Sunday, April 27, 2014


"In Wildness is the preservation of the World."  - Henry David Thoreau

I came here today because of the beaver dam that I have to cross some two miles or so up the river.  For me, it is, and they are, reminders that there is a something that is greater and untameable.

Thoreu's wildness quote is often misstated, wilderness being placed where wildness belongs.  Wilderness and wildness are two very different things....wilderness being a place, and wildness being a quality... all wilderness being wild, but not all wilds being wilderness, and so forth.

The water in the mill pond is high and when I turn up the brush and tree lined Scantic River, the high water carries more current against me.  But, it also gives me deep water to take full and powerful draws with the paddle, and the upstream progress goes with ease.

We need wildness, even though society most often acts like it is an opponent to be tamed.  If all of the world's wildness were gone, I am sure mankind would create some, and probably by destroying ourselves.

A muskrat crosses my path and dives when I get too near.  A great blue heron takes off from low, and soon, another takes off from a treetop.  There is beaver sign all along the river...felled trees, girdled trees, piles of peeled branches, a bank burrow visible now with the foliage still down, some scent mounds.  It is good.  It is wild.

the dam awash
We need the wild.  We need the hurricane and the earthquake, the landslide and flood and thunderstorm and tornado, the drought and the monsoon.  We need to hear things that are real, and things that aren't when we are alone in the woods at night.  We need to know that there might be a bear in that brush, that wolves exist, that a cougar might be watching from above.  Even though these things might cause some very real harm, the billions that go unscathed need to know that they exist.  We need to be reminded of our place.  We need to be told that in the great scheme of things, we are small.

 The beaver dam is awash.  The spot where I can nose the canoe up against a tree and step out to lift it over is fast water today.  Instead, I step out onto part of the downed tree that forms the foundation of the dam and slide the canoe into the pond.  I pause in the pond for lunch near a tree where two nuthatches are scampering up and down the trunk mining for bugs.  They ignore me.  Perhaps, I am wild.

The current above the pond is faster and water is high.  This section is "the meanders".  It is constantly turning in tight brush lined bends and for me, every stroke of the paddle is an adjustment in direction...a draw stroke, a sweep, a backstroke, a blended mix of all of the above.  If I was paddling with someone else, we'd probably spend a lot of time up against the brush.

I turn back at a fallen tree that requires a portage to continue. 
We need the fallen tree to remind us that we are not in charge.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Ritual

I turned right, headed towards the Lieutenant River put-in, planning to explore the higher reaches that I didn't on my last trip, but as the put-in came into view, I made a u-turn and headed the opposite direction.  It seemed at that last moment that it was too soon to return to the Lieutenant, maybe the memory still too fresh to make the section that I would have to paddle again something different to me.

I stop at Pilgrim Landing, across the channel from Calves Island, not far downstream from Lord's Creek and I put in from the gravelly driftwood strewn beach.

I explored some of Lord's Cove not long ago, but as large marsh areas go, I like to figure out the scheme of the islands and channels and there reference to landmarks...or else one gets lost...a second trip is preferable to a grueling day of being lost.  I have one destination, the odd round opening in the marsh known as Coult's Hole.  After that, I have the northernmost parts of the cove to visit.

Add caption

I paused to jot some notes in "hunting blind bay", a wide open expanse of water boardered mostly by phragmite marsh and six or eight equally spaced duck hunting blinds.  There are a few osprey around, a pair of black backed gulls, and a fine line of cormorants sunning on a drift log.

I am frequently asked how often I go canoeing.  And, while there is a number, an average yearly rate, a distance, and who knows how many other statistics, my preferred response is that I try to canoe often enough so that I am in my canoe when I dream.   That is the point when my canoe trips cross over from a "something" to a ritual.  It is the point when I cease to be a visitor and become part of the landscape.  I know no other way to do it than by being there, a lot.

Mute swan eggs, yet.

I find Coult's Hole and recognize that I touched its far side on the earlier trip without knowing is only a round shape on a map.  On the north side of the hole, I hear my first marsh wrens of the spring.  I spot one briefly as it flies between clumps of cattails.  With a bit of patience, the call of another takes my eyes to it as it perches on the side of a cattail.  They have not yet begun building nests, so they seem timid, preferring to hide.  Once the males begin building nests, I suspect they will be much bolder, staying exposed and singing endlessly to protect their turf and attract a mate.

marsh wren
The wind has shifted when I finally decide to return, and the predicted NW wind has been replaced by a stronger unexpected SE wind that blows right in my face at some 15mph.  It is a bit of work paddling through waves that are stacking up - current against the wind, until I make my way across hunting blind bay where I can paddle in the lee of Goose Island and Calves Island until I cut back and downwind to the take out.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Returning to the small river

I put in from a muddy ramp just below the bridge on the Lieutenant River no more than a mile above the Connecticut River on a calm and sunny day, the weather being what brings me here to an open marsh so close to the ocean.  As soon as I have taken 20 strokes, I pass some fishermen and a couple of osprey, all of which have the same goal, although fishing must be tougher for the osprey in the silt laden water of this tributary.
The Lieutenant River

Once at the big river, I turn seaward and follow the east shore just as far out from shore as I need to paddle without striking bottom.  There are many osprey either on nests or in the air.  Occasionally, I flush a mallard, some buffleheads or some scaups.

Osprey nest in a rootball on Great Island

Low tide prevents me from entering the smaller side channels, so I stay in the big water.  The area had been recommended to me, but as is usually the case, it's a little less interesting to me than to others.  It is "big", and it looses the intimacy of smaller rivers and marshes, although the sandy beach out near the mouth is probably a fine place for a picnic, if one is into picnics.  Near the mouth of the river, I make the ten minute crossing over to the Old Saybrook side aiming for the taller of the two lighthouses.  The strength of the current and swirls from the tide and river colliding show that this side of the river is the deep water...the traffic lane, although there is not a single boat in sight on this day.

I head back upstream, but the shallows keep me a hundred yards out from shore.  Even with that taken to consideration, there is far less wildlife on this western bank of the river.  When it comes time, I cross back and into the Lieutenant River once more.

The Lieutenant River

I pass my put-in and continue upstream with a tailwind and a flooding tide current, thinking about returning at each bend, but wondering enough about what is beyond the next turn that I keep going, mentally and physically running from one point of land to the next.  This is a delightfully fine river, bounded on the sides by still grey deciduous trees and rocky hillsides. And, finally I get to a wide spot where the river will next become narrow, and here three osprey circle overhead and hover at times, fishing in much clearer water than I found downstream.  A half a dozen times I watch an osprey drop from a hundred feet, plunging into the water after fish...climbing out to resume the hunt, until the sixth... a catch.  And off it goes.
Oprey in a dive
And off I go, back to where I started.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Confluence of the West River and the West River

For two years we have been trying to meet.  It was first supposed to happen in Seattle, but she moved east.  Not long after, I moved east, not near, but not too awfully far away.  Then a year and a half of misses went on....bad weather postponing the canoe trip meeting numerous times.

Finally all the things aligned.

We met for the first time in the garbage patch park on the edge of the West River.  The West River is a New Haven urban river, but once one runs the gauntlet of abused park land, it becomes a rather scenic trip that few people bother to try. 

We start in the afternoon.  The water is high...spring levels with a high tide that passed by an hour earlier.  Our first bird sighting is a very large wild turkey.  A and I glide over shallows that I've had to wade in the past.  The current isn't too bad, and the downed blocking trees of previous trips have deteriorated enough that we have easy passage with just a minimum of limbo gymnastics.  Osprey fly overhead, not as a rare occurance, but rather a quite normal one.

We talk about things and become familiar.  And, we talk with people on the banks who all seemed to be surprised to see a canoe.   We get to my previous high point, a place where the river becomes shallow under West Rock.  But, it is more the current that turns us back.  To continue up is to wade, and that's not the point of this trip.

We spot one kingfisher, a couple of wood ducks, two egrets, a great blue heron, several red wing blackbirds, another wild turkey, a muskrat, and a few Canada geese.   And we take out as the sun is beginning to go to the long shadow light.

Friday, April 18, 2014


I have been wind bound for most of the week.  While not uncommon for the nearby salt water, the winds were even stronger inland where I can often go to paddle in relative calm.

I put in from a boulder river bank that looked worse than it really was.  A couple of men and a couple of boys fish from the bank just upstream between my put-in and an old breached concrete dam.  The first couple hundred yards are shallow with an occasional boulder lying submerged but without striking distance of the canoe's hull.  After that, the river goes deep and never less than 50 yards wide, the trees retreat to a certain distance, and the tidal marsh dominates.

A stiff wind is in my face, but it is not stiff enough to be slowing me down as much as it is.  The flood tide is also against me, but it is impossible to figure out which is causing how much effort.

Up ahead, a man and a woman stand near the water watching me.  They retreat up to the top of the 15 foot high bank as I approach.  Then, the man comes back down to the water and makes a joke about swimming that I can't quite hear.  I paddle over and the two of us have a fine talk about places far to the north, for some reason that now escapes me.  After a minute or two, as if she was watching to see if I was dangerous, the woman comes down and joins us at the water.  We trade some canoe stories and then I continue.  Canoes can bring out the best in people...or at least bring that best to the surface.

All of the osprey boxes are occupied and the work is a blend of feeding and building.  I spot a few osprey with fish in their talons and I spot a few more hauling branches back to the nests...and I quit counting at 14.  It seems pretty clear that none have laid eggs, yet.

The marsh starts to broaden before the Post road and spartina grass takes over from the phragmites signaling saltier water.  I hear the peepers...a couple of yellow legs, a few willets, and a sandpiper show up on the water's edge once I get my eyes set for wildlife.  Below the Post road, the river becomes much more of a seashore tidal salt marsh...further widening with trees limited to high spots well above the salt. 

Where the river makes a big wide turn to the east, I continue ahead and up a narrow channel to a small landing where I stretch my legs.  I man comes down the trail and verifies that I am in the state park.  He is familiar and fond of the area and we have a good talk that lasts long enough that I will miss the final push of the flood tide, but still with the wind at my back.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

I Wondered if I Might See Them

Before I can make my getaway, a car with a solo canoe pulls up.  Our boats are what one might call serious canoes...a bit too specific in design and a bit too expensive for someone that isn't, at least, somewhat serious.  Now, I'll chat with most anyone (that isn't exhibiting outright stupidity), but such boats signal like minds and create an opening for conversation.  T and I exchange information about previous trips.  I tell him about the high tide sneak from Bailey Creek into the East River, and he clues me in a bit about the Adirondacks.  The idea of paddling together isn't broached.  I suppose that people who are out paddling solo either want to paddle alone, or they don't have anyone to paddle with.  I don't go with coin tosses too often.

Cedar Island from Bailey Creek

There are not more osprey than one can count, but there are more osprey than I care to keep track of while trying to count.  It seems that all of the osprey that will nest in this area are already here.  All of the nest boxes have been taken and at least five or six can be seen in the air at any one time.  As I head up the Neck River, I spot two willets on the bank.  They are the early ones, because willets nest here in large numbers during the summer.  It might be my imagination, but they look thinner than I remember them, and that might be, their spring migration ending here.  They trot ahead of the canoe instead of flying off as if they have had enough flight time.  A couple of great egrets hunt out in the plain of spartina grass, the high tide placing me at a good vantage to see across the wide, still golden yellow marsh.

I take the turn off of the Neck and into Bailey Creek and in a few full meanders I cut back left into the sneak, a narrower channel that leads inland and back to the East River.  The sneak is only canoeable in the upper two feet or so of high tide.

There is a eight or ten yellow legs at the bend just above the mid-river rock pile, which is submerged but still shows its location by rippling the surface of the water.

Yellow Legs

I pass T near the old dam as he heads back down river.  But first, we pause and talk again.

The tide is with me today, and not just the direction of current, but the timing of water level as well.  I slip under the tree that fell across the river last summer and pass under the Foote Bridge, and over the berm of rocks just upstream of the bridge, and over the thick fallen tree that blocks passage except at high tide, and I continue into the forest until I get to the limbo gymnastics section of the river.  There is only another two or three hundred yards of paddleable water ahead, so it is a good place to turn back.

I wondered if I might see them.  I wondered when they would arrive in the marsh, and whether they would come in numbers or in ones and twos.  But there, on the low spartina island in the bend above the mid-river rock pile are fifteen glossy ibises.  My first two attempts at a photograph fail to focus on their inky dark brown bodies, but they stay near, flying as a flock when they fly and I am surprised most that they are not larger.  I have only seen them from a much greater distance and here, about 50 yards off, they turn out to be about the size of a snowy egret.
Glossy Ibis

I take the sneak back, the water having dropped but not so far as to stop my passage.  I find a fine raccoon track smartly laid on the side of a discarded wine bottle, and I come across two little blue herons, which are more blue than when I saw them last summer for the first time.  Now, the name makes more sense.
a rare example of a raccoon track

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Place in the Choir

Birdsong dominates in the Great Swamp on a cloudy, warm and calm day.  And, everything that isn't singing seems to be moving.  The water is up and out of its banks such as they are.  At normal levels the river is edged by marsh and swamp.  Today, it is high enough that if I lose the main channel, which is four to six feet deep in most places, I find myself over the downed cattails and marsh on a foot of water.

Wood ducks and mallards, and plenty of them, take off from back in the trees, and I spot some teal as well.  There is a kingfisher there, and the rapping of the smaller species of woodpeckers from farther out.  Only the Canada geese seem to break the mood, their honking so much louder and boisterous than any of the others.  And, as on all my other trips here, great blue herons fly improbably with their six foot wings through the still leafless trees.  More than any, the herons amaze me.

The clouds fade away for awhile and the blue sky brings out the beauty of the ragged swamp trees.

There are no leaves, nor much green at all for that matter in the swamp today.  A determined winter has delayed the spring growth...but not the life.  The marsh is as alive as ever, maybe even more so.  Unlike people, the birds and animals have no time to wait, or waste.

I surprise a mink as I round a bend and it runs along a downed tree to hide in the root ball where it watches me in relative safety.
And then, so typical of mink, it comes back out onto the log, fully exposed and sure that if it came to a fight with me, it would come out on top.

It is on the return that I come to something quite unexpected.  From ahead, maybe a few hundred yards, comes a sound unfamiliar to me.  At once, it sounds like a hundred mallards quacking at the tops of their lungs, then it seems to be farm machinery in a nearby field.  But, when I get to where it comes from, I find the area in the center of the swamp.  It is frogs, unseen and uncountable, croaking, and every so often their calls become trained to each other and a rhythmic beat develops...and then it drifts into a random noise.  As I pass, it quiets down some, and as I paddle away it goes still.  But, in five more minutes, up ahead comes another chorus.  And when I pass that, it goes still, to be replaced by another choir of frogs another five minutes up the river.

A pileated woodpecker flies across my view and perches on the backside of a snag where I can't photograph it.  As I near, it flies up and to the backside of another tree, where I can't photograph it.  I put the camera away and it flies off.

When I take the canoe out, the thing I notice most is how quiet and pleasant the swamp is today.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Quality Time with S

I talk S into a short canoe trip on a very sunny and fine spring day, one that has been long awaited through an unusually cold and snowy winter for this part of  the country.

We put in on the Menunketesuck River a good three hours before high tide.  The water is low and just barely deep enough at the put-in, but not many yards downstream we find a good deep channel that runs without break.  There is a fairly strong wind, one that requires compensation, particularly with S in the bow, her weight something like that of a bird.  At this tide level we hug the windward shore when possible, the three feet of exposed bank sheltering us from the wind.

At the first bend, two osprey have reclaimed the artificial nest box and it looks like they will be there for the season.  After the second bend, where the houses end and the marsh and forest take over, a pair of hawks is soaring.  A second pair of osprey have taken position on the nest box near the railroad.  If there are any egrets around, we don't see them.  At this tide level they might be feeding elsewhere for the time being.

S agrees that the scale of the landscape should make for a spectacular trip when the leaves change in the fall, but she also adds that it will be good to see the marsh and forest change through the seasons.

It is supposed to be a short trip and when continuing presents us with a return trip into the teeth of the wind, we turn back.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Sittin' Marsh

Pilgrim Landing on the Connecticut River...a flood tide carries me into Lord Cove at a good clip while four osprey and one turkey vulture fly overhead.  The vulture is silent while the osprey whistle back and forth at each other without pause.

It is my first time here, across the river and a bit downstream from Essex, where I have paddled from before.

The phragmites of Goose Island give way to cattail marsh, and a quite expansive cattail marsh at that with side channels going off to unknown results....a maze.  For a first trip, I follow the shore, or what can be taken for shore on my right.  The one sure way to find one's way through a maze is to follow a wall...although it may not be the quickest way through a maze. 

It's a beautiful trip with a rising shoreline of bedrock and forest bounding that broad freshwater tidal marsh.  I am surprised to see the cattails doing so well with the ocean not 4 miles downstream.  I would expected more brackish conditions that would favor spartina.

As the cattails close in, I paddle more carefully, slipping the blade into the water with each stroke, emphasizing quiet over speed.  There isn't much to see, yet.  The cattails are mangy and browned out from winter, the new growth not yet started.  I catch the call of red wing blackbirds, but not the calls of marsh wrens, yet.  This looks to be exceptional habitat for the wrens, but it is still too early for them.  My chosen channel closes in, the point at which the cattails will finally hug the canoe into stillness is not far ahead. 
This is a sitting marsh.  Too often in my explorations I forget to sit, and marshes, if one wants to know a marsh, requires one to sit.  The marsh will come to those who sit.  A reddish bird flits in and out of the most peripheral of my vision, and hides away unidentified.  And there is a distant sound that requires me to stop and think about it.  It is muffled and altered by a great many yards of brush and forest.  It must be frogs, hundreds of frogs croaking away.  But, I won't get there by canoe.
mute swan being defensive...aggression is a week or two off

I head back out and continue exploring, not sure of where I am, traveling as normal without a map.  I might be near Coults Hole, a circular opening in the middle of the marsh, but I also might not be.  I follow a channel up to a stand of trees knowing that there must be a bit of slightly higher landstuff for trees to grow.  I recognize this place, a narrow piece of low land, having arrived on the far shore when I paddle out of Essex...landmark.  Two osprey seem to be claiming a nearby nesting box.
When I get back to the put-in, I have a delightful talk with the lady that lives next to the beach.  We trade bird and wildlife stories, but hers are better.  She clues me in on some seasonal marsh events that I need to come back for.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

West New Milfordporttuck Havenburytown

The lack of the founding fathers' imagination in naming places has become a bit of an amusement.

A great egret flew over as I was leaving town.  Further along, I passed under a turkey vulture.  I was heading towards Lyme, to put in on the big salt marshes at the bottom of the Connecticut River, but I made a side trip to check out a smaller river that I'd noticed on the maps.  It was as far as I got.

I put in on the Menunketesuck River and paddled upstream, through one bridge and under another,
for about a half mile to where progress is stopped by a eight foot high low head dam that holds back a mill pond that once powered the industry that once stood on the foundation remains that still stand on the east side of the river.

This dam is a generation earlier than any of the dams on the west coast where I started this project.  By the time dams where built there, electricity was well in use and those dams were designed to turn generators.  Here, there is a whole generation of dams that provided direct power by supplying water to waterwheels...which means that most everything that could be dammed was dammed.

I return on the current back to the put-in and continue down river.  At the first big bend an osprey soars over on its way to someplace and ignoring the nest box that has been built for its convenience.  One more turn of the river and the scattering of houses becomes much, much more sparse.  The marsh broadens to a couple hundred yards in width while the river meanders through, sometimes it bends just to bend, sometimes it bends to get around one of the bedrock outcrops that are so typical of Connecticut.  All the while there is one species of bird calling back and forth in a series of alto whistles, hidden from view and identification by the forest. The marsh, here, is the short spartina grass, still dormant from winter and flattened by the snows.  It is textbook spartina marsh, the tidal salt marsh where spartina rules and out competes any other plant, and until one gets to the edge of the forest, there is no other plant.  I spot two great egrets and one more osprey.
I pass under a low and narrow railroad bridge.  It is a door much like many bridges that I pass under in the tidal areas.  Downstream not another half mile are the marinas and shrink wrapped motor yachts. 

I have developed good filters for seeing and feeling my way into wildness in the most unlikely places, but I always have a hard time seeing past hundreds of shrink wrapped boats.  I explore a short while to get the lay of the land and then return to the upstream side of the railroad bridge where I belong and where they can't go.
I find a debris field in a seasonal drainage near the tracks and I collect three specimens.  I make one side trip, up a tributary (Gatchen Creek), a distance of a 1/2 mile or so that takes about a mile and half to do because of the creeks wide meanders.

As I take out, I meet a guy who lives next to the put-in just as he is getting ready to take his rowing dory out.  We agree on a lot of things.