An Adventure Different Than Expected (Part I)
Larry and I wanted to canoe early in the morning to increase our chances of seeing aquatic mammals. I arrived at his place around 6:30 am; we loaded the canoe and were off. We didn’t take Hank (or Jake) this time, Larry told them, “sorry guys, you can’t come along, today we want stealth.” As we approached Highway 61, we could look out over a little of the wetlands to the distant Wisconsin bluffs. A bank of clouds rose up above the bluffs appearing as a mountain range. “I’m not sure what’s with that bank of clouds, at 3:30 this morning it was completely clear,” said Larry.
“The forecast was for a sunny day.” The clouds seemed to be spreading, turning a sunny day into mostly cloudy. There was a very strong breeze too. Larry commented on the breeze, “Its 30 degrees in the valley. And really breezy – I was hoping for calm.” It would make canoeing difficult. We pulled off Hwy 61 on to Highway 84, driving slowly along the twisting road, observing the wetlands and surrounding trees. As we drove on 84, the breeze seemed to increase.
We crossed the bridge and parked the truck in the small parking space. The wind blew so fiercely, the intense ripples on McCarthy Lake made it look like the lake was shivering. Ducks bobbed on the choppy water, (like boats riding out a storm). We observed the ducks for a few moments before we’d be disturbing them. Then Larry turned the truck around, back end toward the water, Larry untied the canoe, then began pulling it out of the truck. Just before the other end would have fallen out, I grabbed a hold of it and helped Larry carry it to the water’s edge. We set the canoe down in the grass. Larry moved the truck; I took the opportunity to snap a few photos. Larry parked the truck (still in that small parking area) and was ready to get the canoe in the water. Setting the canoe into the water was no simple matter; the wind was so strong we barely got it in. We struggled against the powerful gusts trying to blow the canoe away. Somehow we managed and stepped in. We were facing downstream, heading for the bridge.
“We want to go upstream; we don’t want to be out on the big, open water. Steer us so the bow is going upstream.” I pushed against the bottom on the left side with all my might; the wind was against us, wanting to push us downstream. I tried pulling on the right, muscles taunt. Larry was helping steer. I tried pushing against the bottom of the Lake but couldn’t reach, throwing me a little off balance. The canoe turned enough that we were no longer headed downstream toward the bridge but across the stream straight for the beaver lodge. The bow hit the cache of sticks (food for winter) next to the lodge. I set the blade against the wood cache, on my left, and pushed. Muscles straining against the wind, I could feel it even in my back. With the solid branches to push against, we were finally heading upstream. Though the canoe was now headed the right direction, it was still a battle to keep going upstream, into the wind. (Despite all the hard work it was cold.) Paddling hard, my thoughts drifted to the voyageurs of old, the men who explored this region of North America mainly by canoe – across huge lakes in violent squalls with waves large enough to swallow large canoes, and up, down, and across the Mississippi in deadly weather; I imagine they faced far worse than the water Larry and I did – I’m awed by the strength, courage and resolve those men must have had. We paddled up a smaller stream, between trees and wild rice, it was narrower there. We came clear of the tall wild rice, and eased up on the paddling.
“We’re going to be fighting the whole way.” Larry quit paddling altogether for a few moments.
“Northern shovleres, the gaudy ones.” Larry pointed to a pair of ducks bobbing on the water. I found the colorful ducks among the vegetation to our right and took a few photos. We stopped paddling altogether. The wind pushed the bow to the right (east). The canoe was sideways across the channel, we went across the channel a little ways, almost toward the northern shovelers. We steered the canoe to go down the channel. The canoeing was still difficult, the wind was still moving the canoe.
“You can take it easy, so your hands are at the ready with the camera.” We observed more northern shovelers and teals bobbing in the water to our left. We ran into a few patches of really thick wild rice, tangled and matted on the water’s surface. The pace would slow to a crawl, requiring extra effort. Larry had to push with his paddle to keep us moving. Once the canoe was no longer on top of the rice, our quick windblown pace was back. At a great speed, with very little steering by Larry, we were blown back to the spot we put in at, hitting the bank almost at ramming speed.
“It’s too windy to canoe,” Larry said as we hit the bank. I stood up and stepped out on to the bank. I then pulled the canoe further up on the bank so Larry could get out without stepping into the water. Larry backed the truck up toward the canoe for us to load it. After securing the canoe, we were off.
Despite our failed canoe adventure, we weren’t giving up just yet. Just around the wooded bend in the road lay a prairie between the road and water. It was state owned. Larry parked the truck off the road. An old fence surrounded a field of golden little bluestem, rolling in the wind. Larry stepped over the fence with ease, then pushed the wire down a little bit so I could also step over the wire. This part of the sand prairie was new to me. I was excited to explore this new territory though I was cold from the fierce wind. We hiked at a quick pace across the prairie. Stumbling on the loose, uneven, sandy ground, I trailed way behind Larry, almost having to run to catch up. The little bluestem came up to my waist, I ran my fingers along it. Since we were unable to observe creatures on the water while being on it ourselves, we were going to get as close to the water as we could to watch the ducks. (We headed straight, westward.)
A thick wall of scrubby trees ringed the water’s edge. As we drew near, Larry spotted a blue bird on a branch. We paused to look at it. I looked at it through the viewfinder on my camera with a long lens. It almost looked unreal, something out of a book. If I’ve seen a blue bird before it was a fleeting glance as it flew away, perhaps that’s why it seemed unreal. The beautiful bird sat perfectly still, a lovely combination of blue, orange and white. I marveled at the small bird.
We began walking again, drawing closer to the blue bird. As we continued to draw closer, it flew away. Close to the wall of trees, we turned more northwest, to approach the pond from the north. We glimpsed the ducks busy on the pond, while we stood on the outside of the mass of trees. Then Larry lowered himself closer to the ground and half crawled under the thick branches of cedar trees. I squatted down and followed his example. “They’ll fly off. We’ll sit down and then they’ll come back.” With a great clamor of squawking a couple groups did fly, but there were a few that stayed. We kneeled down, getting into a more comfortable position to wait and watch for a few minutes. Tucked under the cedar, with trees all around us, we were fairly well protected from the gusting wind. The view of the pond wasn’t the best since we had to peer through branches but we were well covered so as long as we held still, the ducks wouldn’t be too frightened. As Larry predicted, the in flight flocks circled about for a few minutes but then gracefully landed back on the pond.
“In coming.” It was amazing to watch them land. “They’re beautiful teals!” whispered Larry.
“Yep, and they’re both here. There’s a widgeon.” We whispered quietly, not wanting to scare the ducks too much.” Despite the brutal wind, watching the ducks floating along the water’s surface was quite relaxing. There was a certain thrill to sneaking under the trees, sitting in hiding, and observing. I felt like a child – free. The floating ducks mesmerizing me.