2014, Here We Come: 30 Trips, 3 New Rivers

1 January 2014


2014 is the fourth year running that Ellen and I will try to get to our goal of 30 paddling trips and 3 new rivers before the year is up.  We did pretty well in 2013 with 27 trips (as close as we’ve ever gotten to our goal) and arguably 3 new waterways:

  • we paddled the St. Joseph River, Ellen’s home river, for the first time (this is a new river, free and clear)
  • we paddled around Pine Island, that being the first time we dipped our paddles in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (this one’s not a river, but still)
  • and we paddled the south branch of the Kalamazoo River (we had paddled on the main branch before, but never on the south branch)

I really think I could get a lawyer to argue that this means we clear our “3 new” goal, but all the same, in 2014, I’d like to get it more cleanly, not relying on branches and salt water.

We did undeniably have an eventful paddling year; by mid-June we dubbed 2013 The Year of the Portage.  Wow, did we portage this year.  Thanks to some early storms, to our choice of rivers without liveries, and to the fact that we occasionally went looking for trouble, we portaged and portaged and portaged. 2013 was the year we carried, pushed, or pulled our boats through or around some serious river blockages.

SweetPeaintheSunWe also dealt with a far more emotional portage this year when our cat Sweet Pea died. This incredibly handsome guy lived to be probably 17 or 18 years old (alas, we didn’t have him as a kitten, so we don’t know how old he was, really) and, as this picture makes clear, he knew how to catch a sunbeam and truly lived the dream. He was a keen and talented bird watcher, a mantle he seems to have passed to EllenHe had a master’s degree in Getting in the Way, and habitually he flung himself down into the pose you see him striking in the photo to the left here in front of the door as we carried in our boats and gear after a paddle. We miss the little man; unloading after a paddle may be easier now, but it’s way less fun, and way less puffy.

2014 is starting off cold here in our corner of Michigan–today, it’s already snowed 3 inches and the high today is 17 degrees.  I’m hoping for an early spring, a season with clear rivers, and–again!–30 trips, 3 new rivers!


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Giving Thanks, Island-Style: the Sequel

Backwaters of the southwest side of Pine Island

Osprey with lunch under his talon.

Osprey with lunch under his talon.

29 November 2013

On day two of our trip, Ellen and I woke up a little sore from paddling the mighty waters of St. James Creek, but we were excited to get out and dip our paddles in the water on the other side of the island. We did a great 6 1/2 mile paddle again this day, this time in just over 4 hours. We had better weather for this paddle; it got a little windy especially at the end of our day, but it was sunny and warm, and I traded in my stocking cap for my river hat before we had paddled even a mile.

Our first two miles of paddling were through canals, which was a great place to see some cool bigger boats. People give their boats some hilarious names, though, and I’ve got some of my favorites here. There is a great big yellow sailboat at the end of the slideshow below—it was not in a canal (too big!) but rather was anchored in open water. It was impressive, and while it bore the sort of boring name “Mary An,” “we be jammin’” as a boat subtitle pretty much rocks.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce we had made our way through the canals, we paddled through some open water—water not as wide as St. James Creek, but still pretty wide, as you can see in the photo to the left here. We shared this big water with a few Bottlenose Dolphins again, some big fishing and sailing boats and many, many more fishing raptors like the Osprey in the photo that opens this post.

The edges of the open water had inlets that gave way to backwaters and lagoons lined with mangroves, like the one to the left here.  These skinnier waterways were havens to small boats like ours and, also, gobs and gobs of waterfowl. When we paddled into the first of these backwaters, all hell broke loose as we startled probably a dozen different kinds of birds: ducks took off panicking, anhingas dropped from branches into the water like cannonballs, herons of all kinds flew away complaining. See the great shots Ellen got of this commotion below.  Ellen and I got to talking—we have some of these birds in Michigan, but all the birds get bigger in Florida. It must the heat, or the plentiful food.

Heron heads for the hills.

Heron heads for the hills.

Anhinga panics, eventually proceeds to plop  unceremoniously into water and swim away completely submerged.

Anhinga panics, eventually proceeds to plop unceremoniously into water and swim away completely submerged.

Flustered duck.

Flustered duck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_1208In terms of other animals: a spiffy little salamander joined Ellen on her boat for a bit; see him pictured to the left here. He had very fancy fingers and toes and must have dropped off one of the mangroves we paddled under onto her hatch.  A spectacle of a creature that looked for all the world like a clockwork spider scared the hell out of me and drew Ellen’s admiration—this was the Mangrove Crab, and we saw a number of them marching around on mangrove branches. We also saw a ton of well-spun webs with some fancy spiders called Crab Spiders keeping a watch over things. We ducked low and stayed out of their way.

We also saw a few domesticated animals at the houses along the canals. Among these was the handsome cat to the left here who reminded us of a dear old friend.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso, here’s a sign I didn’t expect to see along the canal; it was nice to know we were among friends.  Alas, would that the size of Wolverine Country could have helped with the Ohio State game this weekend.  Ellen and I made our way back into Ann Arbor during the game, but apparently we didn’t bring any island luck or warm weather back to Michigan with us.

Allow me to close by saying one last thing about our two days of paddling: mangroves are a difficult place to use nature’s bathroom. I will spare you the glorified details, but if outdoor bladder relief were a sport, Ellen and I would have gotten top scores in balance and agility.

Thanks for the great holiday paddles, Pine Island!

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Giving Thanks on the Water

St. James Creek


28 November 2013

IMG_1155Ellen and I escaped the chilly Michigan weather to celebrate Thanksgiving island-style on beautiful Pine Island in Florida.  We gave thanks especially for my mom and step-dad, Patsy and Gene, who generously loaned us their winter home for our trip. Above, check out the lovely lanai where we enjoyed all meals we didn’t eat in a boat!  We also were very grateful to my mom and Gene’s good friends Sandy and Danny (with Ellen to the right here), who literally saw to our every need while we visited—including getting us launched in the morning!

For our paddle on Thanksgiving Day, we decided to give St. James Creek a try.  The creek is basically a backwater on the east side of the island protected from the open water by many well-developed mangroves.  The day started out fairly cool by Florida standards, but positively warm by upper Midwest standards: it was around 50 degrees when we launched, and it warmed up to 70 degrees, but stayed pretty breezy all day. Out on the water, we quickly learned two things:

1) “Creek” means something vastly different on an island than it does in the Midwest.  We often paddle Honey Creek in Ann Arbor—it’s maybe 15 feet across at its widest and gets so skinny sometimes we have to back our boats out of it. Below is an image of St. James Creek, which as you can see, looks a little more like St. James Sea.


2) Ocean paddling is very different than river paddling—we went 6 ½ miles this first day over 5 hours.  Mind you, we stopped often for wildlife splendor and also our Thanksgiving meal (see below), but still, it was slow going, and we faced a stiff wind padding out.  We also came home exhausted! Even little backwater waves are tough to battle with a paddle!


We had a great time, though, and saw so much wildlife.  Beneath the water and occasionally breaking it to breathe and show off their fancy fins, Bottlenose Dolphins shepherded us through the canals that lead from my mom and Gene’s boat slip out onto the Creek and back.  It was awesome, and a little intimidating.  I also was scared to death by the sight of a giant (like, 1 foot in diameter!) Horseshoe Crab lounging on the creekbed beside my boat.  It looked a little too much like the facehugger from Aliens for my taste. But we learned looking them up after (to make sure I didn’t see a facehugger) that they are arthropods—so, related to spiders, and not crustaceans.

But the big story is how many different waterfowl we saw—amazing variety, amazing birds! We were able to identify most of them using the great nature reference books my mom and Gene keep at their place, but one is still a mystery. Check out our collection of them all below, and enjoy! (We also saw a ton of kingfishers, a cormorant, and a green heron, but did not get good pictures of any of them). Props to Ellen, who took all these great bird photos! Make sure that you look at all of them, because the awesome osprey ones are at the very end.

Bald Eagle perched near the canal we paddled

Bald Eagle perched near the canal we paddled.

Anhinga, also called snakebird because it swims  with only its head above water; aka "water turkey" because of its big tail

Anhinga, also called snakebird because it swims with only its head above water; aka “water turkey” because of its big tail.

Snowy Egret, who uses its fancy yellow feet as fishing lures

Snowy Egret, who uses its fancy yellow feet as fishing lures.

Adult Ibis, perched among the mangroves

Adult Ibis, perched among the mangroves.

Adolescent Ibis with muddy beak. Gina: "Do you think those birds get BMJ like humans get TMJ?"

Adolescent Ibis with beak muddy from digging under the mangroves. Gina: “Do you think those birds get BMJ like humans get TMJ?”

Look to the middle of the picture for the Great Blue Heron perched at the very top of the trees.

Look to the middle of the picture for the Great Blue Heron perched at the very top of the trees. It’s hard to see, but if you scan where the trees meet the sky, you’ll can find one very tall thing standing over the entire scene.

Here's a close-up of the same Great Blue Heron---he was easily 5 feet tall. We dubbed him the "Herondacytl."

Here’s a close-up of the same Great Blue Heron—he was easily 5 feet tall. We dubbed him the “Herondacytl.”

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron—very calm and stealthy.

Black-Crowned Night Heron---equally stealthy, but his rock-and-roll past shows through with that 1980s-style tail hanging off the back of his head.

Black-Crowned Night Heron—equally stealthy, but his rock-and-roll past shows through with that 1980s-style tail hanging off the back of his head.


Little Blue Heron, easily the loudest bird in Florida.

Tri-Colored Heron.

Tri-Colored Heron.

A tiny Plover.

A tiny Plover.

Pelicans, arranged like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Pelicans, arranged like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

A close-up of one of the ornaments.

A close-up of one of the ornaments.

The one bird we could not identify---an adolescent, surely, but an adolescent what?

The one bird we could not identify—an adolescent, surely, but an adolescent what?

Osprey on the wing!

Osprey on the wing!

Local paddlers made an Osprey nesting platform above their boathouse---you can see it on a pole behind me.

Local paddlers made an Osprey nesting platform above their boathouse—you can see it on a pole behind me.

The Pinkerton Guards who work at that nest!

The Pinkerton Guards who work at that nest!

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Fall Chill

Huron River, Argo Park to Gallup Park


15 October 2013

Ellen and I squeezed this paddle in to the very end of our Fall Break on a partly sunny but cool day.  We opted not to go through the series of pools and rapids at Argo Dam because we just didn’t feel like getting wet on a chilly day. This ended up being a good decision; I watched about 3 paddlers tip over on the whitewater and end up soaked, and everyone who went through the rapids got lapfuls of water.  Watching this all from shore, I snuggled further into my earflap hat and nice, dry fleece coat. Those wet paddlers weren’t the only cold ones on the river, though; the headless heron above was apparently trying to warm itself up in its own wings! The heron stayed like this for the entire time we had it in view–at least 7 minutes. (In fairness: if I had a neck as long as a heron’s, there are times during the winter when I’d do the same kind of thing to warm up my ears.)

Aside from the chill–which wasn’t so bad if you weren’t wet, or a heron–the paddle was perfectly delightful and included the company of a very friendly osprey who let Ellen take many glamour shots of him.  Below are the best ones.

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Next time we do this paddle, we have to remember to bring that heron a stocking cap!


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Getting Too Close

Huron River, Lower Huron Metropark to Willow Metropark


5 October 2013

It’s Homecoming at the University of Michigan, and Ellen and I left for this paddle while a morning rain was clearing and tailgaters were just setting up for a day of 12-packs, cornhole, hot dogs, and portajohns.  (It was, by the way, 7:30 a.m.) We were glad to get away from the hustle and bustle for this 12-mile trip; we saw one other paddling party of six or so at our put in spot (they had a 12-pack, but no corn-hole) but no one else all day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, what I mean is, we saw no one else all day except this little lady to the left here. I nearly floated right by without noticing her off in the distance, eyeing us.  We have done this paddle lots and lots of times, but neither one of us remember seeing this statue watching over this piece of the river before–and we look for statues!  This blog even has a tag for them–Scary Statues–so I can keep track of the ones we see.  So here you see her as I first noticed her, up on her stone wall perch, blending into the background a bit.  You are probably wondering: what’s the matter with you, Gina?  What’s so scary about her?  Well, here’s a closer look–though I’m not sure you want to get too close.


See those eyes?  They follow you downriver.  And she’s also perched up above the river, looking down at everything that comes floating by–like a predator. Have you seen the Skrillex video for the song “First of the Year”? Like that. Also, like those girls from The Shining got separated and this is one of them who put on a sun hat and is on the lookout for the other. I would not get on the wrong side of this girl. (Full disclosure: I’m in the middle of teaching a horror course right now, so I’m primed to see these things. Probably this is a perfectly nice statue.)


On top of this spooky statue, we saw a whole slew of wildlife, including a woodchuck that was sunning himself on a tree stump, a pileated woodpecker, an osprey, a number of hawks, a Muscovy duck, a cormorant, kingfishers, the usual array of ducks, geese, and herons, and just a handful of turtles. Ellen is the wildlife photographer and her camera battery was dead, so we got pictures of none of these, since my camera’s zoom is not so good and I couldn’t ever get close enough to get a good shot before the subject of the photo got scared away.  The one exception was this wasp nest to the left–with it, I was the one who got scared away before I could get too close.

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Finally Paddling into Fall

Huron River, around the Obama Bridge


28 September 2013

School grabbed hold of Ellen and I pretty tightly at the start of this term, and it’s only this weekend that we were able to find time to get ourselves back to the river to enjoy a fall paddle–maybe my favorite kind of paddle. We had perfect weather, and some light morning fog was just lifting as we got our boats in the water.

Ellen got some excellent wildlife shots this trip. Below, see the white bird convention she got some candid shots of; a couple egret portraits; what is probably a female cardinal she got up close and personal with; then swans on the move (so cool–we’d never seen swans fly that high or far before!); and also (my favorite)  a turtle up to his neck in muck and loving every minute of it.

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The river was also in the process of putting up Halloween decorations; check out this awesome and gigantic set of gorgeous webs spiders had been busy spinning on a train viaduct.

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In the realm of human sightings on the river, we ran across a couple of guys who were pumped up over a 22 inch pike they had just reeled in, and a steady stream of bikers rode by on Huron River Drive. At one point, we heard the “ding! ding! ding!” of a bike bell and looked up to have a whole passel of cyclists wave amicably from the road.


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Running out of Summer

Huron River, Delhi Metropark to Obama Bridge

Buh-bye, summer!

1 September 2013

I mean the title of this post not as in, “we have got to get out of summer; run!” but rather, “aw, maaaan, there’s hardly any summer left!”  Ellen and I snuck this trip in before we both go back to school on Tuesday. And we also snuck it in early this morning, before hordes of holiday weekend folks get on the river with their jello shots and shoot water at each other and unsuspecting waterfowl with their bilge pumps (ask me how I really feel about livery traffic).  As we pulled into our put-in spot, we saw the cars lining up at one of the local liveries, and by the time we ended our trip, we saw a bus full of livery customers being ferried upriver to start their paddle downstream.  We missed them; the only folks we saw on the river during this delightful paddle were a few fishermen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis small section of the river runs fast because of Delhi rapids, which are  just above where we started, and also because of a number of other more minor rapids along our paddle, the most eventful of which are Tubbs Street rapids.  These rapids weren’t as, well, rapid as they’ve been on other trips–or maybe I am just getting used to rapids. (I actually found them kind of fun for a change!) Shortly after Tubbs Street rapids, we came upon this wrecked canoe (in fact, I think that’s Tubbs Street bridge above the wreck).  I don’t think anyone got hurt–I haven’t read any news of local river accidents, anyway–but it looks like someone had a hard lesson about the folly of underestimating river current!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt one point I looked waaaay down the river and saw a dark-colored bird fly away low over the water, and I said to Ellen, “you know, I think that was a cormorant.” We talked about how two summers back, we saw a ton of cormorants everywhere we went, then not again since.  Then we remembered that last summer we saw loads of huge snapping turtles, then not any this year, and we realized that every summer we have a sort of dominant river sighting.  We wondered, what was this year’s?  Well, duh–deadfall.  Go take a look back through this summer’s posts–we saw deadfall in spades for sure.  But to get back to my dark-colored bird: it was a cormorant, and it hung out at a bend in the river just long enough to say hello to us–or perhaps goodbye, as we paddled out of summer.     

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