Monday, August 8, 2011

Paddling In The Rain

I hadn't paddled much since the Boundary Waters trip where too much wind and too high waves brought back a measure of my old fear of the water. But I resolved this week to get back to it, paddling some of the smaller lakes in the parks around Mineral Point.

It was raining this morning. I went for a paddle anyway. The light sprinkle of rain was just a little cooler than the air, making it refreshing. I put my boat into glass smooth water and paddled across the finger of lake to the far shore under the linden trees, along white barked aspen. Lime green pods of hops trees floated on the surface, hinting at stormier weather prior.

A pair of birds skirted the shore, darting from back and forth from tree to tree, so I paused a ways out, with a view of a ferny bank, and ate my lunch in a light mist. My bird watching reverie was interrupted with the sound of something crashing overhead, and I turned my boat to see a squirrel tumbling from branch to branch high in an oak tree. The return to silence after the violent interruption brought back the sounds of chirping and twittering birds. I finished my sandwich and soda and paddled on and the pair of birds flitted along just ahead of me for a while.

Huge yellow and black swallowtail butterflies drifted along between the shore and my route once the rain stopped. A patch of swamp milkweed at water's edge hosted three of them on the many dense clusters of tiny mauve flowers. Stout black dragonlies skimmed along about eye level to me.

At the end of the lake where the stream feeds it and the water is shallow, I carefully paddled though patches of floating water weed to where I could see Canada geese and mallard ducks and a great blue heron feeding. Soon, the geese took flight, right overhead, so that I could hear the whoosh of their wings with each flap.

The lack of any wind that allowed the glass smooth water also allowed for silence, except for the sound of my paddle dipping into the water and between strokes, the sound of my bow cutting across the surface. When I slowed to a near stop, I heard birds on the shore. An occasional test chirp of a cicada. A catbird mewing over and over. Crows! A low raspy caw and a higher more melodic one.

As I drifted farther into the dense mat of floating green, I heard tiny barely audible plip plops. Was the rain starting back up? No, it was bubbles rising from under water, popping when they reached the surface, the product of some mysterious underwater process. Splay legged insects hopped about the water surface and clusters of small black flies vibrated on the surface of the muck. Tiny amber damselflies landed on the gunwale of my boat and on my life jacket and once on my hand.

I watched the blue heron, standing tail feathers deep in water, as it moved its head this way and that, with long periods of waiting between movements. Finally, it struck with a darting dive of the head and a great rustling of wing feathers, then froze with a fish in its bill. After a shake of its head, it began lifting each long leg in turn, walking toward the shallows, where it finally swallowed the fish after a series of motions where it let go of the fish and darted its head forward to move the fish backwards in its long bill. Then it began looking about the water for more prey, slowly moving back toward the deeper water. But something caught its attention and it thrust its bill into the water, apparently catching smaller fish or frogs again and again. Once it let out a loud squawking and did a sideways wing flapping dance before resuming fishing in the shallows.

Soon, a bit of a breeze came up and pushed my boat sideways, plowing a wide clear swath through the floating weeds, finally pushing me aground in the muck. The heron was undisturbed by my slightly closer approach, but soon, as if on some signal, hundreds, maybe thousands, of cicadas, first on the near bank, then on the far one, began their buzzing. The heron kept its head higher after that, clearly less relaxed than it had been, and eventually with a great slow graceful flapping, took flight, winging just a few feet above the lake's surface until at the last minute, it banked sharply up to land in a skeleton of a tall tree. If I took my eye off the tree, I would lose it in the branches, until it moved again, revealing itself.

Soon it began to rain in earnest and a riffle of waves patterned the surface, so I felt compelled to head back, past the massive rock bluff and towering pines and a half dozen different kinds of ferns. Sumac were beginning to show their flower stalks, bright lime green where they will be burgundy later in the fall. Grapevines dipped into the water from overhanging tree branches.

A lull in the rain coaxed me down the other arm of the lake, where another inlet stream forms more shallows, and a brilliant display of pink Joe Pye weed was topped with dozens of dancing swallowtails, brilliant yellow in the low light of the overcast day.

I headed back in a light drizzle which seemed not to phase the ever present swallowtails, fluttering from one swamp milkweed patch to the next. The light rain held until I managed to get all my gear carted to the van and my boat tied to the top, and just as I made the left turn out of the parking lot, it began to pour.

It was a good day on the water.