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One of the many benefits of being a Mainer is that there is always something to do outdoors no matter what the season. With summer officially just days away it makes perfect sense to head for the water, and our options are many and varied. We have lakes large and small, ponds and flowages, rivers and streams galore and all of them are available to anyone who wants to wade, float, paddle or motor across them. Believe it or not, there are states where the water is not owned by the state, which means you can’t access or travel on many waters without permission or paying a fee. The famed Douglaston Run in New York, for example, is privately owned and is off limits to the public; in the South only navigable rivers are open to public use. Most lakes are man-made and tightly regulated. These days a fee is required to park, picnic or launch a boat on U.S. Corps of Engineers-built impoundments. I can say from experience that it’s no fun to canoe or kayak on those Southern flood-control lakes – boat traffic is heavy and constant, and the wave action along the shoreline is relentless. If peace and quiet is your goal Maine is the place to be. Some of our larger waters are busier than others but most of our smaller lakes, rivers and streams are slow-moving and serene, the perfect place to be on a warm summer day.
Paddling is a sport of its own and requires a certain measure of skill, but it doesn’t take long to learn how to drift with a river’s current or keep the bow safely away from a weedy lake shore. Go slow, look around, see what’s going on as your craft cuts a tiny wake across the surface. I find equal fascination in the varied plant life that exists over, on and under the water, and there are always plenty of critters to observe. It’s not unusual to bump into a submerged snapping turtle and most logs and rocks will have their contingent of sunning painted and spotted turtles, water snakes and giant bullfrogs. Things are always running, jumping, flying, swirling or diving aside as I paddle by, each one an interesting distraction. Butterflies and moths hover over the lily pads and dragon flies like to hitch a ride on the gunwale or my resting paddle. The variety of aquatic life one encounters on a simple paddle across a lake or pond is astounding – so many varieties and species! An avid naturalist can spend all day trying to observe and identify every plant, insect, fish, amphibian, bird and mammal encountered along the way. There’s always something seen or heard that leaves one wondering what that was – and a session with the wildlife identification handbook is often in order at the end of each trip.
One of my greatest mysteries of my summer paddling career was what in the world was making that strange, deep grunting noise I kept hearing in the tall grass and weeds along shore. I’d hear it, paddle to it and never see a thing, making me wonder if perhaps it was the grunt of a breeding snapping turtle or some large aquatic mammal. I finally figured it out one day when I decided to paddle into the weeds, sit still and wait for “it” to start up again. More than an hour later I was amazed to see an American bittern take a step toward me and start croaking. The bird had been standing there the entire time, beak pointed straight up toward the sky, unmoving, blending in so well that I was shocked to see how large and colorful he was. Nearly 30 inches tall, perfectly streaked and striped to match the shoreline grasses, the bird stood hunched over and uttered a loud, repetitive “Unk-a-lunk,” a sound that seemed much larger than the bird itself. I’d heard its call for years but had never seen a live one.
Another secretive water bird that few folks ever see is the Virginia rail, an “odd duck” if ever there was one. Covered with soft, dove-like feathers, the rail is somehow able to swim underwater without having webbed feet. One of our few huntable shorebirds, the rail is pursued at high tide using frail, thin boats that are shoved through the reeds using a long pole. The birds hide underwater, only their beaks showing above the surface, nearly invisible in the sparse, flooded grass along shore. A rail leaps into the air suddenly and with a great splash, surprising the gunner sitting in the bow of the boat. How these birds manage to survive despite being “all wrong” for their environment is a mystery. They’re not ducks, they have no down or oily outer feathers and no webbed feet yet they thrive in deep freshwater and saltwater marshes . . . a curiosity for sure!
In summer, water is the great attractant for all creatures great and small. On a good day wildlife sightings range from mice to moose, eagles, hawks, ospreys, cormorants, loons and geese, plus all sorts of ducks and a wide variety of water birds – kingfishers, red-winged blackbirds, warblers, vireos, blue herons and snipe . . . and that’s just what can be see above the water’s surface. Fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, turtles and mammals including beavers, muskrats, mink, otters and weasels may make an appearance, especially at dawn and dusk.
It’s a shame that we can’t see what going on after dark. I have spent long nights on the water ostensibly fishing for horned pout or bass but have always been amazed at how busy a lake or pond can be after dark. There is an endless cacophony of splashing, croaking, squeaking and hooting going on throughout the hours of darkness. One night at Branns Mill Pond I had a great blue heron land on the bow of my canoe, apparently hoping to sneak a few bullheads out of my bucket. Another time while night fishing on Kingsbury Pond a very long, very fat black snake slithered over the side of the canoe, no doubt with free bullheads on his mind as well. Needless to say, all hands decided to bail out. Luckily the water was only knee deep.
Spend some time on the water this summer. You may be surprised at what you find – or what finds you!
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