Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Big River

I set out from the feral cat park knowing that the big river would be open and free of ice and that I would be able to paddle as far as I wanted.  Only a thin sheet of ice was on the lagoon where I launched and the canoe cut through it without effort.

I headed upstream, riding some of the flood tide with the winds calm, with the sky mostly sunny.  I spot a red shouldered hawk near one of the osprey nests across the river from where Peck's Mill once stood.  A mile further upstream, I pass a buck white tailed deer that lets me pass.  I watch and not once does it make any of the telltale motions that indicate flight.  Then, I spot a grey bunch high in a tree, too high for that much wood, and it becomes a young bald eagle that flies to put some space between us, because humans are, after all, the most unpredictable of animals.

At Great Flats, which is the second island upstream from the start, I meet eyes with two red foxes who move back into the brush before I can bring my camera up.

I turn back at Two Mile Island, which is no longer an island, someone having allowed a gravel company to fill in the side channel sometime after 1926 (I prefer the old map because it retains the earlier names...and the river hasn't changed enough to matter).  It is far enough, I have work ahead of me.  The wind has come up and it has shifted as predicted now coming out of the SW.  I begin paddling into a headwind.

The return takes almost 3 hours, an extra hour over the paddle out.  I hug the shore to take advantage of the buffer that the bank and trees provide, but it is a crawl.  It is worst at the highway bridge, as I expected and the half mile beyond it is a grind before I can get some relief.  When I take out, I am as cold as I have been in a long time, three hours of wind chilling me through all of my layered clothing.  But, I saw a pair of foxes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Crushed Ice

I start the trip by making an unplanned tour of my favorite Connecticut River put-ins.  The Chester Ferry site has a fixed ledge of ice running about 75 yards out from shore.  I could launch from it without much trouble, but the return might be an issue.  At Essex, I find a smaller and less stable ice platform, but out over deeper water, and I pass on that too. 

The Lieutenant River site is open although the calm air of the morning has now been replaced by a steady breeze off of the sea.  I put in and head down river on a flood tide that is already high.  Just beyond the RR bridge, which is no more than ten minutes in, I find a large jam of small ice. 
Pushing into it, I find it to be mostly broken shards of some previous sheet ice.  I make three attempts, each coming to a bogged down halt...more like being stuck in mud than running into anything hard.  It seems a good time to turn around and explore upriver.  I stop to write.  I finish writing and decide to try one more time along the left shore. The jam is tons of small pieces, window glass thick and mostly dinner plate sized.  But, the jam is two or more feet thick with it.  It is like paddling through a giant glass of crushed even makes the same sound. 
But, the shore route goes through to the first fork.  To the left is the inside passage to the sea.  It has another bank to bank jam.  To the right is the river route to the Connecticut River, and it is open.  I flush a dozen buffleheads, which is pretty much the wildlife report for the day.

I reach the river and confirm that there is a secondary way out, and I confirm that the wind is pretty strong out in the open.  So, I return, push my way back through the jam, and continue upstream.

The river is open for a good stretch with a easy jam to push through at the highway bridge.  Beyond that, there is long ledge of ice on the east shore that is of no issue to me with most of the river open.  I get within a quarter mile of the big boulder marsh before the ice covers the entire width.  I could push on, but there is no open water to push on to.  So, it is time to return.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ice Paddling

It is a short trip.  I put in at Foote Bridge, walking softly and sliding the canoe over the snow, and then over the tilted apron of ice that extended out over and into the water.  And when the ice wouldn't hold my weight, I put one knee on the seat of the canoe and pushed off with my other foot, pushing off of whatever it could find until the canoe began to slide into the clear and cold winter waters.

It is calm and the sky clear.  The forest and marsh are blanketed with new snow that fell a couple days back in a very windy storm that kept all canoes off of the water.  As I paddle down towards the sea, I pass through thin night ice, ice that is barely stiffer than the water it sits on, crushing and dispersing easily with each stroke of the paddle, slowing the canoe not a bit.  But, when I get to the well submerged gravel flats, the ice thickens.  Here, the river spreads out wide and shallow and without much of a current, thicker ice has formed and collected with the changing of the tides.  I push through and over it using my old Sawyer club paddle as a pole when the ice is thick enough to hold.  It is a matter of linking open pools and finding the weakest ice.  It is not quiet, the canoe focusing the sound of breaking ice in my direction.

I get some open water near the stone arch bridge and I hope that it will continue when I pass under and enter the open marsh land.  But, it does not.  In fact, the river is more frozen over with a uniform layer of ice that runs about 3/16 of an inch.  I can paddle through it, but there is no end to it in sight and I figure it will go that way to one of the big bends, which are another half mile.  I turn back and take my time, retracing the same channels that I've opened up, and just enjoying the contrast of snow and ice and marsh and winter forest on a calm and sunny day.

I pass by the Foote Bridge as this upper section is open water, and head further upstream to the tangles.  At one of the bends, I flush about 75 mallards.  They take off in four shifts, each time impressing me with the amount of noise they make as they go airborne.  And when the tangle makes passage difficult, I return to Foote Bridge.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Not Much to Say

I set out from the feral cat park, made the short crossing to the top of Pope's Flat, and a second short crossing to the top of Long Island (this one not so long as that Long Island) and then I made my way down the east shore of the big river to the sea.

I spotted a familiar wing beat as I started, and even at great distance, because it was well over where Peck's Mill once stood, the white head and tail confirmed it to be a mature bald eagle.  Crossing one of the small channels, I flushed six buffleheads, evenly split between sexes.

I ride the river current down as the tide is near its lowest point and the minor wind is of little consequence.  It is a pleasant march of two hours during which I pass 3 boats, all oystermen.  They are small boats with crews of two or three.  Oyster dredging within the river has to be done by hand; no winches permitted.

boat remains

With the tide low, the contemporary spartina roots are at head level and stratification of who knows how many years is exposed.  In places, I also find the remains of things from a time when people could abandon stuff in the water.  Trying to figure out what I am looking at keeps me busy.  I find the rusted carcass of an engine sitting in the collapsed remains of a wooden hull.  Most of the finds are large timbers...remains of boat launches and mooring facilities.

1926 map...there's more than mud and marsh

Near the mouth of the big river, I enter Wheeler Marsh, which is often a maze of channels equally divided between dead ends and actual passages.  I have few decisions at low tide and paddle up the only likely route.  There is a height of land in marshes...and it is the crux of passage at low water.  I continue in, the water getting shallower bit by bit.  For a couple hundred yards I paddle in six inches or less, and then, bit by bit, it becomes deeper.  The current starts to go against me until I am out of the marsh.  Then I can ride it upriver to where I came from.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Headless Baby Doll Cluster

The call for hot tea and blueberry cake comes just twenty minutes out from shore.  It seems that I have arrived during one hunting season or another.  A few of the camo clad are wandering at the edge of the marsh although some of them are more focused on the pair of bald eagles that nest nearby.

With high tide, I paddle up the channel that leads to the town's sewage treatment plant.  It is bounded on the north by a ridge that is an archaeological site, and when in far enough I find that the ridge is actually an island at this tide level.  As I sit and drink my tea, a large bird rounds the point and takes a perch,  Great Blue Heron, deserving the capital letters only because of the brilliant low sun that shines upon it.

I go out and round the point and paddle up the other of the ridge.  On the submerged ridgeline is a road, a foot deep, not currently a barrier.  I cross over and push in far enough to convince myself that I could pole my way through the grasses to reach open water.  I spot my fourth great blue heron of the day, and then I spot a significant data point.  Half buried in the dirt is a headless baby doll.  It is the second headless baby doll that I have found in the area, the other collected on December 14, 2014.  I note that I must now keep a careful watch just in case there is a headless baby doll cluster in the vicinity.  About 3/4 of a mile separates the two finds, but the other was floating on the edge of a marsh, this one is fixed in the earth and well stained by minerals.  A mature bald eagle soars past as if to approve of the find.
Headless Baby Doll in situ

Housatonic Specimen 1A, December 14, 2014

I head out to the channel that defines Nell's Island, a name which is pushing the limit as there is seldom any dry's just a place that you can't drive a boat.  I think about occupying it and declaring it sovereign land for dumb people, at least until I get hungry or cold or Gilligan's Island is on TV, whichever comes first.  Just with that, I have thought out my plans better than the Bundy knuckleheads have thought out their plan.

The wind pushes me seaward along with the beginning of the ebb.  It is quite, a few workboats dredging oysters and clams in the main channel, few birds. Sometimes the sun comes out from behind the clouds.  This is when the winter marsh takes up magic.  The bronze spartina, still standing tall having not seen any snow, turns gold.  It turns a gold color that we associate with pure richness...strands of gold.  To see it is to be wealthy beyond dreams.