Hiking Schmoker’s Channel (Part III)
A wall of wild rice rose up on our left, waving in the wind, golden brown in color. Trees, a woodlot, loomed on the horizon beyond it. The height of the wild rice masked the distance to the woodlot. Ahead of us was the vast, gray, frozen lake. Another forest climbed the blue bluffs of Wisconsin. The bluffs separated the grayness of sky and ice. I had fallen behind Larry again. Mixed with the wild rice were long stems of cattails with their oblong, fuzzy, brown seed heads. Larry walked through them, steering us even more to our left.
Halting, we examined a muskrat lodge, a pile of plant debris. A gaping hole in the middle of the lodge had captivated us. “An otter dug out the muskrat house – probably sat in ambush for returning muskrats – the muskrats would have known something was amiss as they cautiously came in – but otters can tear down in the hole after them. Coyotes and avian predators will hunt them too – they’re worked pretty hard,” Larry explained. I peered at the hole, imagining the stealthy, sleek otter waiting for a suspicious, but helpless muskrat, then tearing down into the water after it.
As always, we didn’t linger long, within a few short minutes, we were on the move again. Walking along clumps of cattails, as a demonstration and perhaps even for fun, Larry whacked the cattail stems sending a cloud of fluffy seed carriers a drift on the wind. “You can see how these easily colonize disturbed wetlands on agricultural land.” After whacking a few more plants, he continued walking. I bent over some untouched stems, touching the soft seed head, as a child I enjoyed the soft feel of the cattail, and still find it quite delightful. The visual texture of the shattered seed head, a wad of seeds and their tails, laying on the ground appealed to me. A few seeds were scattered further from the rest, dotting the ice in a small radius around it. Iced snow made fun patterns about it. I stooped down to photograph it. Straightening up, I expected to run to catch up to Larry again, but he hadn’t walked too far ahead of me.
Larry had paused, studying the ice in the distance, binoculars raised to his eyes, “There’s a coyote out on the ice again,” he informed me, adding almost to himself, “What is it doing?” I couldn’t see it at first, wasn’t even seeing a speck that could be a coyote. “It’s making itself more vulnerable out there. They go a little cuckoo in the breeding season,” he explained. I switched the lens on my camera for the longer lens again, Larry commented, “That’s a very long shot.”
“Worth a try though,” peering through the view finder, I could just make out the coyote.
“You’ll get its profile anyway.” As he spoke, I took a couple of shots. He then handed the binoculars to me for a better look. The coyote was sleek, well groomed, all around beautiful animal. Only a couple minutes of looking passed, I handed the binoculars back and we continued walking, turning to the north.
The tangled mixture of vegetation was dense again. Larry pointed ahead of us, “That’s where we saw the coots.”
“Mmhmm,” I replied, distant, thinking of how different it all looked. Approaching from the other direction gave a different perspective, making it impossible for me to recognize our canoe route of a few months ago. Experiencing the place for only a second time further confounded my sense of location in relation to our canoe trip. However, Larry knew it very well and has an excellent sense of direction and location.
Further on, Larry paused, stooped down to examine a wad of hair/fur on the snow. “Looks like a muskrat lost its life here.” He looked around, still studying the snow for further clues to explain what happened, but there weren’t any more.
We kept pushing onward, through cattails, rushes, and yellow lotus stems. I paused long enough to photograph seed heads. Cattail seed heads beginning to unravel caught my eye. The visual texture was intriguing, looking to be soft and plush. A bell shaped lotus seed head resting on the ground, brown and dried, with seeds still hiding inside. Another stood up, bell hanging like the bulb of a desk lamp, but dark brown rather than glowing bright. Pieces littered the ground below it as if it was slowly falling apart.
Gazing to our right, across the ice we could see a mound with eagles and crows working it over. I took another photo with my longer lens. Larry raised the binoculars again before handing them to me. We barely stopped however, before setting out again. I marveled at the majestic, picturesque bluffs and noted a couple more muskrat lodges that looked undisturbed from this side.
We were nearing the bank and woodlot that climbed it. Trees with roots on the very edge of the water and bank leaned out over the water slightly. The ice became thinner until a few feet from the bank there was open water. The water had amazing clarity, we could see straight down to the silty bottom. Fingernail clams dotted the bottom; they were once doing very poorly. Now it’s a boom and bust cycle like everything else. “When abundant it’s used by diving ducks, canvas backs, scaups – magnificent food source, hundreds per square foot,” explained Larry. Leaves and sticks also littered the bottom.
Hank sniffed around the open water, then scrambled up the bank, busy exploring. Larry decided we’d step off the ice for awhile and walk among the trees, weaving our way through, going around or ducking under the low branches. A few trees were patched with blue, imperfect circles of lichen. Buckthorn poked and grabbed at us. Some oak trees had a smattering of leaves still clinging to their branches. We followed a deer trail for a little while, constantly ducking under and pushing around branches. At one point, Larry held back some branches so I could walk by unscathed. Before long, in a more open spot, we halted. Larry plopped down in the snow, I followed his example. He scooped up some snow in his gloved hand and ate it. We sat in silence for a moment, just reveling in the view before us. Hank was pawing at the snow, digging with incredible speed and energy. It was amusing. “It’s beautiful,” sighs Larry looking out ahead of us.
“It sure is,” I uttered in agreement, lost in the wonder of this place. With that we both fell into silence again for a few minutes. Hank ran around behind us, pawing the snow, sniffing the ground, finding sticks and chewing them to pieces.
We sat on a high, sloping bank among trees, a smaller channel below us. There appeared to be a sliver of an island between this channel and the one we walked down on. The trees covering it almost obstructed our view of the channel we walked down, however we could see the distant Minnesota bluffs fairly well. A morass of rushes, wild rice, and cattails dotted and bordered the channel. To our left was an opening in the trees through which we could see a part of Goose Lake.
Pointing out a line in the trees on a bluff, Larry asked, “See that bluff there?” I nodded. “I helped burn that, the fire got away from us a little but we were able to get control of it.”
“Hmm, interesting,” I was fascinated by the fact he had been climbing around on the bluff keeping a fire under control.
After a few moments of silence, “This could be my office,” I said with contentment and awe, enjoying just sitting there taking in the view.
“Difficult to get to though. This would be a nice spot, great view.”Larry paused then added, “If you sat patiently you’d see something.” Then silence again, I sat almost day dreaming about sitting there for a couple hours with my journal and camera, experiencing and attempting to capture my experience of this place and just capture the place itself. Feeling the revitalizing energy of this ecosystem relax and refresh me. I could lose myself here, become a part of it. I’m uncertain what Larry was thinking or feeling but I know he too admired the scenery, far beyond mere aesthetics.
Larry poked the ground with his walking stick, “This ground isn’t frozen.” A few more minutes of silence passed. “Well, shall we keep going?” Larry stood up.
“Yep,” I stood up too. We walked down the bank back on to the ice of the channel. Our prints mingled with animal prints in the snow. We were walking back on the other side of the channel, instead of following our footprints back the way we had come, but still passing some of the same landmarks. The walk back was shorter.
Larry pointed to a log tipped over at the roots, its upper end under the ice, “There’s where we pulled the canoe out of the water, by that log.” Not far from the log, we saw the standing snag again, punctured all over by a pileated woodpecker.