Morning portrait

A cold front had moved in overnight; overhead, wispy cirrus clouds dotted the sky.

The surface of the river lay finely polished at first light. Already the waxwings were flitting about, performing their aerial acrobatics high above the water. Directly opposite, near the entrance to the cove, a great blue heron rose up with a series of sharp squawks.

As I emerged from the trees and stepped out onto the sandy point, a gaggle of Canada geese waddled into the water. Out in the middle of the river a large heavy bird was already bleating a warning.

One by one the geese paddled toward him as he led the gaggle upstream, sounding off with a good deal of regularity. His honks were echoed by another goose close behind. The two took turns, the second playing off the lead, until at one point the honks overlapped and merged into one.

Steadily, the others followed along behind. I counted eleven in all.

I turned and retraced my steps through the woods, skirting the duckweed-choked pond nestled beneath the trees. Nothing stirred the coarse green surface as I sauntered by.

Later, as I ascended the road toward home, a frenzied honking rose from the river behind me, filling the air. I turned and shielded my eyes.

Overhead in single file the Canada geese flew, eleven in formation, silhouetted against the rising sun.

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Sunday afternoon paddle

“Interested in an afternoon paddle?” my friend said, as he stood in the front yard holding his pointer on a short leash.

“When?” I asked.

“I’ve already got the canoe on top of the truck,” he said.

I looked at my watch. “Twenty minutes?”

“Give me a half hour to take care of the dog.”

“I’ll be there.”

I ascended the stairs to change clothes, then grabbed my camera and binoculars. I paused at the bathroom sink to slather sunscreen on my face and hands, then reached for a hat on my way out the door.

We headed down to the park and put the boat in at the sand beach by the turnaround. The sky was blue; a steady breeze rippled the water. Straightaway we shot across the channel and over the remnants of the old beaver dam into Pickerel Cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 002Blue-violet clusters of pickerel weed flowers (Pontederia cordata) were in full bloom; yellow heads were forming on the lilies. Duckweed peppered the surface of the cove. Up ahead, off to the left, a great blue heron took flight and disappeared around the bend.

I peered down at the weeds in the murky water. “Have you seen the otters lately?” I asked my friend in the stern.

“Not since last spring. The bass fishing had been good up until fairly recently, when this high-pressure system put them down.”

We paddled past thick stands of pickerel weed around the dogleg through a sea of yellow-green carpet. I noticed the silhouette of a bird perched on a stump in the shadows of overhanging trees and raised my binoculars to have a look. “Green heron,” I said. Momentarily, he took flight, and we followed him down the backside of the cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 001Sitting motionless on the caned thwarts in brackish water, we heard the trills of a veery in the wood, while overhead a vireo sounded his broken refrain. The great blue heron lifted up off a scoured half-submerged tree trunk and circled back down the cove.

“It’s like being back in the 19th century,” I mused.

“Yeah, when I’m out here by myself, I think the same thing.”

We slipped our paddles into the yellow water and propelled ourselves back to the entrance over the beaver dam out into the current and headed upstream against the wind.

It was warm in the early afternoon sun, but the breeze kept the mosquitoes away. Tree swallows skimmed the surface of the water and pulled up sharply into the canopy of faultless blue sky. A flock of waxwings rose into the weeping branches of a silver maple.

Slow, steady strokes with deep purchase took us past the old bridge abutments to the entrance of the bayou. Here the current ceased as we glided silently into the still water.

Painted turtles basked on logs in the afternoon sun. We counted seven along the bank. Here stands of pickerel weed had not yet bloomed. Elephant-eared catalpa trees dotted the water’s edge.

We spun the canoe around across the duckweed and headed down river, making the trek back in nearly half the time, running with the current and the wind at our backs.

Two hours on the river; a picture-perfect afternoon, spent in snapshots of remembered time.

"Painted Turtles" 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Painted Turtles” 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

An evening paddle

We pulled the boat off the back of the truck and walked it down across the sand to the water.  My friend held it steady as I planted one foot over the keel and transferred my weight from the sandy shore to the center of the boat.  I felt the boat shift as he climbed in behind me.  He used his double-bladed paddle to push us off.  Shortly, we were stroking in tandem through the clear cool water toward the entrance to Pickerel Cove.

We skirted the beaver dam, using our paddles to force the kayak over the sticks and mud into the still water of the cove, now covered with a veneer of duck weed, New England’s most ubiquitous aquatic plant.

Slowly we paddled through the warm heavy air into the late afternoon sun.  “There must be some sort of subtle undercurrent in the cove,” my friend said.  “The surface debris shifts throughout the day.  When I was here early this morning, this whole section of water was clear.”

I noticed something perched on a wood duck box in the water ahead.  “Belted kingfisher,” I said, lowering the binoculars from my eyes.  At that moment a great blue heron lifted up from the far bank.  I raised the glasses to catch a close up of the long grey wings before it sailed around the oxbow and vanished behind the break of trees.

“There’re usually a couple of them in the cove every time I come,” my friend explained.

We glided through the thin green blanket, skirting the bare branches of a fallen tree.  Dragonflies darted about across the surface.  Presently, a young duck appeared near the boat.  Irregular blotches of dull metallic green on the head identified the immature male mallard.  He approached the boat with a curious caution as we rested our paddles across the gunwales to study him.

At the end of the dogleg we turned and retraced our course.  My friend pointed out the partially submerged log where he had seen four river otters at play several days ago.  “The otters come and go, but the beavers stay here year round,” he said.

We pushed back out into the river and drifted momentarily in the large eddy at the mouth of the cove before heading upstream.  Despite the meandering current, the water was so still that you could see the images of the stately trees and scrub vegetation on the bank mirrored in it.

We caught sight of a muskrat swimming along the far bank, its nose cutting a small V through the water.  The witchety-witchety-witchety notes of a yellow-throat sounded as we passed a grassy meadow on the near shore.

Three wood ducks took flight as we approached the entrance to the small bayou that paralleled the road.  Another great blue heron perched on the bleached branch of a fallen tree, preening his breast with his pale yellow chisel bill.  Three wisps of black hair-like feathers hung from the back of his crown.

As I watched him through my binoculars, I heard a muffled shout behind me.  My friend pointed at the narrow patch of sky in the break ahead.  I barely glimpsed the white tail of a big bird as it disappeared around the bend.  “Eagle,” my friend whispered.

But it was not the eagle that dropped down from another high branch as we rounded the bend ahead; an osprey rather, beating its massive wings to gain purchase through the still evening air.

We paused at the entrance of a secluded pool to observe another heron wading at the far end, its long neck extended above the dappled surface, waiting to strike an unknown prey.

A female wood duck glided beneath the overhanging vegetation at the far end of the bayou, its large eyes accentuated with white-ringed spectacles.

We paddled back past the pool where the heron still hunted.  A pileated woodpecker creased the sky overhead.

As we drifted back downstream, a young doe raised her head from the bank and watched us silently slip by.