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For many years my woodland strolls have taken me over hill and dale in search of Maine’s natural wonders, but one of the most appealing features of the state has also been a frustration for me. Maine is one of the wettest states in the nation, full of the more obvious lakes, ponds and rivers we all know and love. However, I’d dare to guess that beaver flowages, bogs, vernal pools and swamps are even more abundant. Most of them are rarely, if ever, visited by humans, and all for the same reason: You can’t get to them. It’s difficult if not dangerous to wade too far into a year-round bog or swamp because the water depths are uncertain and the bottom structure is iffy at best. I don’t mind plunging into water that I know is no more than waist deep, but most of our wetlands contain deep holes, channels and underground tunnels (made by beavers, otters, muskrats and such) that can put you into mucky water that’s over your head. I’ve fallen into several such holes over the years while hunting or fishing and felt lucky to have gotten out with nothing more than pockets full of cold, silky mud.
Floating bogs are also quite common in central and northern Maine, places where you can bounce along on the surface as if you were on one of those inflatable back-yard Moon Walk toys. I found one such place in Orneville where, in my younger and dumber days, I found it amusing to walk across the moss wearing snowshoes. The surface vegetation was buoyant enough to support my (much smaller) frame at the time and dense enough to allow me to traverse the bog from end to end without touching water, but had I slipped or fallen into a thin spot . . . well, thoughts of the old “Lindow Man,” a perfectly preserved corpse discovered in a peat bog in England, went through my mind.
Later, while duck hunting with my Lab in the same bog, I shot a duck that dove under the moss with the retriever right behind him. Both critters disappeared for several minutes and the bog went quiet. I thought I’d lost my dog for good but just then she popped up in some open water about 100 yards away, the black duck clutched firmly in her jaws. Needless to say I gave that bog a wide berth after that.
Still, I’ve always found these heavily-vegetated wetland areas fascinating, not only for their great, untouched trout fishing but also because they are full of water-specific wildlife that one isn’t likely to observe from dry land. The variety of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that live in, near and even under these bogs is staggering. Being a longtime student of natural lore, I have always felt that my life list was lacking because I could not venture into those murky, forbidding places.
My old aluminum canoe proved to be too long and unwieldy for bog exploration, so I decided that a kayak or float tube would be the most obvious solution to the problem. I quickly discovered that a float tube requires way too much work to maneuver through the brush, moss and tangled saplings that make Maine’s bogs what they are, but a kayak slips through the vegetation almost effortlessly. Using long-handled pruners to cut a trail through the brush and utilizing a single-blade paddle, I found that I was able to zig and zag through the maze of water, brush and mossy humps with ease.
The key to successful bog trekking is patience. It’s not a competition, so speed is not of the essence. Going too fast will result in missing some interesting sights, such as intricate spider webs, bird nests, muskrat feeding stations and even green herons, which will hunker down and let you pass if they think you’re distracted by what’s beyond the next open pool.
I like to wend my way through the tangled mess slowly and methodically, creating a subtle trail that I can easily follow on the way out. A nip here and there is all it takes to “break trail” for a kayak. Because vegetation growth is slow in these extreme wetlands a basic trail will remain usable for several years. The best part is that no one else will ever know that you’ve been there or that a trail even exists. Ducks, otters and muskrats will make use of them, however, because they sometimes have a difficult time traversing these places as well. One time I was coming out of a bog on a trail I’d just made and met a family of otters that thought I was the most interesting and entertaining thing they’d ever seen. They gathered around the kayak and made the most interesting chirping sounds as they swirled and circled around me.
Bogs are interesting at any time of day but I like to be on hand at early morning or late afternoon because this is when the most varied activity occurs. I push and paddle as far into the bog as I want to go and just sit there sipping tea (which I brew right on the deck of the kayak) and just wait for things to happen. By the time the ripples from my arrival have disappeared the action begins, usually with several dragonflies landing on the kayak and paddle. Before long red-winged black birds begin singing while smaller birds move through the brush around me. If I’m lucky I’ll see blue herons, an osprey or eagle, several species of ducks (blacks, mergansers, wood ducks and even teal), plus salamanders, frogs, turtles and maybe a beaver or two. In the shallows nearer dry land I might catch a moose, deer or coyote coming down for a drink, and it’s not unusual to see raccoons foraging along the muddy shoreline or an opossum or porcupine on a tree limb overhanging the bog.
September is the perfect time for wetland watching. The weather is perfect and (best of all) there are few bugs to contend with. It’s educational, entertaining and surprisingly cozy out there. Paddle out for yourself and have a look. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve been missing!
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