Saturday, October 23, 2021

Last of the Late Starts

I tinkered the morning away thinking about where to go and whether or not I should wait for the tide to come in.  Finally, I loaded up and headed inland to fresh water away from the tides.  The day was partly cloudy with a light wind out of the north and temperatures that would not top 60F.  

I put in on the small cove.  A dozen cars with roof racks telegraphed the presence of the "dreaded" kayak club.  Somewhere out there was an aimless fleet of chattering dippers.  Hopefully, they had a good long head start on me.

Many of the trees are changing color - perhaps half have changed.  It is a hardwood forest and the color shift is vibrant.  I head straight out across the main river, down to the point and up the Shephaug.  I follow the shore closely noting many old beaver cuts.  In fact, I don't spot any fresh cuts - all the stumps are well aged.  I spook a Great Blue Heron every once in awhile, but otherwise there are few birds.  But the colors in the trees are excellent.

For the first time, I go ashore where the old railroad bed emerges from the reservoir.  Up until 1940 there was a railroad connecting the coast with Litchfield.  It ran down the cove where I started, crossed the Housatonic, and then weaved its way along the Shephaug.  It must have been a beautiful train trip.  The rail bed is pretty obvious.  It looks like the best farm road in the world - old farm roads are common in the forests, but this one is as smooth as a new bicycle trail due to the well made bed where the rails once were and, since it wasn't a road, it has rarely if ever, seen wheeled vehicles like wagons or cars.  There are no ruts or potholes or elevation changes other than the very slight uphill grade along the river.

Old rail bed
I return to my canoe and head up to the stone culvert that let a small creek pass under the rails. A few of the kayak clubbers pass by.  The water is a foot or so higher than normal - obvious to me when I see the culvert entrance.

The kayak club has successfully scattered themselves all over, which defeats the safety in numbers idea that seems to be the reason for most people to paddle in a club.  Second to last, is a furiously paddling guy in an expensive canoe.  Last is a spherical guy in a red jacket paddling a kayak that is blaring music which sounds to me like a bad cover of 1980's U2 stuff.  I don't get this at all - you'd think the club would've have drowned that goofball by now.  

I mess around with the culvert for ten or fifteen minutes.  There's enough water on the far end to turn the canoe before paddling out.  

I don't pass the tail end of the kayak herd until the confluence with the Housatonic. I give everyone a once over to see if they're okay. The furiously paddling guy in the expensive canoe must be the leader and seems rather competent.  He is hanging with two people on paddleboards who are tired and slow, but still chattering away.  Everyone else in the club has ditched them...nice bunch.  

I take out at 4pm.  That's getting too late for this time of year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Break Time

Last week was pretty windy and I hiked instead of canoeing.  Then, I managed to get bit by a Lyme tick, so a day of visiting the doctor and picking up my 3-week dose of antibiotics, and some more wind, kept me out of the canoe for awhile. 

I headed out to a little group of islands in the Housatonic.  The tide had been quite high but was more than an hour into ebbing, so the current under the highway and rail bridges was damn near whistling.  I eddy hopped the bridge abutments upstream and then ferried across the hasty current.  The islands, Long, Peacock, Carting, and Pope's Flat - on old maps a few of the islands are called "flats".  They are all low salt marsh islands, covered mostly with spartina, especially now that the government has eradicated the invasive non-native phragmites that had taken hold.  These islands are very rarely flooded, which is the condition where phragmites can out-compete spartina.

Anyway, this area was one of the first that I canoed in simply because it was right there.  Today, there are a few Great Blue Herons and some Ducks - it's pretty quiet.  

I run a figure-8 up and through the islands and then ride a stiff current back. It felt good to be in the canoe.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Beaver Dam Hopscotch

I put in at the top, which is the only option since the pandemic.  The lower put-in for this section of the river is on private school land and they closed off access for safety reasons.  This inconvenience for myself is a benefit for the swamp as a great amount of re-wilding has been going on with the big drop in casual visitors.  In fact, due to a big log jam at the midpoint, I haven't been in the lower three miles for almost two years and I doubt that hardly anyone else has either.

The water is high as in something normal for May, but not October.  

As soon as I'm in the water, I hear voices up ahead.  Just 150 yards in is a brand new beaver dam, and three guys in rec kayaks wrestling with crossing it.  This explains the high water.  I cruise up to the dam, hop out onto it, slide the canoe over, and hop back in.  Kayaks are poorly suited for beaver country.  It's just too difficult to get up onto a beaver dam from the Barcalounger.  The second new dam appears just 50 yards later.  The third is a hundred yards more, but it's an easy slide over.  The first log crawl comes less than 600 yards from the put-in.  The swamp's people filter is set on extra-high.

A well maintained lodge

After that, the route opens up, as usual, and it is spectacular, as usual.  Many of the swamp tree leaves are turning orange and yellow although it seems that much of the color is from vines wrapped around dead snags. The forests on the distant sides of the valley are still quite green. Cattail spears are turning tan and most of the cattails have burst open. Most of the lower shrubs are still green.  I flush a Great Blue Heron every once in awhile, but otherwise it is a bird quiet day.

About a mile in, I come to another log crossing.  

The fourth or fifth beaver dam

After that, it is easy open paddling down to the bridge at the midpoint.  This area has been a mess of downed trees for a couple years and today it is worse.  Two large trees have come down upstream of the old bridge.  In part to make the trip last a bit longer, I pull out my bow saw and cut a gap 20 feet into the new deadfalls.  I can't tell how much weight is on the next cut, so I back out  That cut should be done when there is someone else around, just in case.  Hopefully, the new saw cuts will encourage someone else to clear a bit more.

The return is an easy cruise, perhaps somewhat more spectacular with the sun behind me.  I find the three guys at the third beaver dam... wrestling.  I wait out of sight.  They're having enough fun all by themselves given the use of flowery language.  Once they're clear of the gap in the dam, I speed up through it, exchange pleasantries, and move on.  They're having a good day, making more work out of it than necessary, but still having fun.  They should finish the last 400 yards... in about 2 more hours.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Spirits and Demons

This was the first morning that our house's furnace turned on.  It's the best season of the year.

I put in just down from the four span truss bridge.  It's the only bridge over this part of the river for many miles in either direction.  I suppose it keeps the riff-raff away.

I headed upstream.  The weather service predicted light variable winds.  They were variable right in my face and they weren't exactly what I call light.  It didn't seem like I would make my objective, which was about six miles upstream.  But, just as it started to build to grimness, I would find myself in some little dimple of shoreline and the wind would die...  just long enough for me to think it wasn't so bad.  This repeats several times.

It is a beautiful autumn day with dense puffs of cumulus clouds in a sharp blue sky. I spook a few Great Blue Herons, getting close enough that I don't see them until they fly.  There are also some Mallards and Common Mergansers, but this is not a river for great bird watching.  This is a river for losing oneself in the paddling.  It's a march of distance, perhaps peering up into the forest, but mostly it is steady motion that lets thoughts drift in, bounce around, and maybe melt away, or not.
Lovers' Leap

I showed some friends a sculpture that I had made of a Huldre.  The Huldre is the female of the hidden people in Norway.  She lures men away; she is the folklore explanation for someone that has gone into the forest and never returned.  She looks nothing like my own forest spirits, but it is the best I could do for the uninitiated in such things.  My own forest spirits are voices only. I am well aware that the spirits are inside me and not "out there."  It's just that it takes some real time in a forest to have that stuff surface - I can count on one hand with fingers to spare the number of times it has happened.  Anyway, I spend the next hour thinking about spirits (good) and demons (bad).  My demons are "out there."  In fact they're real people that I once worked with, so to speak.  It occurs to me that the reason they are demons, to others as well as myself no doubt, is because they have no spirit.  I think about the demons and realize that they are all surface and no interior.  When I think about who they were, I notice that they spent all their efforts on how they appeared to others.  They would've have been terrified of spirits. They were good at making other people miserable.

The wind dies off as I get farther upstream.  I hope that this is a lay-of-the-land effect and not a change in the weather.  I turn at the mouth of Lover's Leap.  The wind gradually picks up as I head down.  I have to look at the map and study the hills to figure out how they can make that much difference.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Short Day

It was already raining when I set out from the Eagle Scout launch.  I planned on a short trip up to the class 1 rapids below the dam - just a bit of practice eddy hopping and playing with currents.  The rain was light, but the clouds quite dark.  There was one rumble of thunder as I started, but it was "over there" - outside of the valley.  I paddled about 10 minutes upstream.  There was an excellent X-shaped bolt of lightning up ahead.  I counted the seconds - less than a mile away.  And, I turned around and called it a day.

Monday, September 27, 2021


I put in under the big bridge.  It's a nice day, a bit windy, but cool and mostly sunny.  Low tide has just passed, but it was not a particularly low low tide and even now I should be able to get through most of the marsh.  In any case, this is the time to get stuck in the mud as all one has to do is sit and wait for the water to rise.

I paddle down river and take a counter-clockwise route around the marsh.  There are quite a few Great Egrets, which gets me to thinking.  I spend most of the trip thinking about how ornithologists statistically account for the "spotability" of different birds.  

I have good enough vision and some people that paddle with me think that I am eagle-eyed.  But, what is really going on is that I am visually tuned in to spotting stuff in the outdoors - it's nothing more than practice and use of the senses.  I recognize certain shapes or telltale movements just because I've seen them so often.  One day, pointing out a far off Osprey to my mother in-law, she asked, "how do you know that that is an Osprey?"  I replied, "because that is what an Osprey looks like."

Back to Great Egrets, I figure that I can spot a Great Egret at about 600 yards.  They're bright white and mostly stand vertical - it's easy.  A Great Blue Heron, I probably spot those at about 300 yards.  But, there is a big difference.  If and Egret is standing still and in the open at less than, say 300 yards, I'm going to always spot it - always.  But, some Great Blue Herons, which are better camouflaged, aren't spotted until I'm 30 or 40 yards away.  The idea here, is that if you are out spotting birds, you are going to spot most of the Great Egrets, but a lower percentage of Great Blue Herons.  

Juvenile Night Heron

Then we get into the problem of hard to spot birds.  Egrets and Herons are pretty easy to spot if they are standing still, but some birds, like Willets and Sandpipers are much more difficult to spot unless they move.  A moving Willet is easy at nearly a hundred yards, but if it decides to stand I might get within 10 yards before it scares and gives itself away.  Then there's the Piping Plover.  Those little magicians with their feathers that match sand, shells and pebbles are invisible from ten feet away if they don't move - and they're not an easy spot when they run (which is one of the reason they are threatened - their nests get run over by beach walkers and loose dogs).  
Black Bellied Plover

And to make it more complicated, it occurred to me that if someone was counting birds from the Audubon Center near the marsh, their bird count of Night Herons just went up by a factor of five because of me because I flushed a lot more of them than were visible. The juvenile Night Herons were feeding in the lower corner of the marsh, as usual and they would have been unseen until they took flight.

Bad photo of a Harrier - but it is a photo of a Harrier

Anyway, I get to Milford Point, then head up Nell's channel where I get to watch a Harrier do its thing, take a diagonal back to the lower corner, and turn up the east edge of the marsh.  I find the secret passage the we found on our last trip in here - it is harder to find from this direction - just point the canoe into a minimal gap in the spartina and hope it's the right minimal gap.  I'm especially fond of "secret garden" passages - narrow little pointless dead end openings that actually open up into something big and grand.  This one opens up into a long diagonal route across the marsh that no one would suspect exists.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Half Day

I set out again from North Cove in Essex.  This time, I headed straight out through narrow gap in the barrier bar to the big river.  It is an exceptionally fine day, clear sky, calm air, and mid 70's.  The big boats will be out today, but not until after brunch.

As I turn upriver along the near shore, a Coopers Hawk flies by and perches in a tree, apparently to hang out with his six Crow buddies.  Another quarter mile along I find an immature Bald Eagle.

When I get even to the bottom of Selden Island, I cut across the river and head up the channel.  It's nice and quiet with nothing else to report except that I find a tidewater beaver dam.  Similar to the dam in Salmon Cove, there is no stream flow to be backed up by this dam. This section of the river is still tidal and the dam seems to catch and hold high tide water.  There's about a half foot differential in water heights and one very well used drag.  I spot several Kingfishers - the minnow hunting seems to be good.

Tidewater beaver dam

At the top the channel I turn and follow the island until even with Eustasia Island where I cross over to the west side.  I return following the west shore. The last hour is a rough ride as the Mai Tai Navy has set sail; a bunch of A-type personalities trying to beat each other to the nearest dockside bar.