Thursday, January 13, 2022

Finally, the Weather Lets Up


A calm and warm day showed up after a good solid two weeks of windy days with rain or snow that made canoeing out of the question. I put in on the big river as the tide is halfway to low.  I cross over to the far side, just for a change, and I follow the shoreline except when I have to paddle out around docks or give the oyster boats some room to work.  It is a fine winter day and birds, oyster boats, and one canoe make up all of the river traffic.


Hooded Mergansers

 Several Common Loons are in the middle of the river taking advantage of the current while they feed.  At the point just inside the river's mouth, where it necks down quite a bit, I cross back over and enter the marsh.  It is clear that hunting season is over as there are a few good sized flocks of Canada Geese and Buffleheads.  I can't round the marsh with the tide dropping, so I head for Nell's Channel.  I spot a total of six Hawks - two are definitely Harriers, one is definitely not a Harrier, and the other three are too far off to identify. Add a pair of Coots and a pair of Hooded Mergansers seen in the channel.


We had six inches of snow a week ago, but it came down dry, cold, and dusty, so the spartina is still standing proud in the marsh. There is some tidal cake ice floating around. Six inches of snow turns into a heavy three inch thick layer of ice when the tide comes up and soaks in.  I've learned not to bump the stuff at any speed as it can be fairly heavy.

The current is slack when I get to the top of the marsh, but it picks up again as I get upriver above the head of the tide.  Still, it's not bad at all considering that this section of the big river can run about 4 mph.

Friday, December 31, 2021


I do the 200 yard portage from the house down to the sound and put in at the base of the neighborhood's seawall.  It is foggy and calm with the temperature in the mid 40's.  High tide passed about an hour ago and only the big seven foot boulder shows above the surface. 

I head towards the town's harbor, which is about an hour away by canoe or by foot.  The visibility is about a 1/4 mile or less.  The in-the-house plan of circling Charles Island is put away as it is a mile off shore and at this tide level I might not be able to follow the submerged tombolo (a  type of sand bar).  Still, these are the best conditions for paddling the town shoreline because if sky is clear the trip dissolves into a tour of waterfront houses that are mostly built in the wrong places.

The mouth of Milford Harbor

There is a very low swell - maybe only an inch or so.  I would not notice it except that with nothing for the eyes to focus on, the other senses kick in.  The swell is probably the almost dead wake of a boat that passed by a half hour ago and two or three miles off shore.  Nearing Pond Point, I hear the industrial motor of an oyster boat somewhere well out in the fog.  As I round the point the motor is closer and behind me.  The clatter of oysters being dropped on steel signals that the boat is in its allotment.

At Welch's Point, the visibility drops to a hundred yards.  I'm seeing a fair number of Red Breasted Mergansers and Brandts.  I hear some other birds flying away, but they're able to see my shadowy figure before I can see them.

Oops.  I was using my paddle as a coffee table while writing my notes, and when I grabbed my paddle to push me away from the shoreline oysters, my cup went into the water.  Fortunately, the water is only two feet deep and I can reach in and retrieve it.  Anyway, I cornered a Common Loon as I drifted into the mouth of the harbor - not intentionally, of course.  Loons just like a huge safety buffer.  This one flies off instead of the more usual submerged swimming evasion.  The takeoff run is seven or eight canoe lengths - over a hundred feet.  That is why Loons cannot take off from dry land.

Common Loon of of Pond Point

Charles Island is just poking through the fog when I start heading home.  I find a Loon near Pond Point and a second one near the west end of Morningside.  I'm pretty sure that these spots have some tidal current - most of the Loons that I see here seem to be taking advantage of tidal currents.

Long Tail Drake

I can hear the Long Tail Ducks calling from the fog when I take out and start the portage up the hill.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Quiet Winter Day

I put in on the big river being thankful for a reasonably warm day with just a light wind out of the west.  The clouds peel back just as I set out and the sun feels good after a few days of light cold rain and gray overcast.

When I get down to the top of the marsh, I head in along the shoreline channel that circles it all.  The tip of Cat Island is the point of no return.  I still have six inches of depth, but it is about a half mile until I get back to predictably deeper water.  If I keep going and have to turn back, I probably can't get out until the tide comes in - that would be a chilly four hour long sit as the mud in here is rather bottomless.  

I head up the inner channel of Nell's Island.  It's quiet and calm with no birds to note until I get to the bottom of the channel.  At good distance I spot a smallish Hawk.  Watching it skim the spartina, I ID it as a Harrier.  

I cross the main river to the west side and follow it back up river.  

It was a nice paddle with not too much to note.  I saw 3 Common Loons, a few Mallards, a few Buffleheads, some Black Ducks,  four Mergansers, and at least a hundred Gulls.  That's a quiet day in the Wheeler.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Checking on the Housing

It's been a bit over two months since I put in here and it seemed like a good time to return and check on how the inhabitant's housing.  The summer seemed hard on the beaver in this area.  We had some high water in the Connecticut River that lasted unusually long.  The term in these parts is, "freshet", which is simply a minor flood event.  As the Connecticut is 450 miles long with the source in Quebec, major rain events can send a good pulse of water our way.  A good six feet of river level increase isn't unusual at all. When that happens, the tributaries like the Mattabesset back up and become well flooded but without any real current. Back in July, we had a freshet that lasted about two weeks.  The water in the Mattabesset was higher than I'd ever seen with the forest bottoms flooded enough that I paddled through it without risk of hitting bottom with the blade of my paddle.  As I paddled the area I found the beaver out of their lodges, which were, of course, completely flooded.  My marker lodge, a perfect six-foot tall cone that I call the Tepee Lodge, was submerged except for the top twelve inches.  

Red-Breasted  Woodpecker

I put in behind where the old tavern once stood.  The water was high, but not unusually so.  The day was sunny and nearing 50 degrees with a light north wind - good paddling weather for December.  I soon passed a guy speeding upriver in an outrigger canoe.  

The first beaver sign came at the first big bend.  Quite a few trees showed gnawing about the bases.  In short order, I spotted a small bank burrow.  Besides the common conical lodges, beaver will also build bank burrows by tunneling into the bank.  The entrance is below water and doesn't show, but they build a loose branch pile over the lodge's vent hole.  It looks quite like someone dumped some tree trimmings.  Bank burrows sometimes become conical burrows when beaver drag branches to the water, a process that might eventually excavate a small canal. 

Tepee colony's temporary summer bank burrow

The replacement Tepee Lodge
I found the Tepee Lodge in a state of collapse, a two foot high circular pile of branches.  I had wondered if the beaver colony would repair it, and of course, they did not.  But, three canoe-lengths upstream was a brand new lodge almost identical in shape and size and showing the winter fortification of recently packed mud.  Right across the river was a bank burrow with the entrance clearly exposed about 2-feet above the water level.  This was built during the long freshet of this summer, but with the water returning to normal and the entrance open to predators, it was no longer safe to use, hence the new lodge.


New Tepee Lodge to the left with the old lodge to the right

In the open marsh, I spotted a mature Bald Eagle, two medium sized Hawks, a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Harrier, and several large muskrat lodges.  Woodpeckers outnumber any other birds in the forested sections.

I had one last lodge to check on up in the Coginchaug River.  As I rounded the first bend I met another guy out paddling.  He lives in the area and we traded some observations for a good fifteen minutes. 

The Coginchaug Big Lodge

This summer I found a large lodge being built just short of the railroad bridge over the Coginchaug.  Today, it was a full six-feet tall and about twenty feet in diameter.  Like the new Tepee Lodge, this lodge had been well packed with winter mud and a trail of beaver tracks up onto the lodge showed that they were still working.  In the water next to the lodge was the beginning of a winter food supply.  In cold climates that might ice over, beaver stick branches into the mud near the lodge.  Then, if the ice is froze over, they can feed by retrieving that submerged winter stash without having to venture on the ice where they are easy prey.

Friday, December 10, 2021

The Edge of Winter

It is a gray day, but a calm gray day.  I set out downriver with the low tide an hour past.  The flood current is insignificant.  I pass a Great Blue Heron, push a small flock of Mallards along, and see six Common Loons.  The Loons are all well out in mid channel and well spaced out, but at canoe eye level, the silhouette is unmistakable.

Nell's Channel
I enter the marsh at Nell's Channel, the only open way in at low tide.  The built world disappears for most of that distance behind the salt marsh horizon - three feet of mud bank topped with three feet of golden cord grass.  A pair of Harriers fly by with one trailing the other by about a hundred yards.  I wonder if it is a hunting tactic - the second bird arriving just as prey thinks it is safe to move.  I pass by three Dunlin feeding on exposed silt and at the end of the channel is a lone Gadwall.

At the bottom of  Nell's Channel, I turn into the marsh.  The water has come up just enough to make passage although I run myself into a large dead end.  I'm a bit surprised about that as I know this end of the marsh well and it just isn't that difficult to find the route.  Another Harrier comes by, this time much closer, but still too quick for a photograph.

It has been cloudy and gray up to this point.  Then, one of the best two minutes of canoeing arrives.  The low winter sun burns through the clouds, in a second the night chilled marsh becomes warm and the cord grass begins to glow.  There's nothing I can do but set my paddle down and watch.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Don't Do Something Stupid

 It is only 35 degrees when I put in, but the wind is barely registering - decent winter paddling if you don't do something stupid.

The harbor is quiet with the oyster boats already out in the sound and no one else around except for a couple marina workers hauling out yachts.  As a result, the harbor is active with wildlife - ten Great Blue Herons, forty Buffleheads, a dozen Mallards and two Common Loons before I get to open water.  There is skim ice in the calmest areas of the harbor.  

I decided that today was a good day to make my annual pilgrimage to Charles Island - the Mt. Rainier of Milford.  Less than a mile off shore, one can walk to it at low tide on a bar called a tombolo.  A tombolo bar is created by waves wrapping around an island.  If you time the tide correctly, you can walk out, circle the island, and walk back without getting your feet wet.  Time it wrong and you get to sit on the island waiting for the next low tide.  Every couple of years someone drowns out there, either trying to wade back across the tombolo and getting carried off by the tide or flipping a canoe or kayak with their PFD securely stuffed in the bottom of the boat where it is absolutely of no use.

Charles Island with the tombolo leading out

At the mouth of the harbor, I turn right and follow the shore in calm water.  Although I'm 150 yards from the beach, I'm in 2 to 3 feet of water most of the time - if you flip a canoe in freezing water, it is nice if you can just stand up and get back in the boat, or walk to dry land.  Winter paddling is all about having a plan B... and a plan C and D.  On this route, if necessary, I can actually walk/tow the canoe from any point back to the harbor as long as I don't get blown away from shore. So, I follow the shore over to the tombolo, then I'll follow the tombolo out to the island, circle the island and return the way I came.  

With the dropping tide the shore birds are feeding all along the newly exposed sections of the bar.  It is mostly a mix of Sandpipers, Gulls, and Brandts.  I do a short lift over the bar and into the windward water.  The wind has come up and there is a good chop developing on that side.  I keep moving as the conditions are changing and by the time I've rounded the little island there is a good wind in my face getting back to the bar.  The calm water is gone, but the bar reduces the waves to "not much".  But, it is a big angle crab along the bar as I paddle back to the shore.  Then it is an almost casual drift with the wind back to the harbor.  It was definitely time to not be on big water.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Elwood P. Dowd

 Calm air, autumn sun, and a perfectly timed tide put me into my favorite small river, again.

I pass two kayakers as I head into the Neck River.  The first says, "Glorious day," his way of saying something when he doesn't know what to say.  His buddy tells me in a perfect New Jersey accent to watch out for the alligator.  I'm not worried as the alligator only eats peoples senses of humor.  As much as I put down the "glorious day" comment, it dominates my thoughts for the next half hour.

From the Neck, I head up Bailey Creek and into the Sneak, my usual route when the tide permits.  It is a glorious day and I think back to try to remember a day when I was outdoors that wasn't glorious.  This is an Elwood P. Dowd (look him up) moment... "nice day"... "they always are."  I can't think of day outdoors that wasn't at some point, glorious.  Freezing cold, rain, wind, or a night at 12,000 ft under a boulder in a snowstorm without a sleeping bag...scary, but glorious and unforgettable.  I finally figure out that this is just a ordinary day.

The light is perfect today, low and filtered.  Good photos are easy, but watercolors are what is needed to get the full effect.  The spartina is gold, the water near smooth, and half of the trees still hold onto rust colored leaves.  I flush a dozen Black Ducks as I get up through the Sneak and spot another thirty flying farther off - well out of scare distance. 

I keep going when I get to the little bridge at Bear House Hill Road.  The next half mile only works at high tide and often requires some brush bashing or limbo dancing.  A Hawk trades stares with me for awhile.  I turn at the next bridge knowing that it is just wading above that.

I see a guy paddling a small motorboat with an oar.  He beaches it at the little bridge and inspects his propeller.  He is about 400 yards higher up than he should be and I imagine that he hit one of the large boulders that dance just below the surface.  Eventually, he catches up with me.  His boat sounds like a distant B-17 bomber, a deep thrumming, which might be due to a bent prop.

I get surprised by a Great Blue Heron as I return down Bailey Creek.  The feeding must be good as I am well within a Heron's scare distance before I see it.