Tuesday, May 31, 2011


It is raining as I start my portage, a mile east and 400 ft down. But, at the lake the sun comes out and the rain stops, the wind that I felt on my skin as I walked is gone and the day takes on a humid quality that takes me back to the place where I grew up. I pass the big lakefront houses with their always vacant docks and I think of the one that ran out into the lake in front of my grandmother's house. It was white painted and had to be taken down before winter and put back up when the ice went out. It is hard to remember not being in the water or on the dock or shore whenever I was there. It seems that me and my brother and my cousin were in the water during the summer from dawn to sunset. We got our money's worth.

I can still get into the beaver forest behind the big lodge, the extra snowpack of this winter helping the dam keepers to maintain high water. It is not fully green here, yet. That is a week or two ahead, a time when the marsh becomes so vivid in spring growth that the feeling of sitting in it can't be described, at least by me. Now, the yellow irises are out and the beaver forest has taken on a somewhat more civilized appearance.

As I sit, I start to see the stories. A feather in the water leads to the splashes of bird droppings below an old bent tree trunk. A hawk or owl has probably sat here. I notice that things are floating by in the water. There is a light current. This means that the beaver forest is doing one of its most important tasks. It is filtering water, which is one of the greatest benefits of beaver ponds. Whatever water comes this way leaves cleaner, the mesh of the marsh holding and breaking down most of what gets trapped.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Going Someplace

I put in on the big lake as I have done so many times before. This is the shortest route to the water but I don't ever seem to get bored with it as I always take out an some other spot - no matter how many times I traverse the same waters, I in my head, in my heart, I am always going someplace. As familiar as I am with this place, I never find it the same any two days in a row.

I stop first at the mouth of the NE lagoon (Yesler Swamp). An eagle sits high in one of the trees that stand behind and over the north beaver lodge.

A low soft chattering semi-quack comes from the narrow opening that I call the summer sneak, and a cinnamon teal shows itself. I sit until it moves off on its own accord, then I slip into the lagoon.

The north lodge

In this tiny spot, I move as quietly as possible, deep smooth strokes of the paddle and then letting the boat move as if it is drifting. The head of a turtle, no bigger than my thumb, watches me and then slips below to safety. I decide to paddle into the little forest swamp behind the lodge. I find two ducklings hiding in the grass beneath the eagle. But the crows show up right then and after harassing that big bird for a couple minutes, it moves off.

Over on the west side of the bay, I stop in the unnamed inlet by the osprey tree to check on the marsh wren. It is bird silly here this morning. I can hear three different marsh wrens and at least a half a dozen redwing blackbirds. A heron perches in a tree, just visible to me over the tops of cattails. I hear a twirping whistle and look up to see an osprey. Another twirp and I spot the second osprey.

Across from #2 Island

I find the #2 island marsh wren again. So, he is not gone after all. And he must be building more nests as I catch him grabbing a mouthful of cattail fuzz, the primary ingredient of a well built wren nest. There is now a second male wren just across the channel. They are becoming my favorites...I find their activity fascinatingly deliberate. I take out at Portage Bay, and as I begin my portage, I run into M and D again, which of course, only makes the trip that much better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Putting the canoe in at the familiar spot on Portage Bay, he thinks about the love-hate relationship that his city has with the water. It is a love-hate that most never realize exists. Here, he paddles out and turns at the beaver lodge and follows the low mud berm on his right. It is well grassed and shrubbed with a beaver drag coming to the water every 10 yards or so. A bridge, jammed with cars, stands to his left, the combined sound of it all imitates that of rushing water. He explores the wooded inlets that are not accessible in the low water of winter, and he waves to a man on a tractor who seems happy just to see him. The man on the tractor is "fixing" something that the thick layer of peat below this area wishes to reclaim. He turns back, passing the lodge once more, enjoying the near textbook perfect example of beaver architecture. Again, he paddles in places that he cannot during winter. He incurs the very vocal wrath of a female redwing blackbird who seems to have chosen a nest site, and he spots last years nest as he moves out of the blackbird's threat zone.

While there are beaver and birds in this spot, the man knows that something is not quite right. It seems that there should be more, especially in winter when a thousand ducks should be in this bay, but aren't. The love-hate of perpetually parked yachts and the pseudo-green-ness of a hundred houseboats deck over, for luxury sake, the places that the wildlife need for survival.

The man paddles through the crossing under place, the replacement for an ancient portage. He stops at Broken Island to check the last goose nest on the bay and finds it hatched, except for one egg which lies a couple feet from the nest. He collects this.
Then, he stops in the little wet area by the osprey tree, the area he never named, a calm little nook. The call of a marsh wren draws his eyes to the nest. He knows this wren from a month ago. He is glad to see him still here.

He puts his notebook away and keeps the rest of his thoughts and observations to himself.

Postscript - I carefully opened the egg with a fine saw. The egg had stopped incubating not long after being laid. There was nothing inside other than a broken yolk and runny egg white.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Finding Lodge #6

I turn the point, coming in off the big lake and heading toward the big lodge, which I tempted to pass by because I was there two days earlier, but I am also tempted to explore behind it because something might have happened. It is a piece of bare blonde wood that I do not remember back in the green of the beaver forest that draws me in. I catch the scent of death in a different place than before, most likely a beaver. Closer to the lodge is a pile of a half dozen limbs all cleanly stripped of bark and scattered about a grassy hummock. Something always happens.

two swallows doing a mating thing

The day is grey and at times a few tiny drops of water land on bare skin. But, it is only bad enough to keep most of the people off of the water. Anyone that ends up here will find it to be a fine and peaceful day.

In the south lagoon I stop briefly to talk with a family in a rental canoe. They are watching goslings and I tell them where the nest was, on the workbench lodge. They are surprised that the beaver lodges are active...people are always surprised. They came looking for birds, but now they know there is much more.

I find a new lodge on the east tip of Marsh Island. It is small, only 3 ft high and 15 ft across, but I had seen activity in that spot last fall and the brush pile is new. I'll have to watch it for awhile to see if there is a colony established.

The nest on the Rockpile has hatched. I think that it is the last nest, so I then paddle through the break in Broken Island, but I find one more tended nest in the center. Fortunately, she stays put because I am too close when I spot her.

the last nest

I paddle the outer edges of #1 and #2 islands looking for missing cattail masses. There is a cattail berg blocking Ravenna Creek and I have wondered where that "berg" might have come from. #1 island looks as I remember it, but the east side of #2 may very well be missing some bogstuff. With one more close look at the "berg" in question, it does look to be about the right size to have come from #2.

The male marsh wren at #2 island is nowhere to be seen or heard. That is three trips in a row when he has been missing. I think that he has gone off to find a better nesting spot.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lodge Tour

My friend C. joins me on a sunny morning for the portage down to Portage Bay. I show her some of my beaver lodge drawings before we head out, so I opt for Portage Bay because it not only has a fine beaver lodge, but also a beaver bank burrow. We find a dead beaver near the bank burrow, which is probably a spring adolescent. They are kicked out of the lodge when they are about two years old and this is a very vulnerable time for them. Beaver are very territorial and finding new territory is not easy for an inner-city beaver. I probe the entry channel to the burrow with my paddle to show her how the beaver have kept it 3 to 4 feet deep a good 30 feet from the burrow itself while the rest of the water is more like 18 inches.

Once through the crossing under place, we head north, visiting the marsh wren nesting site, which is silent again. I wonder if the wren has moved to a better location. There didn't seem to be enough cattail here for the dozen dummy nests that he needs to build to attract a mate.

Ravenna Creek blocked by a cattail "berg"

We plan on heading a ways up into Ravenna Creek, but find that a cattail island, perhaps 20 x 50 feet, has blocked the mouth entirely. I have no idea where this came from and I will now have to go looking for missing pieces from the islands. I can't imagine that any of the missing pieces of the floating cattail island in the east marsh could have worked their way into this spot.

We head across the north shore. There are herons all around today and we see a couple of the beautiful cinnamon teal. We are also seeing turtles everywhere, this being only the second good warm basking day in quite some time. They are stacked up on logs like plates leaning against each other. There's also a couple sets of goslings near the north point.

We go south to the big lodge, which always impresses. It deserves it's title and it somehow appears even larger to me today. I point out the goose nest, which C. finds more mimimalist than expected. Then we squirm back into the beaver forest. It is the first time that I have taken anyone back here, the water being the ideal depth for two of us in the canoe.

Then through the east channel of the burial island to witness the scent mounds and beaver drags. In the south lagoon we pause to watch a heron hunt. It is very deliberately following something in the water, turning then holding still, then turning and holding still. When it strikes, the heron goes full into the water, not just the usual darting of the bill. It brings up a 7 or 8 inch long fish, which it slides down its throat. It takes just 20 seconds from catch to swallow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


As I pack my gear, the last thing I hear on the morning radio -
"...this is what America is about, making money," -Senator May Landreau.
It will stick in my craw for quite a few paddle strokes, that anyone capable of being elected in this country could be so crass and so bastardize "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," or "united we stand, divided we fall," or "with justice and liberty for all."

Inside #1 Island

Greetings along the portage are envious for this is, in most people's mind, a day they envision for a canoe trip. I think about my last 350 trips over the last three years and can't remember one that I did not enjoy to the fullest. Cloudy, windy, raining hard enough that I had to bail the canoe at times, frozen fingers wet from water that didn't quite know enough to freeze, I never regretted going out, not even when I shouldered the 100 lbs of canoe and gear and carried a mile up and over the hill to home after breaking my portage cart. I always came back with more than I had gone out with.

Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage

I'm in the big lake by half past 6, a bright sun skimming light westward across the water. A lake crossing is tempting on a cloudless day, but I expect wind to arrive with the warming of the air and the return might not be so enjoyable.

I pass Potlatch Point and head to the NE Lagoon (Yesler Swamp) where I sit for the longest time and drift on the morning's cool breeze. The Lagoon has leafed out, an circular room of green with a scattered dapple of lily pads and a dozen bird calls coming from the unseen. There is a chill in the breeze and my neck and shoulders feel the discomfort, but I decide to leave off my jacket, I decide to feel.

And, as quickly as that, the expected wind has arrived.

Cinnamon Teal

Saw a half dozen cinnamon teal along the north shore.
The north point nest has no sign of egg remains. Possibly, it was not a nest.
Two spotted sandpipers in breeding colors at the north point.
The nest at the north end of the east marsh is a fine nest, but shows no signs of ever having eggs. The two geese are still quite territorial and make their presence known while I photograph the nest.
The floating cattail island has sealed the west channel, again.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spending time with the wren

I run the Harrison Portage on a day that promises to be something like spring with a seasonally delayed warmth and a thinly filtered sun.

There is a north wind on the big lake but the waves are small, smaller than I would expect. Rounding Potlatch Point I have to fight a headwind and I think that I cannot remember ever having to fight anything here. Usually, this is a point of calm, my first spot for a short break.

A pair of rental kayaks lead me to the big lodge and while I examine the goose nest one last time, they paddle into the beaver forest. It is one of my favorite spots, so I leave it to them to explore on their own terms while I squirm into a passage farther south. I find a beaver canal heading west where I must stop, a canal for beaver but not for canoes. With the others gone, I work my way circuitously through the stumps and humps of the beaver forest. I pick up the faint smell of death, a frequent odor in the marsh, and I wonder how much this has to do with people's negative views on swamps. I eventually catch the smell full force and find a dead beaver some 20 feet upwind. I find a lot of dead beaver in the spring and I think that this might have something to do with the adolescents being kicked out of the lodge. They are territorial and all of the bay has pretty much been taken. So much of the other shorelines are sea walled that there is almost no place for them to go.

In the east marsh, the north wind has moved the floating cattail island a bit to the south and east. Now, the west channel is open again. I hang onto the island for awhile to see if it is moving, but it seems stationary, so I paddle off.

I spend some time with the male marsh wren on #2 island. He is once again singing a storm, seemingly so proud of his 6 nests.

As I head out, I hear voices. I know these people, although not by name, yet. I stop to talk. We talk about more subjects than you would imagine. I have seen M and D walking around town during the last 20 years. I have always been amazed at the sphere of peace and gracefulness that they seem to exude. It is so nice to talk at length with them. They are, pretty much, what I imagined them to be and I look forward to bumping into them again.

On the portage home, J. stops on her bike to admire and talk with me about my cart. It turns out that we have mutual friends. I think about how much I would miss if I used my car to get to the water.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A river not a river

I put in on the south lagoon after a nice portage where I ran into and talked with B and E again.

But, something behind me tells me that I am on a slow moving river and not in a wetland in a bay. The scene of cattails and marsh plants and a nearly drowned birch forest is correct. The current comes from the light wind and when I sit I drift downstream watching it all pass.

I find four week-old goslings with their parents as I paddle over to the workbench lodge. The nest there is vacant and the goslings may be the result. The timing is right. The high water has taken two birch trees from the burial island. They have fallen towards the water, their rootballs pried loose from the minimal earth of the marsh. They will provide easy food for the beaver come fall and they will serve to extend the edges of the land a few inches farther into the water.

The scent of beaver castoreum is heavy in the air as I enter the east channel of the burial island. I am still 50 yards from the first scent mound. I wander the narrow passages of the east marsh, my eyes sharp for redwing blackbird and marsh wren nests, which should be starting soon. The cattails are shoulder high to me kneeling in the canoe, but it is still a green and tan mix of the old and new. I go down the long winding dead end channel, just wide enough for the canoe, and at the very end, just around the last slow bend, I find a mallard sitting on a nest.

How can one not believe in something?

I cross to the NE lagoon (Yesler Swamp), where I spot a pair of cinnamon teal.
An eagle flies by, circling once before continuing to the north nest.
A sharpshin hawk streaks by at eye level and weaves through the forest as it goes.
At the north point I find a goose nest still tended.
Thirty feet north of the nest is a large beaver scent mound.
A pair of northern shovelers is on the north side of #1 island. I thought they would all be gone by now.
I remove a 50 year old tire from the side of west keg island.

Marsh wren nest

I hear the marsh wren at the same place on #2 island as I did before. There was one nest there, but I though it to be an old one. Now I find six nests. He might need to build ten more to attract a mate. He has staked a claim right next to the beaver canal that leads into the island.

I talk with some school children as I take out. We exchange our animal sightings.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Grand Tour

It is a grey and calm day. I start my portage to the big lake, a plan that will take me through the marsh so that I can check on the goose nests, but at the first corner, I turn west instead of east. I will go to the dead lake and from there to the salt water. It has been a very long time since I have paddled in the Salish Sea.

I cross the dead lake and paddle down the Fremont canal without much to comment on except for the stillness of the water. The canoe always travels fastest in calm water. An occasional seagull pin feather, sitting on the dark water is the beauty of this stretch. At the west end of the canal I enter the fresh water section of Salmon Bay, a half mile of industrial water with Foss tugboat and their drydocks on the south and the dozens of the fishing fleet all around. As much as I miss the wildlife habitat that could be here, this shipyard/working fleet use of the shore is palatable to me, unlike the massive pleasure craft and houseboat moorage back in the dead lake.

I arrive at the lock just as two boats are exiting at my level. The Yachts are directed into the big lock and I, after waiting no more than two minutes, am waved into the small lock alone. Passing through a lock is a transformation. Not only do I drop from one level to another, but I go from fresh water to salt. I go from beavers and mallard to seals and sea lions. I go from small water to wide open expanses.Link

No sooner than leaving the lock do I find two harbor seals moving in to watch me. To see one at distance is to see a marine mammal. To see one from a few feet is to look into eyes so black and bottomless. One could fall endlessly into those eyes and the selkie becomes believable.

I pass a few goldeneyes and a few buffleheads. I stop around the point and stretch my legs finding what look like faint river otter tracks with their odd pairing of prints. As I continue I spot another seal up ahead. I see it once again as I near. It comes up again, very small. It takes a moment and I now realize that it is actually a very large river otter.


Near West Point I spot a flock of 15 brants. They are an understated goose, less noisy and less flashy than their Canada Geese cousins. They pass through this area in spring and fall. I know where they are going, which is why I like them so much. They will continue north flying all the way to the arctic islands off of northern Canada. Of all the birds we see here, these will go the farthest north.

I spot a harlequin duck sitting on a boulder in the water as I reach the turn into Elliot Bay.

There are many new landslides all along this bluff. The people with the excellent sculpture collection have tempted fate. My favorite piece of their collection still stands having missed tumbling to the sea by no more than a few inches. It is all bubble wrapped and prepped to be relocated, a mummified stone standing a hundred feet above.

I am getting tired. I portage the two miles across the lowland to Fishermen's Terminal. Then back through the Fremont Canal and the dead lake. It has stayed calm. I do my final two mile portage up and over the hill. I occasionally smile or nod at people as they pass, but I am too tired to talk.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The First Hatch

I stroll the Harrison portage to the big lake. For some reason, it seems a leisurely and casual walk and I savor whatever it is that is in today's air. My conversations along the way are brief and not much more than a nod or a greeting of just a few words.

A southeast wind blows on the big lake and I paddle north with a moderate wave and chop that comes to me behind my right shoulder. It goes well and I round Potlatch Point and move up to the big lodge to check on the goose nest. It has not yet hatched - it should be a few more days, but all is well and the female rolls her eggs while I am there. Then, I just poke around in the back corners of the east marsh. The floating island is still where it was on my last trip, sealing the west channel. I find a scent mound (beaver) in the center of the north patch, just a splatter of mud on top of a grassy hummock, but with my nose down to it, I can pick up the odor of castoreum.

I head out and around the bay, a survey to see what is changing in the May marsh. There are very few ducks left. I spot a few buffleheads, a few ringnecks, and. up north, a small flock of common mergansers. Most of the winter migrants are well off and the bay is Canada geese, and the resident ducks. When I get to the South Railroad Island, I find that the incredibly wealthy asshole that lives nearby has view pruned city property once again, in nesting season. It's not enough to have a ten million dollar property... f-ing pig.

As I enter Yesler Swamp, I find two Canada geese herding four golden goslings. This the the first hatch of the year and it was the first nest that I found. The nest looks like it was abandoned within the last day or two (once the goslings hatch, they have no use for the nest...and goose nests are pretty primitive at that). The big female bald eagle from the north nest is perched nearby.

I wonder how many eggs hatched. Anyway, those two adults are not giving the young much room.
Crossing the north shore, I find another 75 lb block of foam. As I wrestle the pig into the canoe I stand in a soup of foam pebbles that have crumbled off. This junk should be banned from use as floatation material. I dispose of it in the usual spot where the grounds keepers can get at it.

I exit at Portage Bay. Just as I come to shore, I catch a serpentine dive out of the corner of my eye. I pause, and while watching, catch a second brief serpentine dive, again out of the corner of my eye. This time I spot the bubble trail and I sit still until a small river otter pops up all too close to the canoe, as they often do. Then, it's gone. And soon, a mother duck with a large brood of ducklings takes to the water. They were most likely on shore while the otter was near, as otters do eat baby ducks.