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.