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.