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.