Saturday, July 30, 2011


It is a day when I need comfort and escape, which contradictory as they seem, I find them not so. I rise early, brew coffee and bake a coffee cake. It is a recipe from Mrs. Olson, who lived down the street when I was a kid. I watched the first moon landing on her television. That cake and my canoe will feed me for the entire day.

The tide is falling to a minus 2 ft. level today. So, the trip to the Snohomish Estuary needs to be somewhat scheduled.

When I put in I find a stiff, but do-able current to work against as I make my way the mile upstream to the the top of Smith Island. The osprey are active on the far side of the river where they have a couple nests, but I have to keep paddling to make any headway. My schedule isn't and can't be planned to avoid upstream paddling - the idea is to minimize it. When I round the point and head back down Union Slough, I still have a current to work against even though I am heading towards the sea. This is the tidal flats of Smith Island draining and taking the path of least resistance. It is no big deal.

At the first slough exiting the island's center, I stop on a sandbar for a moment. Swallows are whirling about for their breakfast. I have a cup of coffee. It is a fine day.

It is a pleasant paddle down the slough with banks of primordial ooze - dinosaur words out of context come to mind - eocene, cretaceous, brontosaurus. This has happened before. It is triggered when I see drift logs and trees encased and pasted with silt and mud. They might be only a year old, but when they are painted and washed in fresh silt they look ancient, they look very ancient. They require interpretation. I wish I could do something with them. They photograph poorly. "It" doesn't translate. They have to be seen. They are fascinating.

At the bottom of the slough, where it meets Steamboat Slough, 2 harbor seals are swimming. They keep their distance from me.

I cross Steamboat Slough over to Otter Island and decide, for no particular reason, to head counter clockwise around it. I have to head a half mile up Ebbey Slough to start and the current in Ebbey is, currently impressive. There is a grounded boat laying on its side and there is another where I turn off of the main channel. While there is very little trash anywhere in the area, there are a lot of abandoned boats.

I stop and watch a red tailed hawk. The red tailed hawk stops and watches me. Otter Island does not have the ghost trees that Smith Island has. Otter was never farmed, never had a levee on it, so the trees that are here are trees that belong here, unlike Smith where trees took root behind man-made barriers, which are now broken - hence the dead ghost trees.

It's about 2 miles around Otter Is. back to the main channel. I turn back preferring to paddle the back channel again. There were many tracks along the shore, although most of them had been washed once with the tide. I turn a bend and find two deer on the bank a hundred yards up. When I get there, they are gone, of course, but there are fresh raccoon tracks on the bank.

I decide to head back up Union Slough, the way I came. This time it is shallower. Low tide is nearly here, but this narrow slough is more pleasant than one of the larger options. I have to wade for much of a half mile in the middle portion, but there is a layer of sand over the primordial ooze that makes it go okay if I don't stand in one place too long.

There is a head wind on the main river for my last mile, but with low tide, there is a strong current and the going is easy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Osprey pooping

Coming from the big lake, I near the Big Lodge smelling the odor of decay and mud. That this summer has been a cool one is well told by the fact that today, the 26th of July, marks the first day of the summer that I can pick up that swampy smell of decay. I remember it all the way back to my youth - it is a smell that sticks well in the sinuses - and how hard it was to get off after mucking about in a pond.

I don't need to, but yet, I do need to go down the big dead end in the east marsh. It is the only route into the backside of the beaver forest and this year, with the high water staying for so long, the cattails are moving - spreading and colonizing new water. The original channel closed up this spring and the alternative is just barely wide enough for my canoe. Fewer people than ever are coming in here now - the beamy rental canoes are barred from making the passage. By fall, I probably won't be able to make it. Today, there are quite a few ducks, undisturbed more than usual. But the action is the red wing blackbirds, hopping and picking at bugs on the beaver cut stumps. As I leave, I catch the other familiar smell of summer, that of warmed freshwater lake, a complex smell that reminds me of the stinging that happens when water goes up ones nose while swimming.

A little breeze comes up and with the puffs of cumulus clouds and the humid cool, I am reminded of thunderstorms - it is that humid cool, the signaling of a front. But, that is also a memory from long ago and from another place.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


We put in on the main channel of the Snohomish River. This is ish river country - most of the river names, at least those with something like their original names, end in -ish. The Skykomish isn't far away and neither is the Stillaguamish. We are just a bit over a mile upstream from the Salish Sea. This is a tidal estuary. We are starting on a flood tide, but the once it is in there will be little change for the next twelve hours. With a predictable current and water level we stand less chance of having to portage out. Less than a mile into the trip we spot two osprey nests, both with young inside.

I have often driven past this place, but not taken the time to paddle here until today. The main channel of the river is broad and was once more industrial than it is now. It is slowly sliding back to a more natural place, but it will be a long time for the evidence to disappear. When we get to the upstream end of the island that we started from, we find a few channels to choose from and the main channel is the least interesting. A wrecked fishboat draws us up Deadwater slough. This is still a place where things are abandoned and no one comes to remove them. We find the remains of three large boats in the slough, but there are probably more.

We return back down the slough and follow a fairly wide channel, which leads us to a smaller channel, which draws the curious in. The island that is on the map in this place was once farmland, but is now being reclaimed to its former saltwater estuary status. It is a maze of narrow channels. Some go through, some don't, and some go through at higher tides. We follow one that was once the drainage for the farm. It still flushes in either direction with tides, so it remains deep although it is a narrow and intimate route with grasses, reeds and the tops of logs that were driven in to support the bank. (Unlike a river marsh, route cannot be determined in a tidal marsh just by watching the flow of the water - it can go in either direction, and sometimes it is just filling or emptying a basin with no outlet) This channel brings us to a broad flooded area, an area of shallow water that would be mud flat at low tide. The channels that lead in and out of this place can be tough to find. We take one that dead ends, return, and have to bust up a fast current for 10 yards through an old levee to try another route. We wind along that and come out to the east channel of the river.

We follow the east channel towards the sea, not intending to get to that open water as the wind has come up. This is a new place to me and my location is estimated by bends and inlets. After a mile, we enter another inlet back into the island that we had come from. This leads to another broad flooded area. The effects of returning to saltwater estuary can be seen. There are stands of ghost trees - silver-grey in death, killed by the return of the brackish water that belongs here. A pair of bald eagles uses one as a perch. We follow a deep channel through the shallows and find ourselves back at the same gap in the levee that we had gone through an hour and half ago. We meet G. here, a fellow that comes in here often and we have a talk. We are of the same mind about places like this.

And so it continues until we find our way back to the main channel. As we round that point, we spot a 30 foot cedar dugout canoe. It is part of the annual canoe gathering that the area tribes take part in. The Swinomish are hosts this year and they live a long day to the north by canoe.

We meet up with G again at the take out. I have met my match in talking...but he has good stuff to say.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The wind blew most of the night and morning, but there came a time when heavy misting drizzle filled the view and the air stopped moving so rapidly.

It occurred to me as I portaged down to the south lagoon that I have, without clear intention, been disengaging myself from the city that I live and most often paddle in. Sometime ago I began to give names to marsh and shoreline features that had no official names, and I began to rename the few places that did show on maps giving those spots names that fit logically and emotionally...the burial island, the crossing under place, the workbench lodge. It was me engaging the marsh on my own terms. It was me creating my own geography, which was at least, devoid in name of the past sins and errors of the pioneer land barons, who matter little in the world that I travel.

The birch swamp of the burial island

I am far from being a hermit, even if I did write that down as a career aspiration on a middle school aptitude test (I actually used those tests as a role-playing game, seeing how far towards weird I could peg the results). In fact, I have quite a few friends, the numbers of which, have increased since I became an artist. So, while I disengage from the city, I retain a tendency to take almost anyone that is willing to show them the marsh from the canoe...taking friends along on my disengagement journey.

As I cross the bay northward, the misting rain returns with passion. It threatens to bring out "giant duck syndrome" - when the mist becomes heavy enough the ducks look far more distance than they are - but, knowing their size, it tells the mind that they are 2 or 3 feet tall.

This is a summer without summer. It is mid-July and we are still having weather that we would normally experience in April or May. It has been windy, cloudy and wet. Only the temperature informs on the actual date. It begins to shower heavily and for a moment, I wonder if, while politicians and self-styled leaders are bickering about how to not do anything about climate change, nature is crying.

I squeeze myself past the cattail berg that guards the mouth of Ravenna Creek. I don't go here often, but in inclement weather the man-made ditch always appears to be more of a creek and I find it pleasant.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Return to the water

It isn't long
no more than perhaps
one hundred strokes of the paddle
I hear the whistle
the wavering call of the bald eagle
and I look
usually able to spot the bird
my eyes sharp and trained
at watching wildlife
keen to pick up the horizontal where it should be vertical
wary of the oval where it should be random
I see it not. I don't need to.

I set out from the Harrison portage on a heavy overcast gray day. It is typical of winter except for the warmth of summer and the extra green that the deciduous plants add to the landscape. A light breeze, a very light breeze comes mostly from the north. My first pause is at the Big Lodge, which is now green in summer growth and appears more to be a hill than a house. I can still get into the beaver forest because of the high water, so I do. I find a heron feather floating. It is very soft, almost limp, kind of delicate.

The big dead end in the east marsh is continuing to close itself. I collect the old redwing blackbird nest, which I had left alone for others to discover, but now that the channel next to it is closed, no one will go that way and it won't be missed. I find a mound of cattail and brush that some animal has assembled. It is a lodge, but I don't know for what.

The parks department has cut away the big deadfall in the east channel of the burial island. At almost 2 feet in diameter, I was never going to clear it myself, although for a bit longer I would have enjoyed the technique of crossing it, the same that one uses when crossing a beaver dam as the top of it was just at the water level. It did keep the traffic down some.

The water in the bay is still quite clear. Typically, the algae has bloomed some, but today I find that I can see the debris field at Marsh Island with ease. It is amazing what people used to just toss into the lake.

I just keep going and work the headwind to the southeast end of the dead lake, where I take out and walk up over the hill.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Field Trip

I'm taking my nephew J canoeing. I overhear my hip wife, S warn him that "when Scott is ready to go, he goes, so you need to get ready to go."

We do the Harrison Portage, finding my cold weather swimming friend who comes up to shake hands. He did two miles today. The first time we met he had just finished swimming a bit over a mile in 47 degree water....tough stuff.

It is a beautiful summer day, sunny with some clouds and still cool. I chat about the before and after of the big lake as we go....what it would've looked like a 100 years ago when it was 10 feet deeper.

The big lodge is now well camouflaged in summer growth and can be missed from a 100 yards if one doesn't pay attention. A lot is missed from a lot closer in the marsh if one doesn't pay attention. We chase the call of a marsh wren when we get to the east marsh and just when I am about to give up on seeing it, it pops up to the top of the cattails for us.

We do the full circuit of no-man's land in Union Bay, but in this fine weather the wildlife has already began to lay down. Things are quiet. We head through the crossing under place into Portage Bay. There, we take out at the south end and have a short chat with a guy with a kayak who lives near me and has seen me portage past the house. My friend A, the retired archaeologist wanders into the park with her dog F who is a D. F proceeds to chase a golden retriever while A and I talk. We are planning a future trip to watch the beaver in the marsh. F is having fun, but a D is a poor size match for a golden retriever.

Then, we march up the hill.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Best Things in Life Aren't Things

A friend posts a photo with that line painted on a cracked wall in neat block letters with the shadows of trees running through the image. I write it on the back of my life vest in neat block letters.

I am going canoeing. My big show is ready and worrying about it won't make it readier. I pack my gear (or rather, I grab my gear that is always packed and ready to go). It begins to drizzle, and I grab my gear faster. I love the rain. If I ever move from here I will probably miss the rain as much as I miss the snowy winters of the place where I grew up.

At the big lake, a woman arrives for her mile swim as I am getting ready. She is happy. Just like me with my canoe, she is happy by swimming in the open water of the big lake. I can tell. We exchange just a sentence or two. She is in the water and on her way.

The drizzle closes down the lake, the distant obstructions of the city disappear just as the even more distant peaks of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier do. The world softens, it eases up and lets the imagination stretch.

A favorable wind blows me in my desired direction as I put my paddle down across the gunwales and write in my notebook.

The first bird of note is a female common merganser. It is a rare bird to see here at this time of year, although they are plentiful in winter. I suppose there are a few near the mouth of the Cedar River at the south end of the big lake. Rivers suit there carnivore tastes much better during summer.

At Potlatch Point an eagle with something in its talons flies by. It is on a beeline for the south nest. I am on a beeline for the NE lagoon. As I near, I find one of the north nest eagles at the lunch counter. It gets up when I am still some distance, but it is clearly the huge female.

While circling the bay, I find an immature bald eagle in a birch on Birch Island. A lot of Canada geese are right below it. The geese do this fairly often and it always looks odd to me. But, it is a foolish eagle that will mess with a full-grown goose as a goose is capable of breaking an eagle's wing...a fatal injury.

I run once through the east marsh and south lagoon. I leave the water at the west end of the ancient portage. On the way home, I run into the man with the crutch and the little lap dog, right at the steepest cobblestone section of the portage, where I have always found them. It has been some time since I've seen them. I stop and we talk for a minute or two.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An osprey day

The first bird of note that I see is an osprey that comes down the big lake from the north, head on at me. I identify them from a distance where there is nothing to gauge their size by the flapping of their wings. They fall somewhere between a heron and a bald eagle....and I always go through the process of thinking, "that is not an eagle, that is not a heron."

When it passes, I spot a dark object ahead 100 yards. It moves and it moves not like a duck, which makes it a mammal. It dives and the bight of its smooth tapered tail lifts clear of the water for a second before otter. I stop when I get closer and get a few glimpses of that otter, but it is too busy to stay on the surface for more than a few seconds. But while I watch, a second osprey comes my way, perhaps drawn in by the otter's activity, which it may see as a signal of fish in the area.

I continue another couple hundred yards up the lake and a third osprey (or is it one of the others returning) overtakes me, and I watch it fly a mile ahead while I paddle.

A middle school class of Canada geese come by chaperoned attentively by two elders. Sometimes, people wonder how they can fly such precise vee's while migrating, but when you watch them from the day they hatch, you realize that their whole life is carefully ordered. They are continually guided and watched until they become part of the flock.

East Marsh
In the east marsh, I paddle the long dead end to see if anything has changed. The original route in is now closed to the narrowest of boats, but the other way still goes. The light is good at the edge of the beaver forest, the strong sun of today casting contrast on the thousand beaver gnawed limbs that come up out of the water. An agonizing piercing "skreek" announces the coming of a green backed heron. It almost lands in a branch before seeing me and continuing away.

And, I continue away, paddling the crossing under place, Portage Bay, ducking the NW wind in the dead lake until it suits me...when it is a quartering tailwind. It pushes me down to the south end and I walk up over the hill to home.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The river

It is a pleasant day, warm and cloudy with sun coming through now and then, here and there. S comes along with me to the north end of the big lake where we put in for a short trip on the Sammamish River. They call it a slough, but I think of it as a river, which doesn't matter as much as the fact that S knows that I need to get out.

There is a stiff wind, which is the reason we head towards the river instead of more open water. But, the wind is out of the north, so even as we do the 1/4 mile or so across the big lake to the mouth of the river, we are protected from the brunt of the weather.

Four eagles are busy here. Only one is mature with a white head and tail. A kingfisher is working the shoreline where we put in.

The Sammamish is a mixed bag for wildlife. The mouth has a small marsh that hosts herons, wrens, ducks and blackbirds. Then we pass through area where houses and building were allowed to be placed far too close to the river for anyone's good.

A pair of plastic swans pooping polyethylene

Then, once again some open wetland, although it is wetland with little stewardship - too many blackberries, which means that there are other unhealthy invasives in the mix. It's this second area, where the river bends to the right and a stagnant creek joins in on the left that confuses me. It is a large enough patch of land that it should have a reasonably good amount of wildlife diversity, but it never does. S comments that something seems wrong even though it looks right.

We get up to the golf course, a rather unfortunate area that crowds the river and turn around.

While exploring the stagnant creek, we find a bit of beaver gnawing, but it is a small amount. This seems like a good place for beaver, but they too are not here.

Marsh wren nest (real, authentic and genuine)

At the mouth, more eagles come in, challenging each other in the air. There might be six total. I spot a fine wren nest in the marsh and stop to show S. As we cross the end of the lake an osprey circles high carefully watching a bald eagle circling below it. The kingfisher is still working the shoreline where we put in.