Tuesday, August 30, 2011

New Guy in the Boat

P, an evening person by nature, arrives at the house at 6am.  And, we begin the portage.
Marsh Wren Nest
I met P, recently at a Smoke Farm event.  He had never been canoeing and, by chance, lived just a few blocks from me.  It was arranged.  The plan for a 6am start is to get to the water early enough to find beaver out swimming around.  It has always worked.  Today it doesn't.  We not only don't see the usual 6 or 8 that I might find as the evening feeding winds down, we don't see one.  We don't see one in the little lagoon that belongs to the Workbench Lodge, so we head over to the lodge itself and, there, we don't see a single one returning to home.  So, we head to the hidden lodge where we find zero, and up the east channel of the burial island, where I give P a good sniff of a scent mound, which he declares to be bad (in winter when they eat tree bark, the scent is pleasant, but I must agree that mid-summer castoreum is fairly rank).  I show him the new muskrat lodge and then we head over to the Big Lodge, where we find no beaver and actually little sign of recent activity.  By now, we can forget about finding beaver.  It is too late in the morning.

But, a green backed heron rises up - all dinosaurish and gawkiness.  It settles behind the lodge and we circle round to view it perched, where it is a deceptively small and graceful looking bird.  Then it unfolds itself into something ill proportioned and flies off.

We cross the bay to take a short walk to see the north eagle nest.  We discuss the reality of Seattle's eco-imagination while looking over Yesler's pilings next to the former Seattle dump site.  I have a low opinion of the founding fathers who for some reason thought that it was a good idea to dump any and all garbage, refuse and debris in the water.  Following the north shore, we spot three very small raccoons running along the shore.

We stop again near the West Lodge.  P is up and out of the canoe and before I can get out he has declared the felled alder trees on the shore to be cool.  In fact, they have continued to work on some of the trees, although not with such vigor as in the winter when they have nothing else to eat.

We continue on, paddling without break into and through Portage Bay and down the dead lake passing the shipyards. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Waiting Time

S and I walk down to south lagoon on a cloudy and windy day.

To look at it one would think that it is a cold one, but it is not, and a sweat is breaking under a bit too much shirt for the weather.  

The water is low, and it seems as low as it ever gets during the winter, when the dam guys bring it all the way down.  I must admit that while I do understand the need for extra water in the summer, I do not understand their timing.  We go through the east channel of the burial island, noting which beaver scent mounds have been freshly splashed, and then down the big dead end.  A trail of bubbles runs ahead of us and the new resident muskrat surfaces once before moving off.  There is a new muskrat lodge in here, a conical pile of cattails and other plants built up on a bit of bog stuff.  It's a bit of a mess, but it's a house and it's the only muskrat house that I've seen, although I do see muskrats every so often.

We are in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything, so we stop here and there and just look at what is around us.  Then we cross the bay to the NE lagoon.  And we sit there for awhile and look at what is around us.  Then we come out and crab our way along the north shore, a moderate south wind always trying to push us sideways.  Near the north point we inspect what appears to be one of the temporary islands that rise up in winter - dense peat layers buoyed by trapped swamp gas.  But, this is a raft of bog stuff some 8 x 15 feet.  When we get close we can see that it undulates with the waves.

It is near the end of a very brief summer and not much is happening.  This year's brood of ducks is mostly able to fly, except for the latest of hatchings.  This year's geese are flying well and can not be easily recognized from their elders.  Otherwise, it is a time of waiting - waiting for the return of birds from the north.

Friday, August 26, 2011

No more hoopla

What I notice most this morning is the silence from the redwing blackbirds and marsh wrens.  Since April their voices have been an almost constant in the marsh, but for the last 2 weeks they seemed to have gone still.  I suppose, their mates chosen, nests built, eggs laid and hatched, they are just getting on with it - the big hoopla having subsided.  I put in from a lesser used spot on the burial island.  A few of the scent mounds have been freshly splashed and as I exit the east marsh, I find a male redwing blackbird picking bugs off of the lotus pads and silently confirming his existence.  The water is very low now, and the canoe moves laboriously, the physics of a bow wave meeting a shallow bottom with no place to dissipate.

immature sora rail
Along the north shore I find an immature sora rail, a bird I've never seen before.  It is walking close to shore on the lotus pads and does not hurry away when I stop to watch.

I continue on to the south end of the dead lake.

Monday, August 22, 2011


I stop first to herd ducks. I spot a mother following two ducklings as I move down the open channel between the dense floors of lily and lotus pads.  I catch four more ducklings lagging behind to my right, stumbling through the jumble of giant green leaves, the mother stopping to look back at a them.  I pull up and wait, although I finally get impatient with the last two, who are dawdlers for sure.  I nose the canoe into the pads behind them and they pick it up some, all swimming off together.

It is a warm, cloudy and windy day with a sense of coming rain.  I start in the dead lake and paddle downwind, my paddling more for correcting my heading than for power.

Changing weather seems to cause me to think of changes in general, changes in my life.  But here, I'd rather just look at what is now.  

The cattails are not yet tipped in yellow.
The late arriving lotus and lily pads have come in just as vigorous as always...just late.
The birch trees seem to be just a bit more yellow than I remember, but there is no proof of this.
The Hidden Lodge (beaver) is truly living up to the name that I have given it.

The water level is low but I can still get into the dead end in the east marsh.  In unison, I surprise a muskrat, a green backed heron, and a heard but unseen great blue heron as I enter.  With the low water, the mud bottom of the beaver forest is finally exposed.

I sit still in the canoe for quite some time.  The canoe does not rest but instead drifts with the wind that penetrates the marsh, first one direction and then back, and then with a little twist.  I find my way by going along for the ride.  I feel like sleeping.

I lay down, by shoulders on the gunwales, my feet up on the center thwart, my head on the blade of my paddle.  I no longer want to sleep, but I do not want to move.  I am waiting for the rain.

The rain comes.  I can go.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The duldrums

I get a late start, walking the harrison portage, setting out in what is mid-day heat for the northwest. As I pass the swimming beach, the lifeguard bullhorns me to stay 25 yards outside of the swim zone. She has good depth perception...I am only 4 canoe lengths outside...21 and 1/3 yards, or so.

The birds are napping, and not much is going on except for people playing in the water. It amazes me that more people don't drown, really. At the north end of Union Bay a man paddles a rental canoe while his 6 year old son trails a stick in the water, his head hanging over the gunwale, his eyes watching the patterns in the water. It is the best thing I see today. Even on a great day, it would rate pretty high up there.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 10, 2011

I get K into the canoe this morning and we head straight away out to the seals on the large rock to the north.
Then, we tour the bay. K and JP, our hosts, don't have a boat other than a tiny dingy, so they don't get this view often, and when they do, they don't get it from the intimacy of a canoe. K enjoys seeing the houses of the neighbors from the water and knowing what is down those winding drives that head into the woods from the road. Oddly enough, we don't see the otters, which have been so present over the last couple days.

Later -
I take S out for a tour up to the seal site on the northern rock.

Then, we head south to the seal beaching site near Active Pass, just to prove to myself that there are seals in both spots at the same time.

Early afternoon -
Finally, I get JP to join me. We are both solidly built old guys, not fat, but tall and sturdy, although JP is 4 inches taller. This is a bit much for my 16 ft. canoe (If the two of us paddled together regularly, we would be using a 17 or 18 footer). So, I don't say anything until after the tour is done, but it is a twitchy ride for me, as I am use to paddling solo or with flyweights like S. We follow the shore closely and I avoid the half mile open crossing to the seal rock. We do go down to admire the boatbuilders shed. JP would like to have one of the builders jolly boats - the boatbuilder specializes in making replicas of Bligh's jolly boat. After the Bounty mutiny, Bligh sailed his overloaded jolly boat over 1000 miles of ocean losing only one of his remaining crew.
Then, we head up north and into a little inlet that finally has enough water to let us pass.

August 9, 2011

Galiano Island
I slip out by 7am to an overcast sky with a glow of an earlier sunrise in the east, where I can see through the islands. My trips alone are always so different than when I share the canoe. With the occasional bowman, I steer the canoe to see the sites, to see the sights. Alone, I have no agenda and seem not to care about getting anywhere other than where I am.

This morning, I ease along the edges of the rocks at the lowest of the day's tides. I spot a few river otters with ease on the calm waters. 2 guillemots, well scattered from each other are in the bay. On the larger island at the north end of the bay are 2 dozen seals, again mostly mothers and pups. I begin to disturb them from about a hundred yards, so I watch them from that distance.

Returning, I circle around the rocks in some pattern that might end up as a figure eight, or not. A mink runs along the edge of one island.

Afternoon -
I paddle up past the government dock and back, edging along the shore in a bit of mid-day wind. When I return, I spot the 3 small otters at the most substantial of of the rocks. They leave a trail of wet splashes as they exit the water and clamber up over the sandstone and into the brush.
I get out on the far side of the rock to explore. This side marks the passage into the government dock and I find a few pieces of fiberglass boat hull in the water. I collect 3 specimens - a thin slab of sandstone, a bent iron fitting, and a deer leg bone. On the south tip of the island I find a sand patch with otter tracks all through it - with the signature esses of the tail sweep.

Evening -
S and I head out for a quick paddle. I stop first at the big rock and send her up to the sand patch to see the array of otter tracks. Then we head across bay to look at two seals that are beached alone on another rock and to look at a beautiful old classic cabin that sits on the far side of the bay.

It is a fine example of form and function, particularly at an age when so many people insist on building waterfront homes that make a statement... primarily about their outsized egos.

August 8, 2011

Galiano Island
It is barely a hundred yard portage down the hill from our friend's house to the Whalers Bay. 12-year old B joins me for a pre-breakfast circle of the bay. Both the tide and wind are low. Gossip Island, to the east, cuts the bay off from the great expanse of the Salish Sea. There are several rock islets in the bay that for the most part, nearly disappear in high tide. They make the bay an uninviting place for large vessels while create interesting places to visit for with canoe.

We scare an immature bald eagle from the nearest island and then swing north to explore a couple of inlets. As we return we find 3 young river otters watching us. They appear to be this year's pups, now separate from their parents, but still staying together as a set.

Near mid-day
S and I head out for a bit more extensive paddle. We drop down into the tidal cove where the government dock is. Farthest in is a boat builder who, from the dory that he has moored in the cove, is a true craftsman. His open air work shed is worth envy. Then we come back out and round the point to continue south towards Active Pass. Here, exposed to the Salish Sea, there is some wind and, with the tide rising, a bit of tidal chop, which at this spot is no more than some waves that are larger than they should be, considering the wind. Twenty-some seals are beached on an island - mostly females and recent pups and adolescents.

We get up to Sturdies Bay, where the ferry docks before turning back. 2 otters exit the water and run up onto the first band of grass, occasionally stopping to roll in the dirt. After we pass the seals we spot a trio of young otters, which may be the same ones that I saw in the morning.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Settling of the marsh

The morning is an overcast of marine gray clouds, the effect of living so near the ocean. I do the Harrison portage still sleepy enough to leave my best paddle at home, but conditioned enough to routine that my extra paddle is in the bottom of the canoe.

My spare paddle is a good paddle by store-bought standards, but as my skills at paddle carving steadily improve, it is no where near what I can make in my hands. The T-grip works well in whitewater and at afternoon tea parties, but it lacks all of the grace that lives in a hand smoothed pear shaped grip, a form that rests in the palm as if it was an extension of the hand. I am a person that is attuned to the marriage of man and simple tools, which is why I make canoe paddles instead of canoes. The direct connection between myself and the environment is in the paddle. I build them with a great amount of thought.

I pause briefly at the Big Lodge for no reason other than it seems a shame not to stop and admire this beaver built island. Two kingfishers get up and leave as I near, but not so much for me as much as it is feeding time. While I sit, a cluck-cluck to my left and I see the dinosaurish flight of a green backed heron. It settles in the beaver forest, which with the water down a foot, I can no longer enter. But, that lower water level also means that the marsh if fixed for the season. Which takes me to my second stop, the open water in the SE corner of the east marsh. This open patch is marks the origin of the cattail berg that I have tracked since May in 2010. One could still measure the size of that berg by tracing the open water, if one wanted to. Last year, it settled in the NE corner, blocking off a long open channel that was 70 feet across. This April, it moved again, opening the NE channel, before lodging itself in the NW corner, blocking the other entrance. A good piece of it calved off (I actually watched that happen) and that finally settled a mile north in the mouth of Ravenna Creek. The original route into the dead end in the east marsh has also closed enough so that a canoe will not pass. That too will remain so for the season.

Just over the bow of the canoe, I spot a bumblebee pollinating an invasive plant.

beaver trail - east marsh

The marsh is awake, but not hurried.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Paddling in the mourning

It is the first day in over 3 months where I cannot enter the beaver forest. The water has dropped a few inches this week, the narrow gaps that I had squeezed through are even thinner, the shallow spots where I just cleared beaver felled trees are now land bridges. I can come back in nine months.

I stop among the lotus pads - something I more often complain about because they restrict my paddling during the summer, but today the pads are alive, or I should say, today I notice how alive the pads are. Bees move among the blossoms and rest on the pads themselves, dragonflies are all around, and something stirs under the pads as I move. I don't mind them much today.

The surviving female adult eagle from the south nest flies by. Her mate was killed yesterday by a vehicle on the stupid bridge that passes through this beautiful area, a dead scar, an obscene gesture of progress. I have no response to it other than my own verbal obscenities. So, the sunny warm day has a certain somberness to it. I saw their eaglet in a tree two days ago... "so it goes".

Monday, August 1, 2011

Coming out party for a bald eagle

I put in on Portage Bay to clear skies, brilliant sun and a east wind.

Coming up the inside of the West Islands, I find ducks sunning themselves, collecting the warmth of a new day after the damp of night. There is one male wood duck in the mix and he is just getting his beautiful breeding colors back after the dullness of nesting season. A bald eagle comes in and perches above alders 1, 2 and 3. I've surveyed the alders, hence the names. They were felled last fall by the West Lodge beaver colony. This has not disturbed the eagle's nature experience one bit, nor mine for that matter.

"Sedge meadow" - the planned SR520 bridge will wipe this away

In the NE lagoon, a wall of green has completely hidden the North Lodge. No one would know it is there unless they have seen it before. I decide that this lagoon would be a fine place to hide from the world.

The wind is picking up. I should start my crossing of the bay.

As I enter the sedge meadow, a Virginia Rail (above) stops me for a few moments while it complains about the intrusion. But, with it positioned in such good sunlight, I stay and watch it for a while.

there is an immature bald eagle in this photo

In the east marsh, I spot a raptor settling to a perch above the big dead end. It turns out to be a very young bald eagle and has probably left the nest not too many days ago.