Saturday, November 25, 2023


No small part of the motivation for heading out into the marsh on this first cold day of the coming winter was to have a cup of coffee. Food and drink of the right sort and in the right place can record the moment as a permanent record in the mind, where so many other experiences fade with time. Hot blueberry soup will always take me to a ski trail on a pass in the Cascades. Potato cakes take me to a Safeway grocery in Jackson Hole, the only hot food left in the deli, which we got to just before closing after a 20 hour descent and hike out from Mt. Owen. Coffee though, is too much a daily taste to transport me all by itself. But coffee in the winter marsh, that is a different story.  Sitting quiet in my canoe in the winter marsh, with its damp chill and standing dormant reeds and grasses, with a cup of hot coffee in my hands, takes me back to my first hunting trips with my Dad. I can't remember exactly where we were, but it was one of a thousand cold pothole marshes in Minnesota. I might have been carrying a BB gun or a borrowed four-ten shotgun. But, I'm sure I was standing, surrounded by cattails, in hip boots in thigh deep water and freezing my ass off, when Dad poured a cup of flaming hot coffee from his thermos. It was the worst coffee in the world, probably Hills Bros. or Olson's or some such midwestern burnt sawdust brew that had been poured into the thermos while boiling. At that moment and at that place, it was nothing short of a magic potion. I burned my tongue... I didn't care, and I didn't forget.

I put in a short hour after high tide. The current was pushing downstream past the launch at a good 4 mph clip. When I got to the marsh, I headed the half mile up Beaver Creek. I spotted a couple Black Ducks, a couple Hooded Mergansers and a few Mallards. It wasn't much for this time of year, but as I headed back I sound that I had been followed. Coming in right behind me had been about 3 dozen birds, mostly Black Ducks. 

I headed down and circled the marsh. The tide was falling quite fast and I needed to stay out of the interior and in deeper water. I spotted one hunter before getting to Nell's channel, and two small oyster boats in the channel. At the Post Road bridge I spotted a Common Loon, which dove and stayed disappeared long enough for me to give up and continue paddling.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Change of Plans

Yesterday's weather forecast did not last as long as this morning. While this morning is calm, a weather front is expected to arrive this afternoon with gusty winds, so I change plans for a shorter and closer to home trip.

I put in at the top of the tidal section of the Housatonic from O' Sullivan's Island. The tide is low and coming in, the air is calm and warm. I head down river. When I get to Wooster Island, about a hour out, I turn back. I have some wind at my back and a bit more water underneath.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Mallard Rescue

I've been off the water for some time now. A local art event needed my attention. As an artist with more than average problem solving ability, I was called upon to manage one of the spaces in a city wide event. I did get to present some of my nature/canoe themed work and did have some fine discussions with people that came by.

It is sunny and somewhere on the south side of 60F with a light wind out of the south or west. I get a casual start, putting in under the highway bridge for an easy tour through the Wheeler Marsh.  The tide is high and near slack, so it is an easy paddle down river.

Peaceful is probably the key adjective for the marsh today. The spartina is golden and with a clear sky, the water is sky blue. It looks like a wheat field growing from a blue mirror.

I head up into my favorite inner passage. I catch the sound of a Mallard from somewhere deeper in the marsh. It is a noise that Ducks don't make often, so someone has set up a hunting blind out there. I expect that most Ducks won't fall for the ruse. If anything, birds are far better at recognizing birds than people are.

I circle the outside of the marsh, for the most part. I find a flock of Buffleheads in the lower end, a couple of Kingfishers, and spot a Harrier skimming across the top of spartina...on the hunt, of course. There's a single Great Blue Heron right on the tip of Milford Point and I spot a Red Throated Loon nearby. The Red Throated Loon should be migrating through heading south. Common Loons do winter here, but I usually see them in the sound or in the mouths of rivers where there is a good current. Besides different coloring, the Red Throated are a bit smaller than the Common Loons.

I head up through the interior, the tide being high enough that I will be able to exit into a clear channel if I need to. Heading up Nell's Channel, I spot a Mallard flopping in the water. It is caught by a fishing line or something similar. I paddle to it and find it is tangled in a blue plastic strand, not a fishing line - which is good because there is no fish hook involved. It might be a strand of cheap plastic rope. It is a do the best you can situation. The bird is panicking and a canoe is a less than ideal platform. I manage to cut the strand with my river knife. The bird swims off at about 60 mph into the spartina. It still has some of the strand wrapped around it, but it is free and the short fiber shouldn't catch on anything. Most importantly, the Duck can swim and feed and might now be able to get free of the rest of the line.

Red Throated Loon

I spot another Red Throated Loon. This is the third one. It lets me get with 20 yards. It feels like a bonus.

I head back up river.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Shipwreck Reach of the Connecticut River

I reread my favorite books about nature, exploring and deep thoughts about about those two topics quite often. Those good reads are not much different than my frequent canoe trips; no matter how many times I've been there, I always find something different, it's always a new experience. I'm currently rereading, "Disappearance: A Map" by Sheila Nickerson. As a Juneau based State of Alaska employee, one of her colleagues disappeared during a private airplane trip between Yakatut and Anchorage. More than a few people have disappeared in that enormous area of glaciers, water and forests. The book is about more than that, but that is her leaping off point. 

My trip today has nothing to do with disappearing, at least in a physical sense. But Nickerson's book is some of the motivation. That's how things work.

I put in at the Rocky Hill Ferry. Last time I was here, the river was raging and I did not bother to unload the canoe. Today, the river is at a normal gauge level of 6 feet or so. It was 4 feet higher last week, and when you look at the photos, imagine what it looked like in July when it was 14 feet higher. I head upstream against a moderate 2:1 current and a light headwind. It is warming up to something around 50F, and it is more than sunny enough.

A text book beaver bank burrow
The low brush pile halfway between the canoe and the left edge of the photo at the top of the bank marks the burrow. The brush covers the air vent hole at the top of the burrow. The green willow branches in the water right of the canoe are the start of a winter food stash. A deep excavated channel under that brush leads to one of the burrow entrances.

Within a hundred yards, I enter a very large bend in the river. I follow the river-right bank, which is usually too weedy to mess with in warmer weather. I find a text book example of a beaver bank burrow about 5 minutes out. The bank burrow changes the chapter. From now on, I am in wild land, at least until something man-made drags me back. Not much farther on, I find a sailboat wreck, the hull filled with dirt and a variety of shrubs and saplings growing from it. Someone has been here, but they are gone.

I decide I should name this section of the river. It is personal geography - naming places with your own names. It make sense for when I want to refer to a specific place in the future. My personal geography names also are more descriptive. Should this section be the Shipwreck Reach, or should it be the One Hour Bends? While there aren't any actual shipwrecks, for some reason, this part of the river has more than a half dozen boat wrecks, with 3 or 4 downstream of my put-in and 3 upstream. This might be because there are only a handful of houses that can see this 5 or 6 miles of river. It is low flood plain and the only dry land is farm fields that flood at least once a year. So, no one is around to complain about the abandoned boats. It is the only place on the river where I have seen this phenomena. As to the One Hour Bends - there are 3 big bends above the put-in, and they are big. If it was foggy, say a 200 yard visibility, one would never know that they were paddling a big long curve. 

I paddle upstream for two hours. Like a clock, I complete two bends; one hour turning left, one hour turning right. I see a distant soaring Hawk, a partially submerged upside down motorboat, one Great Blue Heron, and a Duck that speeds away so fast that I cannot identify it. The second bend has a nice crop of willow saplings on the outside of the curve right at the water's edge for almost a third of a mile. Beaver have been feeding here, but not in any concentrated spot. The saplings are all just the right size so that they can be bit off and nibbled without effort. It's a bag of potato chips for beaver.

Willow saplings

At two hours, I cross the river and follow the river-left bank back, keeping my eyes peeled for more bank burrows - I did not see any burrows or lodges near the willows. This side of the river also has a lot of willows, but they are full grown trees. I find a third boat wreck - an inboard motorboat lodged well into the river bank trees. But, no bank burrows.

As I cross the river back to my start point, a mature Bald Eagle flies past.

I decide that I have paddled the One Hour Bends section of the Shipwreck Reach of the Connecticut River. It rolls off the tongue.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Foliage Attempt

With the turning of the leaves, the paddling has been quite the visual experience. The forecast for sun did not come through, unfortunately, but I got S out for a long overdue canoe trip anyway. We put in on the Menunkatusuck River. This river meanders through a wide salt marsh that is hemmed in by our eastern hardwood forest - mainly swamp maples, which turn to a vivid yellow gold before the leaves drop. It turned out that besides the overcast, the leaves weren't at peak, with a few days or maybe a week to go. 

The tide was very high with the cord grass on either side of the river well flooded. The wind was calm and the temperature rising toward 70F. We were able to cut across the meadows, at least on the way down river. 

We spotted several Kingfishers, some Yellow-Legs, a few Great Blue Herons and Mallards. At Opera Singer Point, an immature Bald Eagle was perched in the spindly top of an evergreen. The Eagle stayed put the entire time we were in the area.

It was a very easy and relaxing trip. Afterwards, we retreated to a fine old school breakfast diner in Clinton.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Wood Duck Day

I put in at Deep River and headed out past the top of Eustasia Island and across the river to Selden Island, the shore of which I follow downstream to the back channel.

It is sunny with temperatures rising into the 60's and a light south wind. The river is running high and the water is murky with suspended silt.

Making use of the high water, I head back into the Elf Forest. It is a dead end marsh about 200 yards wide and not quite a half mile long hemmed in by forested hills. After the first couple tight bends, I flush 40 Wood Ducks from an unseen spot to my left. Then, the channel sidles up against a mature forested hillside. Whenever I am in here, there is always a cool draft coming down out of the trees, and it carries a punky, almost smoky odor rotting leaves and wood. It reminds me of what the floor of the forest is made of - it is a comfort smell and one of the main reasons I come here. When the channel narrows enough so that it is "work," I turn and head back out with a total count of 60 Wood Ducks. Swamp Marigolds are still in bloom.

The Elf Forest is named for the small stunted and
gnarly trees growing there

With such good finds in the Elf Forest, I decide to not worry  bout getting anywhere and instead, check all of the several side channels. 

The Bandit Camp channel comes next. The name is due to a unofficial camp that someone once had. I spot 8 more Wood Ducks. The campsite looks somewhat restored, as if it hasn't been used for a few years. I do note that there is a submerged man-made rockery at the rough landing. The stones are sized like rectangular bowling balls. So, this landing has been in use for a long time, and I imagine that the stone work dates to when the island was used as a quarry and farm. The stones might even date to when the island wasn't an island (which might explain why the rocks are submerged). Selden Island was a peninsula until a massive 1855 flood blew through and changed Selden Creek into a back channel of the river.

I don't spot any birds in the next two channels. But, at the top of the channel across from an old dock, I spot a floating brush pile. It is mostly beaver cut branches and I am pretty sure there is a bank burrow entrance beneath the tangle.

Bank Burrow camouflage
The wind has come up. When I get out to the main river, I decide to cross directly guessing that the far shore will block the wind. It is a choppy crossing with no real wave pattern - a result of a strong current in opposition to the wind. I guessed right, and the far shore is a calm and easy paddle back down to the Deep River landing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Baldwin Site

 Last week, while browsing the natural history and science section of the town library, I found a simple yellow covered publication, "The Baldwin's Station Site and Its Environs." It turned out to be an archaeology monograph, which is a rare find in any public library, in part because people aren't interested, and in part because archaeologists like to protect sites from relic hunters. Anyway, these documents are heavy on data and light on story telling, but loaded with information if one likes that sort of thing.

I put in under the highway bridge on the lower Housatonic with the purpose of paddling to the Baldwin Site. I am quite familiar with the location having paddled by it a good many times, I just was unaware of its significance. I delayed my start an hour longer than I should have, for no reason other than to enjoy the morning. That put me behind the tide, which was whistling along beneath the bridges, enough that I hopped eddies from abutment to abutment to get upstream to where I cut to the far side. Then, I headed up between Carting and Peacock Islands, flushing a dozen Black Ducks and a pair of Wood Ducks. At the top of the islands, I spotted a mature Bald Eagle and somewhere in there flushed a couple Great Blue Herons. All in all, it is not a busy bird day.

The Baldwin Site is under the houses on the left. The ferry
dock would have been in the center of the photo

The Baldwin Site lies on the east side of the river, just upstream of the top of Fowler Flat (island). The "Baldwin" name goes back to before 1800, but I don't know anything other than that. At one time, it was commonly known as Baldwin's Crossing or Baldwin's Station, and this usage is Civil War era. There is a railroad a bit over 300 yards inland and in the mid 1800's this was Baldwin's Station. It was a flag stop where passengers would flag a coming locomotive and the engineer would stop to pick them up. Baldwin's Crossing was an associated ferry landing where train passengers could get a ride across the river to or from Stratford. The site is a gently sloping shelf of bottom land, about 20 to 40 feet above the river. During the 20th century, it has been a dairy farm and a tree farm, with some plowed fields. It became a housing development starting in 1999. A last note, "Baldwin's" appears on topographic maps as late as 1960 - a disembodied name without attachment to any map feature carried over from previous maps where it had meaning. It has been dropped from the most recent topographic series.

1960 USGS topographic map

The real meat of the Baldwin Site is that it had some artifacts that can be dated to more than 4000 years ago. There have been two archaeology surveys of the site, one in the 1950's and the other in the 1990's (from which the publication comes). The artifacts are include stone points, scrapers, awls, fishing net weights, pottery, adornment items. The 1950 excavation also located 49 hearths and a dog burial. 

Stone wall near the ferry landing

I hoped that I might find some remains of a ferry stop. I found an old stone wall in the right location, but as I continued, I found more of the wall - too much more of the wall. The wall is a river defense and probably dates to when there was a farm. 

A side effect of reading the report is that I now know of the Eagle Hill Ridge Site, which is located somewhere on the high ground near the Wheeler Marsh. It is no surprise that there was a village sized site in the area, but now I have a rough idea of the location. "Eagle Hill" does not appear on any maps that I have seen, so I have to go with the obvious lay of the land in that area.