Sunday, December 29, 2013

Calf Pen Creek

The first bird drifts 50 yards off of the mast, a sixty foot tall wood pole, actually a whole tree bole, that serves as a flag pole for a neighborhood.  Old sea charts show a mast in that area as a navigation landmark for ships.  It's possible that the mast has been replaced as need be since those days, a holdover from a tradition of not fooling around with seafaring landmarks.  I have to look at the bird several times, distant as it is and the waves not letting me hold a glass on it, but finally, it turns its head just so and I can see white on the throat and breast and with its head held as it is, I know its name to be, Loon.  It dives and stays under for a good part of a minute surfacing fifty yards farther out - loon.

In the distance, the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier -  AKA, Long Island

Four ducks float together a 100 yards out to sea.  Dark shapes in a bobbing chop, their names go unknown.

But, just after I have passed the mast, I see a lone male long-tailed duck bouncing in the chop, the color pattern unmistakable.

There is often a chop of unknown origin as I round this short section of shore coming up to Pond Point.  Today is just that.  But, as I sit near the point, it seems that the water is flowing north, a possible trick on the eyes played by the light wind and shallow waters.  But, as I write some notes, I see that I am, in fact, drifting slowly back.  Apparently, in the ebbing tide, the waters in the small bay at Calf Pen Creek sweep around the point rather than out to sea, as common sense would tell me it would.

I work my way into Calf Pen Creek, paddling upstream against the draining tide and using the underside of the low bridge to propel myself past the narrowest and fastest flow.  It is quiet, as usual in the small tidal marsh.  Just past the second bridge, I sight a kingfisher on an old piling before it has time to get up and scold me.  Rounding the next bend, I surprise two hooded mergansers, spot two Canada geese, and flush a few black ducks and mallards.  Tracks in the mud show that there were more geese here, and I find them as I spin the canoe to exit, a dozen geese watching me from where the first two were...and a hooded merganser swims out of a side channel, spots me, and flies off.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


The harbor, the winter harbor at Milford is buffleheads and thin sheets of ice here and there, that the canoe knifes through with ease.  They are just thick enough to hold the canoe from drifting with the light breeze while I write and drink some of the hot mint tea that I brewed as a last minute thought before beginning my portage from the house.

The harbor is small with a narrow inlet, a well protected place that would have been good refuge for a 17th century ship and it is at its best in winter when nearly all of the yachts, weary from their ten or twelve days at sea last summer, are hauled out on land and shrink wrapped in white plastic.  The winter harbor is refuge for the working fisherman, and my canoe, and wintering ducks.

S asked me if I get lonely, having moved across the country from my friends and being slower than she is at making contacts (largely because I work alone).  I paused, thinking about what "lonely" means.  I miss friends and family, but I can't see myself fitting into the definition of lonely.  I've traveled solo often enough to know that the first few days of "lonely" are just a period of adjustment to being "alone"...and alone is not lonely.  I tell her that when I feel out of sorts, the closest thing to lonely that I can think of, it is time for me to go to the canoe.  There is no "lonely" in the canoe... lonely is being surrounded by people and having no one to talk to.  The canoe is all about "do", and "see", and "think".  In fact, "think" turned out to be so dominant in the canoe that I started writing this journal.  The canoe is my refuge.

eared grebe

I take few photos in the days overcast, but I take few photos because the wind comes up as I leave the harbor and I paddle home in a trailing chop.  It is a chop that would be of no consequence or interest on most days, but when the sea temperature dips below 40 degrees, nothing is to be ignored.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Long Tails

the put-in boulder

A silvery grey calm is the salt water today and I start off from the beach, such as it is, somewhere between low and mid tide.  Birds are visible as black silhouettes from a half mile or more in these conditions.  With the calm, a distant call is all it takes to put name to the shape.  A loon lets out a short whoop, then the charming chatter of long-tailed ducks begins to arrive...uh..uhuh (repeat endlessly).  Outside of the bay at Calf Pen Creek, twenty or so long-tails are busy feeding.  They dive and stay down for 20 or 30 seconds before surfacing.  Unlike loons, which usually travel 50 or more yards horizontally, the long-tails come back up to the same place that they started.

Halfway out to Charles Island, in the navigation channel which I suppose is somewhat deep (but not too deep as there is an old oyster boat working its allotment nearby), I find more long-tails, in fact, more than I have seen in one place before, although I have only been familiar with them for a year.  There are four dozen, some in a loose flock and others scattered one or two hundred yards away.  The noise is fantastic.

I paddle the island counter-clockwise, having realized that I have always gone around it the other way.  The tombolo, the half mile long bar that connects the island to the mainland, is well submerged and I coast over not far from the island, which is rimmed in golden spartina grass and centered with grey winter deciduous trees that, during summer, are home to hundreds of herons and egrets.  Completing the circle, I find that most of the long-tails have moved off and that four brant geese have arrived.  These are the first brants that I've seen since spring.

Back out in the navigation channel, I find a dozen long-tails, and a dozen more when I get to the point.  The bulk of the flock is off Calf Pen Creek bay.  Each time they move they leave a few more ducks behind, their flock apparently based more on convenience than allegiance.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Old Knowledge

I set out onto a wave that I am unfamiliar with.  It is onshore, a long slow undulation of only a few inches, seemingly the last breath of a wake birthed by a distant vessel, but ongoing unlike any wake and therefore not the signature of a ship.  It's a wave that if one was on shore, they would not think remarkable, even if they noticed.  But to me, it comes from the wrong direction, it comes not on the wind and its reason escapes my limited logic.  This is old knowledge being learned - how strong the offshore wind can be, or how strong the onshore wind can be for me to safely set out.  It is the old knowledge of fishermen from the time when they set out by oar or sail, safety coming only in the familiarity of their surroundings.  But so far, I don't know what to do with this wave.

A flock of 300 scaups is in the first bay, positioned where I can not avoid flushing them, having to little space between them and shore, and the seaward detour to far out for my own good.  But, they flush from more than 300 yards anyway leaving a few horned grebes scattered about in the water.  If the flavor of duck was based on their scare distance, scaup would taste like chocolate lava cake and mallard would taste like pond scum...but that's not the way things are.

One of the flag rocks is inhabited by a dozen purple sandpipers in their drab winter colors.

A familiar call stops my paddle, "uh....uh uh".  A long-tailed duck speeds by on the seaward side, its small duck body stretched to length by the long tail feathers.

The scaups that I flushed have settled in the bay at Oyster River, but far enough out that I can get by without disturbing them.  There is a loon out there using its trilling call, but it is invisible, perhaps too near the scaups to stand out.

I turn away when I get to the mouth of the Oyster River, noticing that I am a full hour ahead of the high tide and preferring not to be trapped by the current for an hour and half.  I take a side trip up the north side of the bay and find a three more loons some distance off the point.

When I return and enter the river, I drift upstream upon one kingfisher and flock of mallards.  The honking of Canada geese comes from beyond the old trolley bridge foundation, so I slowly edge up along the bank to not panic them.  It is a flock of 200 or so.  They move off up the short river in three waves, not in panic but just to put some distance between us.  If I continue upriver, I will force them to leave as this short little river, at least as far as a goose is concerned, is a dead end and they have moved to the last water open enough for a flock of geese.  I can guess at what is beyond the geese...some black ducks, some more mallards, maybe a few red-breasted mergansers.  I turn and let them all be.

greater yellow legs

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Not Quite Catching the Tide

I looked at S this morning as I was going out the door and said, "I may not be doing what I am supposed to be doing, but I'm doing something."
She replied, "You're doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing."

By the time I reach Merwin Point, the far side of Calf Pen Cove, I have seen five loons.

male long-tail duck

It is calm, or nearly so, so I make the mile plus crossing from the point to Charles Island, remembering that last winter I had found it so bare, but also that a hurricane had just swept over, through and around it.  When I get about a 1/3 of the way, where the water is deep, I spot three long-tail ducks, the male holding his seven inch tail feathers up out of the water.

The island looks much better this time.  The shoreline brush is thicker and the nests that the night herons built still dot the upper branches of the trees.  Last winter, the plants were pretty shaggy and there were no left overs from any bird nests - over 300 egrets and herons nest here in the summer.  I scare up some black ducks as I round the outside of the island.  I try not to flush birds too often, but black ducks are skittish and the only way to keep them from flying off is to stay home.  They often scare at 200 yards or more, even when there is no line of sight between us.

horned grebes

A thousand scaups lie east and shoreward from the island in three evenly sized flocks.  I try to skirt the nearest flock, but they are about as nervous as black ducks and they fly off.  The other two flocks stay put as I pass.  I spot three more long-tails and a pair of horned grebes...and a loon.

It occurs to me that I am behind the tide.  I planned to spend time in the big marsh at the mouth of the big river, but I will have to paddle straight through until I pass the three bridge narrows.  With the very high tide, the current in the narrows will be against me and faster than I can paddle if I delay. 

The big marsh is touted as a great birding spot, but while it provides a lot of habitat, it also provides a lot of concealment, and near low tide is best because the wading birds have places to stand.  But, with high tide and the golden spartina grass and the bright sun, it is nothing short of glorious.  I lose my way as I usually do in the maze, but this day I can coast through the tops of the grasses to get back into the more open and likely channels.

Black duck, mallard, mallard, and black duck. 
They have similar calls and silhouettes and can interbreed.
 The current picks up just as I leave the three bridges behind.  I take the east passage up the narrow channels behind Peacock and Carsten's Islands and then cross the river over the top of Pope's Flat to the Feral Cat Park, where wildness prevails.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Catching the Tide

It seems that I have a tide to catch.

I spot the loons as soon as I put my paddle to work.  I should've seen them from land as I finished my portage, but I suppose there are a great many things that I have not seen while out of the canoe.

By the Flag Rocks, I have seen four loons and heard a fifth laughing, unseen in the light choppy waves.  By the time I reach the Oyster River, I have spotted seven.

It is a high high tide today, just a few inches short of record levels and the ride upstream into the Oyster River is swift.  I flush a couple flocks of black ducks, a dozen each, while drifting up to and past the trolley bridge foundations.  A couple of yellow legs follow, and I watch a flock of 60, or so, Canada geese over the marsh grass from one meander back.  They fly off while I am cutting someone's old discarded bait line - kite string with a chicken bone at the end.  I sit and drift in and the blueberry soup gets poured.

I leave some 45 minutes past high tide and the current is still rushing in...the lead and lag of reservoirs that I studied in engineering school, the Oyster River always trying to catch up with the sea, but never getting there.  I remember that never got those calculations right - I suppose that I'm better at being the river.

The seas have calmed.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Wintering Loons

By the time I got to the middle of Calf Pen Bay, I'd seen four loons.  They outnumbered all birds, even the gulls, which is unheard of, until I spotted a half dozen buffleheads - a tuxedo'd bird that, to the eye, seems just one or two turns of a double helix short of a puffin.  As I neared the next point, I spotted two more loons, evening the score.  The last two tremolo'd back and forth a few times, taking the victory. 

High tide has passed by an hour and a half and so, I bust the ebb flow into Gulf Pond climbing a visually obvious slope in the water under the rusty bridge.  I have seen a dozen loons total, the last just outside the pond.  A great blue heron makes use of the vacated osprey next box that rises up out of the marsh grasses that've gone gold - bringing a warmth to the air if only through the eyes.  The hot blueberry soup that I packed from home gets poured.  The day is fine.

Blueberry Soup 
serve hot or cold or warm.
4 cups of water
3 cups of blueberries (frozen or fresh, it makes no difference)
1/2 to 3/4 cup of sugar
Mix the berries with the sugar. 
Boil the water.
Add the berries and return to a boil
simmer until the berries are tender
can be thickened with a bit of potato starch if
one gives a shit about texture...the flavor will be
the same.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bridge Count

It is calm and sunny over the East River and it is nothing short of a perfect day to sit in a canoe in the chill of the morning and drink a cup of coffee.

A prime bird observation location, I stay alert and paddle with reasonable quietness, but it is not until I pass the railroad bridge, the first of the five bridges, that I see a bird.  A solitary greater yellow legs stops its incessant head bobbing and flies upstream, crossing the river as it goes.  When I get near again, it gets up and flies off back behind me.  That was nearly a mile of water before seeing the first bird...quite a difference from summer.

After the highway bridge (the third bridge), I hear a kingfisher and spot a whitetail deer at the waters edge near a pair of American black ducks.  Only then do I see the kingfisher.  Now is the proper time for that cup of coffee.

 A few hundred yards past the fourth bridge, the stone arch one, I turn off the river into a meandering channel that leads to a collapsed dam that, some hundred and fifty years ago, powered a simple up and down sawmill.

the left half of the dam can been seen in the distance

Back here, in the hollow, weak fragmented sheets of ice have formed, but the canoe slices through without resistance and yields only the sound of ice breaking against the hull.  I get out and explore the site.

looking down into the breach
I'm guessing that the mill was powered by an undershot water wheel.  It is a low efficiency design, but one that doesn't require a pond level that is above the wheel.  In the above photo, a channel formed by several long rectangular boulders can be seen.  When the dam was whole, this would have formed a "pipe" near the bottom of the dam and millpond (the output end is blocked by a large boulder that was part of the dam at one time).  The nearest long boulder is about six feet long.  The edge of a rectangular exit pool can be seen on the left, where I think that the wheel would have been positioned.  There's a pretty decent sized valley behind the dam and I suppose that a depth of ten feet or so could have been contained giving the mill a fair amount of uninterrupted power, as long as it was used carefully.  As low-tech as it all is, it is still an impressive amount of earth and stone work.

I continue...

The Foote Bridge

The fifth bridge is the Foote Bridge.  I gather that there has been a bridge at this location for quite some time.  The current bridge is modern, built on less than modern foundations.  It is essentially a private bridge although hikers use it to access trails in the area.  It is also the point where the East River becomes too shallow to paddle except at the peak of high tide, when one can go another half mile up to the sixth bridge before grounding out, period.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Always Go Under the Bridge

I'm looking for the put-in, but I'm in the wrong place, all of the directions seem to be ambiguous.  Even the town's signs are in odd places.  The old guy coming out of the house tells me that the British burned a hundred ships, a deal they struck with the town that saved the village from the same fate.

I paddle straight away the half mile across the river to a low island and broad area of marsh.  It is grey, but the clouds are well on their way to going east and leaving the sky clear.

On the way upstream to Hamburg Cove, I pass the largest great blue heron that I've ever seen.

I do not usually photograph houses, but at the mouth of the cove are two beautiful houses that look to be 150-200 years old.  They seem to be exactly where they should be.

Even though it was time to turn back, there was a bridge up ahead and one always goes under the bridge.  Bridges are often gates leading to very different landscape than the one you are in.  This bridge is true to that.

Self Portrait
Connecticut River from Essex, Hamburg Cove, North Cove.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Aquaduct

A late osprey flies past just as I am setting the canoe into the river.

Sunlight reflecting on the water. 
a brilliant endless shimmer,
rapid staccato Morse Code,
too fast to read,
a warning from Mother Nature? 
an SOS?
or just documentation of what ocurred in the furnace 8 minutes ago.

Once in awhile, I push a few wood ducks ahead of me, until they find good cover and wait unseen for me to pass.  I do likewise to some common mergansers that are in for the winter. 

I found the remains of the Farmington Canal Aquaduct, which crossed the Farmington River.  The Aquaduct was 280 feet long and 50 feet high and consisted of seven stone arches.   Up until 1955, the pillars still stood in the river, but a flood that year damaged them and they were knocked down.

Remains of the Farmington Canal Aquaduct - East side of river

Remains of the Farmington Canal Aquaduct - West side of river
 I went upriver for 2 hours and 10 minutes.  I got back to where I started in 1hour and 10 minutes.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The First Snow

The Bantam River

Sunny and breezy, a day that will stay in the 40's... I set out downriver and it quickly becomes a beautiful northland marsh with a river running through it.  The mouth of the river, where it runs into Bantam Lake, is a short 2 miles at most.  On a calmer day I might have started from the lake, but today it is better to stay hidden from the wind. 

A hundred yards from the mouth is the beaver dam that I'd heard about.  It can be seen in satellite photos and I think back to the days of the Apollo moon missions when only a few things, such as the Great Wall of China, could be seen from space.  The dam is just 2 feet wide and 50 feet long.  Sometimes I don't want to know those secrets until I find them myself.

Yes, beaver dams are sturdy enough to stand on

It is the next dam that surprises me.  It is just 20 yards from the lake and I've never seen anyone mention it.  You wouldn't notice it unless you were curious about the small twigs sticking out of the water that form a gentle curve from one bank to the other.  But there, down a foot and a half below the surface is another dam, still firm and well knitted together.

The submerged beaver dam

I turn back from the lake and head upriver, photographing each of the lodges that I pass.  Below where I put in, most of the lodges are unfinished and never were big enough to be hollowed out and used.  Beaver are vegetarians, but they don't have to be nice about it.  They are territorial, marking and defending their areas from other beaver colonies. 

Upstream of the put -in the signs are more frequent.  Lodges are spaced out about as close as they can be...a 150 or 200 yards, and all of them are full sized and appear to be in use.  The boundaries of each colony's territory can be guessed at by the location of scent mounds.  Outside of the lodge they've already massed a store of saplings in the water, a practice that I did not see back in Seattle.  But, here the river will freeze over solid and the saplings will provide food during the ice in. 

The brush in the water is winter food

I spot a hooded merganser and two great blue herons.

The sky clouds over just before I reach Little Pond and the day turns raw.  Two swans, a flock of mallards and a flock of ring billed gulls are lying low on the windswept pond as I search for the inlet from the river.  It begins to snow very lightly.  Upstream of the pond, the river changes to a cut bank creek and in a few hundred yards it cuts through a golf course.  I pass through a broken beaver dam, a sign that Mr. Moneybags will not be denied the 16th hole or some such nonsense.  I turn back.  It's cold and threatening and the character of the river at this point leaves something to be desired and I'd rather focus on what I've already seen.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Going to One

I'm spinning my wheels.  I have a drawing that is stuck - a combination of where to go and fear of making a mistake, a beadwork piece wants to ferment longer and sits idle.  At least I am carving canoe paddles faster than I know what to do with.  I could go canoeing, but there is my work ethic guilt of not making something that gnaws at the back of my head.

I go canoeing.  I am wasting time here.

I turn the point into the main part of Salmon Cove and begin counting swans.  I get to 120 and estimate the rest.  There are about 150 of them spread out over a half mile.  I am collecting their feathers as I paddle.  A cool gentle breeze and a bright autumn sun are at my back.  Most of the trees still hold some of their brilliantly colored foliage although the shady north hillsides are mostly evergreens.  It seems that this fall was a fairly spectacular one.  I spot an osprey.  It seems late in the year for that, but I saw another two days ago on the Farmington River.

I turn back when I get to the Leesville Dam, a bit surprised that I have arrived in so little time.  This time, I tuck into the culvert with the big steel I-beams guarding its opening as if they were intended to stop an ironclad.  On the far side is a narrow canal that passes a house on one side and two recently beaver cut trees of pretty reasonable size.

What does the caribou think as it migrates?

If I do this often enough, I begin to lose the surface-me...the me that seems to be me, and if it is, it is far from all of me.  The self that appears is the one that is one with nature...the child of nature...the animal.  It is probably something like what people seek in meditation and it is the pearl of my frequent wanderings.  The me that plans and plots and identifies fades away and what is left is my self moving through the world.  The trees cease to be maples, oaks and pines and they become trees and the trees become forest.  The birds retain their names, kingfisher, osprey, cardinal...but only because I no longer have to think about what they are.  They long ago became individual characters in the play.  The water passes under, the paddle drifts past my face in steady rhythm, I no longer look for anything but see clearly, I no longer anticipate anything, but things happen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ma and Pa Kettle

I hesitate to enter such places.  A low beaver dam holds back an apparently shallow pond in what might have once been a large meander in the river or a former bend in a creek that enters the river just downstream.  There's no reason for the water to be deep enough to canoe with a dam that is less than 18 inches high.  I stand on the soft mud bank and hem and haw about it.  Then I pick up the canoe suit case style and portage the 40 feet from river to pond.

The pond is anything but shallow.  The water clear, it is four to six feet deep or more in most places.  Circular wave patterns appear ahead of me as a great many fish flee the shadow of my canoe.  I spot one and it could be either a trout or an Atlantic salmon.  A chilled painted turtle drifts by a foot below the surface, a kingfisher crosses my path, a great blue heron drops down out of a tree and moves off to a safe distance, and three wood ducks flush as I stop to take notes.  It is a beautiful beaver pond and I very much doubt that many others take the time to make the side trip off of the river.  No one would expect it to be so large.

The pond tees against a level topped berm of a hill and I turn right because I have to turn one direction or the other.  And, in a big long and gentle curve, the pond just keeps going.  In something that seems like a half mile I return via a narrow channel to where I started, the beaver dam just a few yards to the side.  This is when I finally locate the lodge that I knew must be in here.  It was behind me as I started paddling up the pond.  It seems odd that there is only one lodge here, the pond being large enough to house 3, 4 or 5 colonies.  But, this lodge is a humble abode and seems out of place in this pond except that it matches the simple and marginal dam at the mouth of the pond...Ma and Pa Kettle living in the middle of the Gardens of Versailles.

A simple bank burrow lodge

I take one more loop around, turning left at the top of the pond to confirm that that arm does come to a dead end.  But it is not quite dead as the sound of a woodpecker working away comes out of the woods.  Woodpeckers love beavers, if such a thing can happen in nature.

On the return upriver, I stop only to examine the remains of two bridges.  The remains of the first are four midstream pillars built of wood pilings that were then filled by dumping cobbles and small boulders as fill.  It has been abandoned long enough for a full sized tree to grow from one of the pillars.  The upstream bridge has a stone masonry buttress on the east side of the river with wood pilings and stone rubble on the west.  With over 300 years of euro settlement in this area, bridges and former bridges, dams and former dams occur regularly while canoeing.  I've already learned to watch the bottom while passing under bridges...trails became roads, bridges were built where the roads forded rivers, and the amount of rock under some bridges leads me to think that people often lined their fords with cobbles to keep from getting stuck.

The downstream bridge remains
Farmington River, near Tariffville.