Wednesday, December 28, 2016


It is grey and not particularly cold for December.  The day does not measure up to being called, raw.  Coming from Minnesota, raw has a harshness that brings with it the slightest onset of pain...cold face, freezing ears, an inner chill that requires time indoors to recover from.  It is cold, it is somewhat windy, but it is not raw.

I float the canoe out in 8 or 10 inches of water and then take my seat and paddle off into a stiff headwind knowing that in a half hour or so I will be in the protected channels of Lord's Cove.  At the first finger ridge, a mink spots me.

Then, I cross over to the shelter of Goose Island, a large marsh island of phragmites.  This is the one thing that phragmites do well other than crowd out animal and other plant species, it blocks the wind.

At the upper end of the island where a broad bay opens up, I let the wind drift me back to the original shore where I can occasionally take shelter behind some rock islands and the distinctive finger ridges that descend from the hills into the river.  There are some ducks about, but this is near the end of hunting season and they are extremely wary, flushing well before I can get positive identification on most of them. 

I take the first side channel that I can.  It cuts back in the direction that I came from and for awhile I wonder if I have made a wrong turn.  Then comes the sharp bend to the fight and I recognize the place.  I take a second channel that I recall as a dead end.  I flush an American bittern from close unexpected surprise and proof that dead ends are worth traveling.

I circle Coutes Hole, the weird round open spot in the marsh that makes no sense and begin my return.

I had spotted a string of twelve lost duck decoys on the way in.  I normally collect lost decoys, but these represent a few hundred dollars of lost gear for some hunter who had a bit of brain chill after a day out.  It is payback for the good Samaritan that picked my binoculars up off of the ground and set them on my car one day after I set out in my canoe.  I retrieve them from the shore and set them on a nearby private boat launch where the owner might be able to find them.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Rockworks and Glass

I pause at the first bank to bank tangle, a tree that was cut from the earth by the fast water on the outside of a bend in the river.  It wasn't here on my first few trips up this river, but it has been an expected obstruction for the last couple years.  At higher water I can squeeze by on the inside of the bend.  But, I know that there is more of this if I go any farther up river and it seems that I am out far enough for a short winter day in a small forested river.

I flushed a good number of mallards on the way up, about a third as many hooded mergansers (maybe 10 of the later), add a great blue heron, a common merganser, a blue jay and at least a half dozen kingfishers and it has been a good trip.  Just before the tangle a turkey vulture was perched overhead at a bend in the river and showed little interest on leaving because of my arrival.

A shift over to a different tree was about all the bird could be bothered with.  It did not negotiate the forest with any of the grace that the slightly larger great blue herons do.

I noticed at this low water level that there are the remnants of a crude stone work at a spot where the river powered through and cut a channel at some time in the past.  In fact, there was stone works on both the upstream and downstream ends of the cut and what may have been some rip-rap in mid channel by the top end...I unexpectedly hit my paddle on the rip-rap.  In Seattle, the waterway earthworks were often enormous changes created with the use of steam shovels and explosives.  Here in the Northeast, many of the earthworks that I run across were powered by some guy with a shovel, ox or mule and a wagon.  I often find submerged rock beds near bridges, which I read as former fords from before the bridges were built or in some cases, remains of an earlier generation bridge.
When I near the lower rockwork for a photograph, I notice that it is littered with broken glass.  None of it seems to be particularly old.  It's likely that the cut channel sliced through a small dump.  While none of the glass is too old, there is no plastic, no aluminum can fragments...It seems to be a pre-plastic dump site.  Nothing shows signs of melting.  I retrieve 2 Pond's cold cream jars, a glass jar lid, the neck of a mild bottle and 1 of 2 drink glasses (one broke when I dropped it in the canoe).  As I continue down I notice more glass artifacts on the banks.

Quinnipiac River

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Things are Quiet

The air and water both hover at about the same temperature...not far above freezing.  But, it is calm enough and there is a brilliant sun, so bright that it hurts when I paddle towards it, the sun above and the glare off of the water below. There is no place to shelter my eyes.

It snowed earlier this week.  But it came as fine flour and dry as could be.  So, instead of weighing down the tall standing marsh grasses, it sifted through and left everything as it was.  The spartina has begun to go brown, losing the lush gold of fall, which came behind the green-yellow mixed with reds of late summer.  The thin layer of saltwater ice that clung to the shoreline grass is now slumped...sagging as saltwater ice does, folding over the bank or caught airborne in the grass.  That ice can fold like that is foreign to someone that grew up around freshwater.
bottle eroding from bank - collected

I heard voices when I set out, voices from the center of the marsh, duck hunters most likely.  Rather than search for the missing diagonal passage - I've used it before and for the life of me cannot find it - I paddle a circuit around the outer edges of the marsh.  I find ducks about a mile along, a long way from the hunters.  It's not many, some mallards, some buffleheads, a couple loons by Pepe's Rock, four more loons by Milford Point.  Things are quiet.  Things are cold.  The spartina stands tall.  It is beautiful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Duck Flushing

I started up in the forest at the foot of  Foote Bridge as the tide was very high and the launch near the sea would be submerged at this time.  The paddle outward from this forest was warm, deceptively warm for the actual day.  The air was calm and sky filled with sun.

From the moment I started, I was flushing ducks.  A dozen at the first bend, thirty at the well submerged gravel flats, fifty not too far above the stone arch bridge.  They were all mallards and black ducks and if there was anything else in the mix I did not spot it.  It is more ducks than I've seen here before.  Maybe the cold weather up north is pushing them through.  It will be getting colder this week.  I wonder if they will move farther south.

I head up a small tributary just above the big bends.  I'd been in here once before but not at this high water level.  It becomes increasingly more serpentine and coming out of each bend I seem to find two bends ahead compressed into that same space.  Cattails give way to phragmites and phragmites give way to forest.  Here the small flow runs up against the forest bank and peters out as far as canoeing goes.  Now I know.

When I get back to the big marsh I find a chilling wind.  In actuality it is not much of a breeze at all.  It's the 15 degree drop in wind chill that makes it feel like real wind.

The tidal current is picking up.  Very high tides cause higher currents as the land drains.  The water at the railroad bridge is swirling and making the noise of a fast stream.  More bark than bite, however.

I take an alternate channel into the sneak.  Here the effect of a very high tide is more obvious.  All of that water that flooded the spartina is finding its way into the channels.  I paddle against a stiff current in a 4 foot wide channel.  Then I cross over into The Sneak and go a couple hundred yards.  It feels far enough.  I turn back.

It was a good decision to turn back.  The current in the main river is stiff, as fast as I've seen it, and it slows my return.  Nearing the Foote Bridge I can see that the water has dropped 2-1/2 feet already.  I skim over the tops of boulders and logs that were well underwater when I started. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Low Tide Big River

Low tide limits my choices.  The smaller tidal rivers are too scratchy, if passable at all.  I paddle away on the big river, rounding the first point and finding five swans up close.  The large adult takes a position between me and his following.  It is three cygnets, with just a touch of grey left in their feathers.  The fourth is either a small adult or a whiter sibling.

I paddle across the channel to Pope's Flat, the spartina well above my head, my horizon the primordial proto-peat that centuries of growth has meshed into a deep brown soggy adobe.  Two shorebirds with dark and light patterning flee without being identified.  A lone cygnet rests on the shore.  A great blue heron flies off a good 1/3 mile downstream.

Near the island next to the island next to Pope's Flat (which is an island) I find a bird killer hooked on an old rope snagged on a water logged and barnacle encrusted tree limb.  I collect the specimen.

I continue down following the other town's shoreline eventually noting that theirs is mostly marinas and docks while ours is a sizable and often vibrant salt marsh.  The point where river becomes sea is my turn around.  The marsh still too shallow for passage, I return as I came except for using the more protected inner channel.  I find a few common loons as I near the sea.  One surfaces 20 yards away and takes its time eyeing me before diving.

I add a couple more herons and one mature bald eagle to the daily count.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


On the way to the marsh in the big river I change plans as I often do and this time I put in from the town harbor.
It is a calm day with a thin fog and a thick overcast.  These special atmospherics are wasted on the close up world of paddling in marshes.  This is a day for expansive long distance views.  These days make the distant distractions fade and cause the visible to be at an indeterminate distance.  I always feel farther away from everything than I am.

I find a few buffleheads in the harbor, one large common loon in the mouth of the harbor, three more loons not far from the turn out and up the shore.  They dive gracefully, no splash, no wake, and they stay down until they are far enough away to feel safe.  They can cover remarkable distances underwater.

I follow the shoreline as usual in cold water conditions.  This time I head south until I reach the bar that leads out to Charles Island.  Then, I follow the bar, more or less, as most of it is submerged, out to the island.  It is here that I hear the calls of long tailed ducks...hearing before seeing is typical with them.  I spot the tiny black dots of the flock well off to the the south...too far for the telephoto lens.

The island trees are leafless, the island now grey and looking more windswept than it really is.  But, it is rimmed with a band of golden spartina that stands out brilliant on a day such as this.  It draws me in and I stop to take a short walk.

I circle the island and return following the bar and then the shore and then turning up Gulf Pond, which shares a mouth with the town harbor.  Three oystermen work their allotment froma 20 ft. skiff, the first time I've seen anyone dragging for oysters in here.  I continue up and into the Indian River, just to take stock....but I end up with not much to report.  It's all okay.
 A tributary to Indian River

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The View Obscured

It is too fine of a day to not take advantage of, even for a short trip, and while I have no allergy to rain, having lived in the Pacific Northwest for 27 years, tomorrow's forecast looks particularly grim.

I set out to circle the big marsh, a short trip that can always be extended by getting lost in the interior, which is actually easier done than said.  A half mile along I find a 50 gallon drum.  It is empty and not particularly heavy, so I pull it out and rest in on the gunwales as it is too large to fit inside the rather narrow solo canoe.  It has little effect on the handling of the canoe on such a calm day other than to give it the appearance of a tiny blue steam locomotive. 

I wander a series of back channels that I can't recognize, but they seem to have a good bit of flood current and they might go through to somewhere.  Eventually I end up in the Nell's channel, which I leave for a smaller passage that I remember from previous trips. 

Hunters are out today.  It is more bird sterile than normal, but I doubt that the hunters have much effect.  I hunted when I was younger and I would not bother with this marsh if I still hunted, except when the migration is in full swing.  Anyway, the hunting seasons here come and go with no obvious pattern and once in awhile I end up in a marsh during season.

I spot a hunter out in center marsh standing guard over a large patch of open and birdless water.  It is a good day to sit in the sun.

At the Archaeology Ridge I come across another hunter.  His duck and goose decoys double my bird count for the day.  We chat a bit.  It's been quiet.  He asks me about the tides.  Seems he forgot to check them and ran aground in the morning.  I tell him he'll be okay heading upriver, but by the time he leaves the water downriver will be too shallow for my canoe...from past experience.

And, I go on my way.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Circumnavigation of Cedar Island

I came here for the record high tide, 6.8 feet at the nearest gauge, a match on the highest recorded.  It is a rare opportunity to see the salt marsh awash.

But, I put in at Foote Bridge, up in the forest.  The launch at the lower end of the river will be a foot deep in salt water in an hour or so.  I head down plowing through a thick band of leaf litter that lays where the main current of the river is, a meander of leaves within the meander of the river.  It is thick enough to slow the canoe.  The water is already so high that I can paddle well off to the side.  I pass the little cedar swamp, I flush a flock of mallards and black ducks from the well submerged gravel flats.  The river is glassy, the fog that my exhalations make doesn't align with the warmth of the sun.  The air is still catching up with the sun.

After the railroad bridge, which for a change I have to duck to pass under, I enter The Sneak.  The short spartina, the great majority of the salt marsh, is awash - deep enough to float the canoe, not quite deep enough to paddle. 

A light sea breeze begins and I suspect it will be welcome as I return against an ebb current.  From Bailey Creek I strike out into one of the old WPA mosquito control ditches.  It peters out, but there is enough water to keep going across the flats.  Tall grasses signal deep water (the tall grass being spartina alternaflora, which grows in deeper water)... it is backasswards to the eye, but the highest vegetation is also the deepest water. 
Cedar Island

I stop briefly on Cedar Island after spotting a large amount of oyster shells in the bank.  It may be cultural or natural, or both, but it appears to be eroding from the bank down to more than a foot deep.  It would've been a good dry place to collect shellfish, whether you are man or animal.
oyster shell fragments
I paddle a short distance up the East River and take another WPA trench back to the Sneak.

I was asked to show the new red handled paddle that I wrote about yesterday/  I commented on how it felt full of spirit.  Spirit is something that you feel.  It is what these 700+ canoe trips has become, a seeking of spirit.   No photograph or painting can do justice to being in the canoe surrounded by forest and marsh and river. 
The red handled paddle
No image of a paddle can substitute for having it in ones hand, for feeling it slice cleanly through the water, for having it do everything it is supposed to do.
Spirit is something that requires all of the senses, including the ones you don't know about. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Spirit Paddle

I started out with a new paddle in my hands heading from shore and into a cool west wind with a steeply falling tide that created more current than I would normally see.  Tidal currents in the big salt marshes are either out or in, upriver or down has little meaning.  It is unpredictable, the high points in the maze being only a few inches above the lows.  All that matters is that you are out before you run short of water.

The new paddle is light and well balanced.  It is one piece of western red cedar, something I carved a few months ago that has been waiting for the right design.  I can feel that it has spirit.  It may not be as fast as the other recently finished paddle, but it has more life.  When I switch sides I give it a spin, just a gentle kick with the tips of my thumb and fingers.  It spins as if it will not stop in the loose grip of my hand.  The grip is a carved wavy shape some 20 inches long and painted red.  With each a wave of red passes my eyes.  This paddle has some spirit.

The spartina has gone red - about the same color as the red gold in my wedding ring. It is positively lush considering it is going into winter dormancy.  I flush a good size flock of black ducks from the inner corner.  Then I head to the point.  As I near a flock of geese takes off.  At first I think, Canada geese, but they don't enter a formation and their wing beats are too fast.  In two minutes they circle back close enough to hear them...brandts.  I spot a red loon.

I continue upriver though the Nell's channel taking in a few of the dead ends that lead into the interior of Nell's Island.  Then I continue on my way.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Near the Mouth of the Connecticut

We put in on the back channel of the Connecticut River, not more than a half mile from the sea.  This spot is known for the number of osprey that one can see and from the launch there are twenty-some nests in sight.  But, the osprey are gone for the season.
Near Great Island

K lives not far up the Blackhall River, which comes in just a hundred yards or so from here.  She is an artist friend of mine and this is one of those bonding canoe trips that I take my art buddies out on. 

I steer us upriver into some waters that she's not been in.  The tide is out, but it is not a particularly low low tide, so there is enough water all along the route.  We pass the Watch Rocks without seeing too many birds...a few great blue herons and a docile pair of yellow legs that let us pass close.

In the Lieutenant River
We continue up the Lieutenant River, which I tell K is probably one of the best three mile long rivers in the state.  It is actually longer, but the upper mileage is not canoeable.

It is a fairly spectacular fall day.

At the top of the paddling in the Lieutenant River

This time of the year is quiet when it comes to birds. It is in the top of the Lieutenant that we find the most birds, a family of seven mute swans, a flock of Canada geese, a few golden eye ducks, some kingfishers and some common mergansers. 

We return with the wind in our face and a gentle flood current against us.  But that just makes the trip last a bit longer...

Saturday, November 5, 2016

When It Flows In

I didn't write anything today, at least not while I was in the canoe.  There seemed to be nothing much to say.  Instead, it was a trip where things flowed into me.  It was a great autumn day where any chill in the air was more than compensated for by the sun. 

I head out paddling down river toward the sea against the flood tide with a quartering wind from behind on my right.  I circled the big marsh before returning.  The spartina was tall and turning was rich.

I saw few birds of note.  It was mostly black ducks and mallards with just two Canada geese.  Behind Peacock Island I flushed a mated pair of wood ducks and saw two great egrets.  It has been awhile since I've seen egrets, most of them are now gone.

I took some photos, but most of the time I seemed to have some crap on the lens.  It just didn't matter.
The guardian of the feral cat park canoe launch

Thursday, November 3, 2016

In the Big River

I turn back at Wooster Island, an hour and a half upriver from the feral cat park.  I've ridden here on a decent flood current, somewhat stronger than I expected, and also with a light tailwind.  I won't get much help on the way back, but with the tidal curve approaching its peak, I won't have much against me either.
looks like raccoon

I've counted fifteen great blue herons so far.  Ten alone came off of Great Flat where eight of them were in a single tree.  I flushed three more off of Wooster Island and the others popped up out of marshes, unseen until they were in the air.  I have also seen one osprey, one immature bald eagle, and a large hawk.

It is an entirely pleasant autumn day.  The temperature is warm, the wind light with a hazy overcast and a very light sprinkle of rain that doesn't even dampen my clothes.  I have a new paddle out, one of my long taper wide tips...its first use.  It needs a bit of thinning on the shaft and grip, but the blade delivers a powerful pull and makes the j-stroke correction with hardly any effort at all.

An hour out, the wind starts to come up.  It's not bad.  I pull away and do what I seem to do best, move and pay attention to stuff.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

More Eagles

I headed toward the Wheeler Marsh but having forgotten my sunglasses, which will be needed today, I return home.  I take such things as signs, so when I leave again, I head east towards the Quinnipiac, but I pass that by when I get to the turn not feeling particularly up to canoeing in the underbelly of former industry.  I head on towards the Mattebasset, which I've not been in for a few months.  But, when I set the canoe in the big river, I turn it away to the south onto water that I've never paddled before.  It is a restless day.

It is still cool, but it is calm and in the sun it is downright pleasant.  There is little if any current and I cross over to the sunlit side of the river.

A low land that is at least part marsh is held back by the river bank, which forms a berm.  I surprise a small mature bald eagle that crosses the river.  The low land gives way to craggy and forested hillsides that are about 200 ft high.  I flush a couple of great blue herons.  It is a quiet bird day, a few ducks, some geese, a kingfisher, a cormorant.  I stop to collect a shelf fungus from a downed tree..another specimen for the collection.

I pass some private riverbank camps.  These private camps always look like shit when they are vacant.  The owners leave lawn chairs, old barbecues and other crap behind when they go home for the next nine months.  There are several of these on the sunny side of the river.

At the power plant I cross the river again and began my return.  The scent of the damp forest is thick.  The heavier cool air is sliding down the hillside bringing all of the smells of the forest.  I flush that small eagle again.  And, in a few more yards, I flush a much larger mature eagle.  That makes six eagles in three consecutive canoe trips...pretty good for Connecticut.

From there I continue upriver to the towering metropolis of Middletown where I have a nice 20 minute talk with a couple of guys as I exit my canoe...pretty typical for Connecticut.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Paddling a Document

I set out onto a leaf strewn river, passing under Foote Bridge with the bow of the canoe collecting the autumn litter and rather than a clean slicing of the canoe through the calm waters, I heard the steady pattering of splashes caused by leaves and grasses wrapped around the forward end.

The river is now a document of the surrounding forest, a long meandering scroll, a ledger of elms and tulip poplar and sycamore and oaks... lots of oaks and from a the leaves, a variety of oaks at that.

At he first big bend I spot a pair of hooded mergansers, one male, one female.  At the third big bend I spot two bald eagles, one mature, one immature.  I add a late staying osprey.
young bald eagle

At the Post Road I wave to a police officer who comes over and asks me to watch for a man they are searching for.  He is large, bald, covered in blood and wearing only underwear... a suicide attempt that has run off into the marsh.  I assure the officer that I will recognize the man if I see him.  If he is moving in the marsh, he will be easy to spot.  I meet other officers near the railroad bridge.  I take The Sneak and paddle up Bailey Creek as it is a natural boundary to their search area.  I find several great blue herons, a block of black ducks, and a second late staying osprey.  Not long after I paddle out of Bailey Creek, the police pack up and leave.  They have found him somewhere, they would not leave so soon had they not.

And then, I paddle for three more hours.  I paddle enjoying the effort and the speed at which the canoe travels.  It seems to be more than enough.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The First Chill

Fall arrived at pace a few nights ago, the temperature dropping 20 degrees overnight and staying put, with the October winds showing up for good measure as well.  Today, looked to be a good day with some breeze and a lot of sun.  It is time for my annual collecting of shed swan feathers.

I found most of the swans, some eighty or so, in the bottom of the cove.  Unfortunately, it was windier than predicted, something closer to 20 than 10, and it had been windy for a few days.  So, there were very few feathers to be found, certainly not enough to be worth wetting my fingers on such a chilly day (my fingers were numb from the cold wind alone).  Any feathers that had been shed were long blown into the depths of the marsh where I could not reach or even see them.

I clawed my way into the headwind up the cove, hugging the shore for whatever buffer the forest might provide, and turned up the Moodus, a narrow and relatively protected river.  Once out of the wind, I paddled along slowly and quietly staying alert for fauna and scanning the bottom for the odd rare find of past events.  I spotted 2 kingfishers, heard one distant woodpecker, and saw a flicker. 
The Moodus
Beaver bank burrow in the Moodus

Returning to the cove, I crossed to the far side and took the tailwind boost down that shore.  The late staying osprey is here.  I'm guessing it is the same late osprey as last year, one that stays long after the others have migrated south.  When I cross back over the cove, I notice the silhouettes of two large birds in a bare tree top.  The whistle and chatter ID's them as bald eagles.  I get several minutes to enjoy them as the wind pushes me past their perch.