Monday, December 29, 2014

The Lost Boy

I woke this day, a lost boy, without positive direction or aim.  It goes with the (my) territory of being an artist, at least until one is so famous and in demand that they become an art machine.  When I was working as an engineer, I knew what I would be doing each day.  I knew what I would be doing a month or two ahead.  There was a certain amount of comfort in the aggravation of it all.

I put in at Pilgrim Landing on a sunny and calm day with temperatures still in the 30's.  The hillsides and marsh plants were echoed on the water's surface, until the wind came up as I was entering the big, shallow open bay that is ringed by private club duck blinds spaced out precisely so that the nincompoop in the next blind can, at most, harmlessly rain pellets on his neighbor's head.

I push through into the headwind to get to the narrower channels where I can hide from the wind.  There are few birds.  The ducks are all buffleheads, in groups of four to fourteen, and I spot three herons, although I might be seeing one heron three times or one heron twice and another once.  I do spot the same kingfisher twice and I find one lone coot.

Belted Kingfisher

I came out today because there is no lost boy in the canoe, there never is.  You point the bow in a particular direction and follow it.  The goal is always around the next bend and you know that in an hour or two, or a half day or more, you will still be dipping the paddle and pulling the craft through the water...and you will not question or second guess it.  There is a certain comfort in the pleasantness of it all.

MD 20/20, best when aged until barnacles grow on it

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Next Bend

I once heard about how racing sled dogs are trained.  When they are pups, they are taken out for runs on twisting and turning roads and trails.  The dogs become motivated by curiosity...always pushing to see what is around the next bend.  In fact, when people have used dogs to cross very large icefields, they often have to send someone out a few hundred yards...a moving dark figure to the dogs, something to hold the dog's attention, something to draw them forward.

After the second bend
I put in at the Foote Bridge on the East River.  This is usually a turn-around point, but there is a high high tide coming today and the place I use near the sea will be flooded with several inches of seawater.  I'll turn back at the sea.
After the third bend
It sprinkles lightly as I start.  It is what the day is...a bit warm for this time of year, with a sure prediction of drizzle, rain, fog, or all of the three.  The wind is out of the east, which is only normal when a patch of strong weather is coming from the west.

After the fourth bend
I photograph the view as I round each bend.  When I am on a river for the first time and the day is getting long and I'm thinking of returning, it is always, "one more bend, one more bend," until it just can't be "one more bend."  At about half of the bends, I flush a few black ducks, never getting close enough to bother with a photograph.

After another dozen bends or so

The Sneak is brimful and wide with the flood current changing and going in my direction.  The Sneak is all bends, I slip the camera into the top of my life vest and leave it there.  At Bailey Creek, I turn upstream for the first time and it begins to rain for real.  The camera goes into its waterproof box. 
The creek is full to the tops of the banks and I follow it to where it disappears...a submerged culvert under a road instead of a bridge to pass through.  It was new to me, it was all bends.

The Sneak
It continues to rain as I head down and into the Neck River, and the wind carries the rain with just a little malice as I head down to where the Neck and East meet.  I see a large animal head swimming my way...I have no idea what it could be, so odd, and caught addled, the camera stays packed.  It is a skate, a foot across, swimming on the surface of the water.  It skims the side of the canoe as we pass.

I return up the main channel of the East, riding the last hour of the flood current until it goes slack somewhere before the stone arch bridge.  And, it continues to rain a rain that one would not have started a canoe trip in, a rain that would not cut a trip short.

Monday, December 15, 2014

When the Wild Rice Lays Down

The wild rice was laying down, a fuzzy matt of tan fibers and stalks.  The river was getting wider, the winter edges pushing back to the edge of the cattails as the summer growth of rice disappeared.

The big river was running 2 to 1, my shorthand for twice as long against the current as with the current to cover a distance.  But, with such a fine sunny day, a spectacular late autumn day for sure, I went farther up the river than necessary, rounding all of Wilcox Island before entering the Mattebasset on the way downstream.

The trees and brush have long since dropped their leaves, exposing the surface of the wetland and most of what is there, and what has been left there.  It's a time of dormancy, but I always find it a time of hope.  The trees are just waiting for the right time to regrow their leaves, they are just adding one more ring to their measure of time. 

There are just a few big birds, a couple great blue herons, a few hawks, two swans.  Mostly, it is smaller songbirds, and woodpeckers - lots of woodpeckers, primarily the downy, but I also spot one of the larger hairy woodpeckers. 

The near lack of breeze creates clear reflections of the silver grey trees on the water and sometimes I just navigate by watching the reflections instead of the actual river's edge.  It's all the same except upside down. 

I turn at the tavern put-in, where the tavern no longer stands.  I have no reason to push farther up the river, and I have good reason to take my time and explore unvisited inlets on the way out. 

I turn up a backwater that has a thin sheet of ice, using the bow of my canoe to create a small vee.  The view of frozen water and the sound of frozen water cracking will never cease to hold me.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Underdog

The front of the tide was still well below me when I set out upstream against a stronger than usual current.  While the temperature was above freezing, a light breeze made the day raw.  Along with the grey skies, it made the upstream paddle into more of a grind than it should be.

The Quinnipiac is one of those abused rivers, an underdog that tries its best to return to what it should always have been.  It reminds me of parts of the Duwamish back in Seattle.  At low tide, the irresponsible discards of industry can be found on the banks.  At all tides, the noise of nearby highways can be heard.  It takes some time on the river to make that stuff disappear and to start to appreciate the underdog for what it still has. 

I labored upstream for an hour and a half, and then I turned and sped downstream with the current, and the beauty of what I worked for came out.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

When You Get There You'll Know It

It starts at the first bridge under a very thick blanket of clouds with calm air, temperatures somewhere in the 40's and a light sprinkle of rain.  The second bridge, the railroad bridge, is guarded by typically animated and noisy kingfisher.  I collect an empty beer can from the weeds - this being a popular fishing river, cheap beer beer cans are all too common.  Five feet from the can is a liter backpacking water bottle.  I dump its contents and the odor of rum hits my nose, a hint at how the previous owner may have come to lose his bottle.

At the first bay are 24 swans.

I can go to the sea on such a calm day as this, and I ride a surprisingly fast ebb current - apparently I have the timing of the peak tide all wrong in my head.  Great Island, a large and level island of spartina grass and a few small tree outcroppings, is awash.  I am sure that I have not been here when I have had such an elevated vantage point over the island.

I'd been studying some old maps of this area and I just could not remember the Black River, although I knew that I had been up it.  So, that became my destination, the last river before the sea.  And, as I passed under the railroad bridge, the landmarks appeared.  I could not remember what was ahead, but I always knew where I was when I got there.

I've been here before

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Day of the Gift Horse

It is an if-not-now-when day, sunny and in the 40's with a cool but not troublesome breeze with a weather forecast that says, "land bound for the next few days".  I end up at the Salmon River with hopes of collecting the rest of the swan feathers that I need.  On the way into the cove, I spot and flush a great blue heron, and then I see that lone osprey that has been hanging around.  It whistles, I watch it is an osprey, no doubt about it.  I wonder how well it will over-winter and why it is still here and not a thousand miles south.  It seems a little small, but it is not injured and flies as well as one might expect.

As I watch the osprey, four swans round the point in flight formation and pass by.  But, there are almost no feathers to be found.  It seems that the fall molt is well over and my project that needs the feathers can be put aside for a few months.  There are about 50 swans in the cove today.

All the same, the tide is still high, lagging an hour of more behind where I live, the 20 miles of river between here and the ocean constricting the ebb.  I head up to the Moodus, which comes in from the east at the top of the cove.  With the tide up, the current will be near slack in the short forested river and it will be paddleable bank to bank, the gravel bars well deep enough for a canoe to pass over.  I turn back where Johnsonville comes into view, where the first cobble shallows would require me to wade, and I pick up three specimens from elbow deep winter water - a fresh water mussel, and two broken pieces of ceramic.  My bare hands don't sting from the cold and rewarm in a few is not really winter.
mouth of the Moodus

On the way back out, I tuck into a shallow marsh bay at the head of the cove that seldom has enough water to float the canoe...and I collect a vagrant duck decoy.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Pill for Restlessness

It rains a no account sprinkle - drops making well spaced circular patterns in the river, but barely wetting my gear.  It is cloudy, a thick overcast creating a dim and windless world, the rain degrading the vision just enough that the spartina marsh could be a midwest wheat field. But, it is spartina, thousands of years of spartina probably going back to not long after the glaciers receded.  It seems odd that something so stable provides the relief for my restlessness.  It also seems odd that as soon as one writes "no account sprinkle", it begins to rain.

The tide is going out and the current is fast, faster than I remember paddling against.  This is winter...short days and many of them too windy to paddle.  Waiting for favorable tides might mean waiting a week.  Deal with it.

I paddle up the insides of the bends, slicing across the river as it meanders and taking in the weird sideways slide relative to land that the fast current creates.  Winter in the salt marsh is quiet with most of the birds gone and all of the turtles and fiddler crabs put away until spring.  As I near Cedar Island, a rather large mature bald eagle takes wing and flies a 1/3 of a mile west to take a perch on an osprey nesting box.  A couple of yellow legs watch me from the shore until they decide to put me out of view.

At the big bend above the third bridge, a second mature bald eagle comes from a tree.  It takes a big wide circle around the broad marsh that defines this section of the river and then flies back and past where I first saw it...gone.  At the next bend I roust 14 Canada geese that fly farther upriver where I can bother them again.  I spot a couple kingfishers.  They are unusually quiet today.  The normal chatter and flying back and forth from bank to bank just isn't what they have in mind.

At this point the day brightens, although the clouds remain solid.  Something is happening above and the extra light comes with the first breath of wind.

What winter does in these parts is let one look into the past.  The forests bare, the old dry stone walls of former farms can be seen, their layout not one of grids and compass headings, but more an undecipherable wandering of convenience for a farmer that moved those stones by hand and walked the hills to keep track of his animals.  I notice one that stands out more than others.  I beach my canoe and walk up the hill to find a well built rectangular enclosure, the walls still square and solid, but no longer used.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


For awhile and at times, it almost didn't make sense.  The wind had come up as I drove in on the beautiful, winding and narrow Joshuatown Road.  The wind that was building on the river would not show itself in those dense eastern hardwoods, even with the leaves off as they were.

I started near the Chester Ferry, which was running for the last day this year.  The two of us were ready to go at the same time, but the ferryman waved me past...and into the teeth of the wind as I rounded the dock.  And so it was a claw into the wind, but near shore and without much in the way of waves.  The worst that was likely to happen was that I would be blown to shore and have to walk my canoe for a distance.  And every time the wind seemed too strong to make much headway, it dissipated and convinced me to keep going as it was only a mile to the inlet behind the island, where I knew that I would find comparative tranquility.

Once in the narrow channel, the wind lessened and I could bask in the sun and rest without being blown backwards.  Two swans occupied the entrance bay and a single female mallard was near shore.  Most of the other waterfowl were probably out of the wind somewhere out in the marsh.  But, with the tide at its lowest, those side channels were not paddleable.

I saw a couple hawks, but at such a distance that I could not identify them.  I spotted two downy woodpeckers working rotten trees near the shore.  I photographed one that was fully inverted on the underside of a tiki-log.  They did not seem to mind me or the wind. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Before Ice Up

I came up here to check on the beaver dam that lies a mile or two up the river from the mill pond.  It had been breached early in the summer, but whether by man or nature I do not know...I was curious to see if it had been repaired.  There is a thin sheet of ice over 3/4 of the pond, but a narrow channel where the current runs stays open.  The thin ice at the edge sings in wake of the canoe - sand or sleet of a sheet of glass with an underlying "twang", 30 feet behind as if I'm being followed.

the mill pond

There is a lot of beaver sign as soon as I leave the pond.  Stumps of saplings and half cut full grown trees are frequent.  There is also the peeled sticks left behind, pencil to thumb diameter, with the obvious scooping cut of a beaver incisor...having been rolled in the dextrous front paws just like corn on the cob.  Winter is coming, it is a busy time.

A few blue jays scold me as I paddle, but the first bird of note is moth a moth with 3ft wings, blunt headed, big bodied.  It rises from the shore, unseen until it moves, and easily, instantly identifiable by the absolute silence...not a peep, not the slightest woosh of owl.  It perches a hundred yards off and I can see it's "mule ears".  A great horned owl.

At the tight left hander where the water always runs a little swift, it is running fast.  A new beaver dam has been built and while it doesn't cross the river completely, it constricts the flow to a narrow channel.  It raises the water upstream water level a foot.  The new lodge, the reason for the dam, appears within 50 yards of paddling.

the beaver pond
 The old dam, the one that had been breached, is repaired.  But, it is no longer two feet high like it was in the spring - the new dam downstream of it having raised the water level on it's lower face.  I cross it on the right side as usual, scaring up a flock of mallards from the beaver pond.  The lodge near the dam didn't look good in the spring and now it looks worse.  Clearly, it is abandoned and I would guess that it was abandoned when the dam was broken.

Beyond the pond is a section of meanders...narrow with deep water, but very tight turns, almost doubling back on itself.  It's a labor for me in my long lake canoe, calling out every stroke that I know...sweeps and pries and well forward draws to pull the nose around...slow down, speed up.  Paddling, but without rhythm.  Response to the situation.  It's a busy time.

food supply to the left, lodge to the right
Past the second bridge, I find a new lodge on the outside of a turn, just past a small dam.  Mussel shells show that raccoons have been using the outside of the lodge for a feeding spot.  A massive brush pile - branches and saplings jammed into the bottom of the river are beaver preparations for for when the river ices over.

I probably won't get here again before it ices in.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hamburg Cove

I put in at a new spot on that side of the big river, on a road named for a ferry that is long since gone.  It shortens the distance to the cove by about a mile, but that mile is, in turn, put to use following all of the shoreline's undulations, going in and out of the places that don't go places.  After entering the cove, the first round bay turns out to be a crooked "Y" with a secondary arm that features the remnant of a fallen down dry stone wall.  A heron drops down out of a tree and flies off.  A fish jumps, but when I paddle to where it jumped, I find bird sign - a white stream of bird crap disolving into the water.  I did not see the bird and there was no fish. With the slightest knock of my paddle on the canoe, a sharp echo returns from the forested hillside.

At the town of Hamburg, I paddle under the narrow bridge into a small pond, and under a second narrow bridge into another pond that is fed by a small creek passing through a thick marsh.

Eight Mile River comes in at the top of the cove, it's entry through a beautiful arched bridge.  I continue about a half mile up the river until I get to where it jets down out of the hills.  It is a shallow river filled with boulders once you start into the hillside, as is typical here.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Running Away

Just short of #6 (the sixth bridge), in the jungle where ducking and twisting goes hand in hand with paddling, I flush two white tail deer.  One leaps directly into the narrow river and out again on its second effort. 

Then, a third appears in the brush on the left bank, and then a fourth.  No one hurries, all of us surprised, but not threatened.  We all wander off in our own directions at our own pace.

It was a day when I felt that I was going to bust...that internal energy that won't stay contained, that won't be satisfied by tapping out a new website on the computer.  It was time to go.  I loaded my canoe and I packed a lunch fit for a four-year old running away from home - crackers, cheese and two huge handfuls of chocolate chip cookies.  I decided to toss in an apple, just in case I was in a car accident and someone went through my possessions.

The tide was nearing its peak and the put-in was just a few inches above the water level.  But, there was still a bit of the flood pushing the river backwards.  I set out and headed up the Neck looking out high over the short spartina grass.  I turned up Bailey and then into the Sneak, where I stopped to walk the salt hay marsh.  From the canoe the grass looked high and dry, but it was, in fact, three or four inches awash.  Most people don't know this, but the footing in the spartina marsh is firm.  It's slippery, but the ground is built of a thousand seasons of root and grass.  I don't find anything.  It's the kind of ground where I'd expect to find long lost debris, but I suppose that the highest tides carry most of it away.  I return to the canoe.  I need to make a map of this place, sometime.

I spot a hawk, I scare up a good number of black ducks, which seem to be the most skittish of all ducks.  Lots of yellow-legs along the river bank, and on the return, one loon.  It took awhile to identify the loon, silhouetted in the settling sun and at a distance.  But, it dove and resurfaced some 75 yards away...three times.  A cormorant would have flown off, as would a duck, but a loon evades by diving.  They seem to fly only when they have someplace to go.  It's a good bird.

It is all New England pastoral.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Oyster River Morphology

We put in on the salt water just 200 yards down from the house.  It's been almost two years since we moved in and S has not started a trip with me from our "own" shoreline.  We head north up the shore on a rising tide, the peak still three hours away.  But, even now we can skim over the boulder groins just being mindful not to take a chip out of the paddles on the rough and barnacle covered rocks. 

S finds the sea water fascinating...the gentle swell underlying the waves that raises and lowers the canoe.  It's a bit hypnotic.

The flood carries us into the Oyster River.  It has been several months since I've been here.  I always wondered why it carried the name.  I started coming here not long after Hurricane Sandy, and rarely saw any sign of oysters.  The river had a rather flat and sandy bottom.  Today, things are different.  I guess it took awhile, but once the tidal currents started moving sediment, it really started to move it. Much of what I had gotten used to must have been sediments carried in by the can't get into the Oyster at low tide because of a 1/3 mile wide sand bar at the entrance, and the hurricane easily topped the road that separates the marsh from the sea.  There is a dense oyster bed where there had been sand (they must have been buried), and an obvious deep channel is cutting itself in along much of the river's short length (only a mile is paddleable).

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Among the Grey Sticks

 The Great Swamp

I don't remember the first beaver dam, but it has a blow out in it that I can paddle through.  Maybe that's why I don't recall it.  Memory isn't perfect.  The beauty of oral tradition is that it is a tradition.  Memories are preserved, at least somewhat intact, through the telling and retelling.  Maybe I didn't tell the story often enough.

The second dam is a good thirty inches high and steep faced.  It is neat, crisp, well-built and has come too soon.  It looks new, as in newly built.  Maybe I remember it wrong.  I portage it on the end.  The grey stick swamp above the dam is well flooded and I flush a good number of mallards from the wet footed brush on either side of the river.  There is a new lodge not far above the dam.

The third dam... well, there wasn't a third dam this spring.  I step out onto to it for an easy crossing.

The fourth dam I remember, but it is only an inch above the water.  In the spring it was 20 inches high, a graceful curving bit of work out in an open sky section of the swamp.  It is becoming obsolete.  Several new lodges and the increased size of the beaver pond show that the beaver are doing what beaver do... colonizing.  It is all so very good.

At this point, the grey stick forest is so well flooded that the main channel of the river doesn't stand out.  Obstructing deadfalls lie lower in the water.  The going is easy.

There's not many leaves left here in the grey sticks, but there weren't many leaves here in mid summer.  It's great blue heron and woodpecker country...lots of tall dead or stressed trees, roots too wet for there own good...beaver making meadows, so that a new forest can grow someday.

I turn back just short of the counterfeiter's island.  Short days that turn cold when the sun dips...I have eight beaver dams to cross on my way out. 

I spot a mink swimming across the river.  I ready my camera, because it has just gone behind a stump and I know that curiosity will get the better of it.  It reappears and stares at me...they always do.

I see a muskrat...too small for an otter, too small and high in the water for a beaver.  It dives.

And finally, at the tree recently felled by beaver, two white tail does with huge tails bound off deeper into the trees.