I have to clear wet snow off my windshield before I leave the house, but the water is open and it’s time to float. The skies are heavy gray that render the landscape a flat smudge of gray and brown. The forecast calls for clearing. The day is dry, though, and is the only one without precipitation expected all week, so clouds seem a small sacrifice.
The dreary day means our small crew will likely be the only humans out there. We will not be alone, though. Ten days or so into open water season, the St. Croix is filling up with migrating waterfowl. The backwaters and sloughs and other slow water host wood ducks and mallards and mergansers, trumpeter swans and Canada geese, and much more both seen and unseen.
This first trip of the year, when the trees on the bank are barely budding, is a tradition two decades old. It was early dubbed the “Annual Waterfowl Harassment Tour.” We don’t harass the waterfowl or any wildlife, instead giving them a wide berth. But the urgent instincts of spring mean they are especially agitated, and act as outraged as if we are there to torment them.
As soon as we launch, a breeze reminds me of exposed skin on my face and hands. I put on gloves, zip up jacket, feel the boat bob beneath me. I’m in the bow of a three-person drift boat, accompanied by another canoe of companions. (The fair weather followed by a wet week seems to have inspired others, too, as friend and St. Croix 360 supporter Kate Wright and crew were canoeing upriver of us the same day, and we surprisingly saw the vehicles of two other parties at the landing.)
Our flat-bottomed, oar-propelled craft bobs on the water. A feeling of being once more afloat, unmoored, is matched by the sense of perfect balance and being carefully held by the river. I feel helpless before its power, which is how it should be. The river is neither caring nor cruel, though, but vastly indifferent, governed only by the hard and fast laws of nature. There is gravity and hydrology, atmosphere and the Earth’s tilt, energy and chemistry all tangled in a tight weave, driven only by universal truths. It seeks nothing different on a day like this than on a gentle warm July morning. There is only the eternal push and pull of opposing forces — chaos and entropy, balance and harmony. It is the drama of eons.
Alone afloat makes the drama more drastic. I feel small on the river, where the wild is wide open.
The first fowl are Canada geese, of course. They start honking before I see them, breaking the silence in bursts of harsh barks. They are mostly in pairs, defending their mate or their territory or simply sounding the alarm about intruders. Geese on the river are more vocal in spring and I wonder if it’s breeding concerns or if they just get used to people when it gets busier.
All the birds have their own responses to our appearance. Mallards explode straight up from the water quacking, while wood ducks silently streak through the floodplain forest, only keening softly. Trumpeter swans swim in nervous circles before launching themselves across the water to take flight, their wings and feet slapping the surface as they slowly gain altitude, then circling around to climb above the tree tops.
Then the croaking calls of the first sandhill cranes start echoing between the bluffs. The valley is filled with the sound of unseen birds, flying somewhere beyond the tree tops. It will be background beauty all day long, only sometimes seeing the slender species crossing the sky.
Miles of river bank slip by. We see no people and many more birds. There are numerous bald eagles, mostly near known nests. Many are juveniles, perhaps returning to the only home they have known, only to soon be chased off by their parents. The sky slowly shifts from gray to blue, and lengthening stretches of sunshine are warmly welcomed. The light becomes yellow and bathes the faded scenery in color and contrast.
A common loon swims slowly upstream in the main channel, looking down, already decked out in its black-and-white breeding plumage, then dips underwater. I assume it is chasing a meal to fuel its migration to northern nesting grounds. It resurfaces a minute later and keeps heading north. It is one of the few birds we see in the main current today, probably because it is looking for fish, while others are seeking the slower water of the side channels.
Not much longer, we slip into these side channels, where the water is almost slack, islands provide sheltered shorelines, and various bugs and plants and other food sources are relatively abundant for the season. This is where the waterfowl are waiting. While last fall, the ducks heading south were mostly silent and secretive, now they can’t sit still. Swiveling my head around, I see that in every direction, there are birds on the water and in the air. It’s a snow globe of anxious Aves, wonders on the wing.
From a dead-end channel to our left, what seems like an endless stream of blue-billed ducks fly out and over us. Wave after wave whip across the sky, their only sound the insistent pushing of their wings against the air. Then, from a far-off stand of silver maples comes a chorus of perhaps 100 red-winged blackbirds, each singing their own song as loud as possible. We paddle the canoe closer and enter an envelope of sound where the world outside recedes.
I haven’t thought about the cold in a while. I agree with the birds that, this time of year, there are more important things than the temperature.
Barbara Holm says
Just lovely. Can not wait to be on the river again!
Really enjoyed this! Great photos!
Sarah Lilja says
What a beautiful essay. Full of so many vivid descriptions of your day. ❤️
Mark Hove says
Now I wanna go canoeing!
Allison Mcginnis says
Beautiful! Wish I was there again. Thanks for sharing!