Monday, March 30, 2015

On the Cusp

I pass a large beaver lodge, scare up a few hooded mergansers and a few more wood ducks.  A hawk settles into a tree on the left bank and leaves just as I get near enough to start identifying it.  A long broken chevron of honking Canada geese flies overhead and a second hawk winds its way through the trees on the right bank.  Here, the river is a boulevard, bordered by a thin line of trees on each bank with wide open expanses of marsh beyond.  The water is high with snow melt and recent rain.

I catch the Mattabesset at a rare moment.  It is coming out of winter slumber, it is the cusp between winter and spring, it is a temporal edge, and edges are where the life is.  In its starkness with remnants of snow and the cattails and wild rice crushed flat, the life is a strong contrast.  Already, several hawks have flown by.  I note the recent workings of a beaver and soon come across a rather small lodge.  There is no sign of winter food storage; branches and saplings stuck into the river bottom near the lodge where they could be accessed under the ice.  Perhaps that isn't usually necessary on the Mattebasset or maybe they ate all that was stored.  There are several trees with bare wounds from gnawing and they do not look like felling was ever intended as the gnawing ends with the nutritious inner bark.  It looks like they were forced out onto the snow and ice to find food during our unusually harsh winter.

As the boulevard gives way to the open marsh, I spot a mature bald eagle, and farther down, four immature bald eagles, more hawks, and a great blue heron.  Just before entering the forest near the big river, a startled muskrat skips like a stone across a mat of downed cattails before completing its submerged evasion.

I return the way I came, but never return the way I was.

Friday, March 27, 2015

First Osprey

At the first point, the one that coincides with the bottom of Goose Island, I enter that map that is painted on the blade of my paddle.  If I am lucky, I will eventually enter that map that is on the back of that blade, the spirit world map, a map of uncertainty, a map of hidden people and things that one doesn't and doesn't need to understand.

The ice is all but gone, the last vestiges of it are in the marshes and with the loss of ice some amount of wildness leaves.  But as the ice goes, the wildlife returns. 

swan decoy
Common mergansers are flocking in the open waters and blackbirds are chipping and trilling from the cattails.  I brush off a whistling call, taking it for a cardinal messed up with tricks of the wind and tree branches.  Fifty paddle strokes later, the call is repeated and it is much too loud and bold to be a red songbird.  The sound takes my eyes up into the trees and I find my first osprey of the year pinning a good sized fish to the tree branch with its talons.

The first osprey
The first side channel is open, but only until I reach the shallow bend where it doubles back on itself.  There, the channel is frozen over, the ice rotten and slumping, but solid enough none the least.  I return to the main channel in time to catch a mink in its serpentine bounding on the far bank.  I wait a few moments as mink, after hiding, will always come out to see what they are hiding from.  But, this mink has either seen enough of me or is watching from its hiding spot as I  don't see it anymore.

I next enter the circular channel the surrounds Coutes Hole, a round marsh anomaly that sane people attribute to a deep hole and others to space aliens.  It is neither, being quite shallow and, from my point of view, without good reason for not being filled with cattails.  But, it exists on modern maps as well as hundred year old ones.  Anyway, that circular channel is blocked by a jumble of iceflows although open water can be seen not too far up.  I try going counter clockwise but again I run into ice at one of the bends.

It seems that today is a day where I go where I can rather than where I want. I find such things to be reassuring and satisfying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Following the Ice

My plan was to follow the ice upriver but its melt out far exceeded my expectations and I reached the Salmon River without seeing any river ice at all.  Ten days ago, this section of the river, 200 yards or more across, was frozen bank to bank.
young bald eagle

Salmon Cove looked open, at least as far up as I could see, but I found the preferred boat launch still eight inches deep in snow, just begging to trap my car a ways from the road.  So, I put in a bit down river behind the opera house (yes, there is an opera house out here).  Today, I'll head down river into the wind on my outward leg and into a section of the river that I've not seen.

From land, the far side of the river looked whole and continuous, but from the canoe I find myself paddling behind a couple wooded islands with an unseen passage that leads back into a tidal pond, which is still frozen over.  It is still and quiet and the calls of a few Canada geese echo off the trees.  It is a place to return to.

I pass the remnants of Gillette's trestles and cliffside bridges, wood with heavy metal plate reinforcements tumbled down the bluff to the waters edge.  Gillette was a famous stage actor of the late 19th century.  He built a bizarre "grotto" style "castle" up on the hill and had a miniature steam engine train that he could drive around his estate. 

one of Gillette's trestles

I pass the Hadlyme ferry dock and enter Whalebone Creek.  Each of the wooded meanders holds a couple dozen ducks - hooded mergansers, lots of wood ducks, and lots of ringnecks...more bird life in one spot than I have seen in a long time.  They take wing as the bow of the canoe comes around each turn, so I keep the telephoto out on my camera and drift each bend.

Lots of wood ducks
I stop at the last bend where the it opens up into a wide marsh.  There are a couple hundred ducks up ahead and I have disturbed enough of them already.  I turn and leave them, only to find two fellows in kayaks coming in to look at ducks as well. 

leaving Whalebone Creek

I return upriver on a following wind that eases the paddle without causing concern.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ice Out

I put in from the village of Essex on what is a spectacular sunny day with clear air, little in the way of wind and temperatures in the low 30's.  The ice flows that seemed to fill the river on Friday are all but gone with only isolated solitaires in the water and an occasional one stranded on the river bank.  As I paddle upstream along the west shore, I cannot see any sign of the ice edge that was at the mouth of Hamburg Cove just four days earlier.

Nearing Hamburg Cove

I cross the river at Ely's Ferry and follow that shoreline up and into the cove pushing three young bald eagles ahead and flushing about thirty common mergansers.  From here I can see upriver past Selden is open water all the way.  It doesn't seem that weather of the last few days can be blamed too much for the ice retreat as the temperatures have been such that no ice was made and not much would have been lost.  I imagine that the tides have had more to do with it as we have had very high and very low tides during the last week, along with the stronger currents that accompany such phenomena - the ice breaks in the moderate warmth and flucuating waters and it doesn't get cold enough to refreeze.

I turn back out of the cove after a third of a mile, the remainder of it frozen over bank to bank, and continue upriver.  By the time I get to Selden Creek, I've had twenty or more eagle sightings, which I figure resolves into maybe ten individuals...immatures except for two.

Selden Creek
 Even Selden Creek is open, although as a narrow passage through a large marsh, I'm sure it is only open as far as I can see.  There are too many ice flows in the channel for it to not be jammed further up at one of the bends.  It is a good place to pause.  I rest the canoe against ice that is still fast to the shore and have a cup of coffee while watching two eagles sitting on an osprey nest.

When it is time, I cross the river and follow it downstream, paddling in the shallows.  The bottom is sandy and firm except for three places where I cross over a cobbles and boulders.  My guess is that these are wing dams from the days of steamboat traffic...constrictions designed to force the flow into a channel that would then stay deep and navigable.  Like so many of the earlier man-made features that I find in this region, the wing dams were probably never mapped.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Plan B

I went to the end of Ely's Ferry Road hoping to follow the shoreline up and into Hamburg Cove.  But, I found thousands of ice flows slipping upriver on the flood tide towards the ice edge of the Connecticut River, which looks to be right at the entrance to Hamburg Cove.  At least two patches, an acre or more each, pass by as I watch. 

At Ely's Ferry

The original plan no longer has a plan B.  I can easily imagine being stuck in the Cove as the bergy bits pile up at the ice edge or not being able to reach my put-in as the bergs pile up on the return towards the sea.  The shoreline in this area just is lots of cliffs and it isn't conducive to walking or portaging, the only plan B is very very long end to the day.

Instead, I put in downstream two miles on the Lieutenant River and catch the last of the flood upriver.  Soon enough I push two great blue herons upstream, and then I start collecting common mergansers, mostly males and obvious in their white and black plumage. 

mute swans
The bottom few miles of the Lieutenant are wide and bounded by cliffs, hills and marshes with any houses set well back from the river.  It has become a short trip favorite.  At the top of those few miles, it opens into a broad marsh with an open bay that holds numerous massive canoe-smacking boulders.  Today, with the very high tide, I can speed through the boulder bay and enter the upper river, a narrow and shallow creek.  In fact, there's not enough water to float a canoe in this section unless the tide is high.

I pass through the last bridge, icicles sawtoothing the passage, and then take the north channel, which I figure to be man-made.  Brush overhangs the stream and reasonable passage ends in a couple hundred yards, and being less than a canoe in width, I spin around and paddle the canoe out.
I end up seeing at least 30 mergansers, plus a young eagle, a large unidentified hawk, a pair of ringnecks and a third heron and a pair of swans.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ice Out with the Magic Pocket Knife

I set out from the Foote Bridge about an hour before the crest of a very high tide on a sunny, windy and crisp day.  Already, the water is high and near the top of the marsh.  At the first big right hand bend I spy an old birds nest and pull over to collect it, even though it is not in very good condition.  In fair trade for the nest, my pocket knife slips from my hand and falls into the water.  I reach in as far as I can, almost to the shoulder, but to no avail.  Nature always wins.  My fingers are almost numb.

The ice is out, at least to the Duck Hole Farms.  There, the river is mostly frozen over, but it is thin fresh water ice that has formed during cold nights.  Last night's ice, which formed in a good wind, is shards of broken ice that has barely become one.  The canoe cuts through without much of an argument. 

the tumbled sawmill dam

With the high water I slip up the side channel that leads to the tumbled remains of the old sawmill dam.  A good flow of melt water from the long valley behind the dam hasn't kept the channel open, but it has created a path of thinner ice to cut through.

I return to the main river and continue cutting my way through ice into the open marsh below the stone arch bridge.  The wind picks up in this wide open space.  It is strong enough to push the canoe sideways through the ice.  I had planned to go to the railroad bridge to see if the ice jam had cleared, but the wind has other ideas and I turn back before the highway. 

The gusts come over the water, turning the surface dark blue as a warning.  When the dark water reaches me the canoe comes to a stop until it passes.  When it's gone I can continue to crawl ahead at a mile or less per hour.  The surprise is that the ice that I just paddled through a half hour ago is almost completely gone.  Up ahead at the next bend, the wind lifts a large sheet of ice from the water and flings it in shattered panes towards the far shore.  And, that is why the ice is gone. 

It is colder than it seems.  The splashes and drips from my paddle are freezing in the bottom of the canoe.

At that big right hand bend (which is now a left hand bend) I retrieve my pocket knife from elbow deep water.  It is not the first time that that knife has found its way back to me.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ice Jam

I'm two hours after the high tide and work against the ebb and a cool NW wind in bright and sunny skies.  The spartina marsh still has a thin remainder of snow on most of it, but the East River is open with only an occasional flow drifting seaward.

The first bend holds three hooded mergansers, the next some fifteen black ducks, and the next a small flock of Canada geese.  The ice gone, the birds have returned to feeding with a month of lean times behind them.

And, I strike a bed of mussels hidden in the silty murk of the tidal flow.  One of those shells neatly cuts the tip of my paddle and opens a 2 inch long split.  It is, perhaps, my best paddle yet.  All of the dimensions and curves adding up to hit a sweet spot that seems ideal for me and my solo canoe.  I have planned on retiring damaged paddles, but this one warrants a repair, it just doesn't have enough days on it to be taken out of circulation.  It doesn't possess enough spirit.

The river is open, that is, until the first bridge.  It is a low railroad bridge with three narrow openings and ice has jammed against the structure on the upstream side.  I ease up to it and even release a ton or so of flows, everything shifting as a piece is removed from the puzzle.  It is thick ice, a combination of water freezing directly and fallen snow absorbing the tide and then freezing. I back out when I feel that I am too much a part of the jam while not wanting to get trapped up against the bridge.  Unfortunately, a portage is difficult, not being legal or safe to cross the high speed rail line.  As I watch, more ice comes down from above and adds to the jam.  Flows shift and settle slowly, each trying to find an equilibrium that doesn't exist.  Equilibrium for the ice is returning to liquid.  It is best not to be upstream of that jam since the return could become far more difficult as the day goes on. 

Cedar Island...a big rock in the marsh

I return, pausing to drift with some of the ice that I released.  Near the put-in, I turn up the Neck River.  It is open as well, meanders more and is a bit more protected from the wind, which has shifted to the SW just so that I can paddle a headwind everywhere that I go.  Short of the meeting with Bailey Creek I find the ice, the river at this point still frozen bank to bank, but just barely.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Return to Wildness

I stopped at the Chester Ferry landing, but only briefly.  Hoping for open water, the river was instead still frozen bank to bank.  I stopped next in Essex, and while there was open water in the main channel, the interesting places were still iced over.  So, I ended up near the mouth of the Connecticut River putting in where I had two days earlier, next to the winter killed Canada goose, which in the same place where I had last seen it.

This time, the water upstream was open as far as I could see.  Yesterday had been warm enough and windy and the ice jam that was near the landing was gone, or at least moved.  This time, I paddled upstream.

I headed up the Back River, which is not at all a river, but just a channel between two islands.  It might be a half mile long.  White thicker ice flows were grounded in the silt on the west bank while, after a couple hundred yards, thin fresh water ice from the night decked the water.  The canoe cut through the night ice, which got thicker the farther I progressed.  I turned back about half way up the channel when the ice got to be a 1/4 inch thick.  It's do-able, but pretty slow work at that point.

I returned and turned upstream into the excellent side channel that comes down from the Lieutenant River.  Although the mouth and bay at Four Mile River were solid, the marsh channel towards the Lt. was wide open.  Hooded mergansers, buffleheads, a few ring-necks and a couple goldeneyes occupied the marshy meanders, staying ahead or flying off as I approached.  The open water took me to within 500 yards of the actual Lt. River.  The ice wasn't solid, but the river was jammed with larger flows, the first few which I could work through or over, but the rest was a jumble.

On the way back out, a snipe darted over.  Even in its speed, its obvious silhouette identified it.

The Lieutenant River is just beyond the railroad tracks
 There is a specialness to paddling in ice that goes beyond the breaking an open path with its visual and aural sensations.  Even though it is a temporary condition, for no discernible time has anyone been here.  Everything is a new discovery beyond the sheet of frozen water.  Winter has changed whatever was here before, and whatever has changed has gone eyes unseen.  The condition of ice returns it to wildness.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Checking Ice on the Connecticut River

If I had bothered to walk down to the waters edge and look up the channel I probably would've gone to another spot on the river.  But, there I stood all suited up with all my gear and canoe looking at ice not a 100 yards upriver.  I put in just the same and head seaward pushing two loons toward the ocean not a half mile away.

It's cooler than the weather report predicted and the supposed north wind is still out of the southwest.  But it is, yet, a mild breeze and headway against the flood tide is not difficult.  I round the downstream tip of Great Island, its numerous osprey nest boxes still empty.  I count eleven swans well out in the salt water, but it takes several minutes to decide that they are not blocks of ice.

Once at the tip of Great Island I turn back knowing that there is little of interest ahead.  The mouth of the Connecticut River and the far side of the island are just big water and big water holds fewer things of interest than the smaller places.  Life prefers the edges and smaller rivers and marshes simply have more edges.


The Black River, which meets the Connecticut right at the mouth surprises me once more.  It is open with only a minimum of ice.  I haven't figured the Black out quite yet...there's a love/apathy relationship going on, but every time I paddle up it I find something delightful.  I push through a patch of ice that isn't long for the world and continue up to the first bridge.  Beyond that, it is ice free except for a thirty foot wide strip of soft brackish ice that the canoe carves through with little extra effort and some ice that clings to the shore.  Here, it meanders between small houses and marshy pockets.  I expect the railroad bridge to be more problematic with ice, but it too is open.

Open, that is, until the second bend.  You could push farther up, but it might not be so easy getting back out.  It's a good point to turn around.

Once I get back past the first bridge, I find that the wind has come up.  It is hard in the face and and stronger than when I started.  And, after blowing miles across the top of a cold ocean, it is frigid and raw.

another new paddle - poison ivy

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Break Up

It has been the longest stretch out of my canoe since I started my journal some six years ago.  February came in cold, very cold for this region, and it stayed cold with only a couple scattered days of thaw and a majority of days in single digits or teens (Farenheit).  Even the salt water of Long Island Sound had significant ice and it was frozen out as far as I could see on many days.

I put in at the feral cat park on the big river during a flood tide, all of that planned so that I coud paddle against the tide up to the narrowest parts of the river where ice might pile up.  I have managed to paddle in ice conditions most every winter, but that ice was mostly the 1/16 to 1/4 inch of night ice, the stuff a canoe canoe slice through.  The ice in this stretch of the river has broken up so that the surface is mostly water, but the first kiss of my canoe on the side of a flow comes more as a threat than an amusement.  After of month of freeze, the ice has substance.  Many of the flows are 4 inches or more in thickness.  That first kiss pushes my canoe aside and the flow hardly moves.  From now on I will treat anything bigger than a dinner plate as if it was a rock.

I head down river past Pope's Flat (an island) noting two hawks sitting on the downriver point.  They become four, and then they become immature blad eagles.  Ice moves birds around quite a bit.  Fresh water ducks and Canada geese, even some swans have been in the shallows of the salt water.  Eagles aren't so often seen although they are around.  The conditions may have forced them into a smaller area.

common mergansers (males)

I hope to reach the big marsh at the mouth, but at the last bridge I find a ice dam spanning the river.  I watch a fishing boat work its way through, but it takes two tries and some effort on his part.  This is as far as I'll go.

The first of my western red cedar paddles on its first trip

On the return while edging Carsten's and Peacock Islands, I spot some common mergansers, a flock of buffleheads, some ringneck ducks, and a few red breasted mergansers, and three of the eagles.  I pass my put-in at the feral cat park and continue until I reach ice jam up about a 1/2 mile upriver.

the upstream ice jam