Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Season of Winter Cattails

Starting in the south lagoon, the absence of ducks is remarkable. I'm about to turn the corner of the little island and head into the east channel of the burial island when a whistle takes my eye north just in time to catch the silhouette of an eagle as it lands on a perch. So, I change course toward the eagle, which is also the most likely reason for no ducks in the area. More whistling signals the arrival of the mate. They have both been hunting the south lagoon this morning.

The ducks are scattered out in mid bay and as I reach the railroad island I find the coots, a dense and dark crescent in the water leading out to the east. They have put 3/4 of a mile between themselves and the eagles.

I visit the NE lagoon, which is quiet today. It is gray, calm and sprinkling lightly. Not a good day for photography, so, I take a photo while exiting, just to prove to myself that anyone can get a good photo at this spot no matter what. This time, I head back into the east channel of the burial island, but detouring to explore some of the passages in the marsh that I haven't been able to get into while the lake level was down.

It is the onset of the season of winter cattails. They are just beginning to collapse and fall down, dried and with no spring left in them.

I spot a raccoon in the channel. We watch each other.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Long Day

I portage north from my house and down to the west end of the "crossing over place", the south end of Portage Bay. Along the way, in the forested park that I have to pass through, I meet two gentlemen and we have a nice talk. This would not happen if I did not "walk" my canoe to the water. Two hooded mergansers are at the put in and a red wing blackbird trills steadily from the top of the tallest tree. It is gray and calm. And so, I paddle out and once I pass the beaver lodge, where the water deepens, I trade my rock paddle for my long bladed deep water one. It has a map of today's route painted on the blade.

I head west today. The thick overcast hides the sun and so, time doesn't pass except by the stroke of the paddle.
And, I just keep heading west, past Gasworks Park, where I see the snow covered Olympic Mountains in the distance. Past the boat yards and the fishing fleet, and to the locks. I wait 20 minutes before it is my turn. I have the entire lock to myself. Just one sixteen foot canoe dropping the 15 feet to the Salish Sea.

Now, the ducks become mostly goldeneyes. The male is the most handsome of any of the black and white ducks with a white cheek, throat and breast and a white bar design on the side. No man would be better dressed than to wear a tuxedo patterned after this duck.

I turn south when I reach the end of Salmon Bay, following the shore past West Point. Along the way I spot a small otter and beach the canoe to look for tracks. I find two sets of much larger otter tracks nearby, the parents no doubt, of the smaller one. Then onward around one more point and into Elliot Bay. I spot a harlequin duck, arguably the most spectacular of all ducks. I pull out as soon as I can for a mile long portage north through the low area known as Interbay. This takes me back to fresh water, not far from the locks. And I turn east towards home, finishing my trip in south Lake Union, which is still quite calm.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Into the Swamp

I start near the west end of the ancient portage, the "crossing over place". Houses and roads now prevent the crossing over, but the water is still here. Unsure of my direction, this little bay, at its north end gives me the option of west or east. West is more industrial, east is more natural. Today I turn east. West can be interesting, but east is the nurturing that I need today. It is calm and just a few bits of blue pass through the clouds. And, I start late so the morning chill is gone. The lake level seems to be up another inch or two, just high enough for me to paddle into the crack in Broken Island and fetch a car tire. Then, I head to #1 Island for the main event. With a piece of flat wood, I scoop 3 gallons of mud from the insides of a 44 inch army truck tire. That makes it just barely manageable, just this side of a hernia, and I slide it onto the gunwales of my canoe. I go hip deep in the bog when one of my legs plunges through the veggie mat while trying to get into the canoe. I dump the tire at the usual site, and head to the NE lagoon, because I damn well deserve it. The eagles are together, overflying the bay every once in awhile and although they don't seem to be actively hunting, they cause great commotion amongst the ducks when they pass over. It seems a busy day for the birds. Once in the NE lagoon, I just sit for a time. Few people, even in canoes, come in here. The water is only 6 inches deep, although there are feet of milkshake mud under that. Perhaps it is the slow death of legends, that idea that swamps are wastelands, and that mud is dirty. It takes time for habits and memories to fade. But there are beaver, heron and ducks here. I've seen eight stellars jays at one time and five kingfishers another. There's often a hawk in here and the eagle's nest is just a couple hundred yards to the NE. It's more than it might appear.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christen the New Paddle

Today, I put a new paddle in the water. It's a beavertail that I've been working on rather casually over the last week or so.
Spruce, a soft wood paddle, a deep water paddle.
Immediately, it is good in the hand, and the submerged return of my Canadian J-stroke slices through the water as it should, with an audible zip.
One side of the blade has a painted map of the waters I paddle in most often.
The other side has an 120 year old map of those same waters.
It is a good paddle and maybe because it is of my own hand, it feels better than it is.
But, then again, maybe it is that good. In the NE lagoon, where Yesler Creek once was, the beaver has dragged away most of the alder tree that he has been cutting on for the last week. Canada geese are collecting in larger numbers now, with mating season just ahead. The coots are in a single big flock near the mouth of the lagoon and the lake level is up an inch or two. It is gray and fairly calm and begins to rain on and off. Eventually, it rains on only. I haul out the last truck tire from the north marsh, and find an even larger one half way to my dump site. I return for that one, digging it out of the mud and really, really struggling just to stand it upright.
It is too heavy for me to load on my canoe, so I will return and float it out.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I put in at south Lake Union and paddle in and out of the industrial water areas. The dry dock is busy today with a NOAA research ship, the McArthur, undergoing work. Power grinders and what sounds like sand blasters run endlessly. Cranes lift, rotate, drop and then lift their loads to the tune of bells, buzzers, two finger whistles and shouts. Someone hammers on metal. Something is getting done, work is happening.Union Bay - The clouds roll in, but it stays warm and calm, and dry. Ducks are fairly scattered and it doesn't take long to find out why. A flock takes flight a half mile across the bay and I spot an eagle circling on the hunt. I move on and then,
more ducks in the air as the eagle speeds,
and it is really speeding,
low, just three feet above the water,
and scattering ducks in all directions
all the way across the bay to take on something
out of view between two of the west islands.
It circles only once before settling and one can assume that lunch has been served. Up in the NE lagoon, I find a good set of beaver tracks and take plaster casts of two hind prints.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


It is a warm day with a light gusty wind out of the east when I put in at the very northern tip of the big lake. The beach is a mess, a plastic soup that has washed ashore, the junk that finds its way into 25 square miles of lake. It takes no imagination to see why there is no swimming beach here. Three dense flocks of coots are collected not far from shore. It may be a thousand birds. A few hundred yards against the wind brings me to the mouth of the Samammish River. There is a current due to recent rain, but it is the east wind coming down the valley that is the most difficult to march against. I pass a tired looking beaver lodge and there are some mallards and geese and an occasional bufflehead in the first half mile. At the first sharp bend, seven herons overtake me, all flying together. I search the banks for animal tracks and find only one set, a soggy raccoon trail. There are clear duck, geese and heron tracks under three inches of water near shore. I turn back before another half mile, the wind not being worth the lack of wildlife. There is much open area here, but the city and the county have very different ideas of what a wildlife area is. Here, the county seemingly does nothing except post a sign, "No Admittance - Wildlife Area". So, invasive plants such as the dreaded Himalayan Blackberry have taken over, crowding out bird and animal life that should be here. The city, on the other hand, opens the areas up to people and removes the non-native species so that a richly diverse bird life scene takes place (and it doesn't seem to be bothered by a few people). Drifting back down river, I watch nine herons collect themselves in a single tree. Just about this time last year I noticed that herons would collect in groups of 15 or 20. I haven't found an explanation for this, yet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Several days of rain have left the clouds exhausted and they have settled to the ground and blanketed the big lake making it a world of its own.
Paddling north I occasionally see common landmarks, but I stay far enough out from shore that the hillsides are dark gray-green shadows. Those shadows reference the great towering forest that once defined this land. A wind, a cold wind blows lightly out of the north. It is chilly. I scare up buffleheads every couple hundred yards, their whistling flight song reaching me before I can see them, and after a glimpse, they disappear. Turning the point into Union Bay I find calmer waters and a dense flock of mixed ducks without any coots. Some of them are the blockheaded ringnecks - blockhead is how I remember the identification of a ringneck. As I sit and warm my fingers, I drift slowly towards the largest beaver lodge. A heron flies into view and perches and a dozen ducks carefully maintain their distance from me. It is cold and I head off to the NE lagoon to explore.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Rain

It is calm, although not so calm as it appears. Thick gray overcast makes the water appear like spring ice, the last vestiges of a frozen lake when the surface is more slush than solid. But this is not ice.It rains the whole day without let up and I head south along the shore of the big lake, just to do something different. I take few photos because it seems to be a trip to be inside my head and in this direction, the big lake is not so much for the eye. I pass flocks of buffleheads every so often and also some common megansers, cormorants and farther out in the lake, small grebes. After a few miles, I return and pass my starting point to head north to the east marsh to see something natural and beautiful. The wind picks up when I am just short of the east channel of the burial island. Ducks are beginning to find protected places to sit out the evening.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Calm Rain

The big lake is calm, calm as a small forest pond surrounded by tall trees and hidden from the slightest wind.
It rains and a small grebe floats a 100 yards off, as alone right now as I am.Cars are jammed up on the big bridge a mile north. It doesn't have to be that way, but people, when pushed, often close themselves in and see no other way. That is part of the draw of the big lake for me. Is is so wide with the trees so distant and the sky so huge that I can only expand when I am there - not trying but just naturally flowing to fill the space.
The far shore is distant enough that one can imagine that they are far in the wilderness.
There is just so much to this world.
Now, I count 10 of the medium sized grebes and a flock of buffleheads takes off across my bow. They make a whirring sound when they do that and it is their own signature.
As I paddle up the east side of Union Bay, I find the eagle pair on the peak of the same boathouse where I saw them a few days earlier when they argued with a third eagle over territory.
It is still raining.
The sound of rain on the lake is

Sunday, January 10, 2010

We... for a Change

We put in on a calm big lake with a day where a little bit of sun looks like it will be giving in to clouds. No one else is on the water as far as we can see, and we head north, passing a few buffleheads and cormorants on the way. There aren't many birds on the big lake, which some people think is due to the depth, but actually it has more to do with most of the lakeshore being "improved", replacing reeds, beach, and brush with walls of rock. The waterfowl habitat is gone.
Entering Union Bay, we pass a dozen Canada geese. Soon, an eagle flies over to a high perch in a fir tree. A half dozen sanderlings seem to own the largest dirtberg, the hundred footer. We head up into the NE lagoon where we can see something large sitting in a tree. Closer, it is an immature red tailed hawk and it is being closely watched by stellar's jays, six - no eight, a rare site, so many in one spot. A northern flicker is there also. We beach and I show Sarah the trees that the beaver has been cutting, as clean and neat as if it had a sharp axe.
We head out, following the east edge of the west islands.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I start at my usual big lake put in. It is very calm and the clouds are giving way to the sun. I head north to Union Bay crossing the mouth straight away as I head up to the NE lagoon.

Three trumpeter swans fly past on their way east across the big lake.

Once in the bay, the ducks are active, seemingly busy for no reason.
And then, an eagle sweeps from the east, low, skimming the water and set on a coot a quarter mile distant.
The eagle begins circling having forced a coot to dive but it gives up soon and while I am momentarily distracted,
my head inside the canoe,
three eagles appear in an instant above my head whirling and whistling, a territorial discussion.
I was not ready for that at all. Not one bit.
One retreats to a tall fir tree and the resident pair takes to the top of a boat house.

As I near the lunch counter, feathers in the water show that one eagle has already eaten today.

The ducks and coots, in a large flock, regroup off of north point.

In the NE lagoon, all is quiet and a red tailed hawk sits high in a tree on the north shore.

I stop between #1 and #2 islands and just sit, waiting to see what will happen, because something always will happen.
A heron sits to my right near the beaver lodge and another sits behind me. They are just sitting.
Once in awhile, a bufflehead or two flies past.
I hear honking and see the three swans returning a half mile out from where I sit.
Swan honking is not at all like goose honking. Swan honks are comical, like car horns in an old movie.
As I drift closer to the heron, it gets up and leaves, but not on account of me.

I dip my paddle once and change my view, just a bit, and the canoe comes to rest in the submerged branches at the base of the beaver lodge.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Photo -the NE lagoon, where Yesler Creek once flowed.

I start near the west end of the ancient portage.
The beaver continue to add to their lodge here.
A well worn trail up the west side shows where they
have pushed new material to the top.
It is a warm and calm winter day.City noises travel far today.
When I get up to #1 island in Union Bay, red wing
blackbirds trill steadily until I get too close.
Then they change to a chipping sound, a warning to the others, I suppose.
I sit in the north marsh for a good while
admiring last winters handywork.
Plastic will forever be embedded in the bog,
but at least it looks cleaner.
I see no eagles. The ducks and coots are at peace,
a thousand black specks out in the bay.
The squeaking whistle of widgeons sneaks through the city sounds.
Their consistency seems a good thing.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


It is not a day that one would normally set out in in a canoe. It is gray and cold, which bothers me not a bit, but there is a steady 15-20 mph wind from the south. I put in on south Lake Union.
The downwind trip to the north is not as fast as one would think as a good chunk of each paddle stroke is used up keeping the bow pointed toward where I intend to go. It is busy paddling. In Portage Bay, I hug the houseboats for the upwind leg. I would hug the shoreline except that the houseboats here have blotted the shore from view and access. Then, a quick crosswind dash into the cut, which is well protected from the wind. Reaching Union Bay I realize that compared to the previous bodies of water, this place is calm no matter the wind speed. There are a bunch of common mergansers near Marsh Island. It is a special place.