might canoe together sometime.

Belted Kingfisher

Just before the put-in, I spot a guy in a blue rec kayak, paddling with fury, smoking a cigarette, tackle box strapped to the bow, headphones planted in the ears, no life vest.  I nod, but get no response.  I talk with a hunter setting out hoping for geese.  While I'm loading my canoe, the blue kayak guy arrives and rudely drags his kayak across the coarse gravel lot, to the car next to mine.  He starts the engine and lets it idle, idle, idle...  He says fact, he avoids eye contact.  Unlike J, this one is not of the brethren - he knows not the secret handshake.  I turn and go.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

If you needed to know where you were, then you would

I had forgotten what a lovely river this is although I have not been here before.

I put in at the top of the big phragmite marsh and paddle hard upstream for about ten minutes.  That takes me past the last vestiges of the industrial zone, past the first road bridge, the first railroad bridge, and the highway bridge.  Not much further on I come to the first cattail marsh - where the river bends sharp to the right, where I find an apple tree growing horizontally out from the bank, not long for the world in that orientation.  The apples are ugly, the ugliest apples that I can remember.  They are two or so inches in diameter and a mucky uneven red-brown color.  They look rotten.  They would not sell in a grocery if they were five cents apiece.  This is swamp land, not anything that would've been orchard, so I figure this to be a wild apple tree.  I take one and find that it is hard fleshed, not rotten at all, and cutting it in half the inside is white.  I cut a bit from the center and taste it...not bad, tart but perfectly edible.  I would use them for baking if it grew in my yard.  I would have them to myself, because they are one ugly apple.

The forest river begins.

Now, the map says that I've been here once before, but maps can't be taken for their face value.  My memory of wild places is pretty good, better than most by far, but the things I remember are missing.  It's near high tide, the current just barely pushing the fallen leaves upstream.  I was last here at low tide.  By now I was weaving in and out of down trees.  Today, I paddle over them at speed on a channel that is fifty feet wide and running clear and clean.

I go well past my high point, even if I don't know exactly where that was, and begin seeing the remnants of previous people.  Old block walls built to contain the river and prevent erosion are still evident, if not entirely effective, and I spot a few dilapidated wire garden fences.  I'll check the maps later, I suspect that there were some poorly situated houses around here at one time.

A big wasp nest, dangling from a wild concord grape vine

I stop to turn back and take the time to eat some of the raisin soda bread that my neighbor gave me yesterday.  I was hoping to paddle as far as any good landmark that would locate me on a map, but the river isn't cooperating.  And, I have stopped toting my battered GPS receiver since it never came out of the pack and frankly, it just kind of annoys me.  Sometimes, nature wants you to not know where you are.  It really isn't that important, and it seems to do a person good all the same.

Quinnipiac River

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Heading Towards "I Dunno"

The report said East winds at 5mph, but it doens't feel it.  No, the onshore wind is hardly there at all and I set out on the sleepiest of waves - half a foot high at most and nearly two canoe lengths peak to peak.  These are tired waves that have come a good distance from somewhere where there is some wind.  One wouldn't notice them if they weren't so long and slow.  You'd fall asleep on them if you didn't keep paddling.

I head north towards "I dunno".  Several fishermen are soaking lines from the ends of the Flag Rocks, the rocks fully exposed at low tide.  I hoped for some interesting birds - the winter birds, but the birds all seem to be asleep along with the waves.  I wonder when the long tail ducks will arrive with their brilliant black and whiteness and none stop chattering, a nasal...uh....uh uh, over and over again.  Their nesting grounds should be well frozen by now, but a bird that can nest that far north is probably in no hurry to get here.  I suppose that as long as it stays ahead of the freeze, it should be just fine.

In the distance, an oystercatcher.  In the foreground, an oystercatcher.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Portage Route

It is the finest of fall days.  the air is calm, the morning cool, and the sun takes its time crawling its way up through the trees - the growing season done and nothing for it to do.  The tide is dropping and will not reverse course until mid afternoon.  While I would like to start from the house, the "beachy" shoreline of town has little draw without access to the tidal inlets and marshes, and they go to mud at low tide.

Canoe on car, I head up the east side of the big river to put in above the second dam from the ocean.  This will be new water to me, but after a circuitous drive through wooded lanes, I find the park closed where I was to put-in at.  Unable to remember the other places up here that I could start from, I am forced back to familiar waters below the second dam from the ocean.  I start at the Eagle Scout put-in.

Lately, I've been rereading my entries from years past to see what I was doing on this day then.  I've noticed that my recent writings lack the poetics of those earlier ones and paused to ponder that.  I was very familiar with those other areas having paddled in them multiple dozens of times in all seasons and weather and I have no claim to such familiarity with anyplace that I have paddled here in the east.  My best guess is that I am on the creative path that I usually follow - one of acquiring facts until the facts begin to repeat, whereupon the facts drift back behind the emotional...the facts take a supporting role for the deep ecologist and everything becomes equal.  I must put in my time.

I paddle up to and through the fast water that lies below the dam.  It is a minor rapid and would not rate much of anything if it wasn't somewhat rocky.  I pick my way upwards from eddy to eddy and only get out once to lift the canoe past a fast chute, a lift of just 15 feet.  Nearing the dam I can see that it is not a paragon of good maintenance with a surprisingly fractured face.  But, I find the portage route just as it had been noted, a hundred yards inside the no entry zone on the west bank.

It is only marked up at the road, as if no one has thought to paddle upriver.  When I started, I planned on doing the portage and getting into the river above the second dam from the ocean, but here, on the ground, it is clear that the portage is a half mile, more than twice what it looks like on a map.  It isn't necessary, because the important part is to know that the portage route exists.

When I turn to leave, I spot an immature bald eagle perched high above.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Nameless Creek

I've seen that guy before - down on the Salmon River - a skinny guy, the low black racing canoe, the short black racing paddle, and the rapid stabbing stroke.  Our conversation goes threefold over our last, we add four words..."how you doing?" and "good".   I think he likes me.

I head downriver and upwind from the Tariffville put-in into new water to me.  Fall continues onward towards us, the trees more red and more gold than the last time I was here, and the temperature just reaching "long sleeve shirt".

A mile or so into it, I spot a heron's head watching me over the top of the shoreline grasses.  It seems that there is a pond back behind there, and as I near that bird, I find that it is fishing from a foot high beaver pond.  I stop and spend 20 minutes taking a photo survey of the dam.

Downstream another hundred yards is the big bend that I've seen on the maps, the bend that turns the river back south and east and towards its eventual terminus at the Connecticut River.  When I get to the bend I discover that there is a nice creek coming in on the outside of the turn, and the river, having become a predictable quantity, is no match for my curiosity.  I turn into the creek.

nameless creek

My nameless (yet) stream has a good current, but nothing that I can't paddle against, and it is choked with deadfall trees, but nothing that can't be maneuvered around.  I enjoy the break from steady paddling...weaving in and around and through tight combinations of downed trees, all the while compensating for the swirling current.  It keeps the mind busy...its almost mathematical, the calculating of the canoe's inertia, summing the differential effect of weak current on the stern and strong at the bow, passing an inch from an plan and not by chance.  Usually, I get it right, but not always.  Some ten or fifteen minutes up I spot a fly fisherman.  I have a schedule to keep today, and so I turn and leave him and his fish undisturbed.

Back at the big bend, before returning to the put-in, I travel downstream to where the current begins to pick up.  It's a good place to turn back, and keep my schedule.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

With No Particular Place to Go

I set out up the East River having no particular place to go, already knowing how far I can go and still be floating, because I've been there.  I start right at high tide with the day sunny with scattered clouds that signal a change in weather for tomorrow.

It is October, the migrating season, the changing season and I need to see the marsh having not been here, ever, before this spring.  The marsh grasses are changing to golds and reds while the band nearest the water holds onto its green, for the time being.  I spot two medium sized hawks - dark with white rumps...probably Northern Harriers.  I've never seen them here before.  I suspect that when the willets are here (there are no willets today, a very plentiful bird in this marsh during summer), the harriers get no peace, so the harriers don't bother coming around.  Willets are sentinel birds - one will fly up and harass a hunting bird while constantly calling out an alarm.  It is very cool to see and if it happens one can't not notice it.  Pretty hard for a hawk to surprise anything when they do that.  Interestingly, willets do not pester osprey who only hunt fish.

Just past Cedar Island, a 75 yard diameter rockpile with its own forest, I turn into one of the old drainage channels.  The marsh is crisscrossed with drainage channels, most of which are landscape memories - slightly taller grass or an out of place line of sparse shrubs with no visible water, but a few of the bigger ones can be paddled at high tide.  This one takes me across the flat marsh grass plain into Bailey Creek, although it takes me several minutes to figure out that I am actually in the creek. 

Cedar Island

Having nowhere to go, I head downstream to the confluence with the Neck River, and having not been here at high tide, head up the Neck.  Its a tightly meandering river, more of a creek to be fair, and it gradually works its way back into the trees.  The spartina gives way to the invasive phragmites, which signals lower salinity in the tidal waters.  I find a good stand of small cattails, the pods bursting open and the spears all gone golden.  I pass my previous high point with plenty of water and continue another quarter mile where the marsh river goes to forest river by trading the grasses and reeds for boulders and fallen trees.  There is no canoeing past this point.

the top of the Neck River

On the way out, I spot three or four osprey.  I did not see a single one on the way in.  At the height of summer, sighting ten or twelve osprey might be possible.  I suppose that on my next trip they will have all gone south.  I head back up Bailey Creek and find the other shortcut that takes me to the East River at a higher point.  And with nowhere particular to be, I go upriver and explore another backwater in the golden marsh.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Goal of the Goal is Not the Goal

Before you embark on this journey, it is fair to remind you that I this journal is not about nature or the environment or canoeing for that matter.  It is a record of what I think about while I am canoeing...and it is mostly written when that stuff comes into my the canoe.

I try sneaking past the first great blue heron but it spooks, stepping into the air and flying upriver ahead of me some 200 yards were it sets down on a bent deadfall tree that long ago bowed its head to the river.  As I near it once more, I slide over to the far bank and make no movements other than the rhythm of my paddling.  When I am even with it, it takes off again, but this time it flies back behind me to where I first saw it.

The second heron

The second heron also spooks as I near it, flying upriver a hundred yards.  As before, it stays put, eying me as I pass.  It only takes flight when I drift towards it while looking through the viewfinder of my camera.  But, like the first, it flies back into the area where I first saw it.

The third heron takes off from the shady bank and flies some 400 yards or more upriver, to the point where the eye can still resolve it, but where one would not notice it if one did not know it was there.  When I near, it takes up and flies upriver again, but only a short 100 yards and it settles on a snag pile on the sunny side of the river.  I cross over to the shady bank to give it more space and it stays put until I am even with it, where it takes wing and returns to someplace near its original location.

The fourth heron announces itself by casting a shadow on the trees.  I look up and watch it pass overhead.  I had nothing to do with it.

Some might confuse me for a birdwatcher but no, birds are just the prime social fabric for someone traveling by might notice that I rarely mention songbirds.  One has to stand still for birds are the big ones that stand along the byway.  I am on a journey and that is, after all, what canoeing is, at least ever since the Hudson Bay Company stopped transporting goods by canoe. 

The goal of the goal is not the goal.  It is the journey to the goal that is the goal.  We are blessed with all too many people who think that the goal is the purpose.  Our government is clogged with people who have risen to high elevated lofty regal positions seemingly without ever pausing to absorb the experience of the journey - the experience of knowing the people that they represent and are supposed to understand.  We have MBA's, CEO's and a plethora of alphabet soup individuals who have sought the fast track to the top unaware of the lessons that need to be learned by actually earning those positions, and we see them trash companies and put people out of work all too often, using buzz word excuses about profit and good business to hide their ignorance and greed.

The canoe is about the journey, and only a few of the people that I've taken out in the canoe have ever said something that indicated that they understood that.  They have in common the fact that they paddled several days with me, either one at a time or in a block.  Either way, the repetition crept into their core understanding.  It made me happy to hear each of these people say something that indicated to me that they were not just in the canoe with me, but on a journey with me... and on a journey with themselves.

Recently, I watched a documentary that included Yvon Chouinard, one of the good guys of the golden age of American mountaineering.  There was a short moment revolving around Mt. Everest.  As late as the mid-1970's, if one wanted to climb Mt. Everest, one spent 3 weeks hiking in to the base, and 3 weeks hiking back out after the climbing was done.  Now, people pay tens of thousands of dollars to be guided to the top.  They fly into the base, Sherpas fix ropes to the top, and the "climbers" follow the ropes.  The journey is missing, the meeting Nepalese along the way is missing, the walking from jungle to the top of the world is gone.  All of the personal transformation that occurs as one moves towards a goal happens during the journey. Shortcut the journey and you do nothing but screw yourself over... you become the King of Shit with nothing to show for it.  Anyway, Chouinard's comment on climbers paying $80,000 to be guided to the top of Mt. Everest is, "They're assholes when they go in, and they're assholes when they come out."   I wish I had said that.