Sunday, December 16, 2018

Big River

December 15, 2018
I set out once again from the Feral Cat Park.  This time I headed upriver.  There was a light headwind coming down the valley, but the temperature was near 50 degrees.

A wide scatter of small white feathers on the water hinted that there might be a kill sight up ahead.  The scatter tapered and pointed to the power line towers, a likely place for a hawk to perch.  I suspect the feathers are from a gull.

There is a large number of gulls on the sand bar downstream of Fowler Island.  I continue up the shallow east channel, pass under the high bridge, and pass by the Dragonfly Factory.  Several boatloads of fishermen are upstream of the Factory fishing for striped bass.  They seem to be landing them fairly often although a legal keeper is usually 26-30 inches, so I suspect many of them have to be released.

I continue up to Wooster Island where I turn back.   About halfway back I notice a change in the air.  I can see my breath and it feels cooler but I suspect that the temperature is the same but the humidity has changed, something that matches the weather forecast for tonight and tomorrow.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Big River Island Tour

It's one of those days when you look out the window and try to convince yourself that it isn't a good day for canoeing, or that you won't enjoy it.  It's gray and somewhat gloomy, but warm and calm enough so that there is no good reason not to go.

I set out into the big river from the Feral Cat Park where, it so happens, a couple of women are feeding the cats.  I head straight out across the river rounding the upper end of Pope's Flat, crossing the channel over to the top end of Long Island (not that Long Island), crossing the next channel over to Carting Island, where I then follow the shoreline down and around Peacock Island.  All of these islands are low and inhabited primarily by spartina or phragmites.  There is a lot less phragmites than in the past as the government has done a good job eradicating the invasive non-native reed so that the spartina can grow.  Spartina provides habitat for many more birds and mammals than does the denser and tougher phragmites.

I head down river against a mild flood current flushing a few ducks here and there.  They are all either Mallards or Buffleheads.  A quarter mile below the third bridge I spot a pair of wintering Common Loons in a loose group with several Mallards.  I swing way around them and cross the river to make my return.

It has turned out to be a most excellent day for a canoe trip.  It usually is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The In-between

The river in the forest is calm.
Smoked mirror reflections of what is above are crisp and focused below.
The canoe runs in the in-between.
Everything doubled, the world twice as big.
Above me is 10,000 feet of sky, below me is 10,000 feet of sky.
If I fell from the canoe I would fall a great distance before I touched the clouds.
In time the rattling scolding of an escort Kingfisher reminds me of which way is up.
The Kingfisher can tell me where my body is at, but the soul...
 I set out on the last of a rising tide that helped me make way up the river through the salt marsh, through the freshwater marsh, and into the forest river.  It was in the 20's this morning and it will warm into the mid 30's.
In the reach below Cedar Island I spotted a lone male Bufflehead.  In the reach above the Cedar Island I found fifteen more as well as flushing a couple dozen Black Ducks.  Black Ducks in the main river indicate that the more private pools out in the marsh are frozen. 

At the Big Bends a flock of 60 or 70 Canada Goose fly in and circle away, honking continually of course.  It is the sound of autumn.  They circle away having spotted me below.

I continue a quarter mile past Foote Bridge before turning back.  It is a good day.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Three Beaver Day in the Selden Channel

I headed up long backwater having seen a fair amount of beaver sign in the past...scent mounds, drags and a small lodge.  As I neared the upper end of the backwater I was thinking, "not a single sign of beaver" when I came to a blocking beaver dam.  It is a very old dam and has not seen any maintenance in a long time.  I figure that the only time I've been up here the water was higher or I would've noticed the dam as it is 40 feet long.  Beaver archeology can be just about as interesting as human archeology.

Half of the dam
I set out on a crisp sunny day with not a cloud in the sky and barely any breeze at all.  I put in at Ely's Ferry Road and hugged the eastern shoreline up to the mouth of Hamburg Cove, where the two Ely houses are situated.  I think it is safe to guess that the former ferry and the houses have some relationship.  From there I continued up to the Selden Channel, also known as Selden Creek although it resembles a creek no more than it resembles an airport, at least since a mid 19th century flood rearranged it. 

Ely House
Selden Channel
Once in the channel a Great Blue Heron escorted me for a few hundred yards, a Kingfisher scolded me for another hundred, then I turned up the backwater mentioned above.  When I returned to the channel I did not go far before spotting a small beaver on the shore. It took to the water and then, most uncharacteristically, it dove without the slap of its tail.  I waited near a minute and found it about 60 yards downstream swimming back and forth waiting to see what I would do, which is typical behavior for beaver.  Most amphibious mammals will swim to shore and find a hole to hide in.  Beaver will stay in the water until you leave, swimming side to side and often diving with a slap of the tail.
Castor Canadensis
Near the cliffs, I spot a large flock of Robins.  I'm not sure what I'm seeing because I've never seen so many Robins together, but that is what they are.  Fifty would be a safe estimate.

Just past the cliffs two large splashes bring my eyes to two adult beaver that have launched themselves from the bank with my arrival.  I get a tail slap from each as I paddle by.  I find a new beaver lodge across from the island cabin.  There is a large supply of winter food stashed immediately downstream.  From here I make my return.
New Beaver Lodge
I find two Common Loons near the mouth of Hamburg Cove.  They still have their summer colors.

I make a small detour over to a stranded boat.  I passed it on the way out but figured they were fishing.  I asked if they needed me to tow them free, but they politely declined.  They stuck it in the very long sandbar that runs from the island at Hamburg Cove.  They were waiting for high tide and the Coast Guard had arranged to come if they didn't float free.

Friday, November 30, 2018

New Beaver Lodge

Finally, a calm day has come.  This month has been rainy according to the weather service, but it has also been windy and a good many days were just plain unsuitable for canoeing.  It is the first drysuit day of the fall with the air temperature under 40 and the water temperature not much more than that.

I spot beaver sign just a hundred yards out from the start.  It is a fallen tree that is either still green with sap or still alive, its root ball still anchored in the marsh.  A beaver has climbed up on the trunk and been gnawing the bark off of one of the now vertical limbs.

New Lodge
Not more than another 50 yards and I see on the bank a new and well fortified beaver lodge.  It is 5 feet tall at the peak and perhaps only 8 feet in diameter, a bit unique in proportion as lodges go.  The exterior is well sealed with fresh mud and a minor peninsula of winter food store protrudes some 20 ft out from the shore.  There is a well used and currently flooded beaver drag on the downriver side of the lodge.  In time, such drags often cut the lodge free from the shore adding a protective moat.  Just another 50 yards up, I find a newly cut tree, a foot in diameter, and a few others that have been worked on.  The drags show this to be a busy feeding site.
Winter food storage for the lodge
As I round the point into Salmon Cove, I spy a Nuthatch, easily identified as it clings upside down on a tree trunk. I flush a Kingfisher and sight a Pileated Woodpecker working a sprawling tree that has been gnawed at the base by beaver, most likely due to the distance, from another lodge.

Pileated Woodpecker
At the top of the cove I head up the Moodus, flushing 10 Common Mergansers and a Great Blue Heron at the first bend.  I can only get up about half the normal distance as the high water level won't let me sneak under a couple of downed trees.  It is a good place to pour a cup of hot coffee.

I return to the cove and continue up the river as far as the Leesville Dam.  A good amount of water is coming over the low head dam and the current was stiff for the final 200 yards.  I turn about and head down river just as a light snow begins to fall.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Getting Used to the Cold

It has been a breezy autumn, one of those where you wait for a calm day and go when you get it.
I set up the East River with the tide already too low to make the passage through the Sneak, but still with a stiff ebb current.  There was almost no wind and the temperature was somewhere near 40 degrees.

 I cut straight across the confluence of the East and Neck to the far shore, where I found a whelk egg case adrift at the bottom of the tall spartina.  After looking it over, I dropped it into deeper water having no idea if the tiny whelks will hatch or not.

Whelk egg casing
There seemed to be no birds at all in the marsh until I came across a lone hen bufflehead near Cedar Island.  She flew ahead of me in hundred and fifty yard jumps for the next 1/3 of a mile.

 I christened a recently carved maple paddle.  It was maybe an inch to long for me, but otherwise was good.  Maple makes a tough paddle but you pay for it with some extra weight.
New paddle
 Data point - I've been pondering the rate of deposition in the salt marsh.  Unfortunately, salt marshes vary widely, so there are no set values.  Today, I spotted a piece of plastic bag sticking out of the bank about 18 inches below the marsh surface.  I've never seen that before in this area and it surprises me that 18 inches of marsh might build up in less than about 50 years.  It is possible that the plastic settled into a crevasse or hole and was covered.  I'll need to see more of this phenomena.
plastic sheet - similar to kitchen garbage bag material
 I headed upriver seeing few birds until reaching the Big Bends.  There, I scared up 3 Hooded Mergansers from a good distance.  At the Gravel Flats I find a small herd of ten Dunlin and a few Yellow Legs.   At Pocket Knife corner I hear a Kingfisher a far distance off, the scolding call muted by a few acres of cattails.  Then, it flashes overhead, the call as distinct as the pulsing flight pattern.

Monday, November 12, 2018

We Talked About a Lot of Stuff

We set out on high water, the river up in the bottom land trees.  The current was light, the high water likely due more to the level of the big river rather than the amount of drainage caught by the Mattabesset.  It was cold last night, but the temperature was already climbing toward 50 degrees and there was almost no wind with a clear sunny sky.

This was M's first trip in this river.  The river unconstrained we occasionally paddled through the forest and then found our way back to the main channel.  Bird sightings were few in part due to the flooding.  If any ducks or geese were around I would expect them to be back away from the open water.  We spotted several Woodpeckers and smaller songbirds, a few Hawks - one was a Coopers, the others probably Broad Shouldereds, and a few Great Blue Herons.
We headed up the Coginachaug when we got down there.  From past experience I knew that we could get a mile or so with the high water. From there we returned and continued down to the confluence with the big river and then headed back upstream.

The marsh is settling in for the winter.  The wild rice is down, the cattails tanned out and there are only remnants of fall colors in the trees.

We talked about a lot of stuff.  We always do.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

High Water on the Big River

The water was high in the big river.  Nowhere on the east shore could I see the steep 5 or 6 foot high bank.  Instead, the water ran through the bottom land trees and up to a secondary berm, which I suppose is remnants of a pre-dam era when the river flooded with more frequency.
The flooded lowland forest was well occupied by Wood Ducks and it didn't take much more than ten minutes before my count exceeded fifty.  I was tempted to go back into the flooded backwaters but I could not be sure if the top end would get me back into the river or not.  As the current was pretty stiff, I was making less than walking speed for sure, I did not feel the need to do any backtracking.

Besides the Woodies, there were several Hawks and a few very large flocks of noisy Crows, and the of course, the Crows were harassing the Hawks whenever they felt the need.
Flooded Backwater
One of the long "landmark" islands was entirely submerged, only the small trees that topped in showing above the surface.

It took an hour and a half to reach the mouth of the Scantic.  It's been a couple years since I've been here as there usually isn't much point, the river being blocked by a couple beastly deadfalls just 400 yards up from the mouth.  Today, with the high water, I suspected easier paddling. 

Scantic River shortcut
While the deadfalls still blocked the main channel, paddling in the main channel was not a requirement and I did an end run around the base of the downed trees and continued.  The river meandered quite tightly.  At times I could not identify the river channel at all as the Scantic is about as narrow as the space between mature trees.  I continued to flush large numbers of Wood is probably a 200 count for the day.  I had set a turn around time...1/2 hour or the first bridge.  By chance the 1/2 hour and first bridge came at the same time.  I probably had covered a mile and a quarter of river, but only a 1/2 mile as the Crow flies. 

I turned back and the current of the flooded big river made quick work of the return.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Gray Sticks, Wood Ducks and High Water

I was completely surprised by the level of the water where I set out from.  I have paddled here early in the spring when the river holds the winter snow melt, but I have never seen it this high.
I start upriver finding an unusually strong current where there is normally almost none.  The water is up an out of the banks and well into the trees.  Paddling in the main river channel will not be required in many places.  It doesn't take long before I flush a few Wood Ducks.  Last year about this time I flushed over 600 in the forest section upstream of here.  I won't see that many this trip, even if they are around.  The high water means that the waterfowl can be dispersed well out into the grey stick and forest margins where they won't be seen.

The first beaver dam comes within the first mile.  It was a new creation 2 years ago and I know by the lay of the land exactly where it is.  Today, with the high water, it is marked only by a line of burbles and tiny eddies that runs across the river.  I expected to look down and see the dam, but the water is so high that I can't see down to it.

Red Tail Hawk
The forest section has a definitely pushy current that is compounded by deadfall.  It is a busy section with a lot of maneuvering and work to get or keep the canoe pointed in the right direction.  The two bridges at the midpoint, one of which is abandoned, hold a fair amount of obstructing woody debris.  Fortunately, most of it is floating and can be pushed aside or under the canoe.  The water level requires me to lay down in the bottom of the canoe to pass under the old bridge...I can't remember ever having to duck to get through.
The hill is Pine Island, a colonial hideout for a gang of counterfitters

It was less than 40 degrees when I started, but the temperature has already climbed 15 degrees as I paddle out into the upper gray stick swamp. 

I flush a Red Tailed Hawk.  Then, another.  The second has a branch in its talons...this is an odd time of year to be transporting nesting material.  I flush it a second time and can see it from the rear.  The stick was actually a muskrat tail.  I flush a third Hawk.

Just short of my turn around point I meet up with R coming down the river.  I notice a wave in the water to my left and tell him that something just slipped off of a log.  He tells me he just saw a turtle.  The wave was too big for a turtle.  As we talk a very large beaver cruises into view and slaps its tail.  Head to base of tail that beaver might be 36 inches.  R has seen it in the area before and guesses it to be about 60 lbs in weight.

On my way back down I catch up with R and we dip paddles for about a 1/2 mile while talking and comparing notes.  Then, it's time for him to head back and for me to head out.

I spot three more Red Tail Hawks at the bottom of the forest section, and one Great Blue Heron.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Kissing the Forest

October winds arrived last week and kept me off the water for some time.  Often I return from a break and find myself limited to noting observations.  So, I was pleased to have thoughts flowing through my mind not a moment after setting out.

There has been much change during the short break.  Today, the temperature will peak at not much more than 50 degrees.  There is a wind that I would consider pleasant on a summer day, but today that wind will be the primary cause of the chill in the air. It is the first day this fall that I have worn my heavy wool trousers and they will be not the least bit too warm.  And, I put a recently carved alder paddle in the water for the first time.

The new paddle has a somewhat fictional river painted on it.  I was more interested in painting than in researching maps for actual rivers, so I painted my own river.  It is a river that in its entirety does not exist.  But, the details - the meanders and ox bow lakes, the braided sections and sand bar islands, and the tributaries, these all exist.  It is my river and no one else will ever recognize that.  Within the first half dozen strokes I know that it is a good paddle.  Being of alder, it is a bit heavier than the cedar paddle that I've been using this year.  The trade off is that the hard wood is more durable.  I am in the habit of selecting a paddle to use for a full year and this one is an instant candidate.

I set out just after the tide had peaked, or maybe an hour after.  In either case there is a good strong ebb with a contrary wind.  The canoe travels upriver just a hair faster than the waves created by the opposing motions.  It is a 2 to 1 current, unexpectedly strong for this river.  I head up the Neck River and Bailey Creek and through the Sneak, the water high enough so that I have an expansive view across the salt marsh.  The marsh is contrary as well.  The three foot high grassy dikes that run through it are in reality low land, the low land occupied by the tall spartina alternaflora grass.  The grassy dikes are actually channels and ditches.  The low spaces where spartina patens grows are the high land where the tides only flood a few times each month.

Fighting the current, I figured that paddling all of the way to Foote Bridge was not necessary.  It seemed only right to go so far as to kiss the forest.  However, when I got passed the stone arch bridge and kissed the forest I found that, even though I've been here a hundred times, I needed to go around the next bend to see what was there.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Very High Tide

I set out from the forest about 2 hours before high tide.  Already the water is well up as the the tide today will be just 5 inches short of the record 6ft 10 in.  The sky is overcast, with a surprisingly swift moving watercolored wash of greys and blues without distinct edges. 
Pocket Knife Bend
 There is little in bird life to be seen.  The mudflats and shallows have been swallowed by the tide.  I spot a couple of Kingfishers and flush some ducks as I start across the Gravel Flats.  By call I know that the ducks are either Mallards or Blacks, and since they have flushed from such a great distance that I cannot identify them, they are probably Black Ducks.  At the Big Bends I spot 3 Snowy Egrets, 2 Great Egrets and a Great Blue Heron.  The Snowy's are pretty much migrated out at this point.  At the last bend a good sized mature Bald Eagle takes wing and circles several times before moving off.

Coming down the Neck River
The current grows slowly, stagnant above Duck Hole Farms, gentle in the middle marsh, and stronger when I get below the railroad bridge.  I take the well flooded Long Cut over to Bailey Creek.  The current there is making the paddle a bit of a grind.  The sun breaks through for awhile.

The Neck River boat launch is thoroughly flooded, so much so that I can paddle through the parking lot.  I return up the East River riding a good current.  At the bottom of the Big Bends I find 2 dozen Yellow-Legs lined up at what would be the top of the river bank.  Normally, they are scattered about back some 50 yards where there is a panne, which is flooded temporarily.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Not So Wild Waters

I set out upstream from the Feral Cat Park on a humid but not too hot of a day.  The sky was overcast and would pretty much remain so.  The very high tide had been falling for a short time, so the tidal current added to the normal river current was not a bother.
 I stayed to the east shoreline as it is more wooded and backed by wide margins of wetland.  The opposite side of the big river has a road that runs along not far from the bank.

This was not an especially peaceful trip.  There was a fair amount of large boat traffic, at least for a cloudy October weekend.  Worse were the small herd of jet skis that followed the larger boats around jumping off the wakes and generally making a lot of noise.  My friend M told me one day that jet sk drivers almost always had the same body type.  She was correct....I observed that the drivers were balding un-athletic 30-45 year old males who whooped and hollered a lot.  Kind of an idiot fest.

I went three islands upriver, about an hour and a half one way.  There were quite a few Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets and most of the time there was a Kingfisher somewhere near.  On the beach by the Dragonfly Factory I spotted a Greater Yellow Legs.  I usually dump Greaters and Lessers into one pile, but this time I was able to see the slightly upturned bill.
On the return I followed the west shore once I was below the Dragonfly Factory.  The current flowing over the bedrock shore creates some interesting boils and eddies.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Mad Hawk

 I set out up the west side of the big river following the shoreline fairly closely.  A crow lets out an odd call.  It flies out from the trees with a Coopers Hawk in hot pursuit, tail fanned wide, wings fully spread, a slow speed highly maneuverable chase.  The hawk is giving that crow hell.  The crow takes a quick perch under a branch to shake off the hawk.  Then the crow retreats, not far, but a retreat none the less.  The hawk disappears into the trees, not too far off but out of my view.
The Essex Steam Engine

I head into a tributary that I've only gone into once before...maybe last year or the year before.  The bottom 1/3 of a mile or so is a big boat parking lot.  They have to be somewhere, but it isn't what you set out in a canoe to see.  On that last trip I went up to where the boats ended just to see if there was more.  At the railroad bridge, where the boats end, I flush a Great Blue Heron.  Then, three swans, one is a cygnet.  Another few hundred yards takes me to the road bridge.  Two hundred Red-Wing Blackbirds are feeding in what is left of the wild rice.  Passing under the bridge for the first time, I see that this is a good spot for them.  There are tens of acres of wild rice upstream of the bridge although there is little rice left on the plants.  The river takes a few wide meanders as it passes through the rice marsh before it narrows and becomes forested.  The current picks up a bit, but it is not preventing upstream travel, yet.  I cross a gravel bar and note ceramic remnants, a pretty typical sighting when nearing towns in Connecticut.  I collect an old beer can, old enough to have been opened using a church key.  The river narrows more and picks up speed.  I recognize the buildings up above as the town of Chester.

While on my way back to the take out, I paddle back out and turn up a small river that leads to Deep River .  I 've been in here before, a small river that goes from marsh to forest to town.  It's just a pleasant diversion to make the trip last a little longer.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


I don't need to see you
No reason to look over my shoulder
I know who you are
I know your wing beats on the surface of the water
No one else does that
People ask me if you're a loon
But you hold your chin too high
Too proud

Tall Spartina at mid tide
I set out clockwise around the Wheeler Marsh in a southeast wind, comfortable temperatures and a sky with dark clouds around the edges... a forecast of rain for a time after I take out.  The tide is mid level and rising, an ideal time for canoeing in this marsh as you can get mired at low tide and the wading birds take tree perches as the water rises.  I make frequent sightings of Night Herons and Great Egrets all of the way out to Milford Point. 

Snowy Egret at right
From there I head down the inside of Nell's Island where there are few birds other than a congregation of five Great Egrets and one Snowy Egret - the only Snowy sighting of the day.  At the top of the marsh I flush a few Great Blue Herons from the edges of the tall spartina.  This marsh is almost all the tall spartina gets washed over on almost every high tide.  The short version grows on higher ground that only gets flushed during the highest high tides.  Coming up the edge of the marsh close to the launch site, I start seeing the Night Herons taking their perches in the trees.  The numerous Snowy Egrets that I saw earlier in the month are absent.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Monday, October 1, 2018

Old Coots Day

I woke up in the middle of the night with a rough draft of a poem running through my mind and this all seemed to be a solid signal that I should go canoeing in some body of water that was geographically fitting for the poem.
In the Mattabesset River

A short, older and more grizzled man drags his kayak by a rope from the parking lot down the rough stone path to the water while I am gathering my gear.  I do the short 75 yard portage and find that guy already gone, which is a surprise since the typical recreation boater usually takes something like an hour to get their boat launched.  I head out downriver, the water high with rain runoff and the current faster than normal, but still gentle.  It is a pleasant day, heavy overcast in the sky and temperatures in the low 70's.

I catch up with that guy in about a half mile as he comes out of a backwater.  He is a good paddler and I pace him from behind.  I sense that we both want to paddle alone and I am giving it a bit of time to see if he maintains his pace.  He eases up in a few hundred yards and I go ahead.

At the beaver cut place there are three lodges where I seem to remember only two.  One is a crude bank burrow, one has had recent home repairs of added mud, so it is definitely occupied. The third is the one I don't remember, so it may be new.

In the big open marsh below the forest I spot three Great Blue Herons and two Mute Swans.  A short way farther on I sight a Harrier prowling.  Their hinting style really is an airborne prowl.  It weaves and dips, skimming across the tops of cattails and wild rice.  I've seen quite a few Harriers this year and I do not know why I have not noticed them as often in the past.

I pass another old coot in a kayak coming the other way.  We exchange a few brief pleasantries.

At the first point below where the tributary enters, the air is thick and heavy with the scent of beaver castoreum.  The humid still air is holding odors in place.  I spot a couple of swans ahead and a large fish splashes behind me.  After a minute, I begin to wonder if that splash might have been a beaver tail slap.

Near the railroad bridge I spot six wild turkeys.  At the bridge I spook a Green Heron.

At the big river I take a turn around the long island, there is almost always an island where tributaries come in.  The island will extend the trip to a length where I can be farther away than I am.  It also give the other old coots a chance to be alone on their trips.

I don't see all of it, but that beaver confirms its presence by making a diving leap from the bank into the river.  It surfaces and we watch each other for awhile.  As I head on, I spot another Green Heron back in a small inlet.