Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Uncommon Loon

I set out from Pilgrim's Landing just before the turn of the tide, just before the turn of the month, and just before the turn of the age of man.  Ten years ago, my environmentally focused friends predicted a technological fix to climate change.  I knew this would not happen.  It has not, and it will not.  The history of man is little more than looking ahead to the next meal.  Even when most of us became farmers instead of hunters, the foresight went not much farther than the next harvest.  Today, the foresight goes no further than the next quarter's earnings report.  The foresight to address climate change requires thinking ahead a century or more...planning, doing and waiting for a payoff that will not come in one's lifetime.  Few people are built that way, and the power-seekers are most definitely not.
Into Lord's Cove
A splash to my left, probably a fish, but I only see the action of the water.  An osprey to my right drops down out of a tree.  No doubt the osprey has seen everything in the super-detail of a bird's eyesight.  It sweeps over the spot and continues, either not seeing the prey or seeing a prey that is too large.
The day is cool, a cool that I can feel will not last.  There is a wind in my face, a wind that I know will only be at my back when I return from my explorations, and the last of any clouds is already to the east.  My last trip here was as the ice was breaking up and I was blocked by jams and flows from any of the smaller side channels.  That will not be a problem today.

I take a route that follows the side channels, extending the mileage and visiting the smaller places.  I cut through the mystery of Coute's Hole, finding little there but finding my first marsh wren of the spring on the way out.  It chirps once or twice, then drops down into the cattails and goes silent.  It is not yet time to advertise to a mate.

In the farthest out of the arms of the cove, I spy a swan nest while four osprey circle overhead.

Mute swans (invasive)
And then, it becomes paddling among the fiber forest of the marsh, cattails and phragmites passing by, whispering in the wind with the calls of red wing blackbirds punctuating the purpose of a marsh.  It washes the mind just as well as it filters impurities from the water.
Red throated loon
As I enter the big shallow bay on my return, there is a loon ahead.  It seems late for a loon to be here, but a loon it is.  But, the slight size and up-turned bill shows that it is not the more common "common loon", but the smaller red-throated loon finishing its winter and heading north to arctic coastlines.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fire in the Belly

I was hanging lights for an art event, standing on a ladder tying things with string when I flashed back to my climbing days...the memory of concentrating on setting gear while high and in someplace vertical with air beneath ones feet...and the way that the rest of the world disappears at such moments.  My friend D, also a former climber, says you have to have fire in the belly to do that.  Neither of us climb anymore, but neither of us have ever lost the fire in the belly.  We just burn a different fuel.  People with the fire always have the fire, unless the machine becomes broken through abuse or accident. 

I set out near low tide from the Foote Bridge, and as a result I dodge a few boulders, drift over some shallows, and wade a hundred yards or so as I make my way towards the sea.  I spot three osprey well before the stone arch and my first snowy egret of this year.  It seems that if one just swivels their head around, they are more likely than not to see an osprey.  Once the water becomes deep enough for a full blade, I pull out a new paddle for its first day.  It is western red cedar of similar shape to the one that I have been using all spring, and as it makes its first few sweeps past my face, I catch the smell of the cedar through the linseed oil finish.  It is a good paddle and when I make slices with it in the water it doesn't "zip" at all...the edges got shaped just right.
glossy ibis
Beyond the stone bridge as I get to the first gentle bend I find a dozen glossy ibis on the outside of the turn.  It is a beautiful bird of fascinating proportions that I find here in mid-spring...I'm not sure where they go later, but they usually seem to be around for a few weeks before I don't see them anymore.

Yellow legs have also returned, and as I reach the spartina of the salt marsh, they get exchanged for willets.  I spot a single whimbrel a mile up from the sea.
I turn back when I get to the mouth of the Neck.  The tide is still low, the Sneak will be a portage at this water level, so I retrace my route.  I wade upstream through the shallows, I dodge the boulders, I'm an equal amount of time opposite the low tide point.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Collecting Bones

I spot an egret up ahead through the trees on the outside of the next meander.  And, I almost miss the muskrat diving not more than 15 feet from the bow of the canoe.  And, it's not one egret, but two.  And, it's not two egrets, but two egrets, a great blue heron and a Canada goose.  This is not to mention the three bald eagles that I passed back a 1/4mile...all white headed but seemingly young and fairly small still.  Nor is it to mention the pair of downy woodpeckers that were circling a large swamp tree a bend or two back.
My start was all not so early, but early enough that, today, I am the first one into the Great Swamp, and such things are always worth the effort.  The trick is to remember that they are.  The day is not awake, at least the not day that people take part in.  It is sunny and cool with a light breeze and when I set the paddle down across the gunwales, the sharp drum snap that results echoes back off of the grey sticks. 

The water is down 6 or 8 inches from last week.  Grasses are beginning to grow, cattails are coming up, but no higher than 6 inches, and skunk cabbage is coming up, and clouds of non-biting gnats occupy the forested areas.
I find my first bone at the bend before the only bridge, where you come out of the woods and hopefully leave the gnats behind.  It is the skull of a buck white tail deer, sitting at the edge of the bank, a specimen positioned as if someone said, "Jimmy, put that thing down right this second!"  I collect it.

The second bone is a half mile farther and another skull.  This time in 3-1/2 feet of water.  Beaver.  When I stop to collect it, I notice that a good percentage of the skeleton is scattered about on the bottom.  I collect a short section of the backbone, but the skull slips into the silt after three or four tries at bringing it to the surface with two paddles ala chop sticks.

The third bone is found up another 1/4 mile on top of a punched out beaver lodge on the outside of the bend.  It appears to be the entire backbone with some ribs and leg bones of a mammal.  I can imagine the backbone to be from something capable of serpentine motion and guess it to be from an otter.  I leave it.

I turn back as I near Pine Island, not needing the tight fidgety bends that start there. 

I spot an otter.  It dives, then surfaces closer, exhaling to clear its nostrils as it takes a look at me and dives away for good. 

I notice that I have not heard the peeper frogs or the bullfrogs today.  But, I have seen a good many turtles.
I collect the long backbone from the lodge as I pass, of course.  What was I thinking.

A few peeper frogs call out as I get to the end of the marsh.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Left, Right, Wrong, and Right

I revisited my spirit dream (, the one, the only one where two men share my canoe.  One is well dressed and for all the world appears to be a success.  The other is a sad sack who receives pity and tolerance and seems to barely get by.  They appear, to all the world, diametrically opposite, I suppose with me somewhere in between. As a dream, they are choices I could have made...left or right.  But, in reality, they are not opposites.  Peel the thin skin off of each and you find a two men living on deception and manipulation.  I could not have been either without being dead.  They are to one side, and I hope that I am to another.  A third character in the dream is a female squirrel that flits about and talks about art and while in the canoe makes the canoe glow with light.  When she leaves the canoe goes dim.  I always knew, but never said it, that she left only to show me what things would be like without that spirit.  She left only to show me how fortunate I am.  It was only temporary.
 Selden Channel (I am no longer referring to it as a has not been a creek for 160 years and while it is officially "creek", it is by definition, "channel", which is more important) is running a strong current, something that I've never seen before.  The main river is high, even before the high tide arrives.  Snow melt from as far as Quebec has reached here.  High tide and flood water means that the back channels in the marsh will be deep and wide.

I ride the current from the main river into the first pond.

At the bend where the beaver slapped its tail on my last visit, I stay alert.  In the very corner of my eye, a small out of place wave washes to shore.  I almost ignore it, then on second thought I look.  A mossy rock seems to be more than it is.  While I watch, it slowly slips down the bank and into the water.  It is a fairly good sized adult beaver.  It swims upstream in the shelter of overhanging branches.  No tail slap, but it probably already had seen and sized me up.  It just bides its time until I leave.

I turn into the first channel.  It is the wrong channel, although there really isn't a "wrong", more it is not where I intended to go.  I paddle to the end and back out.  I head down to the right channel, but investigate a channel on the opposite side first.  It goes back to a fine rock island with pine trees and a surface of pine needles.  It would be a fine campsite. 
 Then I return to the right channel and paddle in.  It turns out to be the wrong channel, although with the high water, it looks like the right channel.  But, with some effort, I make my way through drowned cattails to the right channel, which I recognize by a sawed off log that I remember.  I thought that I might be able to paddle through and back to the main channel, but even in these high waters the passage won't go.  So I paddle back out.
the two dirt piles are beaver scent mounds... about a foot high
 At the osprey nests (3 natural, 1 platform), I enter another channel.  It rounds the bottom of the island and goes much further than I expected...maybe a mile total, running a ways up the river side of the island.  I pass six fresh scent mounds all in one spot...territorial markers for a beaver colony.  The lodge is another 75 yards.  On the way out, I stop to look at the lodge.  As I do, a line of bubbles starts at the lodge and comes my way passing under the bow of the canoe.  It is air being squeezed from the fur of a beaver.  I never see it but I count it as a sighting.
notice the size of the talons
On the way out, beyond the scent mounds and in another colony's territory, I'm watching osprey when I glance over to see where my canoe is drifting, and I spot an adult beaver swimming away.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


It was only after some eight miles that I picked up my pencil. Things that I thought about writing down earlier were left behind, exchanged for absorbing everything that I could with my senses.  I normally would turn back about 6 miles out, near the bottom of Pine Island where the river narrows and begins to bend its meanders in tight corners.  But, on such an extraordinary day I saw no reason to follow the ordinary and I continue to the Patterson road head.  Beyond that, the river goes very wild.

The water is high with snow melt, the trees of the swamp awash in a foot or two of water.  The rivers narrow deep channel would be hidden except that the cold water is clean and clear and the bottom is visible to six feet or so.  Even so, I often miss the track and find myself cutting across the meanders and through the trees until I run across it once more.  The high water changes the equation.  The canoe passes over every beaver dam by at least a foot.  The downed logs that require a step out are the same.  I never set foot outside the canoe.

But also, there are no hawks because there is no prey in that foot of water.  Likewise, I go six miles before seeing a heron, because the shallows are not at the rivers edge anymore.  I do hear plenty of woodpeckers and flush more wood ducks than I am used to.  At least the swallows and red wing blackbirds are behaving as they should.  Peeper frogs are calling out, even in the chill of the morning as I head in, while the bullfrogs stay silent until the day warms.  This swamp is loaded with bullfrogs.  When I first heard them in here, I thought it was some farm machinery up ahead.  Then, when I discovered that the sound came from the interior and not the edge of the marsh, I assumed it to be a huge flock of ducks somewhere back in the trees.  They hush when one gets too near, and the tip off is the way that the thousand calls, each at a slightly different frequency, come together every so often to create an in-unison pulsing.

It seems that in fourteen miles of paddling, I should write more, but I suppose that if the wilds are doing what the wilds should do, I might write less, if not nothing.  I too am awash in that foot or two of water.

Where - Great Swamp

Friday, April 10, 2015


No one expects me today.  The sky is clouded over thick and a wet drenching drizzle cuts the vision to 800 yards.  The ducks go unidentified unless they call, but the swans, osprey and flying great blue heron are known without any tricks, although a standing heron would likely be missed, a perched osprey might go unnoticed...only a blind man would miss the swans.  But the marsh at Selden Creek is alive and active.  Songbird calls emanate from both sides.  I can ID the redwing blackbird, the tapping of woodpeckers, but many of the others are foreign languages to me.

A slap of a large fish off behind me as I turn at the first bend past the pond.  I wish I'd seen that.  It was big.

By the first cliff, another slap of a good sized fish.

Near the bottom of the creek, the osprey have all taken their nests.  There's one next box with three or four natural nests built in the dead snags of the drowned swamp.  A loon calls from out in the main river and I can just barely make it out...a lone bird where there are few lone birds anymore.  It will migrate north to a lake, once the ice on those lakes goes out.

I turn back just in time to catch a pair of muskrats swimming across the channel.

Beaver - the wind-up for a tail slap
At the first cliff, the fish jumps again...which is not right.  I watch and spot a line of bubbles...air squeezed out of the fur of a submerged beaver.  There are two, and a stick pile that appears to be a shoddy bank burrow.  Both beaver are small and are probably two year-olds that have been forced out of their parents home and are now colonizing unclaimed territory.  It's what beaver do.  That first fish slap back at the first bend was no doubt, a beaver as well.  I watch for fifteen minutes and then continue.

Another muskrat crosses the channel.

Back at the first pond, one of the swans, the male, takes off straight at me... straight like charging bull.  This is not good...swans take off away from people.  It is rather impressive to say the least.  They're big birds, but you wouldn't imagine a swan could look that big.  It touches down fifty yards away but holds its wings up over its back so that it looks twice as large.  It swims toward me until I change course, then it too changes course.  Detente.  I blinked.

The drizzle eased up a half hour ago.  Now the fog rolls in, almost as thick as it can be.  I have to cross the river and the far shore is just a faint shadow at best.  Like I said, no one expects me...I keep the ears perked for motors and make quick work of the crossing.

The count - 2 beaver, 6 muskrats, half a dozen osprey, great blue heron, 2 swans, four common mergansers and a bunch of unidentified ducks.  They weren't expecting me. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Heron Congregation

I set out with S from the Foote Bridge on a sunny day with a prediction of increasing winds and possible rain.  The tide is rising, but the front edge of the flood has not reached this section of the river and we head down on a good current of snow melt, but so far in shallow waters.  We start early to beat the wind, as much as possible.

At the second bend we spot an osprey and flush five, no six, no seven great blue herons from what is a very small area...ten or fifteen yards of shoreline.  It is what I call their spring congregation, a behavior I noticed out west where I would see twenty to thirty of them within a hundred yard span of shoreline.  I haven't found a description of this meeting up, but I assume it has to do with mating.  As they fly off, we can see one kingfisher, four osprey, and seven herons all at one time.  Spring.

Passing the stone arch bridge takes us out to a more open marsh with the wind at our back but not strong enough to be a worry.  

Osprey are on the two nest boxes.  A pair of kingfishers stay behind in the trees.  We explore a side channel that I've been into once, a long time ago.  It goes farther than I thought.  We follow the tight meanders until it peters out, a patch of phragmites at the head, as there often is with such things.

We return, running up the channel to the old sawmill dam, which S had not never seen from the water.  We talk about spring and how all of its signals and characteristics can be felt, even when they are not visible.

Friday, April 3, 2015


It is a grey day.  To look at it, it could be one of those grey fall days where I was introduced to the outdoors beyond my own neighborhood.  My Dad would wake me before the sun and take me on his day long duck and squirrel hunting trips.  In Minnesota, that meant grey and cold - cold fingers, cold feet.  Yes, it could be a fall day, to look at it, but it is not.  Something is in the air that tells you that this is different.  The fall days seem to end on a sharp note.  Everything has taken a step back, there's a warning in a fall day.  Today is different.  With each moment there is a bit more scent, a note that life is coming out from hiding, a bit more birdsong.  To look at it, it might be fall.  To inhale it, it is most definitely spring.  At the end of the day you know there will be more.  Happy Birthday Dad.

I spot the first kingfisher since freeze up just two bends down from the Foote Bridge.  Not much further and I find an osprey in a tree. 

When I pass the stone arch bridge, the osprey start to get serious.  My first great egret of the season flies across the river up ahead. 

if looks could kill
I find a handsome loon at the railroad bridge where the tidal current runs strongest.  It makes rather short dives always surfacing a bit farther away from me.

The Sneak is full and wide as the tide is nearing high.  It seems that most of the osprey that nest in this area are already here.  They sit on nest boxes and the power pole nest, which is knocked down by the utilities each fall, is being rebuilt.  Knowing that the osprey would just build anyway, the utility company puts traffic cones over the wires to keep the nest from shorting the power.  The opsprey population is probably 90% of what will nest here.

I leave the Sneak and enter Bailey Creek and then the Neck River.  The light wind goes calm and the surface takes on the same watercolor wash that the sky has.  And then I turn back up the East River and back.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Osprey Returning to the Salmon

One osprey stayed long after all of the others had left on their southern migration in the fall.  That osprey was still here on my last trip before the freeze.  Now, one osprey sits on the first nest, just 500 yards up from where I started.  It could be the same, no one would know, but this one seems to be here before the others.

The paddle up the cove is into a headwind.  It's a spring day all around - a little chill in the air, a little wind, and a lot of sun.  The air is clear, the sky very blue.  I follow the edge of the cove, hiding from the wind as much as I can.

osprey entering the water

Just before the mouth of the Moodus, an osprey overtakes me and almost as quickly dives into the water after fish.  I guide the canoe over to shore where I can nestle it in some branches and for the next ten minutes I watch the osprey make repeated attempts at catching a fish.  Unsuccessful, it flies off over to the treed slope of Mt. Tom for a breather.  And as I continue, a woodpecker makes a racket clearly heard over 1/3 of a mile of water and a mature bald eagle sweeps across the front of Mt. Tom.
osprey exiting the water

The Moodus once held more than a dozen twine and textile mills.  For the first couple hundred yards of the river I can count, for each canoe length, two or three pieces of broken ceramic on the river bottom.  It is not particularly modern trash.  The first mill dam, an impassable one, is only 3/4 of a mile upriver from the mouth at Johnsonville.

Rounding the two tight bends, which always have some swift current to contend with, I scare off two common mergansers, and a muskrat swims across the river to evade upstream along the bank.  I turn back when I get to the bottom of Johnsonville and find a pair of tennis shoes stuck 3 feet deep in a sandbar.  You never find pairs of shoes.  The only way you find pairs of shoes is if they are connected.  I steady the canoe in the current well enough to flip one shoe with the tip of my paddle, and not finding a foot inside, I can continue.  The shoes are tied together with the laces.

the mouth of the Moodus

I head up the Salmon River on calmer air, the valley being narrower and protected.  I go as far as the Leesville Dam.  There is a good amount of current, the Salmon being reasonably long and draining a good amount of forested land.  Another osprey flies over.

As I pass that first nest on the way out, I find that there isn't one osprey but instead it is a nesting pair already at work adding sticks to their previous work (ospreys return to the same nest each year).

The count - six osprey, one (possibly two) mature bald eagles, 16 swans, about the same number of common mergansers, a couple wood ducks, a muskrat, and a few swallows.