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.