Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From Patterson

I wake S earlier than she wants, but not as early as I want.  Wildlife is most active in the changes between night and day and day and night and the rest that S wants (and deserves) is, and always is, "daylight burning" in my mind.  If we were camping it would be on my clock, but S runs the show today.

We return to the Great Swamp.  Although this time, we start from a point farther upstream in the town of Patterson and head downstream to places that I was at on my last trip.

The river is narrow and forested where we put in, at times just 6 or 8 feet wide, and it meanders tightly for a half mile until reaching the open sky forest of ghost trees and soon to be ghost trees - trees drowned most likely by increases in beaver activity, the dams raising the waters just a few inches but a few inches beyond tolerable, but also widening the channel for us.  When I did some research on the swamp, I found a photo from a Great Swamp advocacy group that was captioned, "beaver damage".  I long ago converted my own thinking away from the idea of beaver doing damage, for beaver just do what beaver do, and what is often referred to as damage is actually beaver creating habitat for other species.  It's only damage if one places more value on the tree than on the beaver.  Once you view them as equals in a natural landscape, the "damage" idea crumbles.  The swamp will change, that is the nature of swamps.  It's best not to reinforce the tack of damage.

We don't see much wildlife for the first mile.  Then, as we round another tight bend, we pass a couple in two kayaks.   It doesn't take long before we are spotting great blue herons taking wing through the trees.  But, the frogs seem quiet today.  It might be that they haven't warmed up from the evening chill, because as time passes they begin to vocalize more and more.  S spots a nuthatch and some turtles.  We flush some ducks and see several more flying at their great speed through the trees. 

We cross a couple beaver dams and paddle around another and eventually get to one that we just sit up against, not interested in going further.  We are surrounded by dozens of dragonflies and we are content to watch them do what dragonflies do.

As we return, we spot a flicker in a tall riverside snag and S spots a baby flicker calling from the nest, a perfectly round 2-1/2 inch hole (flickers make perfectly round holes).  We watch for several minutes and the baby makes quite a racket until the mother finally flies in and feeds it.  All that while, the bullfrogs steadily increase their singing...without being seen.

Just short of the put-in, S spots bullfrogs in the backwater of the final bend.  Again, we sit for several minutes and watch the bullfrogs watch us...a face-off which neither party shows any particular interest in ending.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Great Swamp

I could almost taste it from the start, and surely before a mile had passed, it was heavy on the tongue.  As good as the waters that I have been paddling in are, they have lacked wildness, at least the wildness that I have become inured to.  Only one or two bends pass and the Great Swamp goes as wild as anywhere.  I can feel it, I can taste it, I can smell it.  Road noise is beyond my hearing abilities, no buildings can be seen.  Instead, bull frogs send out their calls, a "rubber bandy" twang that is part percussion, part stringed instrument.  I hear them, but they remain hidden.  A great blue heron, the first of more than a dozen, takes off through the effect that makes it look bigger than it already is.  Herons flying through the trees never ceases to amaze me...they should not be able to do that.

The forested stream gives way to an open sun filled swamp of standing dead and stressed trees.  The channel is deep enough, the water clean and tinted a translucent green.  There is a discernible flow opposing me, but it is of no consequence for the canoe.  It is enough to keep the channel clear and clean and no doubt flushes a steady flow of nutrients through the swamp plants...and fish... kingfishers have been steady companions, so far.

Before I am an hour out, I cross a low beaver dam with the associated beaver lodge not 10 yards upstream of it.  From here on the banks become the terrain of animals even more than the ones I have already passed.  I spot a beaver scent mound and game trails coming to the water's edge with increased frequency.

The stream re-enters the forest, necking down and meandering tightly.  Deadfalls have to be clambered over every couple hundred yards or so.  There is nearly 20 miles of Great Swamp above me...the effort is worthwhile.  I spot a green-backed heron (the first of four).  Just as I leave the forest, I spot an endangered North American wood turtle with a radio mounted on its shell.

A second open-sky swamp arrives after passing under a bridge, and another beaver dam, and another beaver dam.  This open marsh is larger than the first, probably too large for me to get through on today's trip.  I set my turn-around for 2-1/2 hours and continue on, until I am near a beaver lodge where the loudest and most rambunctious bull frogs of all are singing.  I stop and record them for a few minutes (I carry a small field recorder in my camera kit - a gift from one of my canoe partners).

And it is time to return.  The view will change.

I see the top of a white tail deer with velvet stumps at the first bend.  I stop as it disappears, but I can hear it moving off.

The radio turtle is where I last saw it.

Back in the lower open swamp, I spot a single burned tree... a lightning strike.

For more information on this area - The Great Swamp

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tide Race

I planned to return to the East River and push as far up as possible, which is rumored to be about 6 miles.  It will be a long day, but the trip should run with the tide current for most of the distance. 

I get to the state launch at the mouth of the East River about 3 hours before high tide.  The water is already high, perhaps just 2-1/2 feet below the level of the parking lot.  Plans change.  I don't remember the tide chart in detail, but I do know that today is a high high tide and I suspect that the interior of the car will be wet if it is still parked here at the turn of the tide.  I'll go out one hour and return.

The willets are quiet today.  On my previous trips I have been scolded, decoyed and followed.  As I round the first bend, a willet call directs my attention and I find a young flightless bird, about 2/3 the size of an adult on the shore.  It seems that the young are mobile and out of the nest, and the adults are free to go about their business as well.  Such as it is, I see relatively few willets on this trip. 

The bird counters are working a different location closer to the Neck River (they've been counting endangered sparrows).  I consider swinging over there and asking them about the tides since they would've been here in the previous days.  But, I just decide to keep a close eye on the level and guess at it.

Osprey are more active today than in the past.  I don't count, but there seems to be more of them.  It may be that some of the young ones are already able to fly.  Seeing a third osprey in the nesting boxes is pretty common and a good sign.

The canoe moves along well and I arrive in places that I have been before quick enough that it feels strange.  Four snowy egrets perch together in the dead-half-down tree upstream of the highway bridge.  When they fly off, the fly off together.  I lose track of egrets...a snowy or great seems to always be in sight.  But, I am enjoying the snowys most...they are letting me in close and their colors seem brilliant - all white feathers with a black bill, black legs, and bright yellow feet as if they were wearing rain boots.

I turn at the stone bridge.  It is time to get to the car and move it, if necessary.  I paddle steady and hard and take no breaks for writing or photos, except for a couple photographs of the four snowy egrets whose necks and heads are moving together, bodies obscured, through the grass.

Coming to Cedar Island, I pass a couple great egrets with three glossy ibises and while I want a good photo of them, I don't have time, the water now at the edge of the spartina, the mud banks fully covered.  Over the top of the marsh I can see the bird counters loading their canoe on their truck.  The water should be at the edge of the parking lot.  I press on, paddling into a light headwind, using the inside of bends where the opposing current is slowest.

I paddle over the bank and into the parking lot finding the car perfectly safe, standing in three inches of rising water.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wave Motion

I portage the canoe on my shoulders the 250 yards from the house to the water and head up the coast into a NE wind, a wind direction that mostly runs along the shore and when it doesn't, it is an onshore breeze.  This brings with it the wave and chop of dozens of miles of open water.  It always feels, and probably is, slow in these conditions.  There is no knifing of the canoe through the water, it wiggles and squirms and bobs.  The power of each paddle stroke is partially consumed by the correction necessary to keep the canoe on a heading.

The conditions aren't too rough, but rough enough to keep the camera in its box, and I don't stop to write...but, I don't have much to say.  It is a meditative trip without too much to remark about.  I pass Oyster River, the most interesting part of this shoreline, thinking that I may go in on the return.

I turn back at Savin Rock.  It's been about 4 miles in rough waters and the wind is rising some.  As I turn I take a quick photo of the cormorants.

Rounding the point before the Oyster River is where the waves start to get big.  There is some wave echo from the shore here, a phenomena called clapotis...a jumble of waves, very non-rhythmic and non-directional.  It's just a rough ride and you have to roll with whatever comes. 

I paddle up to the mouth of the Oyster River, but it is draining with the tide at a speed that I can't bust in a canoe.  With the wind and wind waves at my back and the river current at my bow, I hold stationary in foot high tidal chop before turning sideways and getting pushed away.

And, the waves get bigger.  Sometimes, and more often, they are getting to be chest high when I am in the trough, but they are not breaking yet, although a few good slaps on the side of the canoe leave some water inside.  It is the take-out that will be the most fun.  Our shoreline is boulders at this tide level.  Even at low tide there is only a foot or so of sea shell beach.  When the time comes, I sideslip slowly on the waves toward shore.  I time my exit almost perfectly on a rather small wave, getting out knee deep just in time for a series of 10 or 12 large waves to blast over the stern of the canoe (and me) filling it with water.  I just have to hang on to everything while getting my gear out of the seems that I am one or two hands short.  But, it gets done and in a pause of wave action, I tip the canoe and empty it and as quick as I can lift it clear of the next waves.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


A few days of too-hot-to-canoe weather have passed and I set my new canoe in the salt water out in front of the house with a steady SW wind and overcast skies.  A haze lays low on the water, the surface fog of very hot air against cool water.  An oysterman works his nearby allotment while a handful of sailboats bear NE farther out.  It is the industrious hour - far too early for the push button motorboat drivers, this is time when people who need to mind the weather or seek the refuge of quiet are about.  And it is quiet, except for the barely audible putting of a sailboat motor some two miles off.

I don't pause until I get to Gulf Pond.  The wind was steady in my face and rising in speed by the time I passed the last point.  Up until now, I have been programming myself to the canoe, feeling its yaws and pitches and rolls as the foot high chop passes under...coding what normal is.  The phrase, "child of nature" surfaces for no particular reason. 

It is part of a quote from Pierre Trudeau, "Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature".

Indian river

I paddle up Gulf Pond in a high and still flooding tide and then ride the current into the Indian River.  High tide is not best for birding here, the waders preferring the shallow low tide waters.  But, I see three black-crowned night herons, a few great egrets, a couple of snowy egrets, a kingfisher, a dozen sanderlings with a spotted sandpiper, and a mess of marsh wrens.  My passage is blocked a few hundred yards upstream of the footbridge by a tree that has fallen.  As I return back down the pond, I spot a kingfisher diving into the water at a reckless speed from a reckless height.  It comes my way...not a kingfisher at all, but a least tern.

Snowy Egret (smaller egret with a black bill)

Back in the salt water, the return trip is with 1 to 2 foot waves coming from the side, right quarter or behind.  The boat handles well enough, but better than how it behaves in the water, it behaves well in the wind drifting much less than my other canoe.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A New Writing Desk

I pick up a new writing desk in the morning.  Actually, it is a used writing desk.  One that has been well cared for by the previous owners, just like the previous owners of my other desk had done.  I do not quibble about the price, knowing that I will get more use out of it than the dollar amount suggests and I have a nice chat with E as we do the deal.  It is just about exactly what I want...and perhaps "just about" makes it exactly what I want since I live by "good enough", jack of all trades that I am.  Best of all, my fine wife has approved this purchase and in so I feel the support that she gives towards doing what I do.

On the return journey, I have to cross over a pretty good sized river, and seems a shame not to take some time and christen the new desk.  I set out from just upstream of what used to be called Warner's Ferry, which runs five cars or less across the river during the summer months.  There is no ferry goes when there is a car.  Anyway, it is just short of a mile, although it seems shorter, to the turn into the upper mouth of Selden Creek, for Selden Creek might have been a creek at some time, but now it looks to be more a narrow channel of the Connecticut River, calving off a well sized island that is state park without road access.  This desk is definitely faster, particularly upwind, which is important only in the secondary.  What it does do is give me longer legs, so to speak, on my explorations.

I head downstream against the wind, which is quite welcome on a 90 degree and sunny day.  The motorboats of the main channel give way to the egrets, herons and osprey of the back channel.

It is a deep enough channel all the way, with marshland edges broken by an occasional rock outcropping or a few scraggly hardwood trees that have managed to survive some seasonal flooding.  Farther back, the landscape rises up in forested hills.  The only thing missing is shade, as the river points directly at the sun.

When I get to the other mouth of the creek, something over 2 miles down, I find a pair of osprey watching over a young one.  They keep it hidden between them.  Not many yards away, another osprey is building a nest in one of those scraggly trees...I spot it carrying branches.  I return backup the narrow channel preferring the quiet to a further exploration of the big river's shoreline.

note the little one between the two adults  
I feel quite at home sitting at the new desk.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


We put the canoe in downstream of the bridge on the small tree lined river, which is flowing just a bit faster than it was the last time I was here with runoff from recent rainfall.  But, this time S is with me, her first time here, but only my second. 

I've often had her practice the draw stroke, a sideways paddle stroke that pulls the canoe laterally towards the paddle.  After the ordinary forward stroke, it is the most important paddle stroke that a bowman can learn.  A good bowman can get a canoe out of a lot of trouble with a proper application of a draw stroke.  Out in the open where she usually plays with that technique, it never sinks in.  She pries when she should be drawing, she draws in the wrong direction, and she has to relearn it every time we go out.  Sometimes people don't learn unless they need to learn, and a good draw in an open pond is just that - something that doesn't need to be learned.

We drop downstream the third of a mile to the confluence with the Farmington, just to satisfy my own curiosity.  Then, we turn and head back upstream.  The Pequabuck turns about as tight as anything.  At each meander the current grabs the bow and pushes it away from the turn, until S grabs it with her drawstroke and claws us back in line.  A couple of misfires run us into overhanging branches or up against the bank, but it starts to come together.  She eventually does a few draws without having to be prompted.  That is good.

We wade the riffles at the second bridge, finding a downed tree spanning the river, but high enough to pass under with feet to spare.  The strainer there is still nothing to mess with and I tell S we will probably do a bit of the same on the return.

We surprise a deer.  And, it surprises us.
A red wing blackbird scolds the hell out us from one side of the two baby birds go for cover in the brush on the other....look this way!
The red wing blackbird nest that overhangs the river is empty, so I guess it is time for all of the babies to be figuring it out.
A great blue heron flies over.
Two yellow birds that aren't close enough to identify chase each other.

On the return, S seems intent on paddling.  So, I let her, as I coast along using my paddle more for steerage.  We work on back paddling and pack ferrying...setting up the canoe in the right location as each turn comes.  Then, when the time comes, we pivot and float through.

We float through.  When you do it right, when the time comes, you float through.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I set out paddling up the Connecticut River, almost 30 miles from where it ends, 400 miles from where it starts, and just about in the middle of the section that is tidal (60 miles of it).  Just upriver is a rusty railroad swing bridge, a favorite type of bridge for me...I remember seeing some of them in Minnesota when I was growing up.  The 200+ foot center span pivots at the center atop a stone pier.  It is an elegant, if antiquated solution, not perhaps unlike the use of a canoe.

I paddle along a forested island aware that there is stuff going on in there, but shielded from it by the steady noise of a nearby highway.  Aural clues are as important, if not more, for seeing wildlife in a leafed out summer forest, and I don't see a damned thing.

I turn west into the Mattabasset.

Forested banks and unceasing meanders with a stand of silver ghost trees...a woodpecker forest created by drowning, and brush and downed trees overhanging the bank predict something a bit more primeval than what was in the big river.  It is 4 or maybe 5 meanders and the forest gives way to a wide open fresh water tidal marsh.  It must be 600 acres in sight with more to come.  This is the type of place where you don't hurry.  Not only that, it is a place that you have to come back to in different seasons, year around to grasp the circle of life.  There is so much that could happen, it is a matter of moving quietly and paying attention.  I spot a great blue heron and a mute swan overflies me as I reach another bend.  A mother duck feints broken wing as her brood of five (she has done well), which are 3/4 grown but not yet flying, skitter off into the marsh.  She leads for a full quarter mile before taking wing and circling back.  I watch her and it looks like she gets back to within a few yards of where I last saw her youngin's.  Kingfishers begin their rattle from the branches, and for a mile or so it is perpetual kingfisher, always one or more in sight.

Beaver bank burrow

I spot some beaver cut stumps, although the age is hard to tell as they are regularly flooded over.  But, I do locate three beaver lodges.  They are bank burrows, not quite as impressive as free standing lodges, but they are lodges.  Then, a mated pair of mute swans closely guarding over a large grey and fluffy cygnet with ridiculously stubby wings.

Cygnet, pen and cob

I turn back just a bit sooner than I planned.  The wind has been at my back often and the tide should be coming as well, I don't know what I have to deal with on the way back.

Distant thunder, the low rumbling from beyond the horizon, which is never too far off in a canoe, follow me out.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mapping the East River in My Head

I ask S where she wants to go.  I have three new rivers for her to see.  They are all worthwhile, and all a bit different.  One is freshwater with forests and meadows and lots of tight meanders.  Another is tidal, but above the brackish water, and well treed with lots of shade for a hot day.  The last is tidal and open land starting near the sea, but the bird life is excellent - the East River.

We set out from the state launch on a long sand point that is way too exposed for the dozen houses that are built on it.  The low tidal flats marsh has the short variety of spartina grass, the kind that prefers places where it doesn't get inundated with every high tide, only with the highest of high tides.  The willets and osprey are active, and when we get upstream to the second osprey box, which is well back from the river, we spot 5 great egrets and eight glossy ibises all in one small area.  The sparrow counting team is on the opposite bank and they report a slow day, only six of the sparrows that they are counting in three hours.

Glossy Ibises

The tide is near high and the current in the river is slack.  The ocean wind pushes us upstream when the river hasn't turned to one side or the other.  We notice that the river changes character with each bridge.  Passing under the railroad bridge, the ocean tidal flats give way to a wide marsh valley that is constrained by rising forest lands.  Passing under the highway bridge, the valley narrows more and the surrounding land rises higher.  The willets disappear and the singing of marsh wrens dominates.

We continue pass my previous turn around point and come to a older stone bridge.  The river valley narrows more, and now the osprey are gone, although they surely come here.    I spot a stand of miniature cattails.

"We'll just go up to that flat topped tree and see what the river looks like." And, it looks like it will go a mile or a few farther as far as any canoe is concerned. But, we turn and paddle with the current, back into the ocean breeze when the river isn't turning to one side or the other.

We both agree that this might be the best tidal rivers that we have paddled in Connecticut.