Saturday, March 26, 2016


It's a busy river, one of the small Connecticut rivers with cut banks with remains of hardwood trees forming piles and tangles in the water.  The bottom varies in depth every few seconds, a sandbar here, deep water there, and shallow hard packed gravel in other places.  Even the put-in was cantankerous, a small steep spot on the bank about ten yards upriver from a low head dam.  I hate low head dams - the back flow on the downstream sides kill people, trapping them until long after they have died.  Those things give me the willies.

I head upstream into river that I've not seen.  There is a good current, but it is only too fast to paddle against when it is also too shallow to paddle in.  I don't need to wade until I get to my first log crossing.  After that, it is a bit of wading every few hundred yards.  Like I said, a busy river.  No time for contemplation, eyes watching the bottom, watching the bank, peering up around the next bend, watching for animals.  I flush a couple of great blue herons and a few pairs of mergansers.  The next log crossing is an over-under...the canoe goes under the log, I go over the top.

This river was a mill river...cutlery mills mostly.  It doesn't show the beating that it took from metal and plating operations, but I can sense it.  It still runs through the towns that built up around those mills, so it doesn't get a full break.  I decide to age my photos when I get done...the river has something old about it that doesn't come through in the camera.  I suppose an old photo makes the river appear the way I would rather see it.
great blue heron in the reeds
The route splits.  A long straight channel to the west - it appears to be a man-made channel - it is too straight.  The east channel twists and it twists away from my view in a hundred yards.  I end up wading a fair amount of the west channel, until I decide to go back and see what the east side has to offer.  It is trickier, fast water winding through bends with a good amount of downed wood.  Enough. 
In this current, one would normally expect 2:1...twice as long up as it takes to return.  But, with so much wood in the river, the return is not much faster.  But, it is a chance to play with ferrying the canoe...aiming it and back paddling so that the river current does most of the work.  Done right, it can be so graceful that there is no more effort than an occasional dip of the paddle.

It is a round trip of less than 5 miles.  It takes 2-1/2 hours.

Quinnipiac River upstream from Quinnipiac Street.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


S told me that she had seen two osprey yesterday.  I took that with my usual grain of salt, preferring to confirm such things on my own.  After all, I had been out in the canoe and hadn't seen any.  Before I get to Cedar Island, a distance something under a half mile, I have spotted five osprey.  I put my notebook down and look the other way and it is now six.
It is a tremendously peaceful day.  The predicted south wind has not materialized and the sky has a high thin overcast that seems to add calm to the situation.  The tide is coming in and will reach high while I am out.  Paddling is all rhythm in such still waters with no corrections for drift to be made and no hunting for protected banks to ease the work.  Songs begin to work their way through my head filling the silence with inaudible melodies.  Beasts and plants pass by without the effort of giving them names.  They do what they do, I do what I do, and none seem to notice as long as nothing is out of the ordinary.
Osprey starting some nest refurbishing

A hawk, flushed from close in breaks the spell.  It is the easiest hawk ID I have ever made, it's rust red fan of a tail flashing bright on a landscape that is still tan and grey.  I watch it for a short time as it works its way through the bare forest, and then I return to where I was when I was so rudely interrupted.
The Gravel Bank at high tide
I pass under the usual bridge and continue to the bottom of the jungle.  I turn back when I get to the purple beach ball, removing the landmark leaving the route unsigned.

Notes:  I spotted between 7 and 11 osprey all in the lower marsh of the East River.  A later chat confirms that osprey appeared on Great Island (Connecticut River) 3 days ago.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Place From Where Folktales Come

I get an early start on a rising tide on what is a rather frigid day, 10-15 mph west winds coming and 30 F temperatures.  It is early enough in the tide that I have to slide and push the canoe through 10 yards of shin deep silty mud to get to water.  It leaves me breathing hard...harder than when I portage the canoe.  I paddle the first hundred yards with both feet over the side rinsing the mud from my boots.
Marshes are at their best at the beginning and end of the day.  Morning is a time of rapid change as birds come out of their night huddles greeting the warmth of the sun and beginning their search for food.  Today, teal are numerically the most dominate birds.  They are on migration to the north.  They flush from a long distance in flocks of two to three dozen, whirling in formation and settling somewhere else in the marsh.  I'm sure that I see more than a hundred and I only identify them because I brought my binoculars along, it takes three attempts before I get a chance to look at them while they are still floating.  They are always too far off to bother with my camera.
Milford Point in detail
I fight both wind and tide to get over to the point where I find 2 small flocks of swans - about 20 total.  They avoid me but are not yet mating and do not exhibit any of the aggressiveness that comes at nesting time.  I kick up a few black ducks and mallards, spot a few buffleheads and a few geese.  Migration is in progress, but here it is still just the front edge.  Two mature bald eagles are sitting on one of the osprey nest boxes.

When there is nothing to see, I notice that I am telling stories in my head...this is the place from where folktales come from, but it is just a taste, such things take much longer than today's trip.


Saturday, March 19, 2016


I rest in the shallow channel behind Great Flat after paddling up to the top of the upstream bar and letting the current and wind push me over a long stretch of water that was not much more than 6 inches deep.  I started late, not putting in until almost noon, preferring to spend the morning with S, who has just given me a book on how various cultures connect spiritually with nature.  I have been pondering and exploring my own relationship for some time.  It is a bottomless cup of really really good coffee.

I'm not sure why the author started with the Australian Aborigines.  Their connection to the land is so deep and ingrained, and so unique that it almost makes my brain hurt to try to absorb it.  It is foolhardy to try to understand it.  At best, I absorb the ideas that can find housing within my own understanding.  But, the idea that, within the environment, so many seemingly insignificant features are sacred is a favorite.  That there is a song and a dreaming for a rock outcrop of no obvious importance, and that the knowledge has been shared and passed on is for endless generations...mind numbing.

Often, when I talk about my own spiritual connection and experiences, I find people nodding and agreeing.  But, I know that they don't get it...not the way that I do.  It's not something lacking in them, it's just that such a connection is so deeply personal, so one on one, that no one can really get "it".  Of course, I cannot hope to fully understand their relationship either.  Their experiences can be equally as powerful and I will probably find them just as incomprehensible.  The best we can do is accept each other and absorb what each other has when possible.  What is most important is that you have found someone else that has a relationship with the natural world.  That is, in itself, hope for the world.  It is what the world needs more of.

The wind is out of the west and north with the tide falling.  I followed the west shore to take advantage of calmer air and with a good current I discovered a number of eddies that helped propel me upstream.  There were very few birds to note...some Canada geese, some distant common mergansers, and a flock of 35 shore birds that I was unable to identify.  They looked like small ducks in flight, but they flew in murmuration, which is not duck-like behavior.  I suppose they are in migration.  I use a new paddle painted as a grade pole (for measuring elevation) on one side, and photo reference grid on the other.  It seems on this day that it is for measuring the unmeasurable.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Out with the Loons and Long Tails

Morning comes with calm on the sound, the water undulating gently, an image of old window glass with patches of shimmers from unknown disturbances from elsewhere.
I carry down from the house and set out.  The rock groins are well submerged, brandts yield without alarm as I arrive.  I cut the bay between Pond and Welches Points, which takes me well away from shore, something I don't do in winter unless it is calm.  But there is purpose and reason to that course.  I leave the shoreline brandts, buffleheads, black ducks and gulls behind.  
Long tail ducks
I am with the long tailed ducks and loons.  The loons are quiet and go about their business, hunting and keeping some distance.  The long tails call incessantly from all directions around me.  Some are near and some are well out at the limit of vision, but the sound carries over the calm water without competition.  Both are divers and both dive long.  The loons go down and reappear maybe a hundred yards from where they started.  The long tails go down for 15 or 20 seconds and return to nearly the same place.

From Welches Point, I head straight out to Charles Island, again something I don't do unless it is calm.  I have seen long tails out here before, but not today.  Two oyster boats are working the area and it is possible that visibility is less than ideal for the deep diving ducks. 
Common loon
 Charles Island is rimmed with Canada geese, as usual for winter.  I round the small island close in on shore immersed in the goosely calls of mated pairs and unmated flocks.  As I near the submerged bar, the low tide access to the island, I hear honking from the long stretch of water to the west.  I know the geese aren't floating that far from shore but I see nothing...nothing....and nothing while the honking keeps coming...wait for it.
Then, they pop into view at great distance and I watch them close, pass my bow, and settle on the opposite side of the island.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Being Found - Part 2

The question was already in mind by the time I set my canoe into the water.

      "What is the minimum space required for a spirit to survive?"

I set out from the North Cove in Essex, waded the gap into the big river because it was just past low tide and the water was not more than 2 inches deep at that point, and headed up and across.  I soon noticed that I was being sped along in a great eddy - not one of those dramatic swirls of whitewater, but one that was fast and smooth, something you would not notice from shore, something of the big river.  In fact, I did not see it until I was in it.  It lasted two or three hundred yards.

I'm no expert on spirit things.  My experience is thin...  I've had a spirit animal dream, which came after many consecutive days of canoeing.  Meaningful as it was, it was still a dream.  Weirder, much weirder, was my run in with a forest tree spirit.  And, this makes me sound insane.  It was unexpected and came after many frequent off trail hikes in a rugged cedar forest.  I saw nothing, I heard nothing, but I was distinctly told to leave the area - that I did not belong where I was standing.  I left.  I imagine that it will never happen again during my lifetime.

I don't think that anyone has ever seen any of the land spirits.  I don't believe anyone ever saw a sasquatch, or a dzunukwa, or a Norwegian huldre.  I do believe that people sensed them, or sensed something.  These are spirits of big wild places where people disappear, where people are much much smaller than the world they live in. (City people don't have spirits, they have characters.)

Common mergansers are flocking and red wing blackbirds have returned to the marshes.  I am finding a good number of bird nests from last summer - the taller brush is down and the random woven structures easy to spot in the taller shrubs.

So, how much space does a spirit require?  What is space?  This is not really a conversation of yards and feet.  It's a spiritual world and "space" goes well beyond our measurable quantities. 

I believe that the land will only speak to one who is open and completely prepared to hear.  Space is probably different for different people, but I would guess that anything that takes one's attention away from where they are is an intrusion into the space...road noise, airplanes, cell phone, gps device, hiking partner, plant guidebook, camera, work stress, etc.  The closer you are to being one with the land, the closer you are to.... something you don't understand.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Being Found

On the way, I stop at the usual grocery and buy some pastries for the trip.  I stop here whenever I come this way and I suspect that their bakery is in a place that requires a mule train to get the product to market.  I get my usual chocolate croissant hardtack, a lemon poppy seed muffin jerky and a chocolate chip muffin jerky...the stalest pastries for a hundred miles around.  But, I keep coming here because the woman at the cash register is always cheerful and has a real talent for small talk.  It makes up for the leathery pastry.

We are story tellers and we always have been from the moment we developed language.  Take the TV and stereo away and people start telling stories.  It's automatic.

I suppose that much of our folklore comes from the journeys people made.. a natural exercise to pass time during the slow modes of travel, walking, riding, paddling, at least when things were going according to plan.  And when things went awry, well those tales got put together as well.  Places acquired legends and names that fit the imagination or the reality.  If the story was told enough, the legend and place name became common to all that mattered.

When we got around to putting names on paper, some of them stuck and some of them disappeared, some replaced by honorifics for people that for some reason or another were momentarily popular.  Sometimes, it is best to put the map away and return to the origin.  This comes to me as I pass Plastic Owl Point.
The river is dead calm, the current slack with high tide holding any river motion in check.  I make the crossing picking up trash of opportunity - a bottle here, a bottle there.  Everything can be seen hundreds of yards off in the smooth water.  I head for a distant bottle.  It then becomes a dead swan, its neck laid in the water as they do.  Finally, it becomes a well worn drift log, white with exposure.  It is a propeller buster, except that the motorboat boys still have their boats in shrink wrap.  I have the river to myself.

We lose our greatest tales when we lose our wonder.  When we become the biggest and baddest most dominate force over nature, we lose ourselves.  The great stories come from the great forests and rivers, the inaccessible mountains and caves, and the enormous spaces of the deserts and oceans.  They come from people being lost and finding their way back.  They come from people disappearing into that landscape never to be seen again.  When there is no wild, the stories fade away.  If you can't get lost, you can't be found.
a very real muskrat back in the Elf Forest.
At four hours, I return to my put-in.  My journey has reached its destination; I have been found.

Where: Selden Channel of the Connecticut River and thereabouts

Sunday, March 6, 2016

High Tide

It is above the stone arch bridge, near the Duck Hole Farms, that I notice that I am the noisiest creature in earshot and then some.  Only when I pause my paddling do I catch on to the din that my paddle has been making with all the swirling and gurgling that comes from a power stroke.  It is quite a calm day.  It almost makes my ears hurt.

I put in near the confluence of the Neck and East Rivers just as the tide begins to cross the broad top of the even sinusoidal wave that describes tides in this area.  As I head up the Neck, I observe the vegetation and pilings just to convince myself that I have not misread the tide chart, as my car is parked not more than 3 inches above the water level.  The ebb is slow today and I paddle a short hour before I start to notice and inch of wet above the water.

The osprey nest that was built last year on a detached dock is below eye level and I stop to examine it.  It never seemed a secure location for a nest and I did not see the pair raising any young.  The nest is intact with an old sandal near the center and the carapace and wing bones of an unidentified bird left behind.  The bones are what I would expect from a medium sized shore bird...larger than a pigeon, but smaller than any duck. I suppose they could also be from a young osprey.  I collect them.
Osprey Nest

Cloud cover during the night kept the temperature warm enough and the wind that comes from the north is hardly worth the paper it takes to describe it.  I push some buffleheads up the Neck and then up Bailey Creek, but there is not much else for bird life down here.  The Sneak is broad at this tide level, so much so that it takes much less time to pass through as each of the kinked bends has been widened into gentle curves.

When I pass the highway bridge the bird life improves.  I flush mallards and some Canada geese and a good number of black ducks take to wing from the typically large distance that they customarily do.
mid 19th century sawmill dam
I pass under Foote Bridge and over boulders that are well buried in the high water but I stop short of the jungle, the last 1/3 mile of paddling, because it is also half gymnastics.  The tide is now dropping fast and the current has picked up.  It will be an easy return.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Acquiring Topography

I had no patience for driving any distance and so I loped across town to set in at the marsh at the mouth of the big river.  I arrive to find it as devoid of elevation as possible, the tide high enough that the spartina is all awash.  The marsh at this time is almost all water.
new paddle for a new year
I head upstream into a one hour old ebb current and a cool headwind.  Still below freezing, the wind makes my eyes water for a few minutes until they adjust.  It puts a sting on the tops of my ears and an ache to my cheekbones...the feel of winter remaining as hints of spring arrive.  I've already noticed a few of the mated geese moving off from their flocks.  The other day, a swan took a slightly defensive posture towards me...but only slightly, its nesting hormones not fully charged.  Soon, it will be the most aggressive critter in the marsh.

Canada geese
My first destination is Beaver Creek, a drainage that runs through town and enters the big river at the head of a sizable marshy bay.  With the spartina awash, the geese are easy to spot with their necks and heads taller than the stubble.  Even so, what seems to be seventy five geese turns out to more like 400 geese and ducks as I flush the nearest and they, in turn, flush those that are on the far side of the bay.  I find a few teal, a pair of hooded mergansers and a kingfisher near where the creek disappears into a culvert.
big metal obelisk

When I return to the main marsh, after only thirty minutes, it has acquired new topographic character.  Thirty minutes translates into about a foot of water, a foot of water from an enormous area that has gone someplace else.  The marsh is still mostly water, but the ratio between land and water is rapidly changing.  I take advantage of the temporary passages and weave my way seaward.

When I take out, after a two hour trip, the marsh is almost all land.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The River's Baleen

I put in on the big river, the wind coming down from the north and the tide nearing the low point.  I head up river hoping to take advantage of the wind on the return, keeping the trip short enough to be on the good side of a predicted shift in the winds.

A big storm came in a week ago with heavy rain and a storm surge out of the south that should've flooded most of the low land during high tide.  Winter has knocked down about as much of the marsh plants as I expect for this season.  Reedy swamp plants, especially phragmites, are the river's baleen.  They filter out amazing amounts of plastic objects and, unfortunately, hide it from view so that it doesn't get noticed and collected.  The big river drains a good chunk of western Connecticut and Massachusetts, passing through a few cities and numerous towns.  Here, near the mouth, the debris washes down on the current and gets pushed back up by the tide until much of it is trapped on the low islands and marshlands.
Ruddy Ducks - female and male

I get out on Great Flat (an old name for a low island) and walk the silty sand beach looking for animal tracks.  The amount of debris that I find, stuff that I can't see from the canoe, is mind boggling and depressing.  But, I find the tracks of a couple deer who have passed by, maybe half a day ago.  I also spot a pair of ruddy ducks out in mid channel.

On my way out I follow the shore opposite the marshes.  It is bedrock uplift topped with glacial till that is in turn topped with eastern hardwood forest.  It is comfort shore.  No boats have eroded this rock bank and while people may scramble along here from time to time, anything they leave is swept away.  One could travel back in time a few hundred years and still recognize this side of the river.

Mute swan
A few hundred yards above Peck's Mill, I spot a square cement pillar anchored on the rocks above the high water line.  I've recently found a couple of these while hiking and I get out to confirm that it is what I think it is.  It is.  The top of the pillar has a cross in it.  It is a survey benchmark and the cross is aligned with the cardinal compass directions.  Unlike the bronze medallions that they used out west, these give no indication of date or purpose, or who put them in place.
Survey Benchmark