Saturday, December 28, 2019

Clocking Ice Time

The wind was up a bit more than expected, but in truth it was out of the NW and there is little to interrupt any breeze for a couple miles other than some low treeless marsh islands.  It should be calmer up in the higher reaches of the cove. There was also a good chop on the water as the flood tide was opposing that wind.
I set the canoe down among a few small slabs of ice that had been windblown against the shore.  Then, I paddled my way north following the east shore where there was a bit of stagnation buffer from the wind.  A flock of about 20 Buffleheads flushed from the bottom end of Goose Island while I was a good hundred yards distant from them.

Spotted a male Red Breasted Merganser in the calm behind a finger ridge.

Goose Bay
There were two large smooth patches out in the chop of Goose Bay that could be nothing other than ice.  Ice from the nearest of those patches was up against the shore just around the point of the third finger ridge.  I picked a spot that was about 3 canoe lengths long to push through, swapping to an older paddle with a reinforced tip - reinforced because I'd split it a few times in the past.  I got halfway through, a process of pushing in and rocking the canoe side to side to bust the ice into smaller slabs.  It wasn't going, so I backed out and tried again right up against the shore, which went easy.  And, I have a paddle to repair when I get home.
The tip of one of the finger ridges
I stayed on the east shore until I got up to the small wooden bridge.  It was iced in with a thin skim that didn't slow the canoe.  Then I turned and headed toward the next cove up where there is a large Eagle nest.  The usual route was too thick with ice to make the passage, so I headed the long way around Coute's Hole.  Flushed about ten Common Mergansers on the north side of the hole and then four Canada Geese from the cove itself. 
The small wooden bridge
That was enough and I turned to head out.

Spotted three Hawks slope soaring upriver from Goose Bay, flushed twenty Canada Geese from behind one of the finger ridges.  The ice that had been on Goose Bay was nowhere to be seen - no slabs, no chunks.  The chop and wind seems to have dissolved it in the hour and a half since I passed.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Bailey Creek

The day is warm with the temperature in the upper 40's with a light southwest of no consequence, all of it backed up with strong low winter sun.  I pause, slipping the nose of the canoe into the mouth of the Sneak.  It is a good day and a good place to write in my journal.
The Sneak at low tide

I set out from the bottom halfway through the ebb tide.  My horizon was the dry tan colored spartina that was often no more than a canoe length away.  A mature Bald Eagle was perched high on Grass Island about 200 yards south of my start.  Before the first bend of the Neck River I flushed a single male Bufflehead.  There were no other birds for a few bends until I spotted a hawk high in a tree.  It was too far off to make a good identification.  

In the next bend I flushed a dozen Buffleheads.  In the next I saw a rounded shape submerge.  It could've been mammal or duck.  I rounded that turn for the answer.  I'd seen a duck butt, it was a Hooded Merganser hen. 

A Sharp Shin Hawk crosses the Neck when I get to the mouth of Bailey Creek.

Once past the last of the eroding corduroy road and into Bailey Creek proper, I started flushing Black Ducks.  This is a favorite spot for them.  First off went some fifty, then with each bend two to six more.  Another forty or so flew over that I can't take credit for as they came from well up the creek.  By the time I turn back I've seen about 125 Black Ducks, 4 Hooded Mergansers and maybe two dozen Buffleheads.
The uppermost section of corduroy road
I turn back about 200 yards short of the actual end as the tide water is running quite shallow.

As I head back I find myself drifting off.  It is the best and most seductive of canoeing - one bend at a time, the future is what's around the next meander, the past is what's over your shoulder.  Everything is through the senses, the spartina passes by, the sun shimmers off the surface of the water and off the wet silt bank that holds it in place, the paddle dips and slices as need be without thought.

A mature Bald Eagle is hunting in the upper parts of the Neck River.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

After the Ice Storm

The nice days have been windy as hell and the calm days have been 40 degrees and raining.  For too long the weather has kept me off of the water.
I put in at the bottom of the East River, a favorite and well worthy of the first canoe trip in far too long.  It is, as well, always a safe bet - a bit of river that never disappoints.

I meet two hunters returning just as I get ready to set out.  They shot two Buffleheads and a Black Duck from a spot about a 1/2 mile upriver. They tell me the Buffleheads are just okay eating.  Black Duck's are almost the same as a Mallard, so I knew that would be a good meal.

Yesterday, we had a minor ice storm and most everything is coated with a thin layer of ice.  We can get some heavy ice storms, fortunately this one just makes everything glitter, if you ignore the fact that you have to scrape your way into your car.  Today, the sky is blue and sunny, the wind is light, and the temperature hovers around freezing.

The tide is just past low, so I head up the East River and avoid my secret side routes that require more water for passage.  I push a baker's dozen of Buffleheads up as far as the railroad before they fly up and head back from where we came.  Of note, there are no shore birds.  I usually see some Yellow Legs. 
a side channel in the Big Bends
I surprise a white tail deer at Cedar Island.  I cna't tell if it is a large doe or a buck that has shed its antlers.  It takes a few quick steps into the trees and then stops to watch me pass.

Just passed Beebe's dock I flush several Buffleheads and a pair of Hooded Mergansers.   But things really get busy up at the Big Bends.  By the time I've paddled through the three big 90 degree bends I've seen 60-75 Black Ducks.
While I pause on the upstream side of the arch bridge, a Great Blue Heron flies low over me and lands on the far bank.  I'm sure that I was out of view and the Heron didn't see me until it landed.  It gave me a brief going over and then flew off.  
I head back from here.  The weather prediction is for wind gusts in the afternoon and at this tide level I can only get another few hundred yards up to the Duck Hole Farms without wading.

There's no flood current until I'm just two bends from the car.  It seems that I've been paddling pretty much on the top of the tide lag since I set out with no help in either direction.  I'm a bit surprised at the strength of the current and how quickly the water went from slack to flood.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Art, Animals, and Deep Ecology

Pocket Knife Corner
And so the argument rages.  My morning check in with friends on social media finds the architect writing that only humans are capable of art and an artist protesting that as an arrogant and incorrect statement.  Such is the thought seed for my trip canoe trip.

The Gravel Flats
Several year back, a good friend told me, I think while we were out wandering about in a large forest, that I was a "deep ecologist".  This was a term that I was unfamiliar with and even now can't fully explain.  However, I read up on the idea and agreed that for the most part, that is where I lay.  It is a belief that all species have a right to exist, and a reason to exist, and that those rights and reasons are rather equal to our own.  It's the idea that you should have respect for the natural world.  Use it, but use it with respect and care. 

So, from that place where I stand, I see that humans are not the only species capable of art.  What we have learned about animals in my lifetime is quite remarkable.  Once, tool use was the difference between animal and man.  Then we found out that apes and crows and who knows what else were modifying found objects to use as tools in their daily routines.  Then some scientists taught a gorilla to communicate with sign language.  We figured out that whales communicate with each other over great distances and that elephants and Crows perform elaborate funerals for lost members of their tribes.  Male Bower Birds gather and organize blue objects to entice a mate...and a Bower Bird's display rivals any home-made valentine.  And., many other birds compete through dance or song.  The reason for these other-species arts are little different than our own.  As an artist I make a fairly large quantity of art while making a fairly small quantity of income from it.  My main reason for my art is to draw others into discussion.  My reason is not much different than the animal arts.

The Long Cut
I set out from Foote Bridge on a spectacular sunny autumn day.  The morning 35F temperature and sunlit surface of the waters put a thin low fog over the marsh.  The tide is high and the current nonexistent up in the forest where the water is still backing up.  My course is often set by covering the harsh reflection of the sun on the water with the bow of my canoe.

When I get below the railroad bridge I take the alternative route into the Long Cut.  On my last trip here, a hunter asked if I'd seen any ducks and I told him that I often spot a lot of Black Ducks in the area near the Long Cut knowing that they weren't going to figure out how to get back there anyway.  So, I head back there today to satisfy my own curiosity.  It is an easy go with the water high and the narrow gap is about as wide as I've ever seen it.  By the time I am down to the confluence with the Neck River I have flushed no less than a 150 Black Ducks and half that many Canada Geese.  It's a pretty busy place today.

The state boat launch
From the flooded state boat launch I return up the main river. 
Pocket Knife Corner
A squat shorebird draws me over to the bank at the first railroad bend.  It looks somewhat snipe-like.  Then, it stands and stretches out and it is a Yellow Legs that had me fooled.  I spot a couple more off behind it.
Foote Bridge...also, the old stage coach ford

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Low Tide East River Day

It is windier than I expected, somewhere in the 10 mph range, but according to the weather service this is the calm day of the week and so it goes.  According to myself, this is also the sunniest day in the last week.  I head out with a light chop on the water, the result of the ebb current going opposite to the wind.
The west bank has been exposed to the sun for several hours and it is now populated with fiddler crabs.  While the air temperature is about 40F, I suspect that down in that inch of air where the fiddlers live the sun on the dark silt has raised the local temperature to maybe 60F or 65F.  It won't be long until they stay burrowed all day.
Fiddler Crab
A Hawk circles low near Cedar Island.  I don't get a good enough look to ID it, but I suspect it is a Harrier.  But, without a better look it remains just Hawk.  The bird of the day right now is the Yellow Legs.  There aren't more than a few sighted as I head upriver, but they are content to let me pass and then get back to picking the mud at the water's edge.

At the bottom of the Big Bends I flush a large Hawk from the trees on the outside of the bend.  It gives me a good enough look that I can ID it as a wintering Rough Legged Hawk.  The dark patches on the bottom of the wing leading edge were quite obvious, even if I didn't get a photo.

I pause for coffee in the Big Bends.  It's been an hour against the current, but more to the point I have found a small spot near the bank where the canoe does not drift.  There are a good many raccoon tracks in the silt.  Some are fresh from after the tide started dropping but there are many more older tracks that have had the tide wash over and fill them.
I turn from above the Arch Bridge on a line between Duck Hole Farms and the smallpox graveyard.  The water is getting shallow enough that my paddle is touching bottom on most strokes.

The return is unremarkable except that it is an easy cruise with the current and wind, and with the wind dropping the lower marsh is particularly calm and peaceful and a sense of solitude washes over my soul.

Friday, November 15, 2019

First Autumn Loon

The local art festival season just finished and that along with inclement weather when I did have a day or two free has kept me out of my canoe.
I waited for high tide which arrived not long after noon.  That extra time also brought the temperature up from freezing to about 40 degrees.  I made the short drive across town to marsh put in.  And, for the first time since spring, I put on my cold water gear - my drysuit.  I set out into a fairly steady stiff west wind.  I suppose it was 12-15 mph.  But, with the sky clear and sunny and the cord grass spartina having turned gold, it felt much warmer.  I paddled the grind into the wind to Milford Point seeing no birds other than a few Ducks.  They were all true quackers - either Mallards or Black Ducks.  From Milford Point I turned upriver into a channel. 
 This marsh is a low salt marsh - about 90 percent cord grass that floods daily.  On a higher than normal tide like today, it is possible to push the canoe through the grass, but it is also more difficult to figure out exactly where you are as it tends to all look the same.  I;m heading for Nell's channel, but I miss the correct turn.  So, I follow the long blue fingers of water deeper into the grasses.  When the path splits, I follow the one that looks longest. When none looks good, I peek up over the grass for the next patch of open water and forge on through the grass....just keep heading west.  Without warning, the broad Nell's channel appears.

Upstream a hundred yards is a wintering common loon.  It has already lost its speckled back colors and I need to scope it to make sure its not a cormorant.  It stays a hundred yards ahead of me all of the way up the channel until we go in different directions.

To add to the Loon and the dozen or so Ducks, I spot 3 Great Egrets and 2 Great Blue Herons.

I try to round Cat Island, but the spartina is too dense and perhaps the water is just a couple inches too low.  Anyway, it doesn't go.  I back out and continue to the take out.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Off River Vehicle

October 28, 2019
"Near record high tide at 11:30, we won't have to stay in the river.  You want to go?"
Heading into the cattails
I coax M out.  It's a fine fall day with temperatures in the 60's, a very light wind, and a sky with just enough clouds to be interesting.  We put in from Foote Bridge knowing that the state launch at the bottom of the river will soon be awash with a foot of water.  Watching out for her paddle, M asks as we come out of the narrow forest if she has to watch out for rocks.  I tell her that normally there are some boulders in reach and at low tide this section is a wade, but right now there should be four feet of water between us and the highest rocks.
Easier going over the flooded spartina
We flush some Mallards from the top of the Gravel Flats.  Farther down it looks like some Black Ducks have also flown.  The Blacks are always more skittish than the Mallards.

Most of the leaves are still up and some are still changing from green.  But, enough of them are down that I can point out the wall of the old smallpox graveyard across the river from Duck Hole Farms.

Below the arched bridge we turn off the river following a narrow channel back into the cattails until we are close to the forested hillside that hems in the marsh.  It was the wrong channel and we end up poling our way through the cattails with me standing up every so often to look for the next small patch of open water.  The cattails have gone tan and being where no one else bothers to go is positive thing for the spirit.  With a little effort we get to where I intended to be.  The cattails yield to the spartina, which is much easier to paddle through.

We return to the river and then cut once more across one of the Big Bends before returning to the river and paddling down to the railroad bridge.  We follow the river along the rails until it bends away.  High tide has peaked and with this much water we paddle right off  the river heading.  I've only been on this patch once before.  I plan to take us to the head of a long meandering ditch that will return us to the river, but with 12-15 inches of water over the spartina we keep going following the forest that bounds this part of the marsh.  Then, we follow a cut back to the river that puts us just below the state launch.

We return via the Neck River, Bailey Creek and the Sneak.  We have a stiff counter current to work against until we get past the railroad bridge.  Record tide levels cause a 2:1 current during the max ebb and flood.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Lewis Gut and the Great Meadows

The burned swing bridge
Just as I pass the burned swing bridge a dark hawk skims across the mouth of the gut, its white butt patch confirms it as a Harrier.  Having crossed the water, it pulls up and rolls to the right slipping through the gaps at the tank farm.  Higher up, an Osprey crosses over and perches in a tree letting out its familiar whistling call.  I figure that I'd better perform a visual scan and I locate a pair of mature Bald Eagles perched together in a tree on the south end of Pleasure Island.  But the facts are, what sounds like a good bird day was already a good bird day before I left the house.  As I went out to load my canoe I was surprised to find a Virginia Rail staring up at me from no more than 5 feet away.  This was so unexpected that I returned to the house to check my bird book while it calmly walked under my car.  I told S about it and she came down and got down on her hands and knees to look at the Rail, which was still under the car.  Then we realized that not one bird or squirrel was at our bird feeder.  That only happens when there is a hawk in the area.

Bald Eagles
The Great Meadow salt marsh in the Lewis Gut is the largest untrenched salt marsh in the state.  The trenching in the other marshes was done some 50 years ago to eliminate mosquito breeding spots.  By draining the shallow tidal ponds, the trenchers also eliminated prime shorebird feeding spots.  It's all connected, everything is connected.

The tide was still quite high when I started.  Being a very high tide the ebb had a pretty good current against me.  But, there was plenty of depth as I explored the side channels.  I flushed about 15 Great Blue Herons - there was one group of five that stayed together and I flushed them twice.  Back in the trees were a couple of Great Egrets, and three more out in the meadows, and a few more farther in.

Back in the longest of the side channels I spotted a Hawk and a Great Blue Heron sharing the same small tree.
On the way out I spot an immature Snow Goose (aka Blue Goose).  I've never seen on of these before.  They only migrate through this area.
Immature Snow Goose (Blue Goose)
Looking at the burned turn bridge, I wonder if the bridge was in the closed position when it the Pleasure Island side caught fire.  Did the bridge tender swing the center span to save it?  Did the tender know that it would never turn again?

Monday, October 21, 2019

The French Hunter

I set out just short of midday from the Patterson end of the swamp.  It is a spectacular autumn day, sunny with a light north wind.  The river is about mid-level, a good height for clearing deadfalls.  I haven't been here since early summer.  The water is already cool and clear with the summer algae and plant growth gone.  There is only one other car at the put-in.  There is a good chance that it is a duck hunter as the season opened last weekend.

The first mile is narrow and twisting.  For the most part, the river is about 20 ft wide and the turns are sharp and frequent.  I paddle steadily keeping a good rhythm while changing my stroke every to or three dips.  J-stroke, reach forward to draw the bow into a turn, a sweep with the canoe heeled, a draw, a j-stroke, another sweep, etc.  It is a delightful exercise in efficiency and placing the canoe exactly where I want it to be.

The autumn colors have erupted although little of that is in the grey stick trees of the swamp, those trees long standing ghosts, the roots drowned by the machinations of beaver.  It is the marsh shrubs that have turned a brilliant rust red while the cattails are still fading from green to tan.
New beaver lodge below Cult Tower Hill
Not far below Cult Tower Hill I find the owner of the other car.  He greets me with a thick French accent that I did not expect.  We both stop and talk for 15 minutes.  He's in here duck hunting and tells me that at 84 years old, he's not much of a shot anymore.  Neither of us has seen a single duck in the 2-1/2 miles from the car, so I have to take his word for it.  As far as I am concerned, 84 and paddling a canoe solo to this spot is pretty good, period.  He's had to cross one beaver dam and a bank-to-bank deadfall.  I let him know that I've cut that deadfall out leaving a good 6 ft wide passage.  Then we part.
The French hunter
I head down to the halfway point, the Rte 22 bridge.  The 200 yards above the bridge reconfigures itself fairly often and I'm always curious to see how old passages have closed and new ones have opened.  The log tangle below the bridge is still intact, but I'm turning back and don't need to deal with that mess.

I catch up again with the hunter at the only beaver dam that needs to be dragged, although I propel my narrower and faster canoe up through a gap without exiting.  He has it under control...frankly, he's enjoying wrestling his canoe over the dam, so I head on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


I set out from Ely's Ferry Road heading up the east side of the river.  But, this seems to be the last day of fast boat driving for some people, and while their wakes aren't a problem for me, they are annoying.  I cross to the other side of the river and put a couple hundred yards between us.
There is some wind out of the Northeast but it doesn't slow me down much.  There is also a fairly good chop on the water, more chop than I can attribute to the 5-10 mph wind.  Thirty miles south and thirty miles east of yesterday's trip, the autumn colors here 8are about a week behind. 
When I get up even with the bottom of Selden Channel I cross back over the river and head up into the relative peace and calm of the narrow passage.  There are very few birds and soon enough I drift off into a meditative paddling.  I spot a Hawk, two Swans and four Great Egrets.  When I get to the top of the channel I turn back, exploring one of the side inlets, but mostly just content to let the colors go by.
Just 200 yards from taking out, an Osprey flies over.  It's been almost  a month since I've seen one.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Autumn Colors

A Nor'easter came by last week and while it was centered some ways off the coast, the winds were too high for canoeing.  As I headed out the door, S asked where I was going.  I didn't have it figure out yet, so she added, "You'll just go where you end up."

I paddle out of the cove and into the main channel of the Housatonic.  This time, I head downriver into a reach that I've never visited.  I follow the shady southern shore, tracing it from two canoe lengths out, a distance that lets me peer back into the forest with the possibility of sighting a deer or an old stone wall.  A cool odor of stale smoke descends from the trees.  A sunny and warming day, the coolness of night still lies in the forest and that cooler and heavier air drifts out onto the water to replace the warmer air that is rising sunward.  I suspect that the smoke scent doesn't come from recent fire as the forest is undisturbed and the nearest houses are well away.  The odor is stale and reminds me of the smell of an old historic cabin where wood fire was the source of heat and the structure would go cold when not occupied.  It is more likely a scent from mold and mildew, the tiny stuff that helps power the forest.
The autumn colors are about midway to peak.  There are still a good number of green trees, but orange and yellow with a few coppery reds are starting to dominate.

The trip is a perimeter exploration.  I follow the shoreline down weaving into shallow coves until I get to the dotted line of  buoys near the dam.  I cross the fairly broad river at that point and follow the opposite shoreline upstream until it is time to cross back over and return up the cove from where I put in.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

One Day, Two Trips

October 5
M joined me for today's trip and it seemd to me to be a good day to go someplace she had not yet been. 
Menunketesuck River
We put in on the Menunketesuck with the water dropping a last couple of inches to low tide.  The air was still in the 50's with a clear and vivid blue sky - not a bit of haze in it.  After paddling a couple bends out of the shallowest part of the river we left the few houses behind.  Then through a subtle "gate", a low bluff on one side and an exposed 15 ft high cliff on the other and out into the open salt marsh.  We explored one of the draining dead end inlets until it ran out of water, then returned to the river and headed down as far as the Post Road.  From there we could have continued around into another river, but the in between is short mile of yacht parking lot, which is about the dreariest canoeing one can imagine.  So we headed back.  It is a quiet bird day.  5 Great Egrets in a "pack" and a few Kingfishers and a couple Sandpipers.  No Osprey and more oddly, no ducks or geese.

Menunketesuck River
It was a short paddle of maybe 5 miles and we both agreed that more was needed.  So, when we finished, we loaded the canoe and headed north about 5 miles to Messerschmidt Pond, which M, again, had never seen before.  I don't come to the pond often as I have to make two or three laps of it to get a good length of paddling out of it.  But, it is freshwater with water shield and lily pads and entirely surrounded by forest without any shoreline houses.  If only it was a chain of such lakes...

And so, we headed out and enjoyed the quiet and illusion of wildness.  Birdwise, the pond was remarkably unoccupied.  In fact, my only sighting was the distant shadow of a flying bird that I never observed in the flesh.
Messerschmidt Pond
We circled the pond, circled the two islands in the pond, changed directions and wandered this way and that until it was time to go.  It was a fine day.