A Moonlight Paddle

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside


After dinner last night I thought to take a break from the usual work session, picked up my canoe paddle and drove the three miles over to Drury Pond, which I usually visit in the afternoon for a swim.  Drury is big as beaver impoundments go, held in a natural bowl by very extensive and actually ancient log dams, likely maintained for millennia.  It’s not a quarter mile wide, and not a half mile long, with just a few active camps, as cabins are called around here, one of them owned by my fine friends Wes and Diane McNair.

Who weren’t home.  I pushed their canoe off the dock where they’d stored it and climbed in wobbly, paddled along the shore a while, then turned out and past a resting loon.  He gave a half-hearted yodel to let me know I was in his territory, but as I was a friend of the McNairs he made no further challenge, allowed me to get within twenty feet or so, then paddled in no particular hurry so as to avoid my line of travel.  The wind had died and the water was very calm and black and deep green and pink and red and white where it reflected the sunset clouds, also many layers and shades of purple in ripples, all mine.  I paddled through a flotilla of water beetles and they spun away leaving random paisleys, carapaces glistening in the last light, thousands of them hastening, and it was like silent, subtle fireworks exploding ahead of me.

The trees became shapes and loomed all around and my paddle was silent and ahead I heard tree swallows settling in for the night, and above heard then saw several cedar waxwings fly-catching, not particularly graceful at it, either, but sudden dips and stalls and dives and half-climbs.  I know they were waxwings because I glassed and spied the crowns and their breasts flashing yellow.  It’s a behavior I’ve seen before, too, always surprising: waxwings you think of as berry eaters, and pretty lazy.

The grand clouds lost their color slowly and my paddle dripped and everything dropped a shade darker.   Ahead, a flight of ducks made landing with amused-sounding quacks and squawks and splashing and then jockeying for fine positions among the water lilies.  Black ducks, I thought from their voices but couldn’t get a very clear view on the dark, dark water against the dark, dark background.  All the chatter in my head turns vague, distant, nothing to do with me.

Kingfisher tearing homeward noisily.  Voice of a little girl in the one occupied camp–Mommy, where’s the something-something?–their gas lamps glowing in their windows.  Wherever you left it, hun.  Inside at this hour the outside can seem very dark, but in fact it’s plenty light and I keep paddling, wanting a look at those ducks, silent across the black water till I get in the lily pads at the far end of the pond, which is south.  The lily pads scratch across the bottom of the canoe with a kind of chirping, and at first I think the swallows are back, but no.

Beaver lodge.  I drift and watch.  No activity, but not a weed growing on the old thing and paths radiating through the pickerel weed and swamp grasses: well in use.  So paddle.  Humps in the lily pads ahead.  Rocks?  Stumps?  No, they’re moving.  I glass them and they are beavers, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.  The closest is a youngster.  All beavers are born in late May and in June, so I can report that this youngster was a Gemini.  And you know what that means!  No, you don’t, and I don’t either.

Anyway, the beavers were quietly and even contemplatively eating water-lily shoots and water-lily buds–not a bloom to be seen.  I know a lot about beavers from my research for Temple Stream, which almost turned into a beaver book, they were so interesting. This group would be a family, Mom and Dad and whatever yearlings and whatever toddlers, maybe an old uncle.  The yearlings would spend one more winter in the lodge, but then they’d be thrown out like college kids who’d stayed too long on the couch in the playroom, swim out and head up or down Temple Stream (into which Drury drains) in search of partners and careers.  Engineers, no doubt, on various dam projects, something to write home about.

I’m upwind and silent and aware that beavers have very poor vision (and this one very little experience of the world) and so i’m not surprised that I get within five feet before the creature startles and dives, all silently.  The others keep munching, oblivious. Through the binoculars the animals look like very sweet spirits, irenic, full of big thoughts, not hurried at all, not busy.  The busy thing starts happening in the fall, when it’s time to collect poplar and other branches for a winter’s worth of food, time to repair dams, repair the lodge.

My only big thought is that it’s time to paddle back, but the moon suddenly rolls up over the far trees to the east and it’s full and bright even as the day fails.  I can stay out; I can stay all night.

I slip up to the next closest beaver and it’s a huge one, quite a bit bigger than Baila, our golden retriever, who weighs about sixty pounds and has never had a big thought.  Fun fact: The biggest beaver ever trapped was 120 pounds.  That’s a lot of beaver! But there were even bigger ones before the last ice age, a species ten feet long and 500 pounds, fun to imagine the lodges they’d build!

This contemporary version sees me all at once and SLAP, and SPLASH, dives.  The others slap, too, in quick succession.  I don’t want to bother their breakfast.  And so I paddle on, toward ducks.  They’re nervous and edge away from my progress, don’t let me get closer than 100 feet or so, take to the sky in a sudden twitch, the whole group instantaneously.  They make a big wheel in the sky, land again on the other side of the water in the darkest of the dark shadows of the west edge of the pond.  Glassing them as they cross the sky in the last light of sunset I see they are indeed blacks.

I sit out in the middle of the pond, just floating, barely drifting.  A feeling almost sexual overcomes me, the fluid everything.  A bat flies over, faint beeps.  Good.  Bats have suffered a fungal disease called white nose, very close to 100% mortality, and millions upon millions have died, across the various species.  This survivor is a big one and makes several jerky sweeps in silhouette before he’s out of sight.

The moon ascends.  First it’s this high, just one hand.  Then it’s this, my arms spread wide as they will go.  Then more than you or I can reach.  In the binoculars it’s crazy bright and the craters crisply clear, and there’s the intimation of gravity and orbits and the vast endless interconnected all, and beyond sex.

The bat is back.  Wingspan about a foot, so a big brown bat, which is a species, not lazy taxonomy.  The formerly very common little brown bats, or myotis bats, are nowhere to be seen, and I mean nowhere: some scientists think it likely that the disease will kill them all, sad stuff.  It’s spread by humans, of course.

Then some late arrivals, four or five squeaking ducks low overhead in stall position, landing just beyond me: wood ducks.  They hit the water and see I’m there and then they’re airborne again, just like that, their webbed feet dragging trails across the dark water, multiple wakes that pick up the new moonlight and conjoin.

The waning daylight matches the rising moonlight at about nine o’clock, then the moonlight takes over, reveals itself, shadow of the gunwale along the floor of the canoe.  The wood ducks make another pass and the moonlight highlights their white bellies and the white decorations on their heads, and they fly overhead with a great rushing of wind in their wings in moonlight and stall and land and paddle into the bog in moonlight.

The whisper of a breeze comes up behind me and passes me and pushes me very slightly and carries my scent to the beavers who at once slap their tales in the gathering night and disappear.

  1. Lola White writes:

    You took me there, and it was lovely.

  2. Mike writes:

    Splendid entry. Thanks for making me feel like I was there.

  3. Martha White writes:

    Gorgeous writing. I slap the water in applause.