Monday, December 28, 2015

Half Way There

Half way is the open marsh, about as far up the river as one can go without hiking, a deceptive open pond with massive boulders that can sit in ambush for a fast canoe when the height of tide is just right.

Unseasonable warmth has slipped away and today the temperature approaches something that is more normal.  A chilling wind out of the north brings the air to a properly cold feel.  Overhead, clouds come in wide rolls...waves of air laden with moisture, the cores of them grey and dark.  But, there is enough open sky that a bright and "happy" sun comes through more often than not.

I put in on the back channel of the river and near the mouth and head upstream into the wind with little help from the flood tide.  Perhaps the recent rains have raised the level some, but the water seems high and the current weak.  The bird life is outnumbered by fish sightings.  Something is running in reasonably large numbers, the backs cresting the surface as I paddle.

The channel opens to a wide bay when I pass the line of rocks...they have a name that escapes me.  The story is that it was a watch point for Native Americans.  A short river comes in from the east and my route continues to the west...a stretch that I call the cornfields.  Phragmites has colonized some of this area, pushing the cattails and wild rice out, and not making for good habitat in general.  Paddling through phragmites is just as interesting as sitting in a canoe in the middle of a cornfield.  Fortunately, it isn't long and I enter the Lieutenant River, on which lies the halfway point.
the line of rocks

It has taken the full half trip to spot 2 swans, 4 wood ducks, about 10 hooded mergansers and a dozen or so black and mallard ducks.  Halfway is coffee.  Halfway is when I notice that my binoculars are missing.  They are either in the car, on the car, or on the ground where I launched the canoe.  It is not something to be worried about when you are restricted to about 3mph.  What happens in the next hour and a half cannot be helped.

When I take out and carry my gear to the car, I find the wayward binoculars hanging from the left side rear view mirror.  The strap is wet.  Someone has retrieved them from where I launched... a favor to be passed on.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Winter Birds

I set out from just inside the mouth of the river, not far from the sea, and head inland with a stiff breeze in my face, a breeze that makes the extra meanders across the river to the lee of the windward bank worthwhile.

It is a clear sky above, as blue as it gets here on the east coast with 3000 miles of land for the prevailing winds to cross over.  On the west coast in similar conditions the sky would be a pure blue color that almost hurts the eyes to look at...the visual equivalent of a pure aural tone.

The spartina has finally given up all of its green.  It is now clad in greys below the high tide mark and reds and golds above.  But, it still stands proud, the mild autumn having produced no snow to push the grasses flat.  The birds are winter birds, relatively few in number and spaced well out except for the ducks.  It is crows and gulls until I get to the stone arch bridge where I flush a great blue heron.  Just beyond that, I watch 3 hooded mergansers by peeking around the next bend. 

hooded merganser
Then I flush a small mix of black ducks and mallards.  At the gravel shallows about thirty ducks flush well before I can identify them.  The black ducks always go when I am well distant.  The interesting part of that encounter is the bird that swoops down from the trees.  It takes chase to one duck without luck.  Ducks are fast and even a hawk can only catch one before it is up to speed.  The bird does turn out to be a sharp shinned hawk, which I find surprising.  It is a small hawk and it is a bold move for it to take on a duck (or any bird equal or larger than itself).  That scene finished, I am left with a pair of downy woodpeckers overhead in a tree.

I have passed the nose of the tide by the time I reach the Foote Bridge, the current against me and the water shallow enough to signal my return.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Working Waters

Insanity prevails in my thoughts as I head out from Essex into the North Marsh, which is the short passage into the big river.  Such has become the civilized world.  A 1/4 mile off, three white swans sweep in from around the forested point and the washing begins.  Ahead lies the balanced world, complex yet composed, unknown but predictable, as long as one stays humble and respectful.  Nature always wins, know your place.

Ely's Ferry in the distance

When I enter the river, I spot Ely's Ferry, or what remains of it, across and up a ways, nothing more than a beach at the end of a road, a long time since any ferry crossed from there.  There is small shack on pilings near there, reminiscent of the boat houses that people build in front of their lakeshore houses, ruining their view and the view of their neighbors.  But this shack is a very old store house, mid 19th century if I remember right, and well maintained.  A work building for working waters.  Farther up are the two Ely houses, I suppose 200 years old.  They are the same size and symmetrical - nine windows and a central door on each.  The light colored one has two chimneys, the red one has one central chimney.  I've never seen them from the land side, but it appears that the front door faces the water and I imagine visitors coming by boat.  Homes for people that worked working waters.

The Ely Houses

Today marks the first day of winter canoe season.  It achieves that through my choice of clothing.  It is the first day since spring when I have donned my drysuit, a decision made by the size and temperature of the water.  I head upstream into the wind, against a current that is aided by a draining tide.  A large bird on a drift log spreads its wings.  The feathers match the wood and I would have missed it if it had not moved.  Eagle sized, it turns out to be a turkey vulture.

working boat
Near and hour and a half out, I cross the river to the bottom of the Selden Channel.  A couple hundred yards up, I stop to photograph some trees.  When I take the camera from my eye, I find that I am being propelled by the wind at three or four miles per hour.  It is windier than I thought and so it is time to return across the river and make my way towards Essex.  A bald eagle awaits at the entrance to the North Marsh.  It is not amused by my arrival and it goes.  It has work to do.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Color of Temperature

We set out from the Foote Bridge, the crossing of the river of Bearhouse Hill Road, with the tide coming up to meet us. 

It was grey and so standard for November in the north, except that it was unseasonably warm.  We talked little, but instead listened in the still air and kept our eyes aimed well out ahead of the canoe.  The wintering ducks flush from much farther out.  We spotted a pair of downy woodpeckers at Pocketknife corner, and S found a bluejay not too much farther on where we flushed a small flock of ducks too far off to be identified with any certainty.

A light sprinkle came on, but it was not enough to wet our clothes.

After the stone arch bridge where the marsh opens up into big sky, we spotted a single yellow legs and then a hawk, which was actively vocalizing...skreeee...and it led us to a second hawk perched in a tree by the big bends.

The Sneak was well topped up with water by the time we reached it and we paused to walk around.  S had not stepped on the spartina before and wondered if she would sink in.  "No, it is as firm as a soccer field.," I replied.

We headed up Bailey Creek as far as the old boathouse, because I knew that we would see some ducks along the way. 

aerial photograph of spartina marsh
And, we talked about how this day would be called a steely grey day, if it were not for the balmy temperature.  That unusual heat colored the day in our eyes.  We saw warmth in the golden spartina grass while the grey bare trees that would dominate in normal weather faded away.

Out return was on the flood tide with a light wind in our face.  Only in the last mile was it less than ideal as a light rain began and held until we lifted the canoe from the water.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Getting Small

It is calm and sunny at the put-in, the light still low in the autumn morning, the cattails and phragmites as golden as they will ever be, and the bare hardwood trees as grey as they will ever be.  A very high tide has just peaked a half hour back and already a stiff current builds in the constricted spots.  But that high tide also means that there will be no shallows, the water will be deep right to the cattails, right to the rocky banks.  I get close up views of the forested edges and I can visit inlets that I normally bypass.  I glide over boulders and submerged ridges that I normally have to skirt knowing they are there, but never seeing them.
coffee break

The wintering birds are around, but in the lesser numbers that cold weather brings.  In the big bay by Goose Island, I spot just a half dozen buffleheads and two swans.  In the channel leading upstream out of that bay, I come across a family of swans - two adults and two cygnets still with the last of their grey feathers.

But, it is the scenery that stops all. It is nothing short of glorious...a word I do not toss about with ease... it's really not in my vocabulary.  If I was less an explorer I would probably sit and fill my camera with images.

It has been awhile since I was in the canoe with both work and weather keeping me aground.  And, as usual when such things have happened, it takes an hour or two for me to drop in on where I should be.  Somewhere deeper in the marsh I begin to shrink from my civilized self, I become small just as I should be in the presence of nature, and I become at peace with "it".  I go on my way.

Lord's Cove, Connecticut River

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Very High Water

I follow a red brick road of fallen oak leaves, the serpentine path meandering within the meanders.  It is the time of the year when the canoe no longer slices cleanly through the water - wads of leaves collect on the bow as I go and create a chaotic splash and patter until they slide away and are replaced by others.

It is also the first day of cold fingers.  Although the temperature is not that low, the light mist wets my skin and chills it just enough to remind me of what's ahead, and to remind me to start packing gloves.  There is no sun on such a day, but there is also no company on the river.  Even the birds lie low on days like this.

It goes to rain when I get down to the stone arch bridge and it rains solid and steady through the big bend and until I reach the RR bridge.  Today and at this time in the tide cycle the Sneak is anything but a sneak.  It is wide, deep and open.  In the river, I have been paddling into the flood current but less than ten feet into the Sneak I cross the line and I am propelled at good speed.

Something odd is going on with the tides today.  The tide is already as high as I have ever seen it and still there is a strong flood current.  It should be going slack by this point. 

When I get to Bailey Creek, I turn up instead of heading to the sea.  The flood is strong and there are eddies in the sharp bends.  Over four or five of those bends I flush about of fifty black ducks, going off in 5, then 2, then 8, then 4 and finally a good two dozen or so.
approaching the sawmill dam
When the rain comes again, I turn back.  I head up the sneak a short ways and then turn off onto a channel that I've never passed through.  The short spartina awash by eight inches, this narrow cut has broadened to never less than ten feet.  I head up river to visit known places at very high water if for no other reason than to gauge the phenomena.
the sawmill dam
I find the water at the sawmill dam ruins high enough that I can enter the stone channel that fed the undershot wheel.  The water has flooded the trees closest to the river.  Something I've never seen before.
the  swamp above Foote Bridge
And when I  return to the Foote Bridge, I find that I have to duck to pass under, yet another first.

(I checked the tide table when I got home and it was supposed to be at 5.6 ft, which is not particularly high and something that I am quite familiar with.  It looked to be in excess of 6 ft to me.  Perhaps there is some surge from offshore weather systems.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

To the Center of the Earth

It is time to write.  It has taken a couple of miles to drift away from the minor irritants that come with a somewhat normal life and return, at least to some extent, to the center of the Earth.

The tide is high with grey overcast skies and a light mist mixed with a surface fog that is the result of an unseasonably warm November day.  More than anything, this seems to be a trip for the nose.  And in the calm I paddle close up to the tree lined shore to take in the strong scent that being exhaled by the forest.  It can't be photographed, it can't be recorded, and it probably can't be described to the uninitiated.  Hanging in the mist, perhaps held in place by the mist is the tangy and slightly acrid smell of fall.  It is the smell that one finds when they dive headlong into a pile of raked leaves and it seems to contain the dry foliage, honey, acorns and a hint of smoke all softened ever so slightly by the damp of the day.  Now, it fills the valley, but it will go away when the weather chills so paddle close and remember it.

When I turned the first point and entered Salmon Cove, a hundred or so mute swans formed a line near the far shore a half mile up.  They come here in the fall from their dispersed places and overwinter.  I suppose that here is where the new cygnets are introduced to the flock.  They are easy to spot, grey or mixed grey and white.

I pass two fishermen anchored in midstream at the second bend of the river and greet them, "It's a hard day for November," the temperature in the upper 60's.

I spot a couple great blue herons along the way and, near the bridge, two kingfishers who seem to be hashing it out over territory.  One spreads its wings open and wide while perched.  I read it as more of a warning than anything else.  I reach the Leesville dam and turn back, the water above the dam being shallow at this time of year, and I begin collecting molted swan feathers as I go.

The wind comes up, first in short gusts that shake leaves loose in dismembered clouds, then it becomes more steady, sometimes in my face, sometimes swirling from the side for no particularly obvious reason.  Following the right hand shore and still ten minutes away from the flock of swans, they all turn to the left in unison and leisurely swim to the far bank, assessing my path and speed from 600 yards.  By the time I get to where they were, they are just as far away as before, and I am not where I was when I started.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Indian Summer

I started at the west end of the ferry route, surprised to find that the ferry was still running, although I imagine that it might be in the last few days for the year.  It is a glorious fall day and a fine one to set out in after a week of having a nasty head cold.  The air is almost calm, the sky cloudless, the sun low and casting the contrasts that one would expect, and the temperature climbing, already to shirt sleeve status.

I cross the river, head down and into the cove where I find two mute swans call back and forth, the nasal whistle and fart vocalization being heard clear from well back in the calm.  At the first big bend I flush a medium sized hawk...maybe a red flies a short distance to a new perch and I don't get a good look.  Just below that, two kingfishers are busy hunting and a short time later a coopers hawk sits high as I pass.

I slow down, softening the paddle only to make less noise, and listening for motion in the forest on either side of the channel.  Much is going on on such a nice day, but sound cannot be relied upon as a clue to what is there.  With the leaves on the ground a squirrel makes as much noise as a cow would.
coopers hawk

As I near the osprey nests, a dog squeak toy call signals the arrival of a pileated woodpecker, which lands only for a second in a tall dead snag before it thinks twice about sharing the area with me.  It flies back in its signature pulsing motion to the forested hillside across the marsh.  I turn up the long dead end channel that splits the lower tip of the island. 
three beaver scent mounds
It is a few hundred yards up to the first fork, and a bit more to a small somewhat ramshackle bank burrow that is worth keeping an eye on.  I've seen little beaver lodges like this triple in size in short order, which I believe is a sign of the beaver reaching breeding age.  Anyway, once at the fork, it is clear that the beaver are still active as it takes no effort whatsoever to spot eight rather large scent mounds, the territorial markings of beaver.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Last Call for the Sneak

The draw of the dank frostiness of a marsh in morning in the late season of the year, the seasons where the sun stays low, where the forest remains deep in shadow, comes in the awakening that occurs when the sun brings its' heat and light to the cattails.  The stillness that was dawn is replaced by the motions and calls of all of the marsh critters as they greet the sun.

I'm not particularly early in arriving at the marsh, but I do catch the tail end of the awakening.  The birds are alert and flush early and energetically, they are out in the open seeking sustenance for the day's plan.  I flush what seems to be forty mallards as I round Pocket Knife Bend although they may be black ducks...the sun is in my face and both species have similar shapes and calls.  Two great blue heron fly off at the same time.  By the time I reach the sawmill dam, I add four great blue herons and a lone osprey to the count.  Footfalls in the forest surrounding the river are nothing more than acorns dropping from the oaks, the leaves on the ground amplifying the sound of anything as large as a squirrel into the racket of a deer in flight.

The stillness lifts when I reach the stone arch bridge, the wind rising in the trees, the acorns falling with more authority.  The wet on the riverside tree trunks show the tide is down by 10 inches.  The temperature has jumped several degrees just by leaving the forest behind as I enter the big marsh. 

Yellow legs are the dominant shoreline wader here, the herons staying up near the forest, the willets that take over in summer long gone on their way south.

I enter the Sneak, the almost unknown passage across the marsh into Bailey Creek.  It is last call for the Sneak, the tide dropping, the passage narrowing.  I cross the high point just before reaching the creek with just a few inches of water beneath the canoe.

And then I paddle and put away the identifications and labeling.  What I see is where I am, and when I get where I am going I will be where I am, and everything else is not here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Canoe Pants

It is customary for me to wake my wife in the morning with her first cup of coffee, I being the early bird and she the night owl.  She looks over in the predawn darkness and says with a tone of happiness, "canoe pants", my outfit telegraphing the day's plan.

It has become noticeable to me that there are more than a few people who watch for me to go out in my canoe.  Not only do they watch, but it seems that they encourage act, waiting to find out what I will find, or think, or create from the experience.  It is what draws me to being an artist, that regardless of how the "other" world sees it, the people within my world support and encourage acts of curiosity and creativeness.  I feel most fortunate.

Over the past two months, I have been managing a reasonably large art exhibition project.  It keeps me off of the water, but it does introduce me to new people...people that are inside "my world".  Some of them will join me in the canoe sometime in the future, but today is for myself.
In that time, the wild rice has been eaten or dropped into the marsh, the cattails have gone tan, and most of the birds are in some phase of migration.  The transition seemed fast and early this year, possibly propelled by a dry summer.

I go inland away from a windy coast that will also bring a low tide during the middle of my paddle.  I end up in the northeastern hardwood forest on a tidal river a good distance from the sea.  It has not rained much of late and the river is low well before the coming low tide.  I follow the river downstream through the trees and out onto a great marsh.  A great blue heron being the first bird of consequence that I find.  And, looking into the sun, I spot the obvious bobbing flight pattern of a kingfisher, it's colors erased by glare but the ID positive none the less.

I go on my way spotting herons, a small flock of coots, an empty eagle's nest, and a number of smaller turtles out gathering the last of the sun's heat before winter sets in.  When I turn back at the meeting with the big river, I join the landscape and become observant without classifying what I see.  It is the time when one is most available to what the land holds.  But, a familiar call interrupts that place, for a moment...a very late osprey lands in the branch of a tree at the inside of the bend.  I think it should be south by now, and it reminds me of the Salmon River osprey that I watched last year up until the river began to freeze in.  I wonder why they stay, I wonder if they make it through winter.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Soul Food

I turned away from a drawing in my studio that has gone untouched for some three weeks.  Dirty indoor work has kept me away from art and the canoe.  And while art is an outpouring of the soul, my canoe trips are food for the first.

I have spotted 5 osprey before the canoe is laid on the water - 2 on sailboat masts, 1 in a tree, 1 in a nest box, and 1 in flight.  Paddling a hundred yards brings me to five ducks... the first bend shows 2 great egrets and a yellow legs that I don't notice until the white birds leave.  The tide is low, the wind light and onshore, the man-sounds of cars and trucks is blown away from me and it is as it should be.  That is why I came here.
remains of a wooden boat
I come to this river more than most any other; the minor distance well worth the rewards.  It has become my marker river, the one I am familiar enough with to track seasonal changes by the little things that an occasional visitor doesn't notice.  From a distance, the spartina grass was tan with streaks of green and tones of red.  Once in the canoe and down in beneath the tops of the spartina I can see that the tan is the stalk of next year's seeds and the leaves are still green.

A mature bald eagle flies off from the corner tree at the big bend...a frequent happening.  At the stone arch bridge, I spot a green heron, and then several more once I've gone under.  I spook two great blue herons, and get scolded by a couple of kingfishers.  With the tide out, I make it only as far as the gravel shallows where I decide to turn rather than wade farther.
Of note, I see no willets, I spot an immature bald eagle off on a tree in the lower marsh, and I see a whimbrel on the bank that spooks before I can ready my camera.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


I've been spending my days working in a giant cavern of a building with long dark hallways and a huge great hall, mostly lit by the filtered light that comes through open doors and reflects off the dingy floors and walls, the electrics not quite working.  As I said, a cavern.

I put myself into the big river that lies some miles east of our house not wanting to be constrained by the narrow passages of the marshes that I so often frequent.  And, it seems a good choice as the cove where I start from is occupied by more white birds than normal.  At least 50 swans in a couple of flocks are out there and I find twelve great egrets crowded onto the point where I make my entry into the river.  Eight of them share two wet foot stunted trees with the others at the shoreline.  Rounding out the tally are a couple dozen cormorants and a couple of osprey.  A fine start.
2 great egrets, 2 great blue herons, 6 cormorants
It is calm and humid with high thick clouds that may part as the day goes on, but they will not burn off.  The tide is near high, but I still find myself being propelled by a still energetic flood tide and the shoreline speeds by with relative ease.

I arrive at the bottom of the Selden Channel in rather quick order.  It is guarded by an immature bald eagle that moves off confusing me for something that I am not.  A great blue heron crosses the channel ahead, a couple osprey make themselves known, and a nearby green heron runs up and down a deadfall tree that leans over the water.  It has not flown off as I paddle away.

The channel is peaceful...tranquil, with slowing current, with wild rice that has already dropped most of the crop into the water, with cattails going tan.  A slow moving motorboat comes my way and as I pick a plastic bottle from the water I nod greeting to them.  But, it is not so much a "how are you?" but rather a "you can leave now."

At the far end of the channel, a party of ten sea kayaks come around the bend ahead.  I quickly spin and head back before they can get close enough for a greeting.  Motorboats come and go in a matter of seconds, but chattering sea kayakers linger for ages.  I leave them behind.  One cannot hear the land speak if one doesn't listen.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

After the Doldrums

I return to the river with S after several days of traveling, traveling that has carried us over the period that I call the summer doldrums.  It is time of unusual calm in the rivers when birds have fledged and nests are abandoned and their habits shift to something that makes them harder to find and definitely less obvious. 

We put in a few miles from the sea at the Foote Bridge.  The tide is low, very low, in fact, the lowest that I have seen it at this point of the river.  But, it is an intentional plan that will bring us back on a flood tide with a tail wind, and I figure it to be a good summer day to wade the shallows ahead of us.
green heron

The odor of marsh decomposition is in the air, but this also means that mud banks and shallows are exposed to their fullest extent, and shore birds will be out in view picking at a bounty of small critters.  In and around Pocket Knife Bend we spot a half dozen green herons.  A few great blue herons show up and we observe a good number of yellow legs feeding in a manner that I've not seen before.  They are holding their bills at the surface of the water and walking...S says they are "Hoovering", which is as good a description as any.  Kingfishers become a regular sighting with a good deal more out than is normal, but then again, there is a good deal more tiny silver minnow sized fish than is normal.  The kingfishers are eating well.

As we wade the gravel shallows the one bird that is noticeably missing is the osprey.  We've only seen one and probably because a bird that dives after fish from some 50 ft in the air prefers to have more than 2 inches of water to dive into.  Then, a bald eagle takes off from somewhere in the forest.

We scare up some Canada geese near the Big Bend, which is where we also spot our first willet.  It is a normal upper limit for the willets, who prefer the more expansive salt marsh that is closer to the sea.

Once below the railroad bridge we start to see osprey again.  At first they are just perched in the trees, but with the tide coming back at a fast rate, they start to fly and disperse up river.  Ourselves, we turn back at Cedar Island and return on a river that is different except for its path on the map.  A foot of water has been added in that time, the shallows have gone below the surface, the water touches the spartina and covers the mud banks.  The yellow legs have moved off to somewhere else, the kingfishers remain and scold everything in sight, the green herons still own Pocket Knife Bend, and osprey are starting to arrive.

Foote Bridge

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Lewis Gut

We headed west in the car toward favorite places only to find both of the possible roads jammed for miles.  I turned east and headed to a place that S had not seen, a new experience to make up for a delay.

We set out on a warming day that will reach nearly 90 degrees, but with a steady fresh breeze off of the sea from one direction or another.  The tide is high when we set the canoe on the rotting asphalt boat ramp lined with trash, a hint at the past and present of this gritty city.

"Row, row, row our boat" is sung from under the dilapidated swing bridge as we approach.  A pleasant if not completely present fellow is parked under the bridge in a tiny dinghy fishing for porgy.  Gritty as this city may be, I have always been greeted with a smile whenever I pass someone in my canoe.

We stop on the sandy shore of Pleasure Island, a former amusement park being redeveloped by nature into something....more natural.  There are a fair number of people coming to the island on the park department ferry and some of them are then being delivered to the swimming beach in a very long golf cart taxi.
rotting keel of a wooden boat

Osprey rule the area today and I imagine that at least ten can be seen at any one time.  A few willets are around as are some great blue herons and great egrets. 

It is called the Lewis Gut and S finds it visually interesting, as do I. There is something surreal about it and something that reminds one of a desert island. A long spit of sand divides us from the sea, a long spit with a lot of somewhat shredded trees on it, a place that is exposed as any to the storms that come.  The last hurricane washed right over the spit and if I remember right, cut a channel through which has since been filled.
the dilapidated swing bridge