We were really close to the road now; this was new territory for me. Birds continued to twitter. Red-winged blackbirds kept singing their conk-la-ree song.
“Looks like a beaver’s damming the culvert.”
“Yep, the beaver has decided it doesn’t like that water going through here.”
I laughed a little at that, beavers are so determined. A moment later, “Looks like a scent mound.” A pile of dirt mingled with dead rushes, a mini mountain. It looked fresh. It was exciting to see several signs of beavers.
“Mmhmm,” responded Larry.
I loved the trees in this area; they had so much character, beings standing in the marsh. Beings of untold wisdom. I wanted to reach out and touch them, perhaps they would impart some of that wisdom and tell me the story of the marsh; perhaps they could recall the history better than any person.
We went around a bend, turning right. There was green! A couple of cattails had begun to grow. A train rumbled by, taking a few minutes to pass. Somehow the train was less disruptive than the airplane. It didn’t mask the bird sounds – twittering of sparrows, red-winged blackbirds’ conk-la-ree, squawking of geese. We were quite close to the train track now, well, we were still many yards away, but close. We could see the train passing by. Larry turned the canoe again, a slight bend to the right, and we were facing north. Vegetation crept into the water. Another big area of open water was ahead of us. I spotted a duck; I was unable to identify it for I only saw its back and at a distance – black down its back, up its neck and head, and brown sides. It flew away at our approach.
“This is interesting; the water is coming real fast up from the river and flowing back in here.”
“Oh!” I took in the trickling water, enjoying the sound. It was curious watching it essentially flow backwards. “Yeah, that is pretty cool.” I heard a duck quack. We stopped at what looked to be and probably was a beaver dam – sticks, rushes, piles of mud. It certainly seemed placed there to regulate the water flow. However, it wasn’t working properly with the water level so high since it was flowing backwards, upstream. I wished we’d had time to pull the canoe over the dam and continue following the meandering channel upwards. I yearned to keep going. But alas, there just wasn’t enough time to. Larry turned the canoe around, retracing our path. Though we were backtracking there was still plenty of things to observe, it provided a different perspective and I noticed things I didn’t while coming from the other direction.
“There’s another scent mound.” This one was a bit larger and further away. “Beavers are busy in here.”
“Mmhmm,” agreed Larry.
The lone goose continued to squawk. Where was it? And what was bothering it? Red-winged blackbird called out again, hoping for a female to notice. Another bird twittered. The naked trees provided an unobstructed view of the road. A couple of trees had buds beginning to open. Their lovely forms were reflected in the water. Another airplane flew over. We went along slight bends and curves in the water. Vegetation encroached on both sides of the channel. Hank whimpered. Dogs barked in the distance. Snag branches stuck up out of the water in some places. The canoe bumped up against some snags and plants, emanating a scratching sound. A noisy goose flew over head. Red-winged black birds continued to call. Relaxing and refreshing; my spirit soared.
“There’s another painted turtle,” I pointed out. We began to hear the purring of the leopard frogs again. I continued to marvel at their song. The barking dogs grew increasingly louder.
“Little too breezy!” stated Larry.
“Yeah.” The sun was warm but the air cool with the breeze. Hank groaned. I laughed at the strange sounds he was making.
“Sit. Sit down. Sit,” Larry gently but firmly commanded Hank. I was enjoying the rock of the canoe and let the sound of leopard frogs wash over me – trying to ignore the barking dogs, taking the opportunity the lull in conversation provided to lose myself in the song of the leopard frogs, that incredible gravelly purr. The bridge came into view – signaling that our time on the water would all too soon draw to an end. Another lone goose flew overhead squawking. A train whistle blew. Hank continued to whine and whimper but at least the dogs had ceased barking. “Conk-la-ree,” another red-winged blackbird called.
“Another painted turtle,” pointed out Larry.
“Where? Oh, I see it.” The turtle had crawled out on to a snag; lying in the water. Like all the other turtles it quickly slipped back into the murky depths. The bridge continued to loom closer. Birds twittered and chirped. There was another lull in the conversation for a minute or two – listening, just listening.
“There’s a big bass right there.”
“Do you see it?”
“No.” A little sad I was unable to see it. I heard the train whistle again, further in the distance this time. I saw another duck, perhaps a lesser scaup – it had a black head, gray back and beak. I didn’t really get a good look at it. However, it didn’t look like the ones I’m comfortable identifying. I’m not sure Larry saw it. The barking of the neighbor’s dogs resumed. Hank whined. A mourning dove cooed. A car drove by on the road. We were now fast approaching the bridge. I observed another small flash of green – a couple more cattails beginning to grow. We were in the shadow of the bridge. Larry pushed the bow of the canoe as close to the bank, at the landing, as possible so I could step out. I had already put my camera away, slung the bag over my shoulder, grabbed my water bottle and stepped out. I pulled the bow up on to the bank.
Larry said, “OK, that’s good.” I quit pulling. He walked to the front of the canoe and jumped out. Hank jumped into the water for a quick dip then ran up the bank and shook off, flinging water everywhere. Larry and I lifted the canoe, carried it to the truck and loaded it. Larry said, “Next time we should go out in the evening.”
Larry expertly maneuvered the canoe around the swaths of vegetation. The deep, gravelly purr continued. There again was a lull in the conversation, both of us content to listen to the marsh, so alive with spring activity – purring leopard frogs, a red-winged blackbird; a group of swans sounding like trumpet players rehearsing somewhere out of sight. And again the drone of another airplane interrupts, which I tried very hard not to pay attention to, trying to focus on the marsh. Hank whimpered and whined. But still the frogs kept going. Some individuals’ noise sounded more like contented grunts, less like purring. Others sounded almost like animated movie frogs ‘croaking’, although more like ‘creaking’ than ‘croaking’ – like the sound of trees creaking in the wind. Each singer a male eager to mate; in the height of breeding season, males will attempt amplexus with other males or anything else floating nearby including aluminum cans. The droning airplane continued on and Hank whined, but even so I reveled in the incredible choir of the frogs; the purring was so prevalent I could feel it, not just hear it, as if it was a part of my being. I enjoyed the feeling, oneness with the amphibian singers.
We had been heading west, across a wide stretch of water until we hit a wall of vegetation, a low lying wall, but not penetrable by canoe. Larry smoothly turned the canoe south, the wall on our right.
“That a muskrat, you suppose?” There was movement in the rushes.
“You see something moving around in there?”
“Uhhuh.” Hank whined again. Water gurgled as the paddle sliced through it.
“We haven’t seen any Blanding’s!” Larry remarked disappointed.
“We should be seeing them,” he lamented. Larry had begun turning the canoe westward again, around a bend, taking us into another channel, narrower than the last.
“Are there map turtles?”
“Ah, there probably wouldn’t be any maps in here. They’re out on the Miss.”
“OK. That’s what I thought.”
“It’d be rare.”
I heard the wild piping of sandhill cranes but couldn’t see any.
“There’s a painted turtle. Ooo, nice sized one too.”
Hank whimpered again.
“I think there’s a turtle right there. Maybe. Or it could just be a clump of dirt. Right by those…hmm, hard to see…yep, definitely a turtle! Hmm, that one might have been a Blanding’s, maybe.” I could only make out the very top, rounded part of the turtle’s shell among the rushes, not enough to identify it.
“Might have been a Blanding’s?”
“Might have been. It looked bigger than a painted…” gesturing with my hands, “it was about this big.”
“Could be, I think it had a dome. It seemed too big for a painted turtle. And it definitely had a smooth shell.” After a moment of quiet, “Oh, there are some turtles!” Pause. “Those are painted turtles.” Geese honked, flying overhead. “One of my nieces, when she was about three – we’d found a painted turtle wandering on the farm and told her it was a painted turtle – she asked who painted it?” We both laughed.
“Sit, Hank. Hank, sit. Sit. Sit, Hank. Good boy,” Larry instructed the dog.
An airplane flew over again. A red-winged blackbird sang. Suddenly, I wasn’t hearing leopard frogs as we went further along the channel. “Conk-la-ree,” another redwing blackbird or perhaps the same one called out. A kingbird chattered. Again the redwing blackbird called. Hank groaned or sighed or maybe it was a “hmph”. The airplane faded. Water bumped against the side of the canoe, a relaxing sound. The landscape was so dreary – cattails dried and brown, the grass and rushes a faded gold, trees bare skeletons. I saw a blackbird perched in the upper branches of a small tree; the red on his wing the only bright color around.
Larry turned the canoe right, into a tiny opening in the tangled cattails, barely wider than the canoe. “A bufflehead ahead of you,” he pointed out.
“Where? Oh, now I see it.” A black duck with a couple patches of white swam in a ‘pond’ area, walled off by vegetation. “Conk-la-ree,” rang out the red-winged blackbird. The vegetation against the canoe made a horrible screeching noise as we went through the small waterway. There was another bufflehead, close by to the first; a pair. I hadn’t seen the male right away. He had more white; a side profile looked like a black streak running from his face, down his throat, neck to along his back. Side and belly white and a large patch on the back of his head. They swam around each other, unconcerned by our presence. I was surprised our noisy entrance into the pond area didn’t raise more alarm with them. I heard a lone goose squawking somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, its squawking continued nonstop for a couple of minutes. A beautiful female gadwall floated on the water, across the pond, near the far side, corner. She was a lovely gray. A chorus of leopard frogs performed in the pond area; once again their purring could be felt within me not just a sound in my ears. I relished the reverberations throughout my body, in the deepest part of my being. A red-winged blackbird wanted to be heard too. As we drifted on the water enjoying the sights and sounds – a landscape waiting to green, ducks swimming, frogs purring, goose squawking, red-winged blackbirds singing – Larry got Hank to re-situate, “Hank, come here. Sit. Sit. Stay. Good boy.” An airplane again intruded upon the sound track of the marsh, droning on for a few minutes. Trees lined the other side of the pond area. Cattails and rushes a tangled mass at the trees’ feet, separating them and the water. I spotted two sandhill cranes flying to the west of us. Though it was just a glimpse, I was excited to see them. I took one more look at the gadwall, wishing she was closer for me to observe better. I suppose Larry didn’t want to get too close to the ducks, this way we wouldn’t disturb them. The water licked against the canoe. Amid all the other sounds I heard the twittering of song birds, most likely chipping sparrows. Larry dipped his paddle back into the water, effortlessly turning us around. Hank whimpered, a long drawn out whimper. The canoe scraped against the vegetation once again, although this time it didn’t create the horrible high pitched screeching, just a lower -pitch scrape. We were through the narrow waterway, back on the ‘channel’. The sound of leopard frogs disappeared entirely back in the channel. Red-winged blackbirds’ song continued, as did the twittering.
Ahead a painted turtle perched on a small part of a snag protruding out of the water. One back leg stretched out behind. Neck stretched out and up, face to the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun, conducting a prayer of thanks for the sun. As we drew near, the shy turtle slipped back into the water. The airplane finally receded. Now we were quite close to Highway 84, so it was replaced by a car driving by, momentarily drowning out the vocal birds but mercifully was gone quickly.
“Aww, there’s a little paint. Cute.” It slid into the water and vanished. I observed a chopped down tree, the lumberjack a beaver. The severed part came to an end, like the tip of a crayon. A fence post stood next to it. Another tree had a bald spot, it grew horizontally along or in the water, it may actually have been dead. The rounded bald spot, exposed bone, was a knob.
“Ring- necks to your right.” Larry pointed out. I had been so captured by the landscape around us, we’d entered into a more wooded area, that I almost didn’t see the birds right in front of us.
“Right? Oh yeah!” A male and female were enjoying a morning swim. She was nearly a solid color and appeared smaller. He led the way, head held high, proud. His head, neck, breast and back black; side gray, belly white. Despite their names, I couldn’t make out the ring around their necks. (There had been a few bends in the channel to get to this point.) He had a white crescent on his face, just ahead of his mostly black beak with a spot of white towards the tip. They were lovely. Looking further ahead, I saw two more; another male for sure but the other one could have been either. (Looking at the photos later, I wonder if that other one was a ring-necked duck, its markings almost look more like a teal.) At first they swam away, almost leisurely, until we drew too close, then they ran on the water, webbed feet sent up sprays of water, and they lifted off, flying out of sight. I only had a minute to observe them and photograph them.
My attention was momentarily pulled away, “Oh, there’s two turtles.” The water slapped gently against the canoe. Oddly, I no longer heard the purr of leopard frogs while we explored this side pond. Hank, of course, was whimpering, desperately wanting to leap in the water. I returned my attention to the egret, which flew again, this time resting at the other corner of the north end. Larry pointed out another turtle.
“I just saw a turtle sticking its nose up above the water. There’s one over there and one over here.” I laughed, delighted with so many turtles. “And there’s another one.”
The canoe rubbed against a log, squeaking. Dogs barked, another interruption to the tranquility of the marsh. My attention shifted back to the lingering egret. (We’d only been on the water for not quite ten minutes.) Finally, the egret lost patience with us and flew away. I watched it go. Eyes still skyward, I saw two other large birds.
“What are those two big birds up there flying around?”
“Pelicans!” responded Larry.
“Ok, I thought they were pelicans or swans.”
Larry then told me of a large flock of pelicans he saw the previous day. He had turned the canoe around and we were heading back to the pond entrance. Taking the canoe back through the entrance created a loud noise as the rushes and snags scratched against the side of the canoe.
“Oh wow! I don’t know why but I just like pelicans. They’re just so cool looking!” The sound of barking dogs diminished a little while we went through the rushes but resumed as soon as we were on the other side. The sound of leopard frogs recommenced and I tried to block out the barking dogs and enjoy the calling frogs instead.
“It sounds like they’re purring,” I remarked. “Aah, snapper!” I exclaimed, almost shouting with excitement, as I spotted a large turtle in the water below.
“Snapper?” asked Larry, his interest piqued.
Larry pulled the canoe forward and then halted so he was in line with the turtle. He put down the paddle (or maybe he used it to lift the turtle up) and leaned over the side of the canoe reaching into the water. With a bit of effort, struggling and grunting, he lifted the turtle up out of the water.
“Oh, wow!” My voice dripped with awe as I admired the beast Larry had pulled up.
Hank was also interested in the turtle, hoping it was something for him. “Hank, no. No, Hank.” Larry admonished the dog. Larry held the big turtle over the canoe, holding it in front of him, with his arms outstretched.
“Oh, wow!” I exclaimed again, seeing just how big the turtle really was. Although snapping turtles can get bigger, this one was about the size of Larry’s torso. He held the fearsome Chelydra facing outward, hands on either side of it, avoiding the mouth and large claws. Its mouth was gaping wide, almost like a smile except that it wasn’t at all happy about being hauled out of the water. Front legs hung down, webbed toes spread. The back legs up, possibly trying to kick Larry, looked like a jumper’s legs splayed out while in mid air. Tail was curled, almost pointing to its plastron, underside, which Larry had also turned toward me so that it was on display. Its skin, which appeared quite thick, was covered in tubercles, bumps. On its front legs the tubercles were bigger and in rows. This was an intimidating looking creature, a force to be reckoned with.
“Definitely looks like a dinosaur!”
“Want to go back, buddy?” Larry asked the turtle.
“He stinks.” The smell comes from living on the bottom, covered in mud and decaying vegetation.
“Did you get a good picture of him?” Larry asked. He gently placed the turtle back into the water.
“I think so. I took a couple so…” I trailed off not needing to finish, going back to photographing. There were trees on our right and small ones, probably alders ahead of us. Larry picked the paddle back up, and we continued our little voyage. The purring of the leopard frogs was all-encompassing; it reverberated in my chest, a thrilling experience. A red-winged blackbird called out, “conk-la-ree”. A kingbird chittered somewhere close by; its song was made up of high, sputtering notes, followed by a buzzy-zeer, recurring numerous times.
“A picture of him [the snapping turtle] on the bottom would have been neat,” remarked Larry.
“Yeah. I would have had to been right over the top of it.”
“Could you have gotten a good picture?”
“Mmm, I don’t know. It would have been kind of fuzzy [from the water]…” I gazed into the water below me, “There are lots of minnows.”
“Yeah.”The breeze seemed to have picked up, or maybe I just noticed it now that we were out in the open again. The bridge was on our left, a ways away; we were parallel to it. “Something just went into the water over there.”
“What took off, a turtle?” asked Larry.
“I don’t know.” I was watching a pair of blue wing teals swimming in the water ahead of us. I enjoyed watching them, but was surprised they weren’t flying away yet with our fast approach.
“Hmm, they’re not too concerned with us.” I was able to get a nice shot of them. “There we go,” the pair of ducks finally flew away. A blackbird called, he sat in the branches of a tree, which was just budding – the perfect picture of spring.
“Up the hill, past there, the pasque flowers are in bloom on the prairie.”
“I should take you on the prairie.”
“Ok, yeah. I have not seen those yet. I keep missing them.”
“The wind is picking up!” remarked Larry.
“Yeah.” Another redwing blackbird called out. There was a lull in the conversation. I tuned into the sounds around me, the ever present murmur of frogs, redwing blackbirds; the relaxing sound of moving water, the canoe slicing through it, the wind manipulating it.
“Goose nesting platform,” Larry pointed out.
“It was probably never used by a goose. It was probably used by a muskrat to build a house. And then the goose came and nested on top of the muskrat house. So I guess it worked indirectly.”
“Yeah,” I chuckled.
(McCarthy Lake is not a lake but a marsh, the Zumbro River used to run through it; there are large swaths of thick aquatic plants and trees throughout the ‘lake’, in the middle, on the edges, randomly spaced, that are like islands. Then there are a couple of ‘channels’ that meander about, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. In the spring there are far more wide, open areas of water that become filled in with aquatic plants, including wild rice, as the season progresses. The boundaries of the channels are ambiguous.)
To be continued…
April 28, 2018
We almost weren’t able to go canoeing today. Larry and I had planned we’d go in the afternoon but he called me in the morning saying it was too windy, we’d have to cancel – the wind was suppose to pick up considerably by afternoon. With crushed spirits, we decided to reschedule for another day. A little while later, Larry called again saying we should go out at eleven. I was thrilled to be going canoeing after all. Arriving at Larry’s before eleven; we were able to get to McCarthy Lake, unload the canoe and set out by 11:12 am. As usual we had Hank, the dog, with us.
The first sound I heard after stepping out of the truck, besides male red-winged blackbirds hoping to attract mates, was a sound I’ve never heard before, or can’t recall hearing before, a deep, low purring. Whatever creature was responsible for making the sound seemed to be all around us. I just about asked Larry what kind of bird was making the sound but decided not to just yet. We put the canoe in by the bridge; as always, I stepped in first, then with coaxing from Larry, it was Hank’s turn and then Larry stepped in. He handed a paddle to me, just in case, which I lay down beside me, and then he pushed us off and we were on our way.
Now underway, and before I could ask, Larry provided an explanation for the purring, “The temperature can be measured by the calling of leopard frogs. They only call at a certain temperature.” Male leopard frogs begin to call when water temperature gets above sixty eight degrees Fahrenheit; the air temperature wasn’t quite sixty degrees, perhaps the water was warmer or since they starting breeding in late April they were eager to get going.
“Really? Huh, that’s cool!” How thrilling that the omnipresent sound was leopard frogs! Though we couldn’t see them, it was reassuring and exciting to hear them; we knew they were there. Like their name sake, leopard frogs are spotted, dark splotches against a green background. Leopard frogs were once the most widespread frog species in North America. In Minnesota, their numbers have been steadily declining since 1960 – red leg disease, pollution, pesticides and loss of habitat have been the main culprits for the decline. Being migratory (moving from breeding ponds in the spring to overwintering ponds in the fall) their habitat is broken up by roads. This is also a contributing factor to their decline; I’ve found a few dead on roads.
I listened to the sounds more intently on this adventure – I heard a couple of swans in the distance, the splash of the paddle blade against the water, propelling us forward. McCarthy still had to dress; trees remained naked though some had buds and the cattails, rushes and sedges were golden straw strewn on the fringes of the water of the wide channel stretched out before us. The water level was high from snow melt; it had snowed heavily for three days two weekends ago (the 14th and 16th) and then again on Wednesday last week (the 19th). The cold weather hanging on so long that it had kept spring at bay a month longer, although waterfowl had returned in March. I noted a couple of kingbirds perched in a tree. They added their voices to the mix too. There was no break in the purring frogs and the song of red-winged blackbirds was nearly constant too. The canoe scraped against some vegetation.
“There’s a pair of green teals,” commented Larry.
“Yeah!” I had just noticed the pair tucked near a swath of vegetation that juts out into the water. They noticed us too and were quite quickly in the air, as we drew near. “Oops, there went a muskrat, I think.” An airplane droned overhead, the roar of it an interruption to the symphony of the marsh. We weren’t headed up McCarthy just yet, Larry was steering the canoe slightly eastward to an alcove, a small pond-like area almost cut off from the rest of McCarthy Lake by aquatic vegetation.
“Turtles,” said Larry. He has incredible eyesight; those turtles sunny themselves were barely a bump above the vegetation when he called my attention to them. A duck, perhaps a wood duck floated on the water, almost as far away as the turtles. Trees lined the sightline ahead of us; skirted by rushes, grasses, cattails and sedges. The biggest of the trees, possibly elm, had buds ready to open into leaves any day now. A dead tree sported a couple of woodpecker made holes.
A few seconds beyond Larry’s announcement of the presence of the turtles, “Oh yeah, I see them!” I was just able to make out their forms on a log, ahead and to the right of us – still far enough away I could just make them out looking through my 300mm lens. There were three of them, all painted turtles. Two rested flat against the log, one at the other’s back end. The third was perpendicular to the others, feet appearing to be on the shells of the other two, lifting itself up, Little Mermaid style. All of their noses were lifted high. Larry had turned the canoe towards them.
“They’re so cute!” I admired the turtles. The top one jumped in the water as soon as we began heading toward them and the front one followed suit quickly. The third one didn’t want to give up its sunny spot, lingering on the log a moment longer. I spoke for it after the other two slipped off, “It feels so nice in the sunshine; don’t make me go back in the water,” then as it slid into the water, “Ok,” with a resigned voice. It slid off just as we approached the log. The airplane roar grew a little less, no longer masking the purring of leopard frogs. The turtles disappeared in only a minute from sighting them. When it comes to seeing sunbathing turtles, you have to look fast to even catch a glimpse or be some distance away.
“Oh, beautiful!” In the turtles’ absence, I looked across the small alcove, an egret remained standing in the entangled, dead vegetation on the water’s edge. I was mesmerized, my eyes not straying as we approached, snapping photos one after another. At first the egret had its left side turned toward us, and then it turned around to face the trees on the bank. It shifted back and forth several times, paying attention to us but not yet threatened enough to move away. Then with a showy spread of its wings, it was suddenly in the air. What grace and beauty! Its white feathers were impossibly bright. It held its long neck in an “s”, and long legs dangled at first then stretched behind as it flew. The large bird should have looked gangly and awkward but instead was grace and poise. I was disappointed the egret was flying away, following it with my camera as it left. The disappointment didn’t last, however. The bird hadn’t gone far, just to the north end of the little pond area. Larry had skillfully turned the canoe to the left, also following the egret’s flight. So we were still close to it. Watching it stand in the rushes, turning its head to look at us, Larry observed, “It’s not acting quite right.”
“What do you suppose is wrong?” it turned and walked a couple of feet to its right.
“Doesn’t seem like a very…,” Larry paused to choose the right word, “thrifty egret.” We both watched the bird.
To be continued…
March 29, 2018
The winter passed away without me taking a walk on the sand dunes or on the frozen marsh. So Larry and I decided it was about time to go exploring again. It was just warm enough that we could canoe!
As we approached the bridge, Larry commented on the number of birds on McCarthy, lamenting, “There’s a lot of birds we’ll put in the air.” Larry had originally planned to go up McCarthy but decided we’d go down Schmoker’s channel instead. I think there were a couple of reasons Larry decided not to go up McCarthy; first it was filled with birds and he was loathe to put them in the air, second because McCarthy is more open and the breeze would have caught the canoe too much. There may have also been a concern with ice on McCarthy since at 28 degrees Fahrenheit the morning was a few degrees colder that what we had been expecting. We put the canoe in around 7:50 am.
The marsh was filled with the melody of migrating waterfowl, a dissonant symphony of many different songs. I was thrilled to just be a part of the phenomenon of the stopover of the migrating birds. It seems there is always something new for me each time Larry and I venture out. We have ventured out many times while the migrating waterfowl are stopping over, resting in the area before moving on; so I’ve heard the sound before but this time the melody of the migrating birds was my focus, held my attention and awe. The water was dirty from the ducks – I loved the smell.
The first birds to engage my attention was a pair of Canada geese swimming elegantly in the water on the left. We were just close enough to them to make them aware of our presence, making them edgy, watchful and vocal but not enough to frighten them away. Another pair was far less visible and almost unnoticed on a mound of vegetation and snags. They were both sitting. Could they be nesting already? Canada geese are some of the loudest birds I have encountered in the marshes. Sandhill cranes may rival them in loudness and yet seem not as noisy.
We were perhaps starting out a little too early, although it was the golden hour, everything bathed in the morning sun and beautiful but to photograph anything in the southeast the sun was perhaps too low yet – my photos were almost all washed out. Photography wasn’t the best anyway with the birds startling and taking to the air as we drew near.
Larry expertly and effortlessly guided the canoe down the tree lined channel. I tried to take it all in but there was so much to process. Sandhill cranes spoke somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, not nonstop like some of the other birds but frequent. Mallards quacked as they flew away. Honking and squawking of Canada geese was frequent. Larry identified pintails, ring necks, hooded mergansers, black ducks, and wood ducks – he’s skilled, able to distinguish between each bird’s song or call from the medley and able to tell each species apart as it flew off. He was also quick enough to have a glimpse of them before they took to flight. I struggled to keep up with it all, not seeing some birds until they were already flying and vanishing beyond view before I could really have a look at them. I heard the different bird calls, but my brain wasn’t able to isolate each one and pin it to species – I still have a long way to go learning bird calls and being able to distinguish between calls in a medley. And I may be even further away from being able to identify a bird in flight. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the dozens of birds in each bend of the channel. There were always a couple of birds lingering on the water after the others took flight, waiting a little longer before deciding they should fly. From far off, I could hear the swans trumpeting, so very faint at first but louder the further we went. Birds weren’t the only subject to engage my eyes – the landscape around us caught my attention too. None of the trees on either side of us had really started to wake up from winter yet – only a few even had buds beginning to open. Another attention grabber was the size and number of beaver scent mounds. Since learning about beavers marking their territory with scent mounds and learning what they look like, I am eager and quick to spot them. Seeing so many large fresh scent mounds intrigued me. Alert, I scanned the water’s edge for any beaver that might happen to be out. We followed the bends and curves of the channel, to the great waterfowl medley. Larry had to do very little steering, none of the fallen and partially submerged snags lay in our course. The elegance and form of the snags never cease to dazzle and interest me.
We came upon another group of ducks, a dozen or so mallards. Green heads of the males glowing iridescent in the morning sun, emerald dots bobbing on the water. Males and females mixed, enjoying a morning swim until we drew too near and startled them. They protested the interruption as they flew. Again, not all the birds took flight at once. It’s a shame that even in the quiet, slow canoe we were putting birds in flight. We were sad that our presence disturbed them and yet at the same time it is in their interest to not be indifferent to people. I enjoy the bend and curve of the channel; at each new bend I wondered what I’ll see this time.
Larry didn’t keep going down the channel like we did last year but turned right; about the same spot we had seen the mink swimming last year. A forest stood ahead across the water. I spotted an eagle’s nest in one of the trees. Larry steered the canoe slightly to our left, not turning but going at an angle instead of a straight line. We were headed for the tree studded hill. The hill had a red orange carpet. Far off to the left, a muskrat lodge was covered thickly with frost. This area of water was much wider, more like a lake and less of a channel. It was bound by a thin layer of ice. Larry pushed the canoe into the ice. It cracked with a loud noise as we pushed through, not a shatter like glass, no, this was more of a thud, a deeper, lower noise but loud – a low roll of thunder. There was a lot more ice to push through this time. The volume of the sound of the breaking ice was incredible. Any animals nearby were warned of our presence and certainly hid long before we would have been able to see them. Another few strokes and we were back in open water; still heading toward the hill.
Larry said, “Bunch of gizzard shads.”
I peered into the water but I was unable to see a single one of those small fishes. How could Larry see them?
Instead of turning right and following the small stream along the hill, further back, upstream, like we did last year, Larry turned the canoe left following the ridge and water down the channel. The stranded boat was ahead of us again. This time I could see a little more of it over the tall vegetation. I reveled in the beauty of the bare trees reflecting in the water as we continued on. The ice was to the left of us now but Larry skirted around it. On the bank ahead of us was an open spot of mud, from that distance I couldn’t tell if it was a beaver mound or a beaver slide or just a bare spot on the bank. Larry turned the canoe to the left again; we were back in the channel with the beaver lodge. Further along the bank, on our right, I observed a beaver slid. Far to the left, I could see the eagle’s nest. It was fun to see the back side of the sign marking the canoe trail and having a different look on the snag in the water near it. The beaver lodge and its large cache came into view. We had made a complete circle or rather more like a “D”. My eyes were briefly drawn to the perfect reflection of the cloudy sky and trees mirrored by the water. Again, with the hope of seeing a beaver, I studied the lodge as we drew nearer to it. And once again I marveled at the size of the cache as Larry guided the canoe around it.
We drew near to the willow tree and the tree with the eagle’s nest again. Larry commented, “There are a lot of gulls.”
“Where’d they come from?”
“Probably Lake Pepin. Attracted by the gizzard shads.”
Before we came to the willow tree or the eagle’s nest tree, Larry turned the canoe into a very narrow side channel, opposite from the willow. I was a little surprised, for the channel was just barely wider than the width of the canoe. Then again, it’s Larry, so not too surprising really. I marveled at the tiny spikes of hoar frost coating the frozen mud and grasses along the channel. There was some ice on the channel but it broke up easily and made far less noise. As Larry eased the canoe into the narrow channel, we heard a plop in the water ahead of us; an animal had dived into the water at our approach. “Most likely a muskrat,” Larry explained.
We were unable to go far into the small channel; it divided into two directions, too small of a space to turn the canoe one way or another. The channel was hardly longer than the length of the canoe. Resigning to not being able to go further Larry instructed, “Grab a hold of the left bank and step out.” It was a little hard to do all bundled up, but I managed to clumsily step out of the canoe. Larry told Hank he could get out, and then Larry stepped out and secured the canoe.
We walked along the even smaller channel on the left, heading southeast ward. Rushes, sedges, and grasses rustled as we waded through them. Soon we were among the trees. After a few paces, Larry would stop, bend over, brush away leaves, looking intently at I’m not sure what, I didn’t ask but he repeated it over and over again the entire time we were walking. I probably should have asked. I think he was looking for saplings. Other then curiously watching Larry, I took in the trees. A beautiful oak. One, perhaps a river birch, two trunks, one on the ground, carpeted heavily with moss. The other still attached to their base by threads, a few feet of it suspended in the air, the remainder of it resting on the ground. I turned around to look back the way we’d come, we were many yards south of the tree cradling the eagle’s nest. I find it a little comical that there is a bend in the tree trunk creating the illusion that the tree is straining to hold the large nest, bending with its weight. I turned back around and continued walking. Another dead tree caught my attention. This tree was split at the base; trunks spread out, like a creeping vine. A few trees had been gnawed on by a beaver, one appeared quite fresh, the other may have been years old. We looped about, making almost a circle. We came to a pool, channel of water; it was murky in color. Hank came up alongside me, down to the water’s edge. He drank heartily, thirsty from his running about. Larry said, “Apparently he’s not choosy about what he drinks.” We had walked along this spot last December. A few moments later we headed back toward the canoe. Back in the canoe, Larry backed us up and we continued on our way. Past the willow and the eagle nest tree, around the bend, past the little beaver lodge, soon we were back at the canoe landing.
December 1, 2017
The morning was a little colder than we had anticipated the other day when we made our plans to get the canoe out this morning. However, it was forecasted to be a nice day. I was excited we were going to canoe on December first. I can’t remember what the temperature was when we set out but I think it was twenty eight degrees with the promise it would warm to almost forty degrees today. I waited until I arrived at Larry’s to add my layers. As I pulled my coveralls on, Larry laughingly asked, “Will you be able to move?”
“Yeah, I can still move but it will take more effort.” We headed out. Larry drove slowly along Highway 84, observing the marsh areas and the rolling prairie. I took in the landscape as we drove to Halfmoon Landing. Larry backed the truck up close to the narrow foot path leading to the water. I helped him unload the canoe and then patiently waited while he moved the truck. Hank explored with his nose to the ground traveling at a fast pace, zigzagging here and there. We carried the canoe to the water and set it in. A thin layer of ice topped the water.
“I thought this would be more open,” commented Larry. “We’ll just have to push through.”
I didn’t mind the ice at all. I found it thrilling that we’d be canoeing through ice; a whole new experience for me. I was excited for the adventure. I stepped into the canoe first. Then Hank leaped in, rocking it in the process. Last, Larry stepped in. He didn’t even bother handing me the other paddle. Expertly he pushed the canoe forward. A loud screeching noise echoed around the channel as the canoe collided with the ice and then pressed into it, not quite as cringingly as nails on a chalkboard but close to that pitch. The ice cracked with a loud but dull sound. With that kind of noise I’m not sure we had any hope of seeing an aquatic mammal. The ice broke into rectangular tile pieces. Sitting in the bow, I could feel the canoe breaking the ice. I don’t know which adjective to use to describe the way I felt – thrilled, elated, child-like glee. There’s just something about taking a canoe through ice that makes it adventurous and therefore awe-inspiring. Of course there is an element of danger in taking a canoe through ice – but not here, today. This ice was thin, broke easily and the current was slow – and Larry knew what he was doing. There was no danger for us.
Being December, the landscape was subdued; various shades of gray and brown, with a brush of white from the morning frost and a bit of blue sky reflecting in the water, but not brilliant blue because of mostly cloudy skies. The ice gave way to open water near the large beaver lodge situated on a side channel flowing to the Mississippi River. Now that we were in open, ice free water the canoe glided easily and quietly along. On the edges of the open channel reflections of trees were broken by spider web cracks in the ice. There was some gold left in the long grasses on the bank. The now naked trees, the fading grass, and lack of bird song lent to the appearance of barrenness. And yet there was beauty in the starkness. The dusting of frost highlighted the beauty. I said a silent hello to the willow tree that touches my heart like a dear friend. It glowed in the little bit of sunshine glimmering through the clouds. The snags mostly immersed in the water were another source of beauty and delight. I took in the many beaver scent mounds on the opposite bank, I could see at least ten. Seeing all those scent mounds thrilled me for it indicated the presence of resident beavers. Perhaps if I sat long enough under the willow I would see one of these industrious locals. Four gulls flew overhead, high up in the sky. We passed near the tree with the eagle’s nest as we went around the bend.
The even larger beaver lodge loomed up ahead of us. Oak trees on the hill beyond, still held on to their russet leaves. In this part of the channel there wasn’t any ice on the water at all. The beauty of Halfmoon, the seclusion, and floating on the water was so relaxing and refreshing. I cherished this outing, knowing that it would be a few months before we’d take the canoe out again. I took in the loveliness of the snags in the water, each having a different character, though their branches all seemed to remind me of bones. Three branches on one snag were thin and curved just a little, reaching upwards like the bones of fingers, from a hand reaching out of the water perhaps trying to grasp something, anything on the shore. Another was a fallen antler. The golden cattails curving at the top, tipped with dark brown, in thickets, added contrast and texture to the painting, touched with frost – yes, there’s beauty here.
We drew nearer and nearer to the grand beaver lodge. I scanned it as we approached, as silently as a canoe can, searching ever hopeful for a sight of a beaver. But alas, there wasn’t an animal to be seen on or near the lodge. I marveled at the size of the wood cache, which was the best way to tell this lodge is occupied. Larry was also awed by the size of the wood cache.
“That’s a big wood cache,” I marveled.
“Yeah. I’ve never seen one so big. Makes you wonder if the beaver know something about the severity of the coming winter that we don’t,” replied Larry. (Note: as it turned out the winter of 2017 – 2018 was especially long.)
We could clearly see fresh cuts on the ends of the branches in the pile. The cache extended into the channel many yards, almost blocking it. It looked almost like a dam but it wasn’t tightly woven together and packed with mud. It was quite impressive. Larry steered the canoe around the end of it. Just beyond the cache, Larry said, “Kingfisher over there on the right.” It only took me a moment to spot the bird perched atop a snag in the water. White breast toward us, cape tied across his neck, blue grey head turned away. A kingfisher is not a large bird by any means but nor is it small; bigger than a pigeon but smaller than a duck. I watched the kingfisher as we drew closer and closer until suddenly it decided we had come too close, and with great speed it took off, disappearing.
Halfmoon Lake is an odd shape with turns and many outlets; it’s hard to keep track of when we turned. Looking at a map doesn’t help because the map doesn’t show all of the wet areas. We went around the point with the willow, turning right, then the channel curved ever so slightly that when we came upon the beaver lodge we had turned to the left, but with the shape of the channel it was as if we hadn’t turned at all. I could see the top of the stranded boat ahead and a little to the left. We passed a canoe trail sign.
October 11, 2017
With the passing of about two and a half months, Larry and I decided it was time to get out in the canoe together. We had every intention to canoe in August and September but those two months expired quickly and without us paying much attention; being farmers/gardeners with time sensitive tasks, time has a way of slipping by without our noticing until it’s already past. So with very little wind and a break in the rain we headed out this morning. We pulled off Highway 84, alongside the bridge to explore our usual spot of McCarthy and Schmoker’s. The sky was heavily overcast and there was a bit of a chill in the air. I didn’t actually look at the temperature but it probably was around 40 degrees. Before we left Larry’s he said it wasn’t too cold, I mentioned I thought about wearing my insulated boots but he said I wouldn’t need them, I should be just fine. However, it didn’t take very long before I was quite cold, my nose became runny and I wore gloves even while taking photos. As usual we took Hank, the black lab, with us. It was around 8:00 am when we put in. Usually Larry gives me a paddle in case we’d both need to paddle but this time he didn’t. Larry guided the canoe around, back under the bridge we went, heading up McCarthy. While we were still in the truck, Larry said the Mississippi was full enough again it is backing up, raising the water level after last week’s rain. He also told me he went wild ricing on McCarthy with a buddy just for fun – it was a lot of work but they harvested a lot.
There’s a lot of wild rice growing in McCarthy Lake now. It amazes me how filled in it gets. What was open water all the way out to the island in May is now mostly wild rice. There’s only a small pool of open water near the bridge. Larry had to steer the canoe in a very small channel of water that wound through the wild rice. A lot of the rice had fallen down, lying prostrate. There was no green left in the plants – all completely golden brown. Thoughts were far from me, my brain seemed to be temporarily disconnected – I was in full relaxation mood. For the most part we went along in silence. We were somewhat following the route we took in May – but had no choice in where to go because we had to go where the water was. I absentmindedly held wild rice plants away from my face as we slid past them, trying to keep from being slapped in the face. One of the trees on the island was robed in yellow orange leaves. It seemed so still, quiet, I thought.
“It’s quiet, peaceful.”
“No birds. There aren’t any ducks,” he explained. It hadn’t even sunk in that we hadn’t seen or disturbed any ducks so far in until Larry pointed out their absence. Of course, the silence was from the lack of birds. Larry said there haven’t been very many ducks in here this fall. There should have been lots migrating through.
“Why aren’t there ducks?” I asked. He didn’t know the reason. Now that I realized they weren’t here, I felt their absence and was saddened by it. Larry continued to paddle the canoe through the tangle of wild rice plants. Finally, we came to more open water where we came upon the huge lily patch. The lily leaves were now shriveled and beginning to decay. We spotted Canada geese but that was it. We hardly even saw any red wing black birds; I maybe saw one or two.
Larry took the canoe to the far side of the lily patch. He paused, thinking about whether or not we should try to go further – the vegetation was extremely thick ahead. He stood up to get a better view – looking for water. He decided there wasn’t enough water to try to keep going forward. (We’d said at the beginning we’d only go as far up as we could, not wanting to get stuck.) So Larry sat back down and turned the canoe around, a somewhat clumsy action with just one person paddling. We went back across the lily patch but rather going back down the channel we came up on, Larry steered the canoe southwestward to the other channel which took us on the other side of the island. This channel was quite narrow too, also filled in with rice. I could glimpse the top of the bridge in the distance. Some trees were completely naked. One had a few red orange leaves left. There were a few green cattails left. The channel widened a little bit, in most places it was wider than the other channel. We went around the bend and continued under the bridge. Schmoker’s also had a different shape to it than this spring but was less filled in than McCarthy. The trees on either side were stunning in their autumn dress. A few had yellow leaves which contrasted attractively from the dark bark of the trees. We passed the willow tree and went down the channel until it began to turn left. Then Larry turned for me to photograph the duck hunter cabins on the east bank because he liked the look of them reflecting in the water. I was sad that the canoe outing was at an end, I would have liked to keep going down Schmoker’s channel. I hoped we’d get out yet again this autumn.