With one more push of paddle against the river bank, the kayak slides off the ground and suddenly I’m suspended by water. It’s my favorite feeling, that first moment afloat. It’s freedom — from the ground, from the human world.
I plunge the orange blade into the water and the kayak pushes forward and starts to turn. I point it toward a gap between islands a few hundred yards away and my arms start working the familiar rhythm of stroke and return. Meanwhile, my eyes begin searching the surroundings, looking for wildlife or whatever else there it to see.
It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m alone like I only can be on water, when there’s a moat around me everywhere I go.
But, I’m also not alone at all, says the great blue heron across the channel.
Spring is sliding into summer, the foliage on the trees is full, the leaves heavy with water and energy. Concealed in the canopy are countless singing birds; if they are visible, most are no larger than a leaf themselves.
The water is uncharacteristically low for this time of year. It looks more like Labor Day than Memorial Day. But some rain crossed the river and its tributaries in the past week, and the water is clouded with brown sediment carried by the runoff. While the river sits down in its deepest channels, it feels feisty, like the precipitation increased the power if not the height.
As the river drops, it generally slows down. This makes the water meander more across the channels, as it seeks the path of least resistance — and sets about lessening even that resistance. The narrow water seems to twist and turn like a smallmouth bass on the end of a fishing line.
My route takes me through a series of channels and backwaters and islands, my natural habitat. Dead trees stripped of their bark and branches are piled along the banks and in every other spot where they ran out of water and snagged the bottom. There are sandy beaches with black muck in the corners where stagnant water deposited the fine organic matter of decomposed leaves and such.
Songbirds perform everywhere I go, but many more are silent. The leafy crowns of the silver maples on the river’s floodplain islands are surely filled with nests. In the heat of mid-afternoon, right at a critical juncture when eggs are being laid, incubated, hatched, fed, nurtured, it must be nap time for many.
There is a peaceful stillness, compared to the noise created by birds when migrating, claiming territory, and breeding. Earlier in the spring, it sounds anxious and aggressive. Now, needs are being met and everyone can relax.
One of the reliably visible birds today are common grackles, which seem to be everywhere. Sometimes I see them on the river, sometimes I don’t. They are strange birds, and they look at you with one yellow eye like they have some nefarious plan, like a bully on a playground.
Or maybe it’s just me.
I stop at a sandy island and get out of the kayak to stretch my legs and see things from a vantage point higher than three feet above the water.
Not everyone is paired up, I am reminded. Big flocks of unmated geese fly overhead occasionally, and rest in sheltered waters. They are one or two years old, heading north to get out of the way of the goslings now being born.
There’s a big, smooth tree trunk on the ground atop the river bank, and it looks worn by many bottoms sitting there to enjoy the view. I sit down and take out a bag of chocolate chip cookies, eat those and drinking water and watch very little happen — and everything.
When I get back in the boat, it’s time to paddle upstream against the current for a few hundred yards through a fairly deep and narrow channel, studded occasionally with the limbs of trees snagged on the bottom. It’s a little like uphill slalom kayaking.
I bought a new kayak paddle this spring, a Bending Branches Slice Glass. It was made at their factory in Osceola, just a mile or so from the river. I’ve toured the operation a couple times and get the impression it’s a solid company, which makes it a real pleasure to use a local paddle.
The fiberglass feels great in my hands, and is just a joy to use. It’s light but the right amount of rigid, and seems to make each stroke both easier and more powerful. I also like a bright colored blade in the unfortunate event I need to be seen by search and rescue or something like that. (Please don’t misinterpret this endorsement, I paid full price.)
It gets me up the channel and then I swing around a point and head downstream again. With the current pushing my bow, I make a nearly perfect right-angle turn, spinning on my axis.
I’m heading back to the landing when I decide to investigate a certain chirping tweeting call, which could be a prothonotary warbler. Whenever I hear one, I think it could be an American redstart or a house wren, more common birds elsewhere, but less likely here in the floodplain.
As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says, the male’s song is “sometimes likened to shouting ‘tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet.'”
The bright yellow bird with blue-gray wings breeds only in floodplain forests like this — in fact this part of the St. Croix is about far north as they live, restricted by the availability of habitat. For these reasons and more, they’re one of my favorite birds.
I sweep the paddle around to turn into narrow channels branching into islands. There are plenty of silver maples, and several long dead broken off snags. Finally I reach a dead end, the shallow channel is blocked by an ancient tree trunk. I hear the call again, and then see movement in leafy branches. I snap a few photos and confirm its identity, and then it comes closer, flying to a nearby snag.
We watch each other for a moment, then the bird heads back the way it came, and so do I.