Friday, November 30, 2012

The Abnormal

The wind is out of the north and east today, which is something that I don't think of as normal, while being full aware that I haven't been here long enough to know what normal is.  I put in at the harbor noting first that most of the floating docks and nearly all of the pleasure boats have been pulled from the water - a winter warning, I suppose.  But, right now it is as calm here as I have ever seen it and my paddle out to the ocean is nothing but gentle.

The sky is cloudy, but the clouds move with haste and the sun shows through every once in awhile.  The work boats, oystermen who are actually harvesting clams, are working the waters between the mainland and Charles Island.  It is not normal for me to see them there.  The near ocean waters, being in the lee of the shoreline are calm and so, instead of heading straight into Gulf Pond, I continue east along land that I have not seen before.  People along here are rebuilding rock walls that were damaged during the hurricane, but I suspect that most of their damage was erosion and not structure.  I can see occasional whitecaps out beyond Welches Point and when I get there I find the wind to be not impossible, but not inviting.  There seems no good reason to leave the gentle waters.  I turn back noticing the large and exposed house that sits at the point, the former site of a guano and fishmeal factory.

I pass under the rusty bridge at slack tide, the peak of high tide when everything stands still for a few moments before reversing direction.  There is absolutely no current as I duck under the rusted beams.  A bit of north wind puts some effort into the paddle up Gulf Bay.  I spot black ducks, buffleheads, Canada geese and one great blue heron.

The real surprise, the real not normal event for me comes at the stone railroad bridge.  It is the gate into the Indian River.  I have seen it at low tide when it must be waded and the canoe lined through.  I have been here somewhere near high tide when a deep overpowering flow comes out.  Today, through no fault of my own, I slip effortlessly under the bridge, the high tide of Gulf Pond matching the high tide in Indian River.

I have never been in the river while it is high tide, so I continue past the time when I would've normally turned back.  The river is full width and unconstrained.  I spot some more black ducks and buffleheads and three hooded mergansers that takeoff around the next bend just as we see each other.  That's mostly normal for them.  Under the highway bridge I find a raccoon.  I knew they were here, but this is the first that I've seen.

I watch the water mark on the grasses and reeds that line the river.  When I turn back, the water has dropped about 2 inches and there is now a small current.  At the stone bridge the water has now dropped 3 inches and I coast through riding on the tide.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Unexpected

I put in at the feral cat park and follow the left bank upstream - the left bank, in riverman's terminology being the one on your left if you are facing downstream.  I have both the wind and the current to work against and I am not feeling my best, a fresh dose of antibiotics in me to combat a possible case of Lymes disease from a deer tick bite 2 weeks ago.  I figure it best to be sick doing something I like rather than sit around the house and add to it.

I follow the reeded shoreline closely, just a few feet away, hoping for a little relief from the current and a bit of protection from the wind.  When the shoreline turns rocky, and later craggy, I do the same.

The tide is high and I spot the log that overhung the river, the one where four black crowned night herons stood for me one day a few weeks back.  I spot that log as I pass over it, submerged by almost two feet.  I turn into the little inlet a half hour up the river.  When I was here last, it was a fast chute of water dropping three feet in twenty - an impassable passage upstream.  Today, it is easy.  I find a calm pond almost a half mile in length.  It is man-made, for no reason that I know of, but it was not here on the 1934 aerial photograph that I looked at yesterday.

I continue up and soon, I find a Triumph motorcycle upside down and partly submerged on the bank.  I write the vehicle identification number down so that I can let the police know where it is.  It needs to be moved, even if it does not need to be found.  It smells of slowly leaking gasoline.

I pass under the tall bridge and begin my way along the craggy banks where turned up sedimentary rock stands on end.  I keep going, thinking about the next island upstream.  A very strong and steady gust of wind comes down on me - quite unexpected.  I let it decide.  It is time to turn back.

I follow that left bank except when I get near Fowler Island where I cross the channel and paddle in the lee of that low flat feature.  Then I go back to the bank and follow.  There is a stand of trees on a sandy beach that I stop to explore.  It looks like a fine "stealth" campsite for a future day.  I find a camera (more below).

The day has gone raw and I am glad to end the trip when I do. 

The Camera - I pulled out the memory card and found it to be in good order.  One expects images of people goofing off - posing on the speedboat and standing around the barbecue.  What I found were a dozen photos taken in mid-october 2011 of a bridge inspection.  I recognized the bridge as being one up near Derby - a place I just visited a week back.  From the photos, it looks like it needs some work.
Take a photo of me

Digital cameras leave more information than just the photo.  So, on October 19, 2011, sometime not long after the following photo was taken, one of the guys (probably the one in the above photo) said something like -
"Shit!  I dropped the camera."   

Okay, now you take a photo of us
   "Way to go, asshole.  We're not coming back to get you."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cold Feet

I start early enough leading a tailwind out of the harbor in no such hurry so that I can take time to watch a little blue heron work on its morning meal.

The tide is not full out of Gulf Pond when I get to the rusty bridge and I have to fight the stiff current honestly, the water to low for me to reach up and grab the bridge beams and vault my way through.  Oddly enough, there is little forgiveness when I get into the pond, a headwind that feels stronger than I expected and the draining current make the length of the bay an  effort.  I watch for birds and memorize them without taking pause to set my paddle down until I reach the small pond just before the Indian River.

The water is low enough to make the portage through the chute, under the stone bridge, and into the river.  I remove my socks and put my shoes back on, roll my pants to the knee, and step out on the left taking the bow line and wading while pulling the canoe.  The water is very cold although not quite mountain stream cold.  I was raised in the north and it is well drummed into my head that cold is okay, numb is not.  I get on with it and hope that I can drift through the chute on the return with dryer feet.

The first half mile is in an exposed wetland.  The river is narrow, but the wind is present.  Once I pass under the next bridge, it is a forested stream.  I take my time moving quietly.  I flush several hooded mergansers at each bend, scaring them from some distance.  When the river begins to really narrow and the brush comes to the edges of the water, I spot 3 white-tail does well after they have seen me.  They head upstream, but crashing brush downstream signals a fourth.

I get to a log that I do not want to bother clambering over, because I know from my last trip that it will soon get too shallow for the canoe.  I return on the drift, being even quieter than on the way in.  Where I spotted the deer, I find that fourth.  It is a doe as well.  Two red-shouldered hawks come by, two kingfishers pass by as well.  The chute is too shallow to canoe through, so I wade it again and continue back to the harbor.  It takes the entire portage before my feet warm back up.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Flats and Islands

On the old maps, the hundred year old maps, it is Pope's Flat.  I like that term, "flat" and I don't see the improvement on newer maps by using the word, "island".  I suppose that flat is from old regional vocabulary and so far, the only differences that I can see from the islands and flats in this here river is that most of the islands can barely manage to grow trees and the flats cannot.

I started at the feral cat park and with a rising tide for the next few hours, I can explore any passages that I find among the flats and islands.  I sneak into one on Pope's Flat, and I do sneak, moving as quietly as possible, because I have seen deer out here.  It is not long before I find a deer trail that crosses my route.

The sky is overcast but the glare from the partial sun is enough to make me wear sunglasses.  It is a warning sky, but not one that alerts me that I might be blown out of my canoe at any moment.  Rather, it says, "winter is coming", and it seems to mean it.

Well, I put down my pencil and continue on my way into the flat until, in not to long a distance, it dead ends such that the way would not pass even at the highest tide.  I paddle down to the tip of the flat and follow another opening in.  This one stops at a hundred yards, but the ground is lower and if I return here during high water, I will be able to continue through the grasses.

In my old haunting grounds on the west coast, I renamed an island that I frequented.  It had an obscure honorific, named for one of two people (no one remembered which) who no one remembered much about.  But, that island had also been a Native American burial ground and so it became the Burial Island.  In the 1960's, the state built a highway across the island, a highway that anyone living there knows, is damned all to hell.  The name of a place should fit, and apparently my name does.

I pass Long Island (that should be a flat), cut the gap between Carting Island (which does have some trees), explore an inlet near Peacock Island (which may or may not have trees), and then continue upriver a short ways to explore another gap that has opened on the shoreline.  When I return to the feral cat park, I find an old friend waiting safely out of reach of the cats.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wheeler Marsh

S and I put in from the wooded launch site on "our" side of the river.  This is her first trip to the Wheeler marsh, a large estuary wetland of spartina grass islands and water passages that open and close with the tides.  We start with a couple more hours of rising tide, which gives us more exploring time than we will want and a good amount of extra time to back out of dead ends well before the tide falls.  It is sunny and one would say warm, except that the light wind puts a chill on everything.

Our first attempt at a shortcut passage takes us into a dead end, but a dead end with a fine new muskrat house.

House.  Entrance at the lower left.

Then, we paddle a route known to me out to the sand spit that forms Milford Point.  It is not a particularly good bird day for some reason, but we flush American Black Ducks fairly often.  That duck is similar to a mallard and will even interbreed with mallards.  It has an almost identical silhouette, a similar quack and is easily recognizable due to its almost black coloring.

I beach the canoe on the sand spit and coax S out of the canoe.  I tell her that she needs to look at it all from here.  Once on the spit one gets a clear idea of what the landscape is - a tidal marsh separated from the ocean by 20 yards of sand.  A broad shallows forms the sea side of the spit and the river mouth is to the west.  The marsh, with its fall colors is a swirl of golden lines and patches with blue green water in the spaces between.

We paddle back into the grass, seeking out openings, flushing ducks and once, a snipe that was sitting low in the grass near the water.  It flies off like a dart.  For some reason, I aim us down a number of dead ends, where when I have been here solo I have wandered into only one or two.  We finally retreat to a main channel that takes us to the upriver end of the marsh where another open channel takes us over to the river bank.  While we follow that back towards the put-in, I hear brush crashing from a long ridge that forms an upcoming bay, but we see nothing.  Then, as we pass the ridge I whisper, "deer."   A 4-point white tail buck and a doe are standing belly deep in the marsh about 30 yards away.  My camera focuses perfectly on the grass that stands between us, so we just watch each other.  They don't move until I attempt to move us into a better viewpoint, and a second doe appears as the three of them climb out of the water onto the ridge and wander off.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mill Towns

I put in under a bridge in the town of Derby but I am unsure of which river I have set out in being very near the confluence of the Naugatuck and Housatonic.  So, I head upstream to figure out where I am.

There is little current and the upstream paddle is more of an upwind effort than anything.  I pass old brick industrial buildings in various states of decay and refurbishment.  The river towns in this area are old mill towns that have truly entered their post-industrial eras.  In short time, perhaps 15 minutes or so, I see a dam and know that I am in the Housatonic because I have been on the uphill side of that dam not to many days ago.

I return the way I came and pass the put in, finding out by a sign on the shore that I set out from O'Sullivans Island.  I round the downstream point and head up the Naugatuck, which has a small current and seems more exposed to the wind.  The east bank is steep and wooded, often about 60 feet high with houses built right to the edge of the bluff.  The west side, once I leave the lower parts of the island, is a 40 foot high dike of piled tan rock.  It is devoid of life.  The east bank unfortunately shows the wear and tear of being a town river and there is far too much trash entangled in the brush for my liking.  It is an uninspiring paddle and even my camera struggles to get more than a dreary toneless image.  But, I know that it is a place to return to.  I will have to come back because there will be a time when I will find the beauty that lies hidden.

music for fish

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I Return the Way I Came.

I portage down to the harbor and find the tide very high.  The morning wind has died down and my wind driven procrastination has disappeared.  I use the high tide to take in all of the edges of this little harbor, which still has unused natural shoreline and shallows for the fish and birds to live in.  I suppose that they could pack another 300 boats in here, but they don't.  I spot a bald eagle.

There are two red-throated loons in the water just before I get to the fast flow that comes out under the rusty bridge as the tide drops.  I have to fight the current inch by inch up to the bridge.  There, I reach up and grab the beams underneath and push my way forward.  It saves me the 15 minutes of full on paddling it would take to cover the 20 yards to still water. 

The sky is going steely grey with clouds and the hazy sun of morning will soon be gone.  There are 30 some buffleheads in the lower part of Gulf Pond and when I get about half way up, I spot a second bald eagle just as it begins to harass an osprey, which I did not at all expect to see.  But, in the whirling chase, I get to see the underside of the osprey quite clearly and can be confident in the identification.  This chase goes on for several minutes until both birds are out of sight.

When I get to the top of the pond, I take a good stab at busting the current into Indian River.  It is about as good as it gets, the tide high enough to cover the rocks and perhaps only an eight inch difference in height between the river and the pond.  I get the bow of the canoe almost to the river but the current is too much and I have a quick backward ride back into the pond.

I take some time on the return to just paddle, putting in distance with steady strong strokes while staying alert.  The three black crowned night herons that I spotted on the way up are nowhere to be seen, but the eagle has returned and perches in satisfaction of the osprey's absence in a high tree on the west shore.

long-tailed duck

I enter the harbor just as the work boats are coming back, their aft decks stacked with clams in netted bags like potatoes come in.  They are small and rather open boats with crews of three or maybe four and they take turns unloading into a panel truck at the main pier.  I spot a long-tailed duck.

I take out and return the way I came.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Long Day and New Birds

S drops me off at the harbor on her way to somewhere else.  It takes me just a few moments to put-in as anyone that has canoed with me can tell.  Everything is in its place and ready to go when I start, and everything is left in its place and ready to go when I finish.

It is a very calm day, warm and sunny - it is a day to make special use of.   When I reach the mouth of the harbor, I see that I can still pass under the rusty bridge into Gulf Pond, but it is too calm to go there and instead I turn seaward.  I spot a long-tailed duck, the first that I have ever seen although I know it from noticing its wonderful plumage while browsing through bird guides.  It does not oblige me with a good pose.

Long Tailed Duck
 A long tailed duck can dive to 200 ft and spend 3 to 4 minutes at a time underwater.

I turn SW and follow the seashore.  Recently, I followed an online discussion about risk.  One person wrote that we have become a risk averse society.  I did not agree with that, but thought about it long enough to decide that we are actually a risk ignorant society.  I paddle past beach front homes that are unscathed, and then for some quirk of nature, I paddle past fifteen or twenty houses that have the first floors busted in, windows gone or sometimes the floor, joists and walls removed leaving a cantilevered second floor dangling over the sand.  This pattern repeats itself for as long as I am on the salt water.  And we were only touched by the edge of the hurricane.

It is not the first hurricane, by any means, to reach Connecticut.  Nor will it be the last.

Something that sounds like a loon call draws me out towards a tiny sand bar at the tip of a groin (groins are underwater wing dams for the purpose of collecting and holding beachfront).  I don't see anything that matches that call, but instead I find two American oystercatchers.

American Oystercatcher

When I get to Milford Point, I find out why the houses on this exposed beach survived with minimal damage.  I had only seen them from the marsh on the other side of the point.  There is a sand/gravel bar on the sea side that is nearly a 1/4 mile across.  While well submerged, it would've broken some of the water's impact during the storm surge.  I paddle in less than 2 feet of water for a few hundred yards to get into the river.  There is a stiff current against me.

I continue to fight that current into the Wheeler marsh until I can slip into one of the dozens of channels that work their way through the spartina.  The cloudless day lights the fall colored grass to a beautiful bronze.  I wind through the channels aware that there is an expiration date when one is in a tidal marsh during a falling tide.  At some point, it is time to seek the larger deeper channels lest one find the way forward blocked... and find the way back blocked as well.  I spot a couple dozen black ducks, about 15 greater yellow legs, and 2 great blue herons during the passage.

When I exit the upstream end of the marsh, it is open big river with a growing wind at my back that not quite cancels the opposing current.  I take out a couple miles up at the feral cat park.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


The day comes warm and calm, warm and calm for November.  I plan to take S for her first trip in the Wheeler marsh at the mouth of the big river, but S is notorious for forgetting that things such as tides and wind do, in fact, count.  By the time we head for the river the tide is low enough that we may not be able to return to the put-in, so I divert to the feral cat park.  A juvenile black crowned night heron watches us with great tolerance as we load the canoe.

black crowned night heron

It is a fine day to be on the big river.  A gentle wind is there with a strong downstream current, the additive of the river's own flow and the dropping tide.  We head straight out and round the upstream tip of Pope's Flat, cut across the next channel to the upstream tip of Long Island, and then follow the shoreline into the narrow channel that creates Carting Island.  The even narrower channel that splits Peacock Island from Carting has no current, so somewhere in there the bottom is fully exposed...a trip for a higher tide.  We spot a great blue heron, a kingfisher, a large and beautiful red tailed hawk that circles over us for some time, and a cooper's hawk.  Below these islands the river becomes somewhat more industrial, so we return back up that narrow channel as the water becomes increasingly shallow.  I have to get out and wade in two places.

We continue upriver following the rockier west shore and tucking in close to avoid the bulk of the opposing current.  A bit over a mile and a half and we cut across to the top of Fowler Island, which is actually high enough in a few spots to support trees.  The east channel is barely deep enough for the canoe to of the beauties of the big river being that wide swaths of it are not accessible to power boats.

We ride a downstream current along the shoreline of phragmite and spartina back to the feral cat park.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Before the Next Storm

Tomorrow, a Nor'easter arrives with its heavy rain and gale force winds.  But, today, it is calm and cloudless with cool air and some remaining patches of orange leaves dappled into the grey of a winter ready forest.

I put in on the Housatonic above the town of Shelton and the dam that blocks the river.  I am some ten miles from the sea and a 30 foot wide lane of milfoil, an invasive water plant, runs along the shore.  This shows that the water here is fresh and it also hints at the profile of the bottom, which must be fairly steep.  There is no current, either river or tidal, and there is almost no wind.

I paddle up the river a ways, at times on a mirror surface.  And, I paddle down the river a ways, until I see the buoys warning of the dam. 

There are five mute swans.  They are not mute.  One is vocalizing and it starts with a whistley wheezy sound followed by a short pants ripping fart.  I spot two kingfishers, several mallards, some ring-billed gulls and near the end of the trip, a juvenile bald eagle that sits long enough for me to take several photos.

I find a cattail marsh on the east side of the river not far from where I put in and I have a nice talk with a guy who is trying to wear down his Jack Russell terrier.

And, anything that bothered me, and among other things finding the place to put-in was quite a bother, is gone.  Such are the inner workings of a canoe.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Little Places

We wake to a bright and sunny fall day and it seems a waste not to be outside.  The wind comes up before we can leave the house, not as bad as yesterday, but strong enough to cause me to carefully pick our trip.  We stop at the feral cat park to check on the big river, but the wind seems to be funneled into the valley and it looks to be too much work.  So, we head back up the hill to Mondo Pond.  It is a small pond, maybe three or four hundred yards across the long way.  It seems hardly worth putting the canoe in, except that it is so pretty with rounded bedrock islets scattered in the water surrounded by the deciduous brush and trees of a New England forest. 

We see several mallards, a coot, a pair of pied-billed grebes, and one greater yellow legs.  It is an entirely pleasant trip in the smallest of places.  We talk about how nice it would be to canoe through a long chain of these little ponds.  We imagine that there is such a place.

She tells me how glad she is to have her favorite paddle again, one that I made for her.  We paddle back and forth and round and round, along the shoreline and weaving through the islets until we've seen everything a dozen times from a dozen different directions.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Dry Hands Day

The wind is already up by the time I start my portage down to the harbor.  It is a stiff NW wind (out of the NW) that pushes me down the harbor toward the opening to Long Island Sound, where I won't go, but also to the opening to the day's destination, Gulf Pond.

I spot seven buffleheads just before the rusty bridge.  They are the first that I've seen this fall.  It is also the first really raw day, a temperature of 45 F backed up by 20mph of wind.  I think to myself that it is a dry hands day - one where you go out of the way to avoid sticking your hands in the water because it takes so long to get them warm again.

I count birds, except for gulls.  I don't have time to count gulls if I want to paddle anywhere.  A flock of 50+ ducks flush when I am 300 yards distance.  I have a hunch that they are black ducks, but I just can't ID them from this distance.

greater yellow legs

For no real reason that I am aware of, I remember a dream that I had last night, or the night before, or some other night.  I dreamed that I was canoeing with a paddle that was much too short.  I like to think that it has something to do with life.

clams at the base of the spartina grass

Bird count in Gulf Pond: 10 buffleheads, 2 Canada geese, 2 mute swans, 5 greater yellow legs, 2 king fishers, 2 mallards and 4 great blue heron...a bunch of unidentified ducks, some uncounted cormorants and gulls, of course.
Of note, there are no egrets, either snowy or great, and I do not spot any osprey, which have been a constant since I started canoeing in here a month ago.

Gulf Pond
 At times and at certain places, the wind almost dies.  The flag at the house nearest the rusty bridge hangs limp until I get there.  Then it stands back out.  I pass under and up through the flood tide current and head back into the harbor.  It is just barely possible for me to make distance into the wind, which is coming straight out of the harbor.  I duck in as close to the big boats as possible and once or twice, I push off of a piling with my paddle.  When the harbor narrows some, I cross to the east side and find relative protection from the wind, sneaking along the shore under docks until I get to a place to take out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

After the Storm

It is a cool sunny day with a stiff SW breeze.  I put in a full hour and some before high tide in the big marsh at the mouth of the Housatonic.  A hurricane came through three days ago and it is time to see what has changed in the marshes.  Big storms back in Seattle always changed wildlife behavior for a few days as well as having longer term effects on the landscape.

The marsh is a surprise.  What is surprising is that the marsh appears unchanged in anyway.  While my town is busy removing downed trees, putting power lines back up, and removing or dealing with a few dozen unrepairable beachfront homes, the marsh goes on as if nothing happened.  The browning marsh meadow grass is as it was with not a blade broken.  During the height of the storm it must have laid flat on the surface, until the storm surge swallowed it by several feet.  I expected to find debris in the marsh as well, but that is not here either.  In fact, the marsh seems cleaner than ever.

I head into the wind until I reach the sand spit that guards the mouth of the river.  I get out briefly and observe the flow patterns left on the sand and beach grasses from when the spit was submerged.  I follow this spit back toward the beach houses.  Here, they all seemed to have weathered the blow, although a few dumpsters show that there is some reworking to be done.  But these are the priciest of beach houses, the ones that are built high and strong with a sacrificial first floor.  Farther east in the older neighborhood, it is a different story.

I spot a kingfisher, about 40 black ducks, 4 mute swans, 6 cormorants, a pair of hooded mergansers, a pair of snowy egrets, 3 coots, and a total of 4 great blue herons.  I wonder where the birds were hiding when the storm came through.

Milford Point - the sand spit

When I finish for the day and I get out of the wind, the instant warmth on my face reminds me of how raw the winter wind will be on coming trips.  That warmth is a feeling that I remember from very long ago.  It is comforting.