A Canoeing Adventure (Part II)
There were many ring-billed gulls dancing in the air in the distance. Some perched on tiny islands. Larry pointed them out. One was flying our direction, “A ring-billed gull is heading straight for us.” It swooped off to its right before it came too close to us.
As soon as we embarked on our adventure, Larry was describing the vegetation on top of the water’s surface. There were two species of duckweed, like green fungus carpeting the water surface in many places. There were also very large pads floating on top of the water. Larry identified them as yellow (American) lotus, Nelumbo lutea. A large bed of lotus was off to our right and another further to our left. A larger bed was ahead of us.
“We’ll pull into that lotus bed, so you can see it,” Larry indicated the large bed ahead of us. Soon we were drifting into the outer pads of the lotuses. They were thick and our canoe seemed to glide in slow motion. The huge pads didn’t quite look real, they appeared rubbery and waxy. Tall, lanky stalks with seed heads stuck up above the water’s surface.
“I know you aren’t supposed to, but go ahead and pull off a seed head,” urged Larry. The bell shaped seed head wasn’t going to make it easy for me; its stem was thick and wouldn’t break without effort. As I was still wrestling with it, Larry added, “If you can.” A moment later the tough stalk near the seed head snapped. I beheld it in my hand; firm and dry, a dark brown. I turned it over to look at its underside, pierced with roundish holes like the end of a watering can. I took note of the seeds inside. “Shake it,” encouraged Larry. So I shook it. The seeds rattled about the dried pod, a primitive instrument of music. “The Indians used it,” Larry explained, “It is also used in floral shops for decoration.” Throughout its range, Native Americans used it as a staple food; the nuts, tubers and greens are edible and nutritious. (Talking about it later, Larry said, “I’m going to have to give it a try.”)
“Is it good ecologically?” I asked eager to know more. Larry explained it provided good habitat for wildlife. Carp, minnows, abundant insects, and frogs swim under and around the large pads. Heron and egrets hunt the smaller creatures. Muskrats and beavers feed on the rhizomes and tubers. Waterfowl eat the nuts.
Being immersed in the yellow lotus bed was an incredible feeling, quiet, and indescribable. Using the tactile sense, I seemed to have become a child again, listening to my elder describe this wonder filled place, learning to feel it, sense it, flowing into my very being. It was beautiful and timeless. Even the shaking of the seed head, some seeds slipping out and dropping into the water, was done with the delight as a child. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy exploring with Larry so much; my inner child is not only allowed to come out but encouraged to, to experience nature with the awe of a child.
Larry moves like the river, not necessarily fast, but never staying in one place for long; we were only in the lotus bed for a few minutes before Larry was ready to start moving again. Slowly, gracefully we backed the canoe out of the bed, going to the right, and west of it.
Around this point, I started to paddle, thinking I’d help Larry, but he said, “I’m really only paddling to keep us from being blown the wrong direction, not to move us along faster.” With that I eased up on my paddling. Larry also gave me further instruction on paddling a canoe, especially as a bowman. “Hold the paddle lower to get more thrust. Paddle with strength, you should feel it in your arms. Watch how I paddle. There will be times while canoeing that we’ll need the strength of the front man. You have to be able to paddle strong when we need it,” firmly yet gently, Larry instructed. Given the leisurely pace we were canoeing, I didn’t think that strength would be needed on this trip.
Following his example and instruction, I moved my hand down on the paddle and paddled with all the muscle in both arms so I could feel it. I gained more of a fulcrum to pull the canoe forward. “That’s better. Do you feel it in your arms?” Larry continued to instruct.
“Yes,” excited I was starting to get the hang of paddling correctly.
Larry said, “You have the important task of steering the canoe.”
Again leisurely drifting, after my lesson in paddling and Larry paddling just to keep us on track, I asked Larry about this place, eager to gather more information.“So the trees around us, this is the floodplain forest system?”
“Yep, the root systems of those trees are underwater and the trees are flooded. It’s changed, the tree roots were deeper but permanent flooding eliminated some of the trees. The roots are no longer as deep because they flood out. It’s mainly silver maple. Tree roots do provide structural support to the floodplain.”
I’m always amazed at Larry’s range of vision. He can see things with his naked eye that I can just make out with binoculars. “Do you see those coots over there and the line of pelicans further down?”
I couldn’t see either the very large cluster of coots or the line of pelicans. At first, I wasn’t even sure of where I should be looking. “No, I don’t see them.”
“You don’t have binoculars do you?”
“No, our field binoculars got lost.”
Taking his from around his neck and handing them to me, “Here, use mine. Put them around your neck.” Even with the binoculars it took a few minutes to locate the black smudge on the water, the coots. It took even longer for me to see the pelicans; a line of white across a small channel. I could tell they were large, white birds but wouldn’t have known they were pelicans if Larry hadn’t said so. I was really excited there were pelicans but disappointed they were too far away to see well. As we got a little closer, we could hear the coots chattering away quite loudly. Coots aren’t ducks; they have large lobed toes instead of webbed feet. They’re excellent swimmers and divers; they bring up vegetation from the bottom. Larry pointed out wild celery floating on top of the water surface, “probably pulled up by coots. They dive deep and bring stuff up to the surface benefiting other animals. Coots often have ducks around them eating what they bring up.”
“Can people hunt coot?” I was curious to know if they were included in the duck season though they’re not ducks.
“Yeah, they can be hunted but I don’t think many people do because they don’t like eating them.”
“Have you tried coot? And did you like it?”
“I’ve had it. I like the challenge of learning to cook wild game so it tastes good. Most people don’t know how to cook it.”
We sat in the canoe just drifting at times, enjoying being out on the water. We’d paddle only a little to keep the canoe in the right direction.
“So is this part of the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge?”
“From the Cities, down past Winona.” This area is the northern portion of the Great River Flyway which is critical for millions of migratory birds. It also provides essential feeding, spawning, and shelter areas for fish and plays an important role in the nutrient cycling to the Mississippi drainage. Of course, conditions in the floodplain forests are very different now as a result of removal of snags and other debris beginning in the early 1800s, logging to fuel steamboats and to build railroads and buildings, and alteration of the hydrologic regime after construction of navigation locks and dams in 1930s.
We canoed past a pole sticking out of the water. It appeared to have a pink flag wrapped around it. “That is an Indian prayer pole.”
“I’m kidding, it’s not.” I had almost fallen for it; I had no reason to suspect otherwise except that it seemed like a really odd location for a prayer pole, looked nothing like a sacred Native American object and was far too modern looking.
Larry observed mallards, wood ducks and blue winged teals floating on the water near some vegetation. (He noted water meal, coontail, and pickerel weed among the vegetation.) They took to the air at our approach. They were fast enough I’m not sure I would have been able to identify them if Larry hadn’t. The line of coots was closer now, off to our left. I still could just barely make out individual birds. I kept raising the binoculars to my eyes to observe them (and the pelicans, but they still just looked like large white spots in the distance). The noise rising up from the coots became louder, it sounded like wood rubbing together. Before us were patches of river bulrush, hard stem bulrush, and wild rice. (I think we were beginning to turn to our right.) Immediately in front of us were a few coots bobbing on the water, a wall of bulrush on the other side of them. With delight I watched them run on the water, wings flapping, and then not so gracefully take flight. It was a magnificent scene to take in. We weren’t just in it, not observing but experiencing the wild beauty surrounding us. I reveled at the grandeur of the bluffs that frame the river valley. I listened with rapture to the persistent music of the coots, exhilarated by the feel of the paddle slicing through the water, stared with childlike wonder into the water, watching plants move with the ripples from the wind. We were beginning to leave open water behind us into a thicket of wild rice and bulrush. Leisure canoeing was soon to be over.