A North Woods Canoe: Moosehead Lake, Maine


(State #19/50) There are some places in the country where I get odd looks for having a 16-foot canoe strapped atop a 14-foot car; Northern Maine is not one of them. As I motored up 95 and onto smaller highways, it seemed every 4th car I saw was carrying a canoe. Rider was finally home. DSC_0303

Driving north, I weighed my options. I wanted to camp in a place called Sugar Island (who wouldn’t?) near Lily Bay State Park, but a ranger said all sites might be taken due to the Memorial Day weekend. Then there was another option: to pay for a car site at another state park with a nice lake where I knew there was open camping. For the majority of the drive I leaned towards that safer option.

Then it hit me — I was the Northwoods of Maine, a place I’ve always wanted to visit and why the hell was I out here, unemployed and living out of a car, if not to take some risks? Risks can be — need to be —  calculated and weighed. You know, it’s the quest to find that sweet middle ground between free solo climbing in Yosemite and spending most of your free time on a couch, waiting to die from heart disease.

DSC_0041I know I’ve grown more risk averse over the last decade (which according to those fancy brain scientists has to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex). At 21, for instance, I never worried about jogging under large trees on a windy day; now I do. Awareness of danger comes more instinctively now, and it’s not a bad thing. Yet, it’s easy to let this spirit of hesitance become an aversion to anything outside your comfort zone, whether or not there’s much risk involved. After staying 3 wonderful and lazy days in a bed with meals being cooked for me, I began settling back in to that mentality. I’ll just camp at the drive-up campsite at the state park. But, no! That’s not an adventure! I didn’t quit my job and drive 6,000 miles to Maine to go car camping! So, I plugged Lily Bay State Park into the GPS and made the decision to canoe to Sugar Island, available campsite or not.

DSC_0110When I arrived in the early evening, the sun had broken through and it was almost warm outside, but still not summer. With rubber boots, a long sleeve and my shemagh, I set off from Rowell Cove. It was a calm little bay, encased by pines and white bole birches growing right up to the water. I paddled with a light breeze out towards the main lake and Sugar Island, which was nearly a mile out, but appearing much closer as land often does across water. Looking back, dark blue low mountains, in the shade of clouds, filled the background behind the sunlit lake and light green shoreline.

DSC_0082I canoed out between two tiny islands; trees grew on every available bit of rock and soil and clung to the outposts like an overcrowded lifeboat. Then something caught my eye in the water to my right. I fixed my gaze on the black head of a water bird, mostly submerged in the lake. It dove for a moment, showing it’s white speckled back and I DSC_0117knew what it was — a loon! Not having them down in Texas, they fascinated me as a kid when we saw them on family vacations to Yellowstone, Wisconsin and New England. On one such trip my Dad, because he’s my Dad, even bought a CD of loon calls set to classical music, which, I’ve confirmed, he still owns. For my own part, I bought a little painted wooden souvenir, which had been the only loon I’d seen over the past 20 years, so I was floored.

Bobbing upon the lake, I studied a paper map, found a point to aim for and began paddling strong, wind and waves at my back. Eventually, I rounded the northeast point of Sugar Island and found the sun now emerging from the bottom of a distant bank of clouds. It cast diagonal beams towards a floating sheer-faced mountain. The undulating lake surface shattered the sun’s reflection and the lit clouds turned shades of gold.DSC_0183

Of course, the dramatic sunset also meant nightfall and I had the little matter of finding a campsite. The map showed 3 nearby sites and even if the rest of the Sugar Island (4 miles long, 2 miles wide) was uninhabited wilderness, it didn’t seem like the trees were going to give an inch for a tent spot. If all the sites were taken, I decided, I might have to just wrap myself in a cocoon of tarps and tent and bed down between a few fallen logs.

DSC_0315But it didn’t come to that. I reached the first campsite and, paddling the contour of the cove, I saw no boat or signs of inhabitance. “Hello?” I called to the woods. They didn’t call back. Satisfied, I made my camp, a fire and dinner at Sand Cove.

With an Alagash beer in hand (they were 50% off for reasons I’d rather not uncover), I looked up to see an open black sky, scatted with a multitude of stars. Then I remembered that people had seen the Northern Lights in Southern Maine the previous night. I’d never seen the aurora borealis, so I took the canoe out at 10:40 p.m. I paddled a mere 75 feet into Sand Cove, looked up and drifted. The night was soundless, save the small waves lapping at Rider’s hull. I didn’t see the lights or a shooting star, but took the moment to think about exactly where I was and what I was doing, happy for the risks I’d taken.

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Sunrise at 5 a.m. Orange light hitting my tent woke me and

DSC_0284At noon the next day, under overcast skies, I donned my ski jacket and canoed further up along the island’s coast. Rounding a bend, I saw the island stretch on for another 2 miles and decided to head back the way I came. Idling in the bay, I watched a doe pick her way DSC_0348along a rocky shore, hundreds of yards away. While the lake appeared pretty untainted by man, I did spot some trash to pick up. I stepped out of the boat and found a real gem — a commemorative Pepsi can for Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace (an installment of Star Wars, which, many will argue, is the greatest of all time). The can was in remarkable shape for being nearly 20 years old and I gently placed it in the bow, knowing it was likely worth thousands.

DSC_0316Wind whipped across the unsheltered main lake body as I began the return paddle. Leaving Phantom Menace Bay, I heard a loon call, echoing off the low hills and through the cold air. Sticking close to shore, I passed two older fishermen, bundled up, rocking up and down in the waves. “Don’t you love summer?” I called out. “We had summer yesterday!” the man called back.

I had a nervous canoe across Moosehead Lake, against wind and waves. That fishermen’s boat was the last I saw out there that day. If I would have flipped in the middle between the island and shore (over a half mile apart), I would have been in real trouble. So, I stayed focused, tacking and heading against the wind and small whitecaps. With slow progress, I made it to the little islands I had passed between the previous evening, less enchanted with them now. As I got into the bay, the waves lessened until the wind died and it was just normal canoeing on a cloudy, chilly day.

Now, because I espouse taking calculated risks, that does not mean that I’m incapable to taking the mighty dumb risks too. Not having a wetsuit, regardless of where I canoed in Maine, was a dumb risk. In summary, betting on finding a camp on Moosehead Lake — good risk. Canoeing choppy cold waters without a wet suit — stupid risk. Chasing loons in a canoe (which I did the moment I was back in safe waters) — a fun time for all parties involved.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Moosehead Lake, Maine (largest mountain lake in the Northeast!)
  • Dates Canoed: 5/28-29/2017
  • Miles canoed: 7
  • Weather: Partly sunny with highs in 60’s to overcast, windy and in the upper 40’s
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Rowell Cove in Lily Bay SP (45.575994, -069.550291)
  • Campsite: Sand Cove on Sugar Island (45.598059, -069.575713)
  • Furtherest Point Reached: Galusha (not Phantom Menace) Cove (45.604438, -069.597294)
  • Thanks to Carol and Ed Claus for the company, bed, warm meals (Hadick chowda!), new shirt and entire bucket of freshly made cookies (which became desert and breakfast over the next week and a half) and the jug of maple syrup meant for my parents, but won’t make it back to Texas.
  •  Also a thank you to Northwood Outfitters INC in Greenville for advice and Mark the Ranger at Lily Bay State Park for info on the lake and 10 bucks for a burger in town!
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: Stress Free Moose Pub and Cafe
  • Songs Sung on Lake: Broke Down and Give me One Good Year by Slaid Cleaves
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: 4 Loons, 1 duck, robin, wren
  • Mammals: 1 white tail deer
  • Amphibians: A bunch of toads hopping around the leaves at camp last night.
  • Noted Species: Moose! Black bear
  • Dominant Trees: poplar, white birch, yellow bird, white pine, balsam fir and northern white cedar
  • Current Threats: Ticks from mild winters (rangers comments). Moose population down over the last 20 years. Further Development and associated stormwater runoff. Excessive plowing/tilling and sediment runoff (laden with chemicals and fertilizers) associated with that.
  • Ecoregion: Northern Highlands (58u) Moosehead-Churchill Lakes
  • Trash Collected: 5 stacked styrofoam bowls, a huge pieces of hard foam, beer cans and a Star Wars Episode I Pepsi can
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Tippy Canoe and Trevor Too: Canoeing the Deerfield River, Massachusetts

DSC_0973(State #18/50) The day: sunny and warm. The water: clear and sparkling. The mountains lining the valley: a patchwork of green. As for Trevor and I… we were both nervous and excited. Well, maybe just nervous.

We had arrived in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts the night before, camping where the Deerfield River wound against a steep, forested mountain. With the rainy cold conditions of Rhode Island behind us, we cracked open beers, made camp and watched a beaver waddle up onto the opposing bank and root around in the fern covered earth. Musically inept, I asked Trevor to tune my guitar. He sat on a log, tuned it and tried recalling songs. “Are you gonna light that fire or what?” Trevor asked as he swatted biting gnats. I told him I was thinking about it.

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Photo by Trevor Cobb

We had more beer as the western sky radiated salmon hues. Trevor and I took turns playing as the glow of the fire replaced the light of day. We were set for a relaxing evening when we noticed the beach was disappearing — they were releasing water from the dam upstream. Trevor grabbed smoking logs and I put on an oven mitt and shoveled coals into a frying pan. We transferred the fire to higher ground and fried up leftover fish ‘n chips with a side of beef curry.

The next morning we went to the local outfitters for advice. A staff member pointed to Zoar Gap, a Class III rapid, on a wall map. “About 50% of the canoes make it through without flipping,” a guy said with a smile. “But, there’s a way to portage around it if you’d like.”

Down the road, we ate a late big breakfast at a cafe (which I probably shouldn’t have kept referring to as our last meal). “If we flip, we check each other, then gear and then canoe. Then we swim it to shore. Make sure you float upstream of the boat… that’s what I’ve read,” I instructed. “Now you’re making me nervous,” Trevor said, fiddling with the straw in his ice water. I was nervous too; even if we skipped the class III, I didn’t know what I was doing in whitewater. “We’ll be fine, they wouldn’t let us die in this river… it’d be bad for business!” I said, attempting to be cheery.

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Trevor could not contain his excitement for the rapids that morning

Up at the launch point, a half dozen people, wearing helmets and wetsuits, geared up short whitewater canoes. Meanwhile, Trevor and I stood in bathing suits and flip flops. “Hey, are we gonna be okay running Zoar Gap?” I asked. A middle-aged man with a beard looked us over. “Do you guys have float bags?” he asked. “Float bags?” I responded. “So, without float bags, you’ll take on water after the first drop. You’ll swamp, your canoe will sink and then wrap around a rock and break in two.” Our own safety was one thing, but my canoe, in danger? Hell no. “Well, I guess we’ll portage the gap then!” I said, relieved, but likely not as relieved as my compadre.

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Scouting a small set of rapids

We hit the river at noon. The Deerfield surged through the winding valley, over a path of polished stone and around large granite boulders. I tried to keep us straight in the current and away from rocks as we entered our first class II rapids. Trevor shouted directions from the bow — “Rock, 40 feet on the left, keep straight, keep straight, good line. Rock! Right! Left, left, left!” We strained muscles and pulled at the river, knowing even a little mis-stroke might lead to disaster.DSC_0969

After navigating between the gaps of protruding boulders and submerged shelves, we’d shoot out into huge sets of standing waves. I’d do my best to hit them strait on and Rider would rock up and crash down as buckets of water dumped in on Trevor. Even a few DSC_0971gallons spread over the floor of the canoe made it unstable — magnifying each tilt by all sloshing to one side. Immediately after completing a rapid section, we’d have adrenaline pumping and feel ready for more. But, we’d have to find a bank, toss out the dry bags and dump the canoe. By the time we got back on the water, nerves replaced invincibility.

Portaging Zoar Gap along the road, we stared down at river guides training in blue rafts on the class III rapids. “No way in hell we’d get through that,” Trevor and I agreed. “If we had floats, it’d be possible, but it’s too big a drop.”T&EPortageDSC_0985

A mile down from Zoar Gap, the river funneled into another narrow spot, maybe 30 feet wide. Trevor and I ran the rapids down as it narrowed, avoiding the boulders, keeping straight and staying on our chosen line. At the narrowest part of the gap, the water dumped into another series of the largest standing waves we’d seen. We flew into the v and waves with little choice. Cresting the first one, I gave a triumphant yell as we rode down the steep slope. But, after we crested the second, water dumped in over the gunnels like the old log ride. The canoe rocked up and over the third wave and more water poured onto Trevor and into the canoe, extinguishing my enthusiasm. “Water, water, WATER!” Trevor yelled as we hit the fourth wave. I tried to keep her balanced. “Keep it straight!” I started to yell, but it was too late.

The next thing I knew I was in the freezing water. So was Trevor and Rider was tipped sideways, mostly submerged in the fast-moving stream. “Eric!?” Trevor called from in front of the canoe. “Yeah,” I said in a croak. I could barely speak; I must have inhaled water when my face smacked the river. I grabbed my paddle and tried again to speak, without success. In only a moments time, we had gone from 2 men at the height of their river prowess to a floating, confused wreck.

DSC_0994Trevor hollered for me to get my ass over to the boat. I swam towards him and the canoe as the current slowed. Trying to swim the swamped canoe towards the calm waters near a gravel bank felt akin to moving a boulder. I worried we wouldn’t be able to get her to land before the next rapids. But, slowly, eventually, we made it to the gravel bar.

We pulled the canoe up and dumped it out. “You okay? Banged up?” I asked Trevor, surveying his body for bruises. “I’m fine,” he reported. I checked my dry bags; my camera and phone were fine. My largest bag, containing the first aid kit and spare clothes had water in it, but that wasn’t a problem. After inspecting our bodies, the canoe and all the gear we determined we were okay. “I lost the bag of sunflower seeds. They were in my pocket,” Trevor said. That’s when I realized I still had a mouth full of them. “Well, no wonder you couldn’t talk!” Trevor said.

DSC_0992 (1)Standing in silence, drying in the sun I said, “Well, I have a name for this post now, Tippy Canoe and Trevor Too!” Trevor shook his head, unamused. “I can’t believe we flipped, it’s just frustrating,” he said. “It was bound to happen eventually,” I said. “Yeah, but it had to be one I did with you,” Trevor said, as if I or others would blame him (which I totally do). “I’m not sure what we could have done differently there. Without float bags, there was no way to not take on water,” I said. I was happy we didn’t get hurt or lose any gear and the unplanned bath was indeed refreshing. I’d go as far to say I felt a little bad-ass after surviving such a harrowing ordeal. However, any macho feelings vanished when we learned we had swamped in a section known as… wait for it…“Baby Gap.”

DSC_1005Nevertheless, the Deerfield was the most extreme water I’ve canoed during this entire Canoe 50 Campaign, even if it is child’s play to a whitewater canoeist. Back in the car, we took the scenic route to Boston and reviewed the latest chapter in “The Wild Adventures of Trevor and Eric.” After a thorough and unbiased investigation, we concluded, unanimously, that swamping the canoe was not our fault in the slightest. Accepting these results, Trevor and I stopped at Walden Pond to share the good news with the grumpy and disinterested ghost of Henry David Thoreau.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Deerfield River, Massachusetts
  • Miles Canoed: 8.5
  • Date Canoed: 5/24/2017
  • Weather: Mostly sunny, highs in the low 80’s with lows in the 60’s
  • Launch Point: .25 miles from “Dropin Point” (42.679489, -072.987156)
  • Campsite: Close to, but certainly not in the Zoar Picnic area, up the road from the Nelson Family Cemetery
  • Takeout Point: Zoar Outdoor take out (42.627267, -072.885543)
  • Songs Sung on River: Mr. Jones by The Counting Crows and Sweet Baby James by Massachusetts own, James Taylor. That night on the river, I’d like to think I lulled Trevor to sleep with the lyrics “Well, the first of December was covered in snow. So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. Though the Berkshires seem dreamlike on account that frostin’, with 10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to gooooo…”
  • Big thanks to the staff at Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort (800-532-7483). They gave us advice, let us take out on their property and even gave me a lift back to my car (refused a tip too!). Friendly and professional outfit, which does lots of rafting trips and kayaks. Thanks to Mary & Kevin for the beef curry!
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: Cold River Cafe & Restaurant for the tasty huge proportions (which was great as we skipped lunch and didn’t eat dinner until late that night in Boston) and the friendly waitress.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: ducks, Canada Geese, merganser, kingfisher and red wing black bird.
  • Mammals: 1 ornery beaver
  • Noted Species: Black bear
  • Dominant Vegetation: white pine, birch, oak and beech
  • Ecoregion: Northern Highlands, (58c) Green Mountains/Berkshire Highlands
  • Current Threats: Dumped chemicals (motor oil), invasive species such as the Japanese Knotweed and hydroelectric development (already several dams altering the natural river flow)
  • Trash collected: some beer bottles and a glass insulated from our campsite.
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Canoeing Chowda Country with Trevor: Watchaug Pond, Rhode Island

DSC_0688(State #17/50) Waiting, I stood next to my car and canoe at the train station in Providence. Bruno Marrs pumped out of my open windows. Trevor rounded the corner with a duffle bag over his shoulders and sunglasses glinting. We embraced in the half-awkward, yet genuine way longtime male friends can only do. It was fully romantic. After applause from onlookers died down, we chucked his bag in the back and got in the car. “Where are we going again?” Trevor asked. “The other end of the state.” I answered. 57 minutes later we arrived at Burlingame State Park.

For a park in the tiniest of the 50 states, there was an overwhelming number of campsites to choose from. “We have the largest camping area of any state park East of the Mississippi,” the ranger at the front desk said with pride. I believed it as we looked over a map with, no kidding, 700 campsites. Rhode Island was clearly compensating. But, coming from Connecticut where all campsites were still closed for the season or booked, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

DSC_0690After Trevor and I claimed campsite #106, he handed me an REI bag. Inside was an assortment of goodies like a float for my new GoPro, jerky, fire starters and a little bottle of Johnny Walker. I was a little disappointed the fire starters weren’t coconut cookies, which they bore an uncanny resemblance to (I literally brought it up every time we used one over the next several days. I fear, some day soon, I will get drunk and eat one.)

DSC_0781The sun was still up, but the evening was already cooling down. We scrambled to gear up with clothes and the cooler. We put into Watchaug Pond as the sun sank behind a lone, high cloud. We canoed strait across and turned west to hug the edge of the pond. The water reflected the soft yellow glow of the sky, only broken by the dark tree-lined shore and silhouette of Trevor. Paddling along the wetland forests, we passed cedars, elms and maples with blood-red ‘helicopters’. Frogs called, songbirds sang and a red wing black bird, the Neil Young of the avian world, created vocalizations some may find appealing. Fish broke the surface and gnats hung in the air, but didn’t bite. At the end of the lake we entered a thicket of cattails, scaring up unseen Canada geese behind a wall of reeds. We enjoyed a lazy and tranquil paddle — talking and enjoying beverages as the colors retreated to the western horizon. DSC_0721 (1)

As night descended, we power canoed back towards the landing. The same group of Canada Geese had resettled on the water, so I adjusted course and we barreled towards them. Their honks increased in volume and frequency as we approached, cutting the calm surface with tidy, strong strokes. Closing in on our feathery targets, the geese began to flap and lift off the water, sounding the alarms as they winged away to a place where grown boys in a boat wouldn’t harass them.

Trevor and I carried the canoe back to camp and set up the tent. We had a revelrous time around the campfire before I finally, upon Trevor’s insistence, fried up sausages. It was 10:30 p.m. when we consumed our dinner in a manner unsuited for polite society. Our bellies full, our pants covered in grease and mustard, we retired to the tent. DSC_0762

Light rain drummed the tent by first light and continued. Yet, when I emerged around 9, the leaves around the campsite were still dry (the tent chamber amplifies the sound of even soft rain). The front had arrived; the temperature was in the upper 40’s and the sky was a dome of gray. When the sprinkles ceased, Trevor and I broke camp and launched back onto Watchaug Pond.

DSC_0748I steered Rider to the right, heading towards the other end of the pond. We paddled by large round granite boulders near the shore. The geology nerd in me was thrilled with these era — ice polished droppings of a retreating glacier, which carved out the erratics ‘kettle pond’ during the last ice age. These kettle ponds are shallow and sediment filled, so the Watchaug only averages 8 feet deep even though its over a mile wide.

Trevor decided it was a good idea to get on one of the small boulder islands. Trying to keep a foot on the rock and a foot to steady the canoe, he climbed up and I paddled away. After a photoshoot, retrieving Trevor wasn’t easy. I steered from the true back seat (as opposed to siting backwards from the front seat to shorten the bow DSC_0736— what I do when I solo) and without Trevor’s fat ass weighing down the front, the bow lifted out of the water. Wind picked up and pivoted my boat as I remained, more or less, in the same location. It took about 5 minutes to reach a point where Trevor could hop back in the canoe. I waited for him to lose balance, fall and bring Rider and me down with him. I knew I’d swamp the canoe eventually, but in a pond in Rhode Island? That’d be embarrassing.DSC_0745

Our tour led us past quaint lakefront properties. A gray-haired man crouched amongst bushes, playing with dirt in his flowering garden, unaware of our presence. I considered giving him a scare, like the geese, but didn’t want to be responsible for startling the man to death (though being a nurse, Trevor could have revived him). We admired the homes, DSC_0778but I was happy to again reach the undeveloped side. I always imagined Rhode Island would be void of wilderness area, because of the size and age-old colonial settlements. So I was surprised to find that most of Watchaug pond is surrounded by extensive protected forests and wetlands. I hope is stays that way.

DSC_0760Over the 2 paddles, we had formed a list of questions, so we stopped into the visitor center on our way out. “We saw all this scat on one of the granite rock islands,” I told a younger woman at the front desk. “I’m certain it was mammal poop… real long, almost like twigs.” She said she had no idea, but then lit up. “I can google it!” She proceeded to type ‘mammal poop” into the search engine, as if that was going to narrow it down. While she spent many delighted minutes looking at pictures of crap, we turned to another ranger. “We saw a high flying bird of prey… I think it was osprey: do have lots of them here?” I asked. “Ewww look at that one!” the girl blurted out, pointing at the screen. I turned back to the older ranger. “We have lots of species of birds here.” He responded. Well, no shit. I thought. But, I smiled, thanking both of them as we left.

DSC_0756 (1)Rain moved in as we sat at a restaurant booth in town, still in grimy clothes and rubber boots. “How far to the next place?” Trevor inquired. “Well, Newport is the east end of the state, so about 35 minutes away.” I answered. The waitress brought big steaming bowls of clam chowder (or chowda, as she corrected), followed by fish and chips, which we devoured. Meanwhile, back in Burlingame, the state employee spent her entire lunch break — I’m sure of it — studying the wide world of mammal feces.

 

Pond Stats and Fun Facts

  • Watchaug Pond, Rhode Island
  • Dates Canoed: 5/21-22/17
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Near campsite #106, Burlingame State Park (41.381465, -071.698151)
  • Miles Canoed: 4 + 2 in the tidal marshes, so 6 total for the state.
  • Weather: Cool and clear the first evening to overcast with light rain. Highs in the upper 60s and lows in the upper 40’s
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Osprey, Canada Geese, Mallard, redwing black bird , cardinal, red tail hawk, black songbird with crest (can’t ID!)
  • Mammals: Chipmunks around campsite
  • Noted Species: Watchaug Pond is an important spawning ground for many fish species (like the alewife)
  • Songs Song on the Pond: That’s What I Like, Bruno Mars
  • Though I had to rag on them a bit, thanks to the all staff at Burlingame State Park. We spoke to about 6 different rangers and all very willing to help us find a good campsite and give advice on canoeing the pond. Also to the great staff at Fishermen Memorial State Park (where we stayed the next night). They were a bright spot on a rainy cold day!
  • Delicious Restaurants: The Cove Restaurant in Charlestown: Chowda and fish & chips!
  • Dominant Vegetation: red maple, beech, cattail reeds and cedar
  • Ecoregion: Northeastern Coast Zone, (59g) Long Island Sound Coastal Lowland
  • Current Threats: encroachment of further development along unprotected shoreline
  • Trash collected: a toy soccer ball, beer cans, sandal, styrofoam cup and travel soap container
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Eric Crosses the Delaware: Canoeing The Water Gap, New Jersey

DSC_0627Every time I used to rag on New Jersey for being a pit, my Dad would tell me about the greatness of The Delaware Water Gap. So, New Jersey was an easy one to pick once I decided not to skip it entirely.

DSC_0495I headed to the mountainous northwest corner of the state where the Delaware River cuts through a high ridge line, creating the impressive Water Gap. Now I use the word mountainous in a generous sense. One of the main reason for my anti-Jersey sentiments as a child, and I’m serious, was because New Jersey didn’t have a real mountain. I was obsessed with highpoint being at least 2,000 feet (the old English height requirement). I applauded surprising states like Alabama and Minnesota for making that mark, while casting mild aspersions on those that didn’t. On the East Coast, with the Appalachians, it seemed absurd not to have a proper mountain. I gave Rhode Island and Delaware a slight pass as they’re tiny and coastal, but come on New Jersey; Connecticut and Maryland could do it, what’s your excuse? ‘High Point’ (real creative, yous guys) stands at mere 1804 feet. I know it doesn’t make much sense but, like a lot of biases in life, it persisted despite logic.

DSC_0527 (1)I arrived in the ‘hills’ at Eshback landing on the PA side at 4:30 p.m. (the Delaware splits the states, so Jersey only really gets partial credit for the natural feature). The wind picked up the instant I hit the water, having its way with the bow of my canoe, making me look foolish to the cedars and silver maples along the banks. I cursed aloud as I strained my muscles, trying to keep the canoe strait. Thankfully, after a mile it died down and I was free to enjoy the scenery without fighting the invisible hand of Mother Nature.

DSC_0519I stopped at an island in the middle, skipped a few rocks and grabbed a beer from the warm cooler. I drank it, but know this: Coors Original is meant to be served cold. After a long straight away, the river turned, revealing higher green ridges behind the woodlands on either side of the Delaware. I passed a motor boat, anchored in the middle of the river. Five taut fishing lines ran from the stern to the waterline at a 45 degree angle. “Y’all having any luck with the shad?” I asked the group of men. “We’ve got 10 so far in just an hour so we’re killing it! Too bad they don’t taste any good.” said one of the fishermen. “So doing it just for sport?” I asked. “Doing it as an excuse to drink beer!” I held up my drink and called out cheers and the jolly group of guys reciprocated. Little did they know I was a Cowboys fan.

DSC_0586I checked the map at Bushkill landing and saw camping on the Jersey side a half mile downstream. Spotting brown camping signs on the tree boles, I beached where the river bends, across from the outflow of Bushkill Creek. I walked up a path to a fetching site with a fire ring in a cleared area under large oaks and maples. High grass, low shrubs and ferns grew in the understory. Then I looked down at my legs — I had about a dozen ticks crawling on my shins, navigating my leg, looking for a DSC_0616spot to latch on. I brushed them off before they bit (I had seen signs for ticks and Lyme Disease and knew there was something of a boom in the tick population. The last two winters were mild in the Northeast, so the ticks just didn’t die off like normal. I made sure to look myself over again after I was done bringing up the canoe and gear).

Across the Delaware, the setting sun shone between the foliage across the river. As the evening was still warm, I grabbed my life vest and waded out into the river. The water was cold, but I counted down and dropped in up to my neck — refreshing and worth it. Swimming through the current, the water warmed as I entered the flow of the creek. Standing on the gravel bar, I gazed upstream and watched 2 deer walk with caution DSC_0584along the bank. Light was fading, but I could see their heads swivel my way when I sneezed. I looked down river to a steep cedar covered hill where the last rays of sun were hitting the top of the ridge. When I turned back upstream the deer were gone. They had retreated to their woodland home and it was time I do the same.

I swam back across, mostly upstream, alternating between breast and back stroke. I was happy for the life jacket and was out of breath by the time I made it. Then it occurred to me that I had crossed the Delaware, as George Washington is portrayed in the famous painting. I doubt a similar image of me would appear as heroic, but you can be the judge.

DSC_0600I put up the tent and gathered the ample firewood scattered around my tent. Mosquitoes came out and I put on my raincoat and dusted my legs with Off. I had a fire roaring by dark and I fried up a gas station hot pocket on a skillet. Once a proud cook, I had digressed in my culinary ambitions. Thus is river life, I suppose.

The sound of clanging pots and pans woke me up in the night. My pirate alarms! I thought. I put on my glasses, unzipped the tent and shined my headlamp at a single raccoon near my cooler and food bag. Mischievous yellow eyes glowed back. He scampered off and my food was spared. Somehow, over a month in, that was my first raccoon sighting of the trip.

The next morning was filled with sunshine and singing birds, but I had trouble enjoying the day because I couldn’t stop sneezing. When I put in my contacts, I realized my itchy eyes were bloodshot. Allergies… I don’t get allergies! I thought. Allergies are for the kids that wear nose plugs at public swimming pools and spend all of inside recess drawing crappy pictures of dolphins and other lame animals (Yes, I determined at a young age that there was a strong correlation between these behaviors and allergies).DSC_0611

And now I was the kid with a nasally voice, congestion, itchy throat and red eyes. Trying to build the fire, I sneezed a glob of snot onto my leg; I just stared as it oozed down my shin, disgusted with myself. I spent the rest of the morning blowing my nose and resisting the urge to draw pictures of my favorite Beanie Babies.

At noon I canoed upstream to Bushkill landing, locked Rider to a signpost and ran a hot 4 miles back to my car along a trail. Chipmunks scurried as I jogged by and I caught more grand views of The Water Gap — clear green water glittered between even greener ridges. Was I wrong in my criticisms of this state? Driving back to get the canoe, I pondered the subject. Once I had the canoe back atop my car, I pulled out a notebook and added “ticks, raccoons and allergies” to a list titled “Problems with New Jersey.”

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • The Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey
  • Dates Canoed: 5/18-19/2017
  • Weather: Mostly sunny, highs in the low 80’s with lows in the 60’s
  • Miles canoed: 5
  • Launch Point: Esback Landing (41.137306, -074.925948 )
  • Campsite: Wallpack Bend (41.090952, -074.991241)
  • Takeout Point: Bushkill Landing (41.10607, -074.984468)
  • Thanks to the friendly ranger I spoke with at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area for information on where to put in, camp and take out.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Merganser, mallards, great blue heron, pileated woodpecker, smaller woodpecker and red wing black birds
  • Mammals: 2 white tail deer, 1 raccoon and several chipmunks
  • Reptiles: Turtles, 2 water snakes
  • Noted Species: Black bear, of course
  • Dominant Vegetation: Silver Leaf Maples, Oaks, Elm and Hickory
  • Ecoregion: Ridge and Valley, (67I) Northern Glaciated Limestone Ridges, Valleys, and Terraces
  • Current Threats: Invasive species: Hemlock woolly adelgid (responsible for wiping out Eastern Hemlocks starting in the mid-1980’s), Purple loosestrife is an exotic plant that threatens wetland habitat. Stormwater runoff from upstream (herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, mine tailings) and point-source pollution. Major efforts to clean the river since the 1960, however, have made great strides in clean up of chemical and organic pollutants.
  • Trash collected: A single old tennis ball

    DSC_0627

    One more time, this took way too long to take with a 3 second timer…

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The Tidal Treadmill: Canoeing the Mispillion River, Delaware

DSC_0345To be fair, it wasn’t all Delaware’s fault. I’ll shoulder some of the blame — I had picked the river for Delaware based upon only a satellite image. The mouth of Mispillion is a lazy wide river, flowing though marsh land on the way to Delaware Bay and the ocean. It appeared remote and wild for the state. “We don’t float that one,” said a local outfitter. “It’s pretty buggy.” I remained defiant, hellbent on floating the one I picked verses normal options. I won’t go as far to say it was a successful failure, but perhaps I should have heeded the local advice.

DSC_0320I arrived at the peninsular outpost of DuPont Nature Center near the mouth of the river. The center was shut for the day and all the homes nearby were abandoned, burnt out or still shut up for the winter. Birds of a dozen species patrolled the water, sky and distant sand beach by the thousands. Tiny biting gnats wasted no time in proving the guide right. I put on my rain jacket, shemagh and bug spray before searching for a put-in.

DSC_0314Near the center I found water lapping gently against busted concrete, old wooden piers and mangled rebar. Further down I found a public access point that required a permit for all watercraft to launch. The third option was a little dirt road to the sea. It was on the fringe of a home, but there were no posted signs. I drove down to the water, around pothole puddles and thick mud. I found another fallen pier amongst more rebar and rubble, covered in barnacles and a clam colony. The muscles hissed and spit water as I surveyed the launch. With the low tide, there was a gentle bank of sediment, which I stepped onto and sunk down to my boot tops in black, stinking mud, nearly dropping the canoe teetering on my shoulders. A good start.

Not knowing if I was on private property, I milled about my car, waiting for someone to drive up and yell at me. But, no one came so I made the decision, loaded up and paddled away from the broken dock as a red sun dipped into the salt marsh horizon.

DSC_0337The gnats continued to harass as I steered Rider around the point past 30 cormorants sitting atop piers, all silhouetted against a backdrop of warm colors. Heading up the river I found patches of sand, which seemed inviting enough for a campsite, yet all had state posted warnings to stay off the beach. Further on, I found the source of a racket I had heard since arriving on the peninsula. Thousands upon thousands of shore birds swarmed a sandbank, washed out by the Mispillion. The calls and the milling thousands were dizzying. I wasn’t about to get near their beach, lest they turn their energy towards me and devour me like piranhas (clearly, there are gaps in my knowledge of seabird behavior).

DSC_0351Beyond the teeming sand banks was the meandering river, flanked, entirely, by a monoculture of salt marsh grasses and associated biting insects. With no where to camp, and the sunset colors fading to darker cool hues, I reversed course and paddled back to the car. I made an unglamorous campsite in the parking lot, near the dock and nature center. Directly above, bright stars shown, but the horizon in all directions was even-spread patches of light pollution. I saw the bright lights of giant tankers out on the bay and, beyond, the lights of New Jersey. Above, I watched a single shooting star streak the sky, the first I can recall since canoeing the Brazos with my Dad.

DSC_0395I awoke at 5 a.m. I worried about getting scolded for my campsite, so I emerged from the tent to watch the sun rise over the swaying tall grass and Delaware Bay. There is merit, sometimes, in rising with the sun I decided. I broke down the tent and boiled water for coffee and oatmeal on my malfunction stove, which was flaming up big and liable to singe off the beard I was fighting so hard to grow.

DSC_0452

A Black Skimmer, not a skinny puffin

The tide was rolling out again and the little muddy bay where I wanted to put my boat in was rapidly becoming a mudflat. I scrambled and was on the water before 6 a.m. Paddling into the main channel, I canoed upon the tidal treadmill of the Mispillion River. I spent over an hour canoeing a mile and a half, which would have been 6 miles on flat water. I nearly turned around, but then saw a bald eagle, hundreds of yards upstream, perched on a dead tree. I continued the hard-fought paddle until he flew away to a tree line of pines behind. I turned around, pulled out a notebook and wrote. My canoe drifted seaward with the tide and I paused my writing, every few minutes, to point the bow in the right direction. But, for the most part, it was the river’s job to take me back.

DSC_0420Passing the sandbar again, 4 biologists had joined the 10s of thousands squawking, peeping and calling shore birds. A few sat in chairs on shore and another 2 were anchored in a Johnboat. All sat motionless, faces hidden behind large telephoto lenses. Beneath the birds, on the beach, were hundreds of spawning horseshoe crabs — nearly too much nature to handle.

DSC_0468 (1)Back at my car, the once empty parking lot now swarmed with gray-haired birders draped in baggy safari costumes. Long lensed cameras dangled from their necks. I’d say they looked ridiculous, but I had little room to comment — still dressed in long pants tucked into muddy rubber boots, a raincoat to thwart the bitting insects and a wrinkled hat above my sun-reddened face and mangy beard. I suppose, other than appearing unwashed, I fit right in with the mob.

DSC_0421

Horseshoe Crab

I learned from a number of cheery conversations that most were here to see the Red Knot, a member of the sandpiper family that migrates over 9,000 miles from the arctic to Tierra Del Fuego — one of the longest migrations on the Earth. Both the Knots and myself just happened to reach that same spot in Delaware at the same time in the midst of our long journeys.

Was my Delaware paddle misguided and poorly planned? Absolutely. There were bugs galore, no proper put-in and no good places to camp. But, the paddle was also a stunning sunrise, a chance encounter with a migratory anomalies, live horseshoe crabs, and the coveted opportunity to mingle with birders (a.k.a retired nerds). Yes, the Mispillion was a wild and colorful float, which neither my inept planning or the state of Delaware could ruin.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Mispillion River, Delaware
  • Weather: Warm with scant clouds to clear and up to 90 degrees
  • Miles canoed: 4
  • Launch/Takeout Point: DuPont Nature Center (38.945529, -075.31727)
  • Furthest Point Reached: (38.95391, -075.35692)
  • Song Sung on River: True Love, Freedom, Mofro and I’ll Follow the Sun, The Beatles — I hadn’t heard that song in ages until my older Brother, Andy, had played the ‘65 vinyl. “One day, you’ll look to see I’ve gone, but tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun.” I got off the water by 10:30, already getting hot, summer hot. It reached 90 that day. How appropriate it was that I’d sing that song, because it was the last summer-like day for nearly a month. Rain was a’coming.
  • Thanks to the all friendly staff at DuPont Nature Center for info regarding the birds, crabs and river!
  • Delicious local restaurant: King’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop down in Lewes (where my sister-in-law, Gulya, worked in the first summer she came to America)
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: red knot, ruddy turnstone, black skimmers, osprey, bald eagle, cormorant, red winged blackbird, gulls, willet, sandpiper, great blue heron and many more unidentified shore/seabirds
  • Reptiles: Diamondback Terrapin (turtle)
  • Noted Species: Red Knot, Horseshoe crabs (spawning!)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pines and saltwater grasses
  • Ecoregion: Middle Atlantic Coastal Plains, (63a) Delaware River Terraces and uplands
  • Current Threats: Rising Sea level due to climate change (saltwater intrusion)
  • Trash collected: plastic bottles, cans, a bucket
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Canoeing Point Lookout, Maryland: Where the Potomac meets Chesapeake Bay

DSC_0139My night in Maryland marked the one month anniversary of my trip — not a bad point to reach for my first paid night of lodging. Up until then, I had managed to find free camping, but the Mid-Atlantic proved to be a dill of a different pickle. I paid $27 for a tent site. It was only 26 bucks for residents. Tacking on a single extra dollar for out of staters seemed petty, like an official way to steal my lunch money. No matter, Point Lookout State Park, where the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay collide, was worth it.

DSC_0146 (1)I set up my tent in the early evening before hauling my canoe to the calm bay, surrounded by saltwater marsh and bone-white dead trees and driftwood. I left the mosquitoes behind and paddled towards a boat ramp. Tall, narrow pines grew in thick stands on both shores. Ospreys flew across the mild evening sky and I saw the silhouette of a bald eagle perched on a dead limb. Maryland was not short on birdlife.

DSC_0197I rounded a rock jetty and turned the bow south towards the point. I canoed against the tide making tiny waves down the terminus of the mighty Potomac (which I assumed would have been completely drained by this point). I passed a couple sitting on a sand beach on my left. From 200 feet out, the guy called out “Hello!” I returned the greeting with a jolly “Hello to shore! How far are the Bahamas?” They laughed. “Take me with you!” the man yelled back. “Plenty of room for more!” I replied. A few moments passed and I regretted not saying “only room for the girl” instead.

Continuing down the wide mouth, I smelled the distinct aroma of cheap processed meat cooking over coals. Hot dogs sound good, I thought. I spied the culprits — a large family with long shore fishing poles camped out along the rocks. Then I caught my first glimpse of the lighthouse at the point; it was not the classic castle tower like you’d see on a calendar. Instead, Point Lookout Lighthouse was a complex of three buildings. Two looked like warehouses and the third like a 3-story 19th century schoolhouse with a 10-foot high turret on top. From that distance, I could see a lovely dusting of snow on the structures red roof. That’s what I imagined it to be, though I knew it was bird shit. A high chainlink fence, trimmed with barbwire, surrounding the point came into view and dashed my hopes of finding a little seafood cafe. Point Lookout wasn’t a quaint post card lighthouse — it was a fallback point for the zombie apocalypse.DSC_0182

DSC_0191I canoed past the wooden pillars of a pier, long since washed and worn away by the sea. The waves grew as I paddled out to the point where the Potomac meets Chesapeake Bay. I looked west across the Potomac to Virginia where I saw a shoreline of undulating green broken up by patches of visible civilization. I looked to the port side and only saw ocean. “I know the rest of Maryland is out there somewhere,” I said aloud. My canoe and the sea were unmoved by my comment. The bow slapped down into the troughs of the waves with the same rhythm as a minute before. No matter their indifference, I thought, switching back to an internal dialogue. Just because there’s nothing on the horizon doesn’t mean there’s nothing out there.

DSC_0242I turned around and headed back into the calmer mouth of the river. I stopped on a sandy beach and stepped out of the canoe into the clear water. Save for a group of women and a dog having a picnic, the beach was well-groomed, but empty, awaiting summer vacationers. I sat in the sand and wrote as the sun fell towards the West, coloring the high clouds above the Potomac. As it neared the water, I hopped back in Rider and paddled back across the rippling reflection of the late evening sky.

DSC_0261I didn’t realize it at the time, but the beach I sat on was formerly a Union-run, Confederate POW camp from the Civil War. Thousands of prisoners died there in what were said to be deplorable conditions (not surprising given the times). Tensions between the park and local southern sympathizers still exist to this day. There’s a privately owned Confederate ‘monument’ just outside the state park as well as a local group that is now banned from dressing up for reenactments in the park. The story goes that they threatened a group of protesters with bayonets and were kicked out for good. I’m just going to hope that really happened. (I should note that Point Lookout State Park has their own reenactments with bona fide historians and a nice museum).DSC_0271 (1)

I awoke to rain the following morning. Waiting in my tent for it to let up, the icky weather continued. Nature, I suppose, felt the need to balance out the previous night’s display with drizzle under a gray sky. With resignation, I put on my rubber boots and rain jacket and broke down the tent, throwing the sopping bundle strait into the trunk without packing it away. Then I unlocked the canoe from a light pole near the dock and secured it atop the car. I wasn’t going to be paddling back out to the lighthouse after all.

DSC_0290Half soaked and chilled, I headed for the campground restroom and gave myself a Viggo Mortensen via The Road  haircut in the mirror (yes, I cleaned up my mess). I turned on the shower and it ran cold for a minute. Thankfully, the water warmed to a steamy temperature. I took a 10+ minute shower (long for me) and can’t recall the last time a shower felt that good. Without shame, I made audible noises and said things like “Oh God, Yes” as I positioned my neck under the hot water stream. I don’t think anyone walked in, but if they had, they would have likely turned right around. I was getting my $27 dollars worth of that campground and, I decided, I’m attributing the pleasurable moans to that extra $1, out-of-state fee.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts

  • Potomac to Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
  • Weather: Ranged from sunny in the upper 60s to rainy (all damn day) with lows in the 50’s
  • Miles canoed: 3
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Dock at SP. (38.059, -076.329462)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Bay beyond the lighthouse (38.036468, – 076.320831)
  • Campsite: Point Lookout State Park campground (38.060671,-076.329105)
  • Song Sung on River: Issues by Julia Michaels
  • Thanks to the all friendly staff at Point Lookout State Park and the museum naturalist for answering all my Civil War/wildlife questions.
  • Delicious local restaurant: Courtney’s Seafood Restaurant (soft crab sandwich and spicy crab soup!) They let me hang and have coffee and write all rainy afternoon.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Osprey, bald eagles, ducks, gulls and swallows
  • Noted Species: Occasional Manatee!
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pines and saltwater grasses
  • Ecoregion: Middle Atlantic Coastal Plains, (63b) Chesapeake Pamlico Lowlands and Tidal Marshes.
  • Current Threats: Overfishing, stormwater runoff, non-point source pollution and Washington DC
  • Trash collected: none (meant to the day it rained and I didn’t canoe again)
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Cold with a Chance of Snakes and a Shotgun: Canoeing the Cowpasture River, Virginia

The river was well named — it was a dale flanked by pasturelands of mooing cows, farmhouses and forest covered mountains. Pinewoods and sheer rock cliffs existed where there weren’t fields. The Indians named it Walatoola originally, meaning ’winding waters,’ which also works well describing all the bends in the river. But, the British settlers didn’t have time or willingness to learn what that word meant, so Cowpasture it became. DSC_0099

DSC_0048I didn’t start floating until 7 p.m. The water was clear and the sky was even clear. Orange light lit the sides of the forested valley, but I canoed mostly in the shadows of the Bullpasture mountains. A beaver surfaced, dove and then swam by the canoe a foot below the transparent water. I hoped to see more animals as it was late evening and I appeared to be the only human around. Then I disturbed a single Canada Goose. The bird proceeded to float downstream, a hundred yards in front of me, honking at one second intervals, as if announcing man was in the forest to the whole damn river. This went on for a quarter mile at least. I blame the goose for not seeing a bear.

DSC_0065One side of the river was the George Washington National Forest and the other side was all private farmland. Most of the best spots for camping were on the flat sides and had posted signs. I canoed until after sundown before finding a gravel island. I made camp on a little flat, grassy, prominence above the gravel bar. A 100 foot limestone cliff (with a curious flat slab, which jutted out like a pirate’s plank) rose up from across the river. A rolling green field, dotted with black cattle lay on the other side. A small set of rapids provided the dominant background noise.

DSC_0090I made a fire on the gravel bar and cooked canned soup over it and never took off my lifejacket the entire night; it was cooling down fast and it did well to keep me warm. I had s’more fixings leftover from West Virginia, so I made them for desert. There is something inherently social in making a s’more over a fire, so it felt strange to roast them alone. However, I did make a big life decision in the process — I’m switching back to 1 mallow per cracker. For years I have done two  and decided the ratio is askew.

DSC_0081 (1)I woke up at 3 a.m. A bright moon hung over a pasture, filled with mooing cows. I was cold and should have bundled up with my coat and a towel, but I was too lazy to make myself comfortable. Hours later, I awoke at first sunlight and lay there, unrested and awaiting the warmth. Finally, I fell back asleep and had a dream I met Tommy Lee Jones. I was proud of myself for not gushing and we had a good conversation; about what, I can’t recall. Then I woke up…

It was still sunny when I got on the water at 11 o’clock. A doe swam across a wide, slow section of river 200 yards downstream. When I canoed close to the brush where she disappeared, the deer coughed and thudded off into the woods. I saw 4 more over the last hour of the morning, wandering along the bank or between the copious amounts of still-shuddered summer homes along the river.

DSC_0066The sun was still shinning at noon and it nearly got warm, but didn’t. High clouds undercut the sun, followed by low gray clouds from the south. Then darker gray clouds replaced those. For the remainder of the afternoon, the sky looked perpetually on the verge of rain.

DSC_0112A few downed trees across the main channel forced me to take a bad run against a cut bank. The current swept Rider and I under a large downed branch of a sycamore. I avoided getting tossed out or losing my hat, but the branch coated me in wet, decaying leaves all across my shoulder and right side. A few miles down I went into the biggest stretch of whitewater I had seen. Lowering my center of gravity, I got down on my knees in the brace potion. I hit the center of the V in the river and watched the bow point skyward as I rocked over 3-foot standing waves. I came down heavy on one rock, but made it through without taking on water.

I passed under many high suspended pedestrian bridges (a fun manmade feature of the Cowpasture) before coming to a low bridge, which looked dangerous to pass under in a canoe. I walked out to the road and saw it was private property. Walking back to the canoe a guy in a truck passed me on the road. The man, who was about my age, ignored me entirely, leaving his feeling open to interpretation. I moved on.

DSC_0123I made it to the village of Griffith at 2 p.m and locked my canoe to a sign, stashed my gear and loaded my backpack with valuables. I ran most of the 8.5 miles back to my car along a shoulder-less country highway. I didn’t hold out my thumb and no one stopped. The clouds looked unfriendly and it was cold, but the rain held off. I ran past country homes and people working in quarter acre garden plots. Dogs and people alike watched me with various degrees of curiosity and/or suspicion.

It took me 2 hours to make it to my car and I was delighted to find it un-smashed and in working order. I drove up to my locked canoe and a red truck pulled up next to me. A large camo-clad man got out of the driver seat with a 12-gauge. “A little evening turkey hunt?” I asked. He said yes and asked about my canoe. I told him my plan to do all 50 states. “And how many so far?” he asked. “Virginia is number 13,” I told him. “Thirteen is my lucky number! If I were to ever win a million dollars it’d be with 13,” he said. “Well, I kept waiting for something unlucky to happen because of it, so maybe that offsets it,” I said. Then I held out my hand to introduce myself, bracing for the strong grip I knew would come. His said his name was Roger.

DSC_0120 (1)I spoke with Rodger for half an hour and wish I had it all recorded. He stood around 6’4 and wore jeans, a brown cotton shirt and a camouflage vest with two large ammo pouches. Roger had a farm-weathered face, thick neck, a gray beard and a golfball-sized wad of tobacco in his right cheek, which he occasionally deposited on the gravel at our feet. Though he was twice my age, Roger could whoop my ass 6 days till Sunday. There was no question. He said ‘barr’ for bear and ‘warr’ for wire and told me old stories about the flood of ’85 and the time he held a man’s head underwater for having words with his father. “Right over there by that suspension bridge,” he told me, pointing. “He never did come back.” Yes, Roger was a character through and through, by speech and appearance.

Roger asked what I did before my canoe trip and I told him environmental consulting. He nodded and said, “Well, I ain’t no tree-hugger but I like nature.” Roger explained how he wanted to leave the place good for his kids and grandkids. He said how the water in this part of the Cowpasture River was clean, but further down, it was polluted with chemicals from paper mills. “Someone put oil in my well once. I never did find out who.” I said that was awful. We spoke about hunting and him wanting to visit Texas to hunt for mule deer someday. The daylight began to fade. “Well, we could talk all day, I’ll let you get out of here,” Roger said and we shook hands. We really could, I thought.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Cowpasture River, Virginia
  • Weather: Ranged from sunny in the upper 60s to cloudy with lows in the 30’s.
  • Miles canoed: 12
  • Launch Point: 37.950026, -079.705832 (Walton Track, 631 off the highway, go a half mile down the road and then stay left at fork and follow signs, took me a while to locate
  • Campsite: ? Somewhere in the middle
  • Takeout Point: 37.866826, -079.733711 (right past suspension bridge near village of Griffith
  • Song Sung on River: Shape of you, Ed Sheeran (I’m sorry, world)
  • Thanks to the George Washington Forest Service for advice on canoeing
  • Delicious local restaurant: BG’s 2 in Goshen, VA.  Thanks to Kayla and Nancy for a tender pulled pork sandwich and endless coffee! Warmed my bones!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Wood ducks, merganser, Canada Geese, pileated woodpecker, belted kingfisher, little green heron, crow, chickadee, hawk
  • Reptiles: Black snake (rat snake?) on hike back and turtles in the morningDSC_0127 (1)
  • Mammals: 1 beaver, 4 white tail deer
  • Noted Species: Eastern Hellbender (giant salamander!)
  • Dominant Trees: Sycamore, American Elms, Hickory, Cedar and Virginia Pines
  • Ecoregion: Ridge and Valley, (67h) Sandstone Ridges
  • Current Threats: Sedimentation, Agriculture/cattle ranching runoff
  • Trash collected: plastic bottles and beer cans
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