Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Selden not a Creek

I almost talked myself out of the day, again.  Temperatures in the 20's and 30's with a sky that was gradually greying over seemed weighty.  Still, I know that the spring migration is starting and it seems to me that someone should be there to see it.

I put in on the Connecticut River near the seasonal river ferry dock and set out after a short talk with one of the ferry workers and a road crew, exchanging wisecracks about our seemingly endless winter.  The tide is low and the wind stronger than I expected it to be, so I head downriver and upwind staying to my side of the river until I get a feel for what the conditions are going to be like.  The river here is about a 1/3 mile across, but the wind is making effort much more than waves, and effort, at least to a point, I can deal with.

Common mergansers are the duck of the day out in the main river, more numerous than anything else, they are grouped in anything from two to about ten.  A long steam whistle brings attention to a column of white cloud that has just come from the Essex locomotive, which might be doing a run in preparation for tourist season.

osprey nests in a tidal fresh water wetland

I pass the Deep River marina and the Chester Marina, and go a bit farther before cutting across the river.  The lower mouth of Selden Creek, which is not really a creek but rather a side channel of the river, having been blown out by a flood in 1854, lies behind a long low wetland that extends downstream off of the main hulk of the resultant island.  But, I guess that names stick better than reality.  From the mouth I spot the beautiful old house that sits on the turn into Hamburg Cove...and I connect two different canoe trips.

male wood duck

Selden Creek

There are mergansers as far up as the osprey nests - three natural ones set in busted snags, but still unoccupied.  But, as I get closer to the hills and cliffs and leave the marsh behind, wood ducks and black ducks begin to dominate, although not nearly as many as the mergansers.  I spot some recent beaver cutting and one somewhat disheveled bank burrow on what is a pleasant and protected paddle upstream towards where I started.

another male wood duck

beaver bank burrow

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Merganser Gathering Time

One can talk one's self out of canoeing on such a day with the grey sky and, once again cold air.  How glad I am that I didn't.

The tide is out, or near out, being hard exactly to know such things when you are 15 miles inland from the ocean.  But, the water is lower than any other time that I've been here.  I put in at the Connecticut River where the Salmon River joins up.  The Salmon has become a favorite, a relatively unspoiled shoreline of forest and tidal freshwater marsh with only a few houses here and there.

I spot two recent beaver felled trees on the low marshy point that separates the Salmon and the Connecticut.  A hundred yards is as close as I can get, the water from here to there just a few inches deep at this tide.  It's a good sign that I've not noticed in the past.

At the big bend where the forest starts to take over from the marsh, there are a hundred swallows darting and weaving over the surface of the water.  The man on the radio said they are among the first of the spring migration to appear.  In the shallows of the outside corner are a dozen buffleheads, and farther up are what I guess to be fifty mute swans.  When I count, by some freak of nature, I count fifty swans.  Another ten are much farther up but still easy to spot.  That is half of what I counted on my last trip last fall.  I had hoped to collect shed feathers, which were all over on that last trip...but, it seems that swans don't lose many feathers in the spring.  There is not one to be seen.

When the river necks down, the swans in the lower section (Salmon Cove) give way to the common mergansers.  Usually seen in ones and twos, they are gathered in tens and fifteens, a spring behavior that I've seen before.  I counted 58 in a single flock one spring in Union Bay back in Seattle

The current picks up as I near the Leesville Dam.  From the bridge (the only bridge) it is a challenging current made more so by shallow water that dictates progress to a narrow bit of the river.

From there I turn back, the day's increasing wind at my back, and blowing strong, the river current adding to the stroke of my paddle.  The return takes half the time.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


The marsh is full of life and it is full of death.  That is the nature of such a rich environment.  The future builds itself on the past.  The recent dead Canada goose is sad to see, its body at an angle on the shore, its head down.  When I get close enough to examine it I find that it is a lost hunting decoy and not at all a goose.  It hitches a ride home in the stern of the canoe - Quinnipiac Specimen #1. 

I return to the Quinnipiac out of a need to go canoeing on a windy day that limits my choices to protected smaller waterways.  The low tide has passed just an hour or so ago and so, the banks are more exposed than they have been on my other trips.  This gives me the chance to search for more of man's past deeds and misdeeds.  When I paddle over to examine a stone wall, I find that it is built on top of a crushed car...the wall dates from the 1950's or later by the look of the metal work.  I collect a part as Specimen #2, but I soon find out that the part and the crushed car might not be directly connected.  Camouflaged as vines, loose coils of electrical wire protrude from the silty mud.  Nearby, remains of radiator hoses, steering wheels (Specimen #3) and decomposing rust lay at the surface and extend upward into the edge of the trees. 

I always thought that this section of the Quinnipiac was suspicous.  If you asked me to put my finger on a map where I thought a Super Fund site might be, this would be it...just by the appearance.  Of course, Super Fund sites are more about the invisible - the chemicals that were dumped, but this is the appearance that my imagination expects.  It must have been a large automobile junk yard for quite some time.  Even forty years ago, you had to be an asshole to do this.

I imagine Mother Nature saying to her friends, "If you don't like the environment, just wait a hundred years."  At this point, she has probably got something more caustic to say.

The trip is short with my concern for a return trip into the wind.  Fortunately, the current is running fairly strong and when I dip my paddle into the water it pulls me with unexpected speed into that strong headwind. 

It still amazes me at how Mother Nature can dress up a dump.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

First Osprey

a creek that feeds the Quinnipiac River

Everytime I've gone this way, I've passed the mouth of that inlet, thinking that it can't go far.  But today, I turn in there and within a hundred yards I am rewarded with a familiar but unexpected call.  The whistling draws my eyes up to an osprey standing with a fish in its talons at the top of a dead snag.  It seems early for an osprey, with the day in the low 30's, but there it is.


At the first bend, a pair of ring neck ducks swim off with a speed and ease that appears almost supernatural.  From the water up, not one feather so much as twitches as they disappear behind the bend.  I watch for them as I take my turn around that bend, but they are gone, replaced by a waving white flag - a rather dark white tail deer ambling away into the brush.

A few more bends, maybe a half mile at most, and I spot two more white tails as they come down to the waters edge for a drink.  I nudge the bow of the canoe onto a submerged log to hold me in place and I watch until they finish and walk back into the forest.

white tail deer
I turn back when I get to the first log that would require me to get out and lift the canoe over.  Back at the river I continue upstream...scare up quite a few wood ducks...pass the wild apple tree and the ogre...pass the New Haven inuktuk...up to where the river starts to become narrow and where it collects downed trees in mid current...to a silty bank where I eat my lunch.
I don't go up as far as I can.  I just go as far as I need to.  It is a beautiful day.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Searching for the Post Industrial

As soon as I passed under the low concrete railroad bridge, I knew where I was.  A block of white buildings in the distance - not quite a mile off, the backsides of a shopping center.  This is the bottom of the phragmite choked marsh at Hamden.

I went out today in search of post industrial Connecticut.  This is where Seattle, where I started this project, and where I am now differ.  Seattle never had the 18th century industry, and not too much of the 19th century industry for that matter.  Until a hundred and twenty years ago, Seattle was logging and ship building.  Meanwhile, Connecticut had already seen a hundred years of mill and factory development.  There is hardly a stream in this state that hasn't or doesn't have a mill pond or remnants of such a feature.  For me, one of the biggest differences is that Seattle's development was captured in detailed government maps.  Most of Connecticut's early land use has to be deciphered from what remains as those first maps came too late to log the early dams, canals and natural shorelines.

abandoned electrical poles are all around in this landscape

I suppose, as a result of a somewhat natural order of how cities and industry develop, whether we like it or not, Connecticut cities are populated by large areas of very old abandoned factories due to the same old reasons, greed and/or lack of foresight.  This state was once a powerful industrial area making everything from textiles to machines.  Most of the state was also farmland until the Civil War, when people began moving west or into cities.  The forests have reclaimed the fields, but the dry stone walls remain deliniating the original usage, not unlike the uninhabited brick factory buildings.

whatever fish this is, it has one huge gaping maw

I started at Clifton Street, next to a closed riverside restaurant, and I headed upstream, which inadvertantly took me away from that post industrial remains that I wanted to explore.  The trip was much more houses and low open marsh land with the exception of the grubby Amtrac train yard...a bit of modern industry.  The wintering birds, the swans, ringneck ducks, hooded mergansers and mallards were near the outlet of Hemingway Creek.  As I got nearer to the Hamden marshes, the birdlife dropped off.  But, I did not see as much birdlife as I would expect when I was there during the summer either.

The Grandview swing bridge


Saturday, March 8, 2014

East River Salt Marsh

There's no hurry today.  Low tide has passed by an hour ago and most of the daylight will burn off before it is high again.  The wind is a bit stronger than I expected, but here in the salt marsh that just means a headwind for the return trip.  It doesn't bring chop and waves and besides, it is already in the mid 30's with a prediction of 10 more degrees to go.

The mud banks are fully exposed and topped by a crew cut of short brown spartina.  Winter has taken away most of the remnants of the longer spartina grass, the variety that grows where it gets inundated with every tide.  Both spartinas are interesting plants, adapted specifically for the salt marsh, and in that environment no other plant comes close to being as hardy.  While it will grow in fresh water, there its strengths aren't put to use and other plants outcompete it with ease.  Today, those mud banks below the grass are still.  In warmer weather they crawl with thousands of fiddler crabs.

The low tide gives me a chance to look for the "man made".  Forgotten dikes, fords and road beds show in low water, crude piles of rocks where there should be only mud.  It is too bad that detailed maps were not made when these features were in use.

Buffleheads give way to buffleheads and common mergansers, which yield to the hooded mergansers, which in turn part for the Canada geese and black ducks, until I get to the woods and the common mergansers return.  So goes the journey upstream on the East River.

male common merganser

A flock of crows make a racket in the trees to the west.  The repeated cry of a hawk shows its disapproval.

the inlet leading to the blown out sawmill dam

I run out of water before seeing the Foote Bridge, perhaps a third of a mile or so short of that place.  Here, the river is just a few inches deep and clean and clear.  I scan the bottom for specimens.  People have always thrown their trash in low spots, and eventually some of that finds it way to running water.  I find a leather shoe insole, a multifaceted glass quart bottle, a shotgun shell, and a fragment of a porcelain dish.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When the Water Freezes on the Paddle

The temperature dropped into single digits during the night, but there was no reason to get an early start with the high tide not coming until after noon.  By the time I set the canoe in the water, the air is near 20F but the north wind becoming west that the weather service predicted is nowhere.  The wind is coming from the south...I guess it is going the long way around the compass dial.

My first few strokes are through slush ice that has formed in the protected areas near shore.  I head up the coast in a small chop with following wind...

...and I arrive at the mouth of the Oyster River just behind the peak tide.  The lightest of current is flowing out.  I roust a good flock of mallards and a few hooded mergansers.  The river is open until the first big bend where the river doubles back a 180 degrees on itself.  Here, as I would expect, it is still iced in, the bend so tight that any large pieces of ice would have jammed during the few warm days we had in the last month.

I paddle a headwind home watching the drops of water that have fallen from my paddle to the gunwales freeze.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Trip to See the Creepy Dead Baby Doll.

The black ducks take wing as I carry the canoe across the top of the sea wall seemingly knowing that I will be putting in where they are feeding.

It has been three weeks out of the canoe, iced out of the inland waters, blown out of the salt water and dealing with other obligations on the few calm days that happened.  I think about the weight of the canoe and my gear more than I normally would.  Infrequent use makes the weight grow.  But, I suppose due to the anticipation of the trip, the canoe springs to my shoulders without any effort and I go.

I look briefly at the snow packed steps that lead down the sea wall and decide that it is walkable with the canoe on my shoulders.  Halfway down, which is entirely the wrong place to make such decisions, I perch on a couple small footholds, roll the canoe off of my right shoulder, pirouette it around to my left hip, and set it on the snow and slide it in front of me the rest of the way down.

I set out down coast.

I spot my neighbor, K, walking along the top of the sea wall.  Her walking silhouette identifies her as surely as the forms of the sea birds that I know.  We wave to each other.

Two black backed gulls disapprove of my presence and fly off from their island boulder.

A lone duck flies off as I try to zoom in on it with my camera to make an identification.  The rapid twerping sound from its wings does the deed.  It is a golden eye.  (Buffleheads make the same sound, but their patterning is different enough that they are hard to confuse).

I slide under the rusty bridge on a good flood tide, an hour to go before peak.  Lower Gulf Pond is ice free except for a few scattered blocks and the shallows near shore.

Again, the tide propels me under the middle bridge into upper Gulf Pond.  Ice swirls in the eddies on the far side of the bridge.  A bit more than half of the upper pond is open.  I only have to break through a thirty foot section of styrofoam ice to get to the the top of the pond.  It is soft and by running the bow onto it a half dozen times a passage is opened.

I have not been in the Indian River for several months.  The narrow passage through the railroad bridge has a substantial current when the tide is rising or falling and entering means staying until that current subsides some.  I think about it.  And then I go through thinking to myself, "curiosity killed the cat".

Killdeer.  Lots of killdeer in the Indian River

The creepy dead baby doll is where I've always seen it, submerged and mired in the mud bottom.  But, since it seems to be settled deeper than normal, I decide to retrieve it.  I could have done this long ago in 70 degree water, but no.  It will be an Indian River specimen.  It is packed with mud and weighs a ton.

 Then, it is time to return from where I came.