Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mapping - Day 2

For no good reason I alter my portage route down to the south lagoon. Half way there, I hear from behind, "something something canoe," and I know that I am being hailed. There is a woman, who has just run out of her house and would like to take my photo. Then we talk about my project briefly until the cold finally drives her back into the house.

It is cold and clear with the sky a true tone blue and a low winter sun vividly lighting the world that I can see. It is the inside of an unshaken snow globe with everything clear, crisp and in sharp focus. The thought, "too pretty to be natural" comes up, but I shove it back down to where it came from, a place in the past where we were taught that man and nature were separate.

A trail running up the tiny "rockpile"island draws me over, but the tracks are indistinct. From here, dark and dense flocks of ducks and coots stretch out northeasterly with the constancy of widgeon wheezing drifting across the water top.

Rounding the north point I find a hawk in tree. And, as I move along the north marsh, I hear the call of a river otter. I stop and I find four or five, three of which are adolescent pups (I don't see more than four at any one time).

I head into the NE lagoon to continue my survey. It is slow work, mapping another island which needs to be accurate as I will be sighting some long distances off of it. I also take time to remove some of yesterdays plastic survey tape, once that I am sure that I won't need to sight off of those points anymore.

When satisfied with the plotting of the lagoon entrance and the north railroad island, I head out finding two trumpeter swans on the dirtberg. They show up most often when the weather is particularly cold. I try not to bother them and continue out into the big lake and downwind to the Harrison portage.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I use the Harrison portage to get into the big lake on a gray day with a light north wind.

I paddle the mile and a half north and follow the east shore of Union Bay towards the NE lagoon (Yesler Swamp). The coots and ducks are positioned most of the way across the bay, and since it is still early, I keep a close eye out for the eagles. They should still be hunting unless they were very lucky. But, I don't a single eagle anywhere in the bay until one soars 30 feet over my bow. It is on a hunt and goes almost all of the way to the burial island where it makes two circles and gives up, returning to a perch in a nearby evergreen. I spot a second eagle farther up the shore, also in an evergreen, but with its head down quite often. This is not hunting mode and I suspect that it has something in its talons that I am unable to see from any angle that I try. There are no feathers in the water below, so it may be mammal.

I think that this is the male from the North nest. The first mentioned eagle was much larger. Females tend to be larger than males.

I brought my map making gear today, and I make a survey of the lagoon. I can only do this in dry weather, and so this is a rare day to spend a few hours getting the project started. With the low water, I first set up on the muddy island in the lagoon, plotting its edges and locating all of the old pilings from a long lost railroad pier. I find the remains of the dead Canada goose that I found a couple weeks ago. There are five concentrations of feathers mixed in with dozens of good quality raccoon tracks, who probably did most of the eating. Rusted iron parts stick out of the mud near the pilings. They are old railroad fittings. The few birds that were in here when I came have left and will not return until I leave. This tiny little pocket is a box canyon trap for birds, an easy place for a pick off as they can't just speed away, but have to climb up and over nearby brush.

Map making is a process of hyper awareness. Just the action causes the most minor of observations to be recorded in the mind as something important. I note that few of the pilings are in straight lines, although they should be. I find the carcass of a coot at one station, something that probably dropped from a nearby tree when the eagle had enough, and then was dragged here by something else. The beaver have been busy back in the usual corner, where there is a highway of beaver tracks leading to bare gnawed wood. As I leave for the day, an eagle comes in with something too small to recognize dangling from its talons.

It is late and I head straight across the bay for the east end of the ancient portage.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


It's a gray and calm day as me and S portage to the south lagoons. I point out the houses of people that I've met over the last two years, people that have come out of houses or taken a break from whatever they were doing to ask what I was doing. I think that S is a bit surprised to see me recite names and point at their houses.

the ne lagoon (aka yesler swamp)

We start in a little spot that is unfamiliar to S and then paddle through the south lagoons and around the burial island. There are lots of buffleheads and great blue herons around, and I work with S on how to tell the difference (from a distance) between bufflehead and a hooded merganser. The water is quite low and it is a slow paddle through the east marsh, a few inches of clear water with about a foot of soupy not-quite-mud stuff below. With each stroke, the bottom half of the blade disappears into the soupy stuff without any indication of earth.

It is quiet in the bay, eagles nowhere to be seen although we stop when we hear two calling from a distant unseen place. It seems that they have eaten, as the ducks and coots are as calm as ever in a big wide flock of a thousand that runs through the center of the bay.

We stop in the NE lagoon and explore a bit of new trailwork. I get a scolding from a steller's jay and we talk to a couple that has walked in from the road.

A modest wind comes up, chilly, and we paddle along the north shore and through the west islands diverting only to let S see some common mergansers up close.

It's Christmas, and I love having S in the canoe with me.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Long Day on a Short Day

It will be a long day if the weather doesn't say otherwise. A long day leaves little time for reflections, so much paddling to do and darkness not far enough off.

I do the Harvard portage to the dead lake, and then make a straight crossing for the Fremont canal, noting only that there are no birds on the lake except for a flock of gulls in the center. It is calm enough that I can see their preened feathers from a 100 yards.

a block of wayward foam and the Fremont Canal

At the canal I think about how the next 3/8 of a mile was once a narrow creek dropping 12 or 15 feet to the salt water of Salmon Bay. I spot two male common mergansers and a flock of 90 scaups.

At the end of the canal I enter the fresh water portion of Salmon Bay, now home to several large shipyards. I find the working water interesting, unlike the wastefulness of the boat parking lots of the dead lake. There is a reason for these shipyards to be here.

The weather is holding, so I head for the locks, positioning myself in plain view near the stop signal and waving my paddle a few times to make sure that I've been seen. A sailboat is coming up the lock. When it passes I am called in and I wait only 10 minutes for a toyship to enter. Then they lower us both, the lock tender warning me of the current that I will find when I exit.
A guy looks down asks me what I am hunting for...he is goofy, and disappointed when I tell him that I am just canoeing. He doesn't get it, but I doubt that his shoes ever see mud either. We are a world apart.

In the salt water, I immediately find several golden eyes, one of my favorites. An eagle sweeps past, a hundred gulls get up and fly as the current pushes my canoe past their bulkhead. At the mouth of the canal I find some red breasted mergansers, then the heads of two seals are spotted out in the kelp beds, and I find a second eagle perched in an a alder at the top of the bluffs that define this shoreline.
West Point

As I near the lighthouse at West Point, I spot a baby seal resting on the shore, waiting for its mother to return. It begins to move toward water, so I turn and paddle a great circle around it, never getting any closer than I already was, which wasn't too close anyway, and it stays put as I paddle away. I am orca sized.

I spot some buffleheads, some more golden eyes, and then, a dozen harlequin ducks near four mile rock. A third bald eagle, a very large one at that, soars past never beating its wings once in nearly a half mile. A fourth eagle sits in a tree.

I take out at interbay and portage north two miles to Fisherman's Terminal. It's late afternoon and the light is fading, the camera stays in the box from now on. Cormorants are returning to their night perches in the tall poplars that line the Fremont Canal. It is some entertainment to watch these gangly fliers land on thin, whippy branches with their webbed feet. They circle, and having picked a branch, come in for a landing, then more often as not, change their mind at the last minute, veering off and repeating the process. When they do land, its as if the heavy bird is sitting on the end of a fishing pole, the branch bowing and bouncing under the new weight.

Dusk comes as I cross the dead lake. Night comes as I do the final portage. Sleep will come all too easy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The One That Stands Alone

I start late, running the Harrison portage to the big lake and setting out in brilliant calm and clear conditions. It is tempting to make the two mile crossing to the far side of the big lake, but I decide not since there is not much to see along the's just big water.

I paddle north enjoying the speed at which the canoe moves through the flat water, light playing off of the small wake that arches out from the bow.

As I near the bay, I notice the smallest of rippling on the water out farther on the lake. In another hundred yards, the ripples have become the smallest of waves. When I reach the entrance to the bay, the waves are eight inches high and whitecaps have begun to form out in the big lake. I do the quarter mile crossing to the north side of the entrance, and the waves have grown to a foot tall, rolling under the canoe from the bow right quarter. It's very rare for weather to shift so quickly here in the northwest. Clouds and mare's tails behind me to the southwest show where the weather is.

Two eagles soar hundreds of feet above the the ridge that forms the east shore of the bay. Scattering ducks, a half mile out in mid bay might signal an eagle that my eyes can't detect.

I stop on the railroad island to watch a kingfisher, and both eagles from the north nest fly over. They are busy with the daily hunt, repositioning, scanning and figuring out their angle.

While eating my lunch, letting the wind push me into the north channel, I spot a lone cattail rooted on a small bog island, it's single brown pod standing tall and isolated. Always cheer for the one that stands alone. This is a different creature than the the one that stands apart and calls for others to join. This is the being that has a path, a purpose, and a reason. It stands alone not because it seeks solitude, but because the determination in it's path leads at times to places that others have not found.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Mile

I met four people on my portage to the south lagoon. The first, a nice guy walking his dog talks with me for a good fifteen minutes. The second, I come across on the trail and he keeps his eyes down, says nothing, and his body language says that I should do the same. The third compliments me on my canoe, but we don't talk, so I don't know if he knows what he is talking about. The fourth nods as I nod and we pass. That gets me to the lagoon.

It is a windy day, but with a south wind the marsh is fairly calm.

There is 3 or 4 extra inches of water here. The heavy rains of this week fill the massive lake system faster than the dam in Ballard can release it. But, this little extra water means that I can go into some of the little passages and beaver canals that run through the marsh.

I stop in the portion of the east marsh that is attached to the burial island. I've never seen anyone else in here, and when there is enough water, I will bring friends in. It is a push and wiggle to get the canoe through the cattail barrier. I even push with one foot scooter style. I want to document this place, but feel totally inadequate for the job. This little cattail island is a secret garden...most people only see the cattail wall that forms the outside.

They might notice the beaver lodge, which is the lowliest hovel in the neighborhood, really not a pretty beaver lodge. Once inside, in the center, one finds that the cattails have given way to a beautiful patch of sedges, which are lower than the cattails and for some reason make me think of the place as a peaceful spot. There are a few struggling trees, subsisting on soil that can't quite be called earth.

The beaver come in here and gnaw them down, so that there are dozens of foot high rounded stumps all lined up on the root system as if they were someone's garden gnome collection. Soon, the state will build a poorly designed and expensive bridge through here, a short term solution for a society in deep denial. It will make it temporarily convenient for someone to live forty miles from where they work. No one can argue with thinking like that...

When it is time to go, I work my way out and skirt the edges of the islands so closely that I bump the submerged logs several times.

After about two and half hours, when I take out at the east end of the crossing over place, I have traveled less than one mile, on the map.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Among the Workboats

I run the Harvard Portage to the dead lake. But, before I even leave the house, I talk with a woman who tells me how her and her sister built a wood and canvas boat kit and paddled it for years near their home in Montana. I trade her some Yakima River stories from this spring. I love how my canoe can trigger long held and powerful memories and how willing so many people are to share them with me.

The newspaper lady at the drugstore greets me with the usual hoarse laugh and giant smile. We are both busy, but have time for a better than casual greeting, and then I move on.

I cut northwesterly across the lake with a light wind on my left. Breaks in the dark clouds make for a dramatic sky backdrop when sun strikes the sides of boats in the water. Amazing, it always amazes me, how little bird life there is on this lake.

When I get to the Government Canal (Fremont Canal), I find a current flowing west at a full 1-1/2 knots. Three inches of rain from the past days draining into many square miles of lake has turned this placid canal into a minor river for the time being.

I spend a good hour at Fishermen's Terminal, capturing video for a project. There is a distant rainbow to the north while I photograph the fishermen's memorial. I love the sight of the working boats, masts, poles, lines clutter the near sky above their decks and superstructure. There is nothing casual, nothing superficial, nothing clear or easy to understand about them. They are complicated working boats. When I showed them earlier to friends from the midwest, I could explain only the basic purpose and operations. So much of the details are on the job training only.
The current in the canal makes for a energetic return trip. Near the Foss shipyard, a drydock has been towed out in mid-canal and the safety boat sends me to the north side, away from tugboat prop wash and the lines that hold the massive structure in position. As I paddle away, the drydock has settled far enough into the canal that the fishing boat inside can be pulled out.

The portage home, back the way I came, is in a light rain. The front has arrived.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Greyscale, Rain and Green

I walk the Harrison trail to the big lake taking my brimmed four-dent hat for the rain that will likely come.

It is very calm, but it would be a black and white day were this most other places in the north, places where snow lies on the ground and in the tree branches. But, here in the northwest, where we seldom have snow, the color green is added to the greyscale tones. My paddle, with its red design on one side of the blade stands out like a flare in a night sky.

When I get to the bay, I spot an eagle in an evergreen perch. There is a second eagle farther north in another evergreen. The honk of a Canada goose draws my eyes to shore and I find an otter rolling around on a low floating dock. It slinks off and while I wait for it to reappear, which it never does, I spot a great blue heron on the shore. Movement in the water to my right is a pair of pied billed grebes. A sprinkle turns into a steady sprinkle with all quiet and still except for the tapping of raindrops.

As I move north, I find that there are two eagles where I though that there had been one, and two more perched and shitting on the peak of an obnoxious boat house. I think for a moment that I might like to shit on it also.

So that is five eagles here today, all facing the bay, waiting for the hunt. I grab the last tire from railroad islands and head for my dump site. A small island of mud near that spot has played host to many green winged teal this winter. I don't remember seeing so many in earlier winters, but there are usually a dozen or so here. As I leave this area I notice that the beaver from the west lodge have been working the nearby trees over quite well. It's good to see. The sprinkle has become rain.

There are two dozen common mergansers in the crossing under place, moving past me to the east as I head into Portage Bay. At the takeout, above the beaver lodge is an immature eagle, making six for the day. It is raining hard.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Beauty of It All

My portage to the lake takes longer than usual today. I meet several people along the way, the last an old friend on a bike ride and we talk for 15 minutes or so.

A warm front has come in with wind and some rain showers. The marsh doesn't feel like the winter marsh today, instead, the cattails and grasses and leafless trees reflect a soft and glowing warmth. It seems to be a most comfortable place to be.

I find a recently downed tree while edging along the bank. It is beaver work and textbook beaver work at that. The trunk has been cut with near perfect symmetry and most of the bark has been removed leaving 1/4 inch wide tooth marks. It is fine enough handiwork that I take the time to get out of the canoe and admire it.

I cross the bay to the railroad island and retrieve a very old car tire that I found there a few trips ago. I find another tire but leave it for an excuse for another trip. Once I drop the tire, in the usual spot, I head into the corner of the marsh, a place I don't often visit, a muddy and grubby little nook. And, I watch the cattails wiggle in the breeze and wait as the last sun for the day fades behind a wall of clouds, the warm marsh moving back towards winter.
The beauty of it all...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Everything Today

On my portage to the dead lake, I stop to talk with the woman that sells newspapers in front of the drug store. She always has a few minutes for me and her smile and laugh is as good a guide as the best of compasses. I cannot resist stopping to talk with her, ever. She tells me that the weather is about to change because the birds are nowhere to be seen. She might be right. I just wish that more people took the time to notice such things. The unimportant is so important.

The dead lake is calm. There is only enough wind to shake the surface of the water without making waves.

A rain shower passes as I work north paddling past Palazzo del Dorko, the most ridiculous of house boats, and the armada of parked toy ships.

A single pair of running shoes, arranged carefully on the low dock of a rowing club signals that there is a single rower in a shell somewhere out there.

I get to Portage Bay and I have forgotten what I intended to do today.

A rain shower returns while I am in the crossing-under-place. The common mergansers that always congregate at the east end move away from me while the Or Noir, some 75 feet of smoking plastic yacht passes to my right (I always paddle the wrong side of the canal so that I can look the toy ship drivers eye to eye). I steer well clear of the cormorant tree because their exhaust is much worse than the worst of diesel fumes. And a splot-splatter to my left shows that my course was well chosen.

I remember that I planned on retrieving another car tire from the marsh.

An eagle is perched on the birch island, one of the north nesters, maybe the large female. I beach in the mud on the edge of broken island, a good place to watch from. An otter appears on a log under the eagle. After a few minutes it begins swimming my way, but what seemed to be one otter turns out to be two. No, three. A whistling peep starts and I find a fourth back on the log. It continues to peep until the other three return.

I decide to follow the otters, knowing that I will also disturb the eagle. As often happens, the eagle takes wing and uses the forced movement to hunt coots. I surprise the otters at the north end of #2 island.

I dig an old tire from the shallows and drop it at the usual spot.

I meet a teacher from a local school as I take out. He's seen me portage past his classroom a few times. We talk a few moments, he continues his run, I start my portage.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I start in a place that the city hasn't improved, a shoreline with a steep bank and a greasy mud surface. There is a little thin layer of ice in parts of the south lagoon and I paddle along the south facing shore up next to the bare birch trees, stunted by the beaver and the less than ideal soil. The winter sun warms anything that lies up against winter birches. Not just here, but anywhere.

There are several new beaver scent mounds in the east channel. They are still just muddy smears on rocks or high spots, but the smear trailing from the water shows that it is the beaver. One of the mounds is topped with a golf ball, and it is not the first time that I have seen this. By chance, pure chance, I spot a small woodpecker overhead, the wood that it is working on so rotten that the pecking makes no sound. Only the rapid movement caught by the side of my eye catches my attention.

The east marsh is a winter marsh today, the cattails browned, the trees bare, a smear of ice on the easternmost third, and a north wind icing the visitors ears. There are no ducks, which is strange. From the far side I look back to the east channel and spot an eagle in a tree. I wonder if I passed directly under it without noticing. I no longer wonder why there are no ducks here.

I cut straight across the bay, directly into the wind, with the bow pointed at the railroad islands. Birdwatchers are on the north point, so I steer quite wide of any ducks and head into the NE lagoon, grabbing a car tire from the mud as I go. Again, the NE lagoon is empty of ducks, possibly the eagles were here earlier. There is, however, one great blue heron busy with successful hunting on the north shore. I stay long enough to see that this heron is eating well,
and I let the wind blow me out towards the bay.

There is a new dirtberg arisen from the lake and it has been commandeered by cormorants, as usual. They take off when I am way to far off and I spot an eagle. There might be two because it seems that every duck in mid bay is in the air and coot flocks are skittering over the surface in silver splashes in all directions.

Hugging the north shore, I surprise a snipe. A large bird flies directly at me, seems to be a seagull as no other bird is so bold with people, but it is a red tailed hawk passing by ten feet from me. I get the clearest look that I have ever got of its namesake.

I edge the cattail islands south, hoping to see more snipe. And, I do....two from number 2 island and one from the birch island. Their camouflage means that they are near impossible to spot until they take wing.

I head west, through the crossing under place, and down the dead lake with the wind behind me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I start farther south on the big lake, not new to me, but a beaching spot I haven't used. I'll paddle south, most of which is not new to me either, but waters that I don't visit too often. I set out and cross the bay to the Bailey Peninsula and its tall tree shoreline.

I dreamed a spirit dream yesterday. A dream with two men in the bow of my canoe, real people at one time, but now dissolved to manevolent spirits, demons that were harmful once because of self assured ignorance or disappearing acts at times of need...tricksters with no humor in their actions. It was a strong dream. Today, my canoe cuts through the calmest of waters, the smooth surface of the water a mirror that continually flexes and distorts the image, a waving, dancing light that will mesmerize the careless paddler, drawing them over the edge. But, there are no demons in the canoe and there never will be. This is my place and demons only come in memories, spirits only enter by permission.

I approach a small cove, which has another cove not far on the opposite side. It is a park that I've not been to by land or water, but it looked like it might have a small patch of nature. As I near, ducks dispatch as they normally do, then, as I get closer, the coots move away from an eagle comes over my left shoulder. Here, I am part of the hunt through no choice of my own. This time, crows fly out of the trees and chase the eagle off. As I round the point to the next cove, I flush the coots from under shoreline docks and sometimes, the eagles, watching from tall evergreens, drop down to try and catch one. This goes on a few times until I reach my destination. It is a small cove that is natural by neglect more than by stewardship. There are many old tires in the water and someday I will return and remove them, but there is also a fine and good sized beaver lodge.

I return the way I came, but with the sun and the lightest of breeze at my back. And all along the way, I find buffleheads, goldeneyes and common mergansers keeping watch on me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waking in the Canoe

Revision - I've made some additions to this post. These are details that I glossed over when I hastily wrote down the dream - details that seem important in retrospect. I have added an analysis in the blog comments.

Today I share a dream that was with me when I woke up. It was in color.

We set out to canoe, descending a long, steep and muddy slope, so much so that the earth moved (as if it was a thick cake batter) as we dropped down toward the water through the forest. At the bottom, at the edge of the water, we could see that it was very windy out farther. A tugboat was seen to fly off of the top of a large wave. But, we were protected, sheltered by a wooded island. There was a fast river entering from the right.

My bowman (as in bow of the canoe), a real person, was an unreliable man, just as in real life. As we prepared to head off, or, more accurately, as I prepared for us to head off, he would disappear, show up, and wander off, over and over again. A second man was there also. He was nicely dressed and had a physical stature about him. When the bowman was absent, this second man would tell me what the bowman was doing. I do not know how he knew what the absent man was up to.

The bowman never seemed to know what he was doing and once, as I kneeled in the stern of the canoe waiting for him to get in, I looked up only to find him sitting backwards facing me. I had to tell him that he was facing backwards. In fact, I know that he does know what he is doing...he is playing the fool.

Finally, we pushed out, me in the stern, with the second man up front looking over the bowman's shoulder, even though we only had room for two in my canoe. We paddled in the sheltered waters behind the island, watching big boats bounce off of huge waves farther out.

I look up to find the bowman gone again. I return to shore and pick him up again, but soon, he disappears again. The second man, the one with stature and nice clothes, takes the paddle. He holds it well and with confidence and then takes two very powerful back strokes that I find impressive. However, it propels us backwards and drives us very hard onto shore. We hit the bank so hard that it hurts. I strike him sharply on the shoulder with the edge of my paddle, right where the long edge curves to become the tip ...hard enough so that it will leave a mark that will stay with him for some time (I can see through his clothes and see the mark) and I tell him, "do that again and the next hit will be on your head." This man, for all of his stature and fine clothes, knows absolutely nothing about the canoe, which is where he happens to be. He is of no value here.

The second man wanders off and returns telling me that the bowman has left without telling me so and he will not return. I tell the second man to tell the bowman to stay away from me, and he leaves.

A woman, in the form of a squirrel, appears in the center section of the canoe. She darts around, constantly moving and searching and watching. The center of the canoe glows lightly while she is there. Because of her constant motion, she is no good for paddling. Instead, she talks about the public art projects that she is in charge of, which I find entertaining. In fact, she chatters constantly, but listening carefully I find that what she says is quite interesting. We paddle out (although while she is there, the canoe seems to move with no effort on my part) into where the swift water from the river comes into the lake and the eddy spins us around. We return to shore and she is gone and I feel the loss.

Now, I am alone in a shed with the canoe. I take my kneeling mat, which is a finely woven rug, and exit, locking the door behind me. I toss the mat down and kneel on it and paddle off, thinking about how light and responsive the canoe is. Then I realize that I am not in the canoe, but just paddling on the surface of the water on the rug. This feels like I am kneeling on a water bed, buoyant and springy. While I return to shore, I take time to spin and turn the rug a few times on the tops of small waves. It is fun, but not what I intended to do.

Back in the shed, this time I take the canoe. Exiting through the door, I turn and lock it, and this time, I push the key very deeply into my pants pocket.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

All is Well

It is a calm day, winter, a winter sky with the sun low yet bright when the clouds clear the path. In fact, the sun is low enough in the sky to light the undersides of the heavy distant clouds, adding gold to the gray.

The paddle up the urban wilderness of the big lake is almost dreamy. It is Sunday and the leaf blowers are put away. Just a dip-splash of the paddle and an occasional airplane. Even the waves, when there are waves, are just deceased wakes from distant boats that are far out of earshot.

I don't turn the point, but continue across the channel and up the east side of the bay where I find an eagle in a frequently used evergreen perch. The ducks are spread in numerous flocks from SW to NE across the bay, and it is a mix of buffleheads, canvas backs, widgeons, coots and gadwalls with pied billed grebes thrown in for good measure.

Bufflehead takeoff

Only once does an eagle disturb the peace. It comes straight out of the sun, invisible to me for some time, but I know it is there by the sequential scattering of ducks, which comes in my direction. It passes by and joins its mate, the one I spotted earlier. I can hear their whistling greeting behind me.

All is well.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another winter day

Today's early morning snowfall will turn to rain and I race through my breakfast and race through my portage to the big lake. It is calm and especially so in the cove where I start, but as I move north the wind builds. It comes to me that it takes so little wind during a winter canoe trip to make the lake somewhat threatening.

I turn the point and head to the big beaver lodge, my favorite of the lodges and a favorite place for me to sit. Its backdrop is the tangled beaver forest of the east marsh and whether any animals are visible, the signs of life are as vivid as that of a cemetery...markers, so many of them. An eagle sits above the lodge when I get there and a flock of buffleheads, which always seem to be where they are, have to move as I paddle in.
When I get into the open water of the bay, east of the burial island, I spot four eagles. The two north nesters are hunting a flock of coots in unison while the south nesters split, one going to the east shore and the other landing in a tree on the burial island not far from where I sit.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

After the Storm

A cold day, the night windy and snowy although most of the snow in the air was just that being blown about. The south lagoon is frozen enough to stop the canoe but there is still plenty of open water for the ducks that prefer to stay here. Some of them are sitting on the south facing banks, on the earth warmed by the bright sun of this cloudless day.
The American Coot - Column A on the winter eagle menu

I cut NW across the bay to the birch island, scaring up a snipe as I near. There, I ease up against the cattails noticing but not recognizing fresh mammal tracks coming out to the water. I pause here, the warmth and protection that I find from the wind being what I imagine the snipe seek out as well. I often find them here, but seldom anywhere else. With the cold, the ducks and coots are in a dense flock out in mid bay. I find a crow eating a coot wing, no doubt leftovers from the eagles.

Working along the edge of the north marsh, I spot the head of an otter, and then a second otter pops up.

Lontra canadensis - so cool an animal that they named a country after it.

They are hiding next to a large hollow drift log. I watch, seeing them a few times, but only briefly, until they finally move back into the brush. The log they were near shows their tracks and belly slides. In fact, I notice that all of the open areas on the north marsh are as heavily tracked as a dog run...and there are no dogs out here.

Note the otter tracks and belly slides on the top of the log.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I wake to a 1/2 inch of snow and rush my breakfast and coffee, grab my gear and drop down to Portage Bay. No ice in this spot, yet, but the cattails and the beaver lodge are beautifully decked in white.

In the crossing under place, the wind is in my face, cold and raw. But, I find the flock of common mergansers that I saw yesterday. So, the full contingent of migratories is now present.

I tuck into the south lagoon, mostly to get out of the wind. Ducks are going about their business as usual, but other creatures are lying low. As I stop to pour a cup of coffee it begins to snow hard, and I just sit and watch nothing happen at the usual rate.

An insecure hooded merganser showing off to the wood ducks

I work up north through the burial island channel, a wooded hallway now filled with falling snow. When I get to the bay, the wind in my face draws me straight across. Outlines of north shore trees are visible through the snow, but details are not. At least not until halfway, when I spot an eagle hunting. It circles, dips, feints, hovers, circles again and on until, finally, it drops to the water and pauses for a moment, a sign of success as the moment is the eagle fastening its talons and killing its prey. Then it rises, and with a bit more effort than normal, flies low across the water to the railroad island.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Winter Counts

I toil through the shallows of the east marsh, made worse by the absurdly low level that the dam keepers have chosen to hold the lake at during the winter. Just as I reach the open water of the bay with its light, cold and raw north wind in my face, it begins to snow. This is a treat for me, a Minnesota boy who misses winter more than anything, and to have it snow while I am canoeing warms my very core more than I can say.
The flapping of wings on the far side of the bay, and a wide line of flapping that it is, signals that there is likely an eagle in the area. When I am about 1/2 way across, I spot two eagles in the railroad island perch. It should be the residents from the north nest, as they would not tolerate any others in that spot. I paddle in, keeping my distance so as not to disturb them, but I overestimate my stealth and they fly off to another part of the bay. They are in hunting mode and will not leave until they have caught a coot, which I am sure they will do. I've watched these two before and they are exceptionally skilled hunters.

Below - beginning the brief hover before attacking.
I pause out of the wind along the north marsh, and when I continue, nearing the north point, I find myself on the edge of an eagle's hunting circle. It has just forced two coots to dive not 10 yards from me and so the eagle circles and hovers over my head. The coots escape, my accidental presence just enough of a distraction to the hunter.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Animal Party

It is a calm day, calm for this time of the year and even more so when one thinks of the windy days that have preceded. I start in the salt water of Elliot Bay, planning on circling the Magnolia peninsula, which includes passing through the locks and portaging from Fishermens' Terminal back to the bay. Paddling under the bluff, I pass the last surviving beach homes and the pilings that mark the locations of long lost ones that were bulldozed by winter rains that calve off hillside in avalanches of mud and trees.

There are buffleheads out here today, and quite a few at that. I expected to find goldeneyes, but see none, yet.

A seal floats high in the water, its back exposed as well as its head. Unusual to see this, an extra moment is needed to recognize what I see.
I pass 4 mile rock, a 15 ft tall boulder that is now only 5 ft out of the water....high tide. And, I spot a flock of harlequin ducks. I have never seen a flock of them, only isolated pairs. The female is a good looking duck, for a female duck, but the male is tremendously beautiful. Now, there are several seals about, popping up to watch me, diving when I pick up my camera. As I cover the next 1/2 mile, it is more often than not that I find a seal watching me.

I pass the protected lands of the park, pass the light house and turn the point that it sits on, and head towards Salmon Bay. Ahead, something sits on a rock that is just barely awash and 50 yards from shore. I beach the canoe and walk the shore so as not to disturb it. It is, in fact, a baby seal that has been left on the rock while the mother feeds. This is a common behavior, and one needs to walk carefully on the beaches here because the young seals are often stashed rather carelessly. Nearing Salmon Bay, I turn and head back the way I came, hoping that the animal party will continue. I spot a great many more harlequin ducks - I've never seen so many. Nearing 4 mile rock, the seals pick up my trail. I am being followed...and for the next half mile, more often than not, when I turn my head to look over my shoulder, there is a seal, sometimes 30 ft away, sometimes 10 ft.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Out of Sorts

Yesterday was all wind. A day when canoes stay on shore even in the smallest of waters.

My shoulders still ache from the portage of two days back. On a real canoe trip, an hour or two of paddling might follow a portage and the stiff ache replaced by fatigue.

The blur of a kingfisher leaving for someplace farther from me

Today seems out of sorts. I am neither here nor there and I am never quite happy when I am between. A beaver has begun to work on a maple near the put in, where I find raccoon tracks intermingled with those of a dog or two. I pass through the crossing under place and begin a circle of the bay. All the migratory birds are here, except for the large mergansers. I imagine that I might find them in the rivers still, picking the leftovers of salmon spawning.

In the NE lagoon, a new pile of branches is perched atop the beaver lodge. A dead Canada goose floats in the water with one eye open and skyward. I find beaver and raccoon tracks in the mud, pretty much where I expect to find them. Then, I leave, bucking a headwind across the bay, noticing at one moment that I am the center of a big scattered crescent of ducks.

I sit and eat my lunch in the south lagoon, watching ducks do what ducks do. I spot something small and white darting through the water. It turns left, then right, and then it stops. I take one or two quiet strokes with the paddle, aiming the canoe towards it and then letting the momentum coast me closer, my eyes fixed on the critter to catch any evasive movement. It holds still, frozen to escape notice while I near. It is a duck pinfeather.

On the portage home, a woman comes out of her house to ask me what I am doing. She has seen me several times before, her house and her developing garden sculpture on one of my favorite routes. She is charming and we chat for a good 15 minutes. I am no longer out of sorts.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Portage

It is a historical craft and if one chooses, they can access forgotten history and forgotten spirits, and it makes no difference whether one uses the worst of plastic tubs or the finest birchbark vessel made by a distant craftsman, or the featherlight curve of miracle fibers. It is all there for the taking. It is the act where the heart of it lies.

A friend's song, again, works in the background, deep in creativity and spirit going somewhere and coming from somewhere else. I hold it in the background so that my own thoughts can come, drawn forward, helped along by the song.
It looks like this, if you drop this into the middle of the city.

I am on the portage, one of several I can choose to use from my house to the water. I am heading to the dead lake on a whim. I portage the 2000 yards with a cart. I am not a fool. Even the voyageurs used carts and rail lines where long portages were used repeatedly.

3/4 of the way to the dead lake, the axle snaps clean off of the cart. I sit for ten minutes pondering my next move. I don't carry a cell phone and don't wish for one now. I find nothing that I can jury-rig the cart with, so I load up, caching the broken cart, and stuffing my pack with the things I usually just toss in the bottom of the canoe. It will be a double carry, the pack, my paddles and the canoe on my shoulders. It is just less than a hundred pounds. It is worse to think of than to perform. I have almost a mile with 250 feet of hill. It is in the middle of the city and it will be a spectacle that I can't observe, head up in the canoe and all. I know that I won't feel much like talking either.

I make it with 3 breaks. At my second pause, a guy walks by and looks at me, "party time," he says. "Yes, party time for sure," I reply.

Funny shit.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ten Days

I have been out of the water for ten days and a damp yet sunny morning leads me down to the big lake. Ten days in fall, so much I will have missed, the steady colorful decay of the marsh and the trees that edge it, the arrival of the rest of the migratory birds.

Two buffleheads are to my left and another is directly ahead. In the distance, 200 yards, are the white necks of grebes. I've just started.

A person who had just seen one of my canoe videos asked me if I meditated.

The lake on a calm day, when I can just repeat the paddling motion, is the clearinghouse of thoughts that can't be spent.

I pass a solitary scaup, a duck which I seldom see in the big lake.

The song of a friend runs quietly in the back of my mind, the soundtrack, and an appropriate soundtrack for the day. I know it will repeat endlessly seeming new on each repeat.

And finally, I round the point into the bay and find the first flock of buffleheads, the males so handsome in their birch bark colors. The winter flocks, if not complete, are now nearly so.

My marsh has turned gold in the last ten days.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The First Scaup

The day has broken from the heavy rains and by the time that I start my portage, the clouds have dissolved leaving it sunny and calm.

I put in on what I increasingly think of as the "dead lake", Lake Union, and I move towards and along the shorelines that I rarely visit. Choked with marinas and houseboat moorage, there is no space left here for wildlife. But, in these calm conditions the canoe slides along with no effort needed to maintain a straight course. It is pure and enjoyable paddling on flat water under a warm sun.

I end up halfway through the Government Canal before turning back to the east. There is one single female scaup in the canal, a place where they often are found in winter. This is my first sighting of the fall. I haul a shopping cart from the water, eat a sandwich, and continue. It is steady paddling today, the paddling of a long tour with few breaks, a measured pace, and no hurry. Miles get clicked off on long trips through steadiness and rhythm.

Otherwise, there is not much to be said on a beautiful day like today.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Time to go

I put in for a short trip, a mind clearing trip, a reminder of what lies outside the walls.

There is some wind and for a while, when I am in the east marsh, it is strong and in my face. Wind barely shows on the surface of the water in the east marsh, nothing more than ripples no bigger than those that the dabbling of fingers causes. Wind, in the marsh, is told by the cattails, bending all in the same direction and twisting in their wind driven flutter, slapping and rubbing against each other to create the soft rustle.

And then, whatever it is that binds up inside me is gone, and it is time to go.