Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Duck duck, white duck?

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Ready to go for a paddleI am the proud owner of a 16’, 38# cherry red Epic brand kayak. This beauty is light enough to car top all by myself, yet fast and sleek in the water, a dream to paddle. The small town where we live is surrounded by lakes, and there is a nice lake a half of a mile from our house. So despite the days getting shorter and colder seemingly overnight, I still try to slip in a paddle every chance I get, if I’m lucky, about twice a week. A few weeks ago I noted the following story in my paddling journal. The weather was chilly that day, in the 50’s (ok, so maybe that wasn’t really that chilly, because today as I write this it is in the low 20’s!), but the sun was still shining, although it was close to sunset by the time I pulled my boat off the car and set her by the water. It was the first time this season I would have to wear a jacket, hat and gloves to paddle. The dock had recently been pulled out of the lake, too, which meant a semi-wet-foot entry would be required (yes, I am able to do a dry entry & exit from docks, providing the water levels aren’t too far below the dock). This method minimizes the amount of water I get into the boat, and keeps my feet dry – important when the weather, and water, turn colder. With the dock out, I’d have to lay my boat parallel to the shoreline and as close as possible to the beach, lay my paddle down perpendicular to the boat, propped just behind the seat, and use that as a brace while I sat down on the back rim of the cockpit and gingerly picked one foot at a time off the beach and into the boat. Once settled into my seat, a few pushes with the paddle and my boat was free of the sand.

wet foot entryThere was very little wind as I set out, so I headed east across the lake towards the sunny side (my put in was on the west side, which would be in complete shadow soon). The sun was close to setting, and I felt an urgent need to get across the lake to those last sunbeams before they disappeared for the night. My boat cut sleekly through the water, and my arms, strong from paddling, made haste getting us across. I paused to watch the sun dipping behind a cloud, scattering its rays through the sky. I pressed on, up the north east side of the shoreline towards the little finger that ran out of the lake and inland. Once in this narrow channel of water, my rhythm slowed down and I began to take in more of my surroundings.

Water plants grow thick here, and water lilies mark the edge of the channel the boats use to get in and out of this waterway. Last month on a sunny day while paddling this stretch, turtles that had been basking in the warm surface water between the lilies would suddenly slip down into the water as I went by. One time I looked down just as my paddle entered the water and realized I was about to paddle into a turtle, a really big turtle – maybe 18” from nose to tail – and thus averted my stroke to avoid it. When it’s too cold for turtle watching, there are still plenty of fish to surprise among the water plants. But in actuality, they startle me probably even more than I startle them. When the water is green or brown or too dark to see through, they like to swirl quickly right beside my boat, leaving a tiny whirlpool in their wake. Sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to have a fish jump close to the boat. Also startling. One time I was able to stop my boat and watch two otters feeding near the edge of the shore. There were no turtles or jumping fish or otters on tonight’s paddle. I completed my exploration of the little northeast channel a wee bit disappointed and turned my boat around, sad to be heading home already, but watching as the sun slipped further down behind the west shoreline. As I existed from the channel, a white duck called loudly nearby, attracting my attention. I had seen this duck as I headed into the channel also, but this time it was standing on the shoreline, seeming to be leading a small group of mallard ducks behind it. They all slipped into the lake not far from my boat, and began paddling out the direction I was heading. I slowed down the pace of my paddling to watch, but even at my slowed pace I caught up quickly, and all of the mallards took off in flight. The white duck, however, remained in the water, quacking very loudly and paddling furiously as the mallards flew off. It continued to quack loudly as the ducks flew a short distance away and then landed on the water again. The white duck quickly paddled towards the group of mallards, still calling, and they in return paddled back in the white duck’s direction. Epic kayakBy this time they had moved out of the path I was heading, so I was able to paddle past them without disrupting them a second time. Once past, I turned in my seat to watch. The white duck continued towards the others and soon they were all reconnected in one group, heading in one direction, together. I pondered about what I had just seen. Were they somehow related? Or just random ducks that happened to have some kind of connection? Was the white duck a female that had helped raise these mallards? Her calling out to the mallards as they flew off certainly, to my untrained ear, sounding like a mother scolding her young for getting out of arm’s reach. Of course I will never know the answer to this mystery. But it left me with a warm feeling inside, despite the cold air seeping into the seams of my jacket and through the plastic seat beneath me. Whatever the reason, there seemed to be a connection between the large white duck and the mallards. A connection across color and size and species. A lesson and an example for me to take home. I looked for those ducks on my paddle again tonight. I did not see them. I hope that wherever they are, they are together, enjoying the bond of their unique connection.

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