Wednesday, May 28, 2014


It's a 300 yard carry on a berm that may have been the mule track of the old Farmington Canal...but so much time has passed.  The last bit is in the footprint of the aquaduct, the canal-bridge that passed over the Farmington River.  Just a few portions of the stone pillars remain.

I head upstream with a wind behind me planning to get to the old gristmill dam and cover a short stretch of river that I haven't paddled yet.

It is a good day for it.  The temperature is below 60F and the sky cloudy and threatening.  I'll see no one on the river, and this is one of the more popular routes in the state...wide and full of water and safe for most anyone.  The wind is variable.  Normally just a breeze, it comes on strong every once in awhile...a great exhale that ripples the water and shakes the green.  Then, it calms...a long slow inhalation.

It is a canyon, a tree lined slot channel.  It seems that it should have more wildlife than it does.  There are kingfishers and mallards, always a few great blue herons and some wood ducks, and the trees ring with the calls of songbirds, even over the sound of the wind.  But, it seems not enough.  It is the deception...a river lined with what is usually a rather narrow band of trees.  Behind the trees are towns or farm fields...or golf courses.  Narrow strips of trees are habitat for some critters, but many others need larger patches, and some need the critters that need the larger patches.  I understand the farm fields, I understand the towns, but golf

Monday, May 26, 2014


I go up to where I need my saw, but I haven't brought my saw, so I turn back.  The tide is up and the river has plenty of water, so I've made it up to and past most of the ruins - the remains of a 1950's housing development that was platted out in a flood plain, the houses just five or six feet above a normal summer level.  The project must have flooded almost every spring.

It is a day for me to reconnect.  Nature and being in the wild has become so ingrained in my spirit that a few days away makes me feel out of sorts.   There's not much to document, today.  It's just a good place to be, to think, and to not think.

Some might see it as a healing process, and I would agree with that if I frequented the wild less frequently, but in my case it is a leveling... a reset to where and who I am.  As abused as this little river has been, it has returned to the sacred, and seeking out the sacred is good for the soul.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Spirit Animals

The guy rows his dinghy back to shore from his small sailboat that is moored in the North Cove at Essex.  We talk some, he's a good guy.  He asks if I have seen the eagles behind Knox Island.  I haven't.  And, I'm not sure where Knox Island is, and I don't ask not feeling that I need to know.

I head out through the cut in the long marshy spit that forms North Cove, the cut being the shortcut into the main channel of the Connecticut River, and then I follow that spit of marsh upriver.  An osprey flies into view with a mature bald eagle chasing it.  They circle overhead for a few moments before the issue is settled, and they go their separate ways.

I was heading to Hamburg Cove, a deep inlet on the far side of the river that gradually narrows to where Eight Mile River comes down from the hills.  But, as I top the island that stands off of the mouth of the cove, wading the sand bar instead of going around it, just because it is pleasant to do so, I change my course.  I follow the east side of the river, ridges and hills of bedrock with a very real "carpet" of forest - a thin layer of soil and moss stitched to the rock by the trees that have managed to find a crevasse to bury their roots in, I follow it upriver.

I start to think of spirit animals, for no particular reason.  One has to be careful about talking about such things, I suppose.  People who are afraid of the wild and afraid of wandering in the unknown won't understand.  I have learned to quit trying to's just something that is.  I've met a very few people that are in the same mindset.  They are especially good company in the forest.  In "The Abstract Wild", Jack Turner wrote about the old weathered male cougar that was his spirit animal.  Such a fine spirit animal to have.  I always thought that mine might be a beaver or a caribou.  But, finding a spirit animal doesn't seem to be how it works.  Rather, it finds you.  Mine came in the most vivid dream I have ever had, a dream that came after many frequent days of canoeing, a dream that took place, or at least, was centered around a canoe.  My spirit animal was a squirrel....a squirrel that ran wildly about the middle of the canoe making that part of the canoe glow.  It was not just a squirrel and I don't know why I knew it, but I did, it was a female squirrel.  And, it seemed to me that it was my creative spirit.  When it left the canoe, the canoe stopped glowing.

I go a ways up Hamburg Cove, but not all of the way.  I return to the river and head downstream, past Essex and into the South Cove for the first time.  There are several swans, and one swan nest, which the unrelated swans are keeping at a distance.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How Far Can We Go?

S has been away all week and not out in the canoe in far too long.   I take her to the East River where the spring migration is still in action and where the early arriving osprey are getting near to hatching their eggs.
We head up the Neck, then up Bailey Creek and through the sneak back into the East River flushing willets and tiny sandpipers as we go.  The osprey pay attention and sometimes move off a bit, but mostly they seem to see us as no threat.  Birds are everywhere.  If you don't see any, you aren't looking...osprey, willets, yellow legs, sandpipers, cormorants, ibis, a little blue heron, mallards, kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds, a hawk, wrens, goldfinch, geese.

Just upstream of the highway bridge, we find the flock of glossy ibises.  S says it must be a couple dozen.  I tell her it is fifty.  I count and it is... forty nine.

The tide is high and we can go well up the river.  S asks, when we get to the stone bridge, how much longer are we going to stay out.  But, when we get into the cattail marsh above that bridge, she asks, how much farther can we go...a much better question in my mind.

We get to the downed tree before the Foote Bridge and slide through the gap between two large branches, and pass the Foote Bridge, which can be shallow at lower tides, and stop for a moment just before the river enters the canoe-limbo jungle.   There is a very big downed tree under the surface here, but S doesn't know that.  It is something you learn by coming here in different conditions at different times.

This is how far we can go, today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mennunketesuck River

Sorry, no photos today.  My memory card went belly up near the end of the trip.

I'm reading Turner again.  No other nature writer jump starts my head and heart so well.  He has penned a lifetime of thinking in the "Abstract Wild" and it cuts through the bullshit and preliminaries and aims a person in a direction and lets them find the way.

A report came out this week about the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The idiots, and I am using the term correctly and accurately, who have been denying climat change are now beginning to change their story to, "the people don't believe it"...doing whatever it takes to avoid any blame for 20 years of stuffing voter's heads with shit.

Willets have returned to the east marsh in force, as I noted on my last trip.  Today, I put in from the little bridge over the Mennunketesuck River and paddle downriver to that river's own salt marsh.  It is not quite as large or expansive as the East River's marsh, but it seems that it should be large enough to draw willets.  The day is cool with a light breeze and the tide is low but rising once again and as I start my eye level is even with the spartina grass, a perfect vantage for spotting bird heads and necks as they pop up from feeding to take a look around.

I round the first couple bends, where the river gradually takes on a wider margin of marsh, leaving the last of the bedrock outcrops, moving away from the trees.  The first of the shore birds is a solitary medium sized sandpiper.  I spot a great egret nearby, and a couple more egrets of unknown specie several hundred yards away - the snowys and greats both being stark white, but not discernable from that distance.

It is not until the last bend before the railroad bridge that I spot a willet...startled into the air, it shows its clear wing bars and as if that wasn't enough, it lets out a full variety of its calls.  Another is nearby.
After the narrow railroad bridge, I spot a very large wild turkey shuffling through the spartina grass, but not too much else.  This is the wrong side of the tracks and I turn back away from the edges of the massive marina that lies further down.

Fifteen glossy ibises fly over as a flock, their deep red-brown pencil-ness becoming more familiar to me.  They fly necks and feet outstretched, and with the long curved bill, they appear very thin. 

I turn up the Gatchen Creek.  It holds a wide variety of birds, even more than the river.  A couple dozen yellow legs, a single glossy ibis busy feeding, a little blue heron, some ducks, and several of the small sanpipers.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Sound Comes Back

The sound has returned to the salt marsh.  All winter long there was little more than the wind on one's ears.  The osprey came earlier in the spring with their piercing whistles, but it seemed a long wait for the others to arrive.  The sound of willets comes across the marsh even before I can get the canoe in the water, and they remain unseen not much longer than that.  I head up the Neck River and there is always a willet or two or more in sight on the mud bank, difficult to see in the morning fog and blending into the mud and spartina stubble, but when they raise their wings they are hard to not see, the bars of white and dark as obvious as a waving flag.  It is the easiest way to identify them - it separates them from similar looking shore birds.  They nest here, probably attracted to the short grass on a wide open marsh where they can build a nest and watch for's not the ocean they come for as they also breed in eastern Montana.  It's all willet, sandpiper, and osprey calls with silent white egrets for punctuation.

Two terns fly over with their long thin tapered wings and just a hint of fork at the end of their tails.  They add their call to the mix and go.

I spot a black bellied plover...but I have to look that one up in the book, which says it should be on its spring migration to the tundra. 

I make the turn off of the Neck into Bailey Creek, racing the falling tide to get through the sneak back into the East River before the sneak runs out of water.  When I get to it, the sneak is skinny, the turns are tight.  I put the lightweight cedar paddle away and take out the walnut one, which will survive pushing off the bottom much better.  I can always walk out if I have to, but I get to the high spot and the ebb current changes from fighting me to carrying me along...and the water gradually gets deeper.  I beat the tide by about ten minutes.

Snowy Egret - black bill, yellow feet

I found my arms and legs fatigued this morning.  It had been five days since my last canoe trip and most of those days were good paddling days.  I spent two of them in the big city, working at a museum.  I love being in the museum, but the 20 block walk through the big city, with all its rush and conflict with wildness is something I just endure.  As I canoe up the river, as each bird whistles at me or warns the others of my arrival, the strength returns.  It is getting right with nature.

I find 20 some glossy ibises mixed with some Canada geese at the rockpile bend.  The ibises are busy stabbing their bills into the mud...feeding.  The willets are noticeably fewer here as well.  This is still salt marsh and spartina grass still rules, but it is not far to get to the end of that.  After the next bend I start to find turtles, in rather large numbers, on the mud banks.

The river changes most and quickest as I pass under the stone arch bridge.  Above this bridge, it is a freshwater cattail marsh.  The raucous nature of the salt marsh gives way to a calm humid sleepiness that is still packed with birds and animals, its just that these creatures are quieter.  The egrets are here, the osprey too, and the great blue herons.

a bruiser
I visit the stone dam remains and then paddle a few hundred yards more before the river goes shallow with the low tide.  I turn and paddle back, into a warm fresh headwind, with not much changing except that when I get to the rockpile bend, there are fifty glossy ibises...and they get up all at once and fly a short distance up river.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Something New and Something I Should've Known

A lesser yellow legs walks ahead patiently on the left shore until I drift too near and then it begins its sentinel call, which alerts the nesting osprey on the right shore, and it begins its sentinel whistle.  "Beware the man in the canoe."  I'd say there is no peace, but this is the peace of any wild place, no matter how small.

I have both a stiff headwind and a strong current to work against.  The water level is still above normal from last week's rains and the low tide compounds that into a steeper gradient.

Quinnipiac River
Snowy Egret - left bank - What mechanism of evolution has caused the snowy to have a black bill and canary yellow feet while its larger cousin, the great egret has a yellow bill and black feet?  I'm pondering and paddling...and I notice that I've come to a standstill...time to move over into the slower water behind the sandbar.

I notice something that in five hundred some canoe trips I have never noticed before.  A shell midden.  But, not a man made shell midden from an ancient village.  This is an animal made midden...enough shells for a few good meals under a small root ball that would provide good cover from hunting raptors.  My eyes in tune, I find a dozen more in the next half mile.

Then, a herring gull swoops up to 50 or 75 feet and drops a pencil sized stick, and swoops down and catches it in midair.  It repeats this five or six times until it drops the stick nearly straight above me, and it thinks twice about swooping towards the man in the canoe.

Black crowned night heron

After the wild apple tree bend, I begin to push a pair of black crowned night herons up the river, hundred yard hops at a time, until I finally see them no more.  Just after the slate roofing tile midden, I find a third black crowned night heron.  Its right leg is broken and when it flies the damaged limb dangles.  I don't know how this will effect the birds survival, but it seems to move well enough and it doesn't rely on talons to catch food.

At the highway bend, two baltimore orioles criss-cross the river.  I don't care what they are doing, they are too pretty to not watch.

I turn back just after the highway bridge.  Here, the river current is stronger.  It is a lot of careful maneuvering during normal water levels, but today the high and fast water is creating a menagerie of strong eddies and whirlpools and unpredictable currents.  It isn't worth the effort or risk to go farther.

The trip back is fast, the bank speeds by, but the rate is most noticable when the water is shallow and I can see the bottom as the canoe races over.  It was a 3 to 1 river today...2 hours up and about 40 minutes down.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Chain of Lakes - May 2

Two days of wind and rain followed by a day of wind and rain and how has brought the river levels up several feet.  The Quinnipiac and the Farmington are well out of their banks and into the trees and it can be assumed that all the others have followed suit.  Exploring the bottom of the Scantic is put off.

So, I head to a small chain of three lakes, each separated by a short portage, which only serves to make the trip more worthwhile...the act of lifting and carrying the boat from one body of water to the next being what canoes were made for.

The first lake is housed, an older development plan that let people build all too close to the water... but even that seems to have purpose in the journey.  I paddle away from town across and up the egg shaped lake to the far end and towards something farther away.

Just as I reach the top of the lake, a mature bald eagle drops down off the forested hillside and sweeps off leading the way.  I grunt the short that except for my pack and one paddle, I leave my other gear in the canoe and forgo throwing it up on my shoulders, just manhandling it into the second lake, where I slip off the bank and perform the wetting of the feet ceremony.  This second lake has houses also, but they are back farther from the shore, which is only half developed, and the lake has a dogleg in it with a rather fine stone gazebo at the point, which would bother me if it wasn't such a fine classic design.

The second portage is easier, being just as long, or short as the case may be, but without a hump to carry over.  I guy is fishing there on his lunch break.  We have a short chat before he figures out that I'm not fishing.  Usually, if fishermen figure out that I am canoeing without fishing before talking with me, they treat me as if I was deranged.  If we do it the other way around, I end up being one of the guys.  I do like to pick their brains and get their observations since they have a different focus on it all.  He did not see the bald eagle, if it came this way.

It is this third lake that is the pearl of the trip.  It is S-shaped and has just two or three houses that can be seen from the water.  The first is at the portage and the others are high and away from the lake...and they can and should be ignored.  The lake is shallow enough that I bet one could wade across it most anyplace.  It is also exactly the right depth to grow lily pads, and by June it will be blanketed in them and nearly uncanoeable.  A rocky forested ridge forms much of the east shore while the rest of the boundary is low wetland or swamp.  An osprey perches in a tree on the east shore until I come too close, whereupon it gets up and moves to a tree on the west shore (later, it will reverse the process).    I flush a great blue heron, which moves off no farther than it feels necessary so that it continue hunting without having to watch me. 

When I round the second point on the lake, the wind comes up at my back and pushes me towards the large cedar swamp that is the top of this lake.  I do not like being pushed.  There are a half a dozen
Canada geese and I spot two nests on isolated hummocks that are well out in the lake.  The closest one has eggs but the female has left the nest.  I'm not to blame as she was gone well before I got near...I spotted her head low swimming next to her mate.  I've observed geese before, I've never seen them leave a nest like that unless it has been raided.  I move past as quickly as I can. 

I spend less time in the swamp than I planned keeping in mind the stiff grind that the return trip could become.  The high water makes it a good day to explore the narrow channels that lead into the low cedar tree swamp, but the wind... 

 As I return, I find the mother goose back on her nest and give her a very wide berth - she stays put.  The wind changes directions.  It seems that storm cells that haven't quite yet become storms are moving through the area.  The wind is running around the my face, at my side, at my back, and then dying off, only to repeat a quarter hour later.  I take one extra turn around the third lake, take my time staring into the forest, watch a heron catch something.

And then I work my way back to town.