Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nothing comes to mind

It is a day of scattered thoughts.

A friend has passed away, not only a friend, but a father of friends. I think of him often as I paddle but never in one coherent train. The big lake has a following wind with something that actually resembles waves in water that usually just presents an arrhythmic chop.

But, no thoughts come to mind.

The east marsh is nothing but lush. The cattails are at their maximum - a dense green wall of spears. The little calved island has formed again and I am drawn into the 30 foot wide channel, which narrows to 3-1/2 feet, just enough for the canoe. Then, I find myself in a cul de sac that is one foot larger in diameter than the length of the canoe. I spin and return. It is not an island.

Still, no thoughts come to mind.

In Portage Bay, I spy an old man on a houseboat staring at me. He just keeps staring and staring as I near, and I move nearer because he continues to stare. Then, he says, "you don't see many people that know how to paddle a canoe." He likes my J-stroke. I stop. We chat. He invites me up the hill to show me two 60 year old Swedish canoes that have never been in the water. They are made of diagonal laid veneers, a technique used for racing shells years ago. It is boat and canoe talk. He pulls out a reprint of an 1878 book about a couple guys that make a canoe out of paper and take it on a very long trip. He whips out Adney's famous book on bark canoes and skin kayaks. Then it's time to go. Back on my kneeling thwart, I tell him, "holler if you see me out here some day."

Nothing special comes to mind.

I continue up and over to Lake Union. By now it is the idiot hour. A short parade of toy ships come by on the wrong side of the navigation buoy. I point at a clod in a 40 footer and hand signal to him to give me more room, which he does with a smile because he cannot read my lips, which are currently forming the words, "fucking imbecile." A rental boat with 8 party heads weaves and wiggles directly at me, and not directly at me, and directly at me, until, in my best deep and loud voice, I yell, "Yo! Gilligan!" They look up like deer in the headlights and decide to not to get any closer than they already are. They are on a three hour tour. I cannot deny that there is some entertainment value in watching idiots and the brain-dead operating power machinery.

I take out and portage up and over the hill without a thought in mind.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 28

Portage Bay - Just as I take the first few strokes of the paddle, shoving the canoe through the last of the lily pads into open water, an osprey slides down from the sky and drags its feet in the water before climbing away out of sight.

I head west instead of into the more familiar marshes of Union Bay, preferring today to paddle next to the curving steel hulls of the ocean going fishing boats and derelict coasters that define the working shoreline. I find some comfort a working shoreline, though not as much as in a natural shoreline, but there is reassurance in the use, something that is lacking in the yacht parking lots and banks of houseboats.
I turn back at Foss Tugboats, which is in Salmon Bay. This spot was once saltwater, before the Chittenden Locks were built. I came here through the Fremont Canal, which was once a narrow tumbling creek. I pause to watch an old guy building an aluminum work skiff for a purse seiner. It is an impressive one man job. Machines, welding equipment and a crane, the work all done within 15 feet of the water. One guy.

The sun burns through the marine clouds as I get back into Lake Union. The canoe is just cutting along in the smooth water so nicely.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Season of Brown Ducks

I put in at the east end of the 'crossing over place' and hurry away, the south lagoon rapidly filling with rental canoes, weaving and wobbling and thunking as paddles bang against the aluminum hulls.

The west islands has no one except me, and the brown ducks. These resident ducks, mostly mallards and wood ducks, have given up their spectacular breeding colors and now the males are just shades of brown, no longer out-dressing the females. A heron sits in the tip top of the alder that stands on the point that is the entrance to this narrow lily pad choked channel. It looks very good there, a heron silhouette.
I stop in the NE lagoon, just because I like to keep on eye on this place where more happens than one might assume. But, it is sleeping in the summer heat. One mother duck herds a half dozen ducklings away from my drifting canoe and dozens of dragonflies hunt down smaller insects that have finally hatched as our late summer arrives. These dragonflies are blue and gray with a couple dark bands on the wings. A couple of herons drop by and take up favorite fishing spots.

There is a gentle breeze and after sitting for a few minutes, my canoe up against the cattails, the boat begins to spin. I would not remark on this if I were in open water where this is normal motion, but here the bow pivots of its own accord into the wind with the stern firm against the shore. Once the canoe has swung a full half turn, and it does this surprisingly fast, it drifts 30 feet south to the edge of the beaver lodge, which is so green with plants that I am probably the only one around who would know that it is here. It was a very strange and deliberate movement as if something under the boat moved me. Perhaps, I am supposed to see something, so I sit and wait. Whatever it was escapes me. Maybe I wasn't supposed to see something.

As I leave, paddling past the railroad island, I surprise a bald eagle that is sitting at the lunch counter. It has been most of a year since I've seen the eagles use the lunch counter, a former favorite coot eating perch. The eagle flies out into the bay and tries its luck at hunting some ducklings, but the ducklings have learned to dive well enough to not get eaten, this time. When the eagle pauses for a rest in the railroad island perch, the ducks move on, and I move on.

I head out and south down the big lake, choppy and a bit breezy. It is a nice day.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


It is a sunny summer weekend day in Seattle, one of few that we've seen this year. I know that toy ship drivers will flock to the lakes and that the narrows will end up looking and feeling like the rush hour traffic that they all want to escape. The "crossing under place" will pile up, two and three foot high chop from the wakes echoing off the concrete walls caused by motor boats packed in like fuming sardines.We head to the Sammamish River, starting up high enough that a moving motorboat will be an oddity. The ones that we pass are rotting relics, paint peeling, dusty and sun bleached with tarps covering leaky decks. It is as if their owners have already given up on the boredom of driving slowly down five miles of narrow river to the big lake - the idea and the reality a world apart. After a mile of easy upstream paddling, we pass the point where no motorboat can come. The river turns away from a nearby busy road and it becomes quiet. We repeatedly flush a pair of green backed herons. Once or twice they let out their peculiar mournful call. We do likewise with a few great blue herons, which dwarf the crow-sized green backs.

We don't paddle that far, and we don't paddle that hard, but the day has just sapped our energy and we are not exhausted, but sleepy, eyes heavy, keeping our eyes on the swinging watch of summer.

This all happened on July 24, not the 25th. I was too sleepy to post.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


A Portage Bay start on a day in a summer that hasn't quite become summer. Ocean clouds persist each morning with cool damp air. I remember noticing this morning that the rising sun was a very long ways north on the horizon.

Having passed through the east channel of the burial island, and then through the sneak passage in the cattails, I find the calved off marsh island to be reattached, again, and I startle a mother duck and ducklings. I always try hard to avoid them because they always seem to scatter in a way that would seem impossible for the mother to reassemble.
An immature bald eagle sits on a low stump in the gap that leads to Union Bay. It flies off when I am still one hundred yards away and it sets on a higher perch on the burial island.

I head out into the big lake and turn south into a light wind and choppy surface.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Unexpected

I drop into the big lake on a sunny day that will become too warm for my northern latitude attitude. But, it is still cool.

As I work north along the shore, a large raptor comes my way. At first I think it is a osprey, but as it sweeps to my left, towards a perch in a high evergreen, I see that it is an immature bald eagle. As I watch it in the tree top, I notice a faint dark cloud on the downwind side of the very top of the tree. Insects? Then I notice that several other evergreens have faint dark clouds. The clouds are ghostly and phantom-like, ever shifting, dissolving, and reforming. It is condensation forming, rising up and downwind as the summer sun bakes the night damp from the dark green of the trees.
Coming into Union Bay, I spot an osprey, my first since the Yakima River trip. This one is particularly striking with its white parts almost pure white and its dark parts very dark.

My passage into the beaver forest stops at 50 yards today. The lake is down 2 or 3 inches and the pointed beaver stumps that I had been passing over now forbid the passing of the canoe.
The calved cattail island has once again rejoined the moving "former island". The calved section moves back and forth 20 feet or so quite often and it has never been in the same place two canoe trips in a row.

From the south lagoon, I decide to paddle along the north side of Marsh Island and I am rewarded. An otter swims toward the island, passing behind the backs of two rowers in a shell. I settle in to watch for it to surface.




otters (4) in the center of photo

Then, two large adults and five kits emerge from the grass and sedge on the shore. The adults are quite wary of my presence, heads lifted high and watching me. We all keep our distance.
Raising otter pups must be something like raising a two-year old with a drivers license.

Now, I can go.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What do they dream?

Many mornings, I wake up and taking my cup of coffee, I sit in the quiet and look at what I call "the dream book". The book has detailed descriptions of fur trade routes and locations throughout North America and while many of the places are now inside of cities, most are not and most are so remote that no city will ever be built nearby. Most of the places are dreams.

Some days in my canoe, I am the voyageur, a member of the coureurs de bois, heading into the north woods of my smallest of wildernesses. I do this because I can and because age is no reason to stop dreaming.
The NE beaver lodge

Only death is a good reason to stop dreaming and to stop dreaming is a good reason to die.

The portage east to the big lake is fast paced. The dream book always puts urgency and purpose to the day's trip. When one goes towards an unknown end, it should be done decisively.

A rower in a shell is off the put-in and I wonder what he dreams speeding backwards in his craft. I can't imagine anything other than Olympic gold medals, and while the feel of a good stroke must be magic to his hands, his dreams are far too distant for me to grasp and I return to my unexplored north woods lake.

A power boat speeds by and I imagine that he dreams that he is on the PT109, or maybe the Miss Bardahl. Too often, the toyship drivers seem to be dreaming in their sleep. But, he passes, aimless rocket that he is, and the north woods lake returns.

The real ship drivers don't seem to dream. They work. And, when they are nearby, I feel safe, because I can always look up at them and see that they are looking back at me. They are predictable.

Today, my farthest north is Yesler Creek, where the beaver lodge is so covered in new vegetation that few others would even guess that it was there. A falcon flies past, very high overhead. I've never seen one so high above and I notice the long body, the long body that gives it stability when it dives after prey.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I start in the south lagoon and quickly pass through the east channel of the burial island and poke around in the canals and dead ends of the east marsh. The island that had calved off the the floating cattail mass that was once an island itself, has joined back up, sealing off a 30 foot wide channel.I head north across the bay and into the NE lagoon, where I find one eagle high in the alder trees that sit near the east shore. I don't see the eagles much at this time of year. Their winter food source, coots, are gone and I imagine that they make quick work of ducklings and goslings, if that is what they are eating. Whatever they hunt, they seem to do it efficiently enough that I never see it.

The NE lagoon is bird crazy today with 2 woodpeckers just to my left, the eagle, a great blue heron, and a maze of bird calls coming from the bush in all directions.

I take a deep breath.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dodging a Pointless Eddy

It takes 95 strokes to go from mid-bridge in the crossing under place to the Haida pole.

I put in on Portage Bay. Politics and other debris swirl, a powerful and pointless eddy in my head, until I set myself in my canoe, cutting through the lily pads, moving north to the crossing under place.

Many geese are at the south side of Broken Island today. I found 8 or 9 goose nests this spring, and most of them were raided before hatching, so the numbers of young geese is a surprise. They had found good nest sites where my canoe would not go.It is cool and cloudy with a light breeze from somewhere in the east. I circle Union Bay staying 100 yards out from the cattails and taking in a different view than I normally do.

Then, I paddle south down the big lake, something else that I don't do that often.

I am readjusted.