Saturday, June 29, 2019

Mattabesett Morning

I start out early enough, early enough to beat some of the day's heat, early enough to catch some of the animals feeding... maybe.  Too early for most people, that's for sure.
A good sized beaver lodge
The tide is out and the water is low.  An oddity of Connecticut that we have tidal fresh water marshes 20 or more miles from the sea.  I started in the forest and green is the dominant color.  With the overcast even the water is green, a combination of silt and algae and reflection of overhanging trees and undergrowth.  This little river passes through what might be the most bountiful crop of poison ivy in New England.  The clouds, however, carry the tone of blue-grey.  They are heavy with water and billowy enough to keep an eye on, but it will be later in the day when they will stack vertically and threaten a thunderstorm. 

I pass someone who camped out last night.  Not a great campsite, but not a bad idea either.

Great Blue Herons are the prime bird today and when I reach the big river I do the math and figure that I saw one every 8 minutes. 

Just short of the big river a beaver swims back and forth keeping it's poor eyes on my and slapping tail every so often. 

I circle the long island that guards the mouth of the Mattabesett.  On the far side while I am admiring the downstream bridges, my glasses on my forehead with my eye in the camera, I spot a large blurry bird with a white butt.  The question is not so much why I didn't see the Eagle, but why the Eagle didn't see me.  I flushed it from 20 yards and that bird had to have been focused on something.  I paddle over toward shore and spot the remains of a duck.

When I get back to the little river, the tide is coming in and I get a small current to aid my way up.  I pass a few fishermen who are going after large mouth bass.

I pass the put in and explore upstream another mile or so before returning.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


A hot day was coming and after taking my sweetheart to the airport I found myself near a favorite section of the Farmington.

I set out up the river from Tariffville.  With the heat of the day already arriving, it would not be a long trip.  This section of the river is one of the better.  Although there is road noise from a minor two-lane road that follows much of the river, there are few houses and no golf courses and the river bank is nicely forested. 
Catalpa tree blossoms
It is the beginning of the catalpa blossom parade.  The river has numerous catalpa trees growing on the banks and they have all bloomed.  The flower is exceptional and they drop every so often into the river and float downstream.  Later on the blossoms will drop something like one per second from any one tree.  For now, it is a less frequent.

I paddle up for an hour and a half seeing only one group of Boy Scouts who are floating and crashing their way down the river.  Then I turn and head back. I pass the Boy Scouts again.  They are none too diligent about this canoeing thing.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

With No Separation

I put in near the sea.  The tide was dropping, but with a low tide coefficient (the difference between high and low tides) the ebb current would be minor.  The Sneak would be too shallow by the time I got up to it, so I stayed in the main river.  All the usual suspects were present- the Osprey and the Willets.  Young Osprey are standing up in the nests, but it will be a few weeks before they can fly.

Just above the RR bridge I flush a Glossy Ibis from close up.  At the Big Bends I spot a flock of about 30 Canada Geese.  Four or maybe six are adults, the rest are juveniles that now have the adult colors, but not the adult size.

The long trip of two days ago has prepared me nicely for today.  I slide easily into the meditative state of paddling.  The water passes by fast enough, the spartina smells of citrus in the summer heat, I flow, everything flows, things pass observed but not commented on.

Today, there is no separation between me and the canoe.

With the high low tide I paddle over the Gravel Flats.  I expected to wade.

A newly downed tree blocks the last 200 yards up to Foote Bridge.  It will be easy to clear.  I'll bring my saw next time.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

To Shelton and Back

I set out on the big river from the state's newly rebuilt launch.  Connecticut does a very good job at providing free access to water and this is a nice addition to the Feral Cat Park put in, which is a mile up, and the Wheeler put in, which is a mile down and unusable at low tides.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron
I head up river on calm waters with no more than a hint of wind.  Using this put in makes a trip through the Peacock-Carting-Long and Pope's Flat archipelago an obvious choice.  Four Egrets and a Black-Crowned Night Heron are perched in the trees at by Peacock Island, it is a good start.  The islands are looking great. Part of a National Wildlife Refuge, the government has been removing the non-native and invasive phragmites that too effectively crowd out animal and plant species.  The phragmites is being replaced with marsh grasses and shrubs.

From the top of the islands I cross back over to the east shore to take advantage of shade while I have it. 

Three hours up river I turn around.  It's been a steady paddle except for stopping to watch a mother ground hog with two pups.  I can feel the fatigue and paddling is a bit of labor.  But at four hours, I am over the edge and in the "zone", the paddling becomes smooth again and the muscles stop complaining.

About two miles from the put-in the wind comes up, stiff and in my face.  My pace slows to a crawl and with the islands in sight again, I cut across the river looking for a buffer.  Although longer, the route through the islands is protected from the wind.  When I come out from behind Peacock Island, the wind has disappeared, go figure. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Shoreline Survey

A quarter mile ahead, a mature Bald Eagle comes out of the tree tops.  I've seen this many times before, a descending arrow straight flight path aimed a few hundred yards out.  I follow that invisible line and spot a duck that pops up into the air and then thinks twice about the plan.  It plunges back to the water and dives.  The element of surprise gone, the Eagle flies a sweeping 180 degree turn overhead and returns to the forest.  An experienced Eagle knows that it is a waste of energy to chase a duck.  Ambush it or forget about it.
I put in at Pilgrim Landing, my usual start for Lord Cove, but this time I head out into the main stream of the big river to paddle shorelines that I rarely visit.  Overcast skies with the weekend behind, I pretty much have the river to myself.  A mother Merganser and about a dozen ducklings are ahead.  They're heading away from shore and for a moment I consider swinging wide so that they could return.  Then I figure out that they are heading in that direction and I am not the cause.  Seems like an awfully long crossing for baby ducks.
Otter tracks overlaying Great Blue Heron tracks
By the old camp on the spit that defines Lord Cove, a pair of tracks draws me to shore, worth a look.  Could be otter but I can't tell for sure.  The sand didn't leave a good quality track.  Then I stop looking at the actual footprint and see the track as a whole.  There is a clear S-shaped tail sweep...definitely otters.  For a good measure, a Great Blue Heron walked through here before the otters and when the tide was still up.

I read about someone who bought an old camp in this area and has been making a lot of plant restoration effort.  This area fits the bill and as I continue on I notice that some brush and vine clearing has been going on in the adjacent forest.  It looks good.

I pass Ely's Ferry an hour out and follow the steep forested banks, one of my favorite stretches.  It's here where that Eagle showed up.  I take a quick turn around the first bay in Hamburg Cove, no houses, no boats moored in there, one of those places you wish you could find a hundred miles of.  From there I cross the river, skimming the huge bar on the upstream end of Brockway Island and head downstream.  It is calm, warm and humid.  Frankly, a bit toasty.  I follow the shore past Essex.  I spot and pass that same mother Merganser with her busload of ducklings, all safe and sound.  Then recross the river to the upper entrance to Lord Cove, which is guarded by several Egrets.  I find a cool breeze when I get up against the east shore.  I did not expect that and it feels good.
Great Egret

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Third Daze

If you do something stupid and no one is watching, is it still stupid?

I set the canoe at the water's edge expecting to load up quickly and be off on the rising tide.  But then, J the local fishing guide comes walking up from the far side of the peninsula and we start talking.  He caught no fish, but scored a half dozen mylar balloons from the water.  We both quickly agree that the damned things should be illegal. 
Then he say, "Your boat's gone."
Sure enough, my canoe is in the middle of the river, being lifted off the shore by a tide that was rising faster than I thought.
I say a few choice words, the most important of which is, "Looks like I'm going swimming."
Fortunately, the valet has taken the canoe straight across the river and parked it up against the spartina.  I fasten my PFD (life vest), clip my throw bag (a weighted throwable stuff sack with about 50 ft of floating line), and grab a paddle and start the 100 yard swim, which is especially fun with a canoe paddle in one hand. 
When I paddle back over, J steals my prepared joke, "I guess you don't need to worry about getting rained on."
Doth the heathen protest
Three days in a row, the third daze.  I learned from some solo trips to be patient for the third day.  The first two days of any solo trip are ones of feeling out of sorts as you not only leave the ordinary worries of modern life, but also the therapeutic chatter of friends and family.  The third day is when I am comfortable in my skin no matter where I am.  It's when I go natural. Today's trip is less a trip and more a meditation. 

The day is peaceful, the water still and reflective, the sky overcast, the air humid.  Even the Willets are less noisy than normal, except when I swam up to my canoe...they did not like that.  Up in the forest the water is especially glassy with focused reflections of the trees on the surface.  It is the reflection of a dirty mirror though with a thin film of silt and pollen on the water.

I return through the Sneak with little to note other than it seems to be the start of the one week long biting gnat season.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Should'ves

I woke up with the "should'ves" ...the human condition that all of us semi-responsible people suffer from.

I should've been working on my new artwork, I should've been roughing out my idea for a canoe guide, I should've been hauling yard waste to goes on.

But, what I really should've been doing is taking my canoe to see if the catalpa tree blossoms are floating delicate blue and white in the Farmington River.  I should've been thinking about how amazing this planet is.  I should've been thinking about how lucky I was to have a father who took me into the outdoors (going "into" the outdoors is an odd phrase), how he said nothing when I took up mountain climbing (I survived) and didn't question my quitting an engineering career to make a dollar and hour as an artist. 

And, so that's what I did.

I put in at the Gifford Pinchot sycamore tree and headed upriver against the usual mild current.  There was little if any breeze and I stayed in the cool of the morning shade.  The catalpa tree blossoms were not in the water and when I went to check I found that the blossoms had not even opened, which is a bit late if memory serves me.  It always strikes me that this river has few landmarks.  The few bridges that cross it are an hour or more apart and the trees in the forest that borders it are uniform in size.  I remember the gravel bar with slightly faster water, when I get to it.  I am on a plain ribbon of water that winds through the forest. But, there seems to be some comfort in knowing that I will not know where I am until I get there.  It is not so much different than my life.

I spot Great Blue Herons at regular intervals.  Sometimes, they stalk off into the shadows as if they are invisible.  Sometimes, they fly ahead, three or four short flights as I approach until they circle back to where I first saw them.  I see a couple hawks and a couple Kingfishers and a few ducks.  But, the best sighting are the lamprey that I spot in the gravel bars as I pass over, ancient and strange looking eel-like fish.  All of the ones that I spot are in concave depressions that they've built in the bars to lay their eggs.
I paddle nearly 4 hours upstream without seeing anyone.  I'm pretty sure that I'm nearing the aqueduct ruins but I spot a couple yellow kayaks coming around the bend about a quarter mile up.  I take the cue and turn back keeping the river to myself.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Ibis Spotting

I set out from the bottom a long hour before the tide peaks on a moderate onshore breeze from a sky mixed with dark collections of clouds and sun.  It should be an especially fine day.

I took my favorite route up, the Neck, Bailey Creek, and the Sneak.  And, how the marsh is alive today! I spot an extra head in one of the Osprey nests - the young are just getting brave and curious enough to look over what surrounds their homes.  The adults are perched here and there keeping an eye on things while Willets are calling out from all directions.  Sentinels, they are warning off most anything larger than a sparrow.

A Glossy Ibis sweeps by as I turn the second meander of Bailey Creek.  I've seen them here in flocks of 20 or 30, but last year went by without a single sighting and this is my first sighting of the year in this area.  It's just a matter of timing more than any other possible reason.  It is good to see the Hieronymus Bosch bird.

In shifts, the Willets pick me up and escort me through the Sneak where I suppose that I am closest to nests, but I am clearly not getting special treatment.  They are chasing everything including their own.

The Sneak at High Water
I spot 4 more Glossy Ibises from the start of the Big Bends.  They are a long way off and I identify them by their nimble flight and by discarding the other dark bird possibles...too small and fast for cormorants, too large for crows and too thin for ravens.

The wind comes up as I paddle the middle marsh.  It will be a stiff headwind on my return, but this is such a fine day that it seems only fair to earn it.  I'll walk back if I have to.  I continue up, passing the Foote Bridge to the next bend before turning back.
Near the Duck Hole Farms
When I get back to the Big Bends I spot a pair of Glossy Ibises up close.  It is a good excuse to slide into the weeds and have a cup of coffee and do my writing.  Two Ibises becomes six.  They are busy feeding in a panne, stabbing the long curved bills into the mud after tiny marsh critters.

Glossy Ibis
Below the highway bridge I spot four Canada Geese adults escorting sixteen goslings...a sign of good parenting skills.

By the time I move on, the tide has turned enough that the current is moving along quite well.  The headwind is not strong enough to cancel the current, the paddling is not hard nor easy, the bank passes by at a good rate.  I return through the Sneak route often paddling strong crab angles to compensate for the wind, and sometimes just letting the wind and current propel me. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

How You Get There Matters

I've been reading more Sigurd Olson again.  This time, a collection of articles and speeches that he wrote over 50 years starting with his days as a canoe guide in the Quetico and Boundary Waters.  Instrumental in the passing of the Wilderness Act that set aside wild lands for preservation, Sigurd argued that how one got into the wilderness mattered.  Often, at least recently, people think that the restriction on using mechanical means was put in as a way of limiting trail damage.  But, it was included in the act because one's experience of wild places (and others that might be there) is directly related to how one got to that spot in the first place.
"Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature."
- Pierre Trudeau, the former Canadian Prime Minister.  As a teenager in 1944, he paddled from Montreal to Hudson Bay.

The idea of course isn't that you have to toil endlessly to make the trip worthwhile.  It's more that you need to give yourself time to blend in, time to have the experience, time to let the other stuff that doesn't matter drift to the background.  I saw a documentary that included Yvon Chounaird.  When asked about the current guided climbing scene on Mt. Everest, he replied about how in the old days one walked in, climbed, and walked out, and the experience changed you. Nowadays they are flown in, guided and catered to. They're assholes going in, and they're assholes coming out.

It is a spectacular day of sun and comfortable temperature with a low humidity and only a whiff of air movement.  I set out at high tide from the old ferry landing and head up river following the shaded east shoreline.  Only a couple of motorboats pass by and I know that they do not notice the Coopers Hawk or hear the songbirds and Mourning Doves that are back in the forest. 

It takes an hour to reach the Elf Forest, a meandering channel that drains the surrounding hills.  It goes in off of the channel only about a 1/3 of a mile, but the scenery is well worth the side trip. At the second bend I flush a white tail deer.  I don't see it, but I here the rhythm of its evasive leaps as it moves farther off into the marsh.  There is a bumper crop of honeysuckle spreading its scent throughout the area.  Yellow irises are everywhere and the shorter less common purple irises are also in bloom.
I continue up the channel seeing no one until I reach the top of the island.  From there, I cross the river and follow the west shoreline with diversions to the other islands as I head back down river.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Down to the Sub Base

We put in at the grubby little launch in Uncasville.  This was S's first trip on this river and maybe my third or fourth, although my trips were spread out over different sections.  The day was fine with temps in the high 70's and a light wind, until we had paddle about a 1/2 mile.

The first point of interest was a shut down power plant.  But after that, the west side of the river has a nice forested shoreline of small sandy beaches and and bedrock banks with only a few dispersed houses. 
Our trip inadvertently coincided with a rowing regatta which has got to be the most boring events ever.  In the two hours we were out only one pair of shells passed.  There were scattered spectators on the shore and I imagine they were entertaining themselves with stories about their sororities and fraternities in between healthy belts of liquor.  There was a lot of cheering from an event tent in Gales Ferry that was well over a half mile from the nearest end of the race course...go figure.

However, the real purpose of the trip was to show S the Groton submarine base.  A few of the submarine conning towers could be clearly seen, but the most interesting part of this trip is to watch the small Navy patrol boat race up and down the river escorting any boat that passes.  They don't bother with the canoe as I know enough to stay near the far shore, but I have no doubt that they know where we are.

Unfortunately, the wind had come up not long into the trip and we were working with a so-so chop that kept the paddling busy.  We saw a few Great Egrets, two families of Canada Geese with 7 goslings, and a couple Osprey. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Salmon River with M

Yesterday, M messaged me, "can we go canoeing tomorrow?"  I don't need much convincing.

I set out with M in the morning with the day calm and a little humid.  The stillness was stark.  WE headed up the cove following the outer shore so that we passed near the two Osprey nests.  A pair were in the first nest while the neither adult was seen in the second.  The tide was nearing low, so I steered the canoe to the deeper water.  A 1/4 mile wide, I'd guess that 80 percent of the cove is about 8 inches deep when the water is low.

Osprey were ever present.  We also spotted a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers and a rather noisy Sharp Shin Hawk.

We bypassed the short side trips - the Moodus River and Pine Creek and stayed out of the back channels around islands due to the water level.  I told M that we'd try the Moodus if time allowed.

This was M's first trip in the Salmon, so I had some guiding to do explaining that the lack of development on the forested shoreline was due much to a former and removed nuclear power plant.  All of that property is now a no trespassing National Wildlife Refuge.  Adjacent to the federal land is a large amount of state forest, state park and Nature Conservancy lands. The origin of the word, moodus was also discussed as were the Moodus's 13 twine mills and the existence of Johnsonville.

Shallow fast water forced us to wade a short bit as we neared the Leesville Dam.  The eddies and rock garden below the dam gave M some easy lessons in reading water and canoeing in moving water.

On the return we worked our way through very shallow water and into the Moodus.  It always has been a short more than a mile to where a tall millpond dam blocks passage, but now it is only half that distance as blow down trees from a year ago have blocked the river for some time.  It is several trees too large to cut with hand saws, too low to get under and too high to clamber over.

The Moodus

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Conversation

Reading some Sigurd Olson set the day's plan.  Nothing would do except a spot where I would have to hop a few beaver dams.

I was wide awake before 6 am and headed out as soon as I could load my gear.  The drive for this section of river is longer than normal, but I set out into the Great Swamp by 7:30, the cold night leaving remnants such that I would paddle almost an hour before it would feel less than cool.
Setting out in the early morning light
I set a conversation pace...a paddling speed that would allow for a conversation between myself and nature.  It is a pace that can be maintained for hours on end without pause, a sweet spot of covering distance without felling hurried.  I like to think that the animals in the swamp would be able to observe without panic, but that is probably just me.

I spot a Green Heron not more than a couple hundred yards into the trip.  I normally don't see them until after they have finished nesting.  I flush Wood Ducks here and there, which is no surprise as this grey stick swamp is prime Woody habitat.  Farther on a group of Woody ducklings take to the swamp grasses while the mother lures me away in a well performed injured duck act.  I always worry about the ducklings in these cases as the mothers seem to overact quite a bit and really should return sooner to the brood.
Wood Duck
I spot the first Great Blue Heron while nearing the halfway bridge, where I have to do a short 20 foot portage to get around a cluster of blow downs from a storm a year ago.  I find several more Great Blues in the forest section.
Water snakes sunning on a beaver lodge
The water is also high enough so that none of the beaver dams is visible and I cruise over them knowing most of their locations but seeing not a hint.

Below the forest the river is matted with weeds.  This is unusual so early in the year and I suspect that the nutrient mix in the river is well out of balance.   I imagine that it might be from farm runoff as the upper section where there are no farms was clear.  It's pretty bad for early June and it's not going to get better until fall.

I turn back at the Green Chimneys put-in, the normal lower end access.  Here, the conversation ends.  The swamp has taken over and I am on the receiving end of the sermon.  Ordinals drop from the observations.  I spot Herons, but they go uncounted, as do the Kingfisher, Flicker, Red Wing Blackbirds and Tree Swallows.  The meanders come and go, the grey sticks pass.  I paddle on without pause.  What I came here for has arrived.