Friday, September 28, 2007

The Midnight Paddler

Snow Pond, NH -

It was an odd day here in The Granite State, full of indecision and humidity. My thoughts were clearly askew as I lay in bed listening to NPR for an hour and a half and flipping through one website after another to bide my time as I refused to write anything substantive.

So clearly it was time to get out of there, and the only logical conclusion was to head to the pond. Just after eleven I grabbed a bottle of beer, walked down the stairs, put my sandals on and opened the door to the back yard. I gave my eyes a moment to adjust, which didn't take long in the full moonlight in spite of the cloud cover, and cut straight toward the water.

The ducks heard me first, and started in with their gargling chatter to alert their buddies the geese, who were there to greet me next to the dock with a series of loud honks and a wide flapping of wings. Undeterred I grabbed the back end of the canoe from the shore and slid it toward the side of the dock where I could easily slip onto the bench without having to touch the water.

I have improved on my canoe-entering skills with each passing week here in the 'Shire, as a few of my colleagues like to call it, and tonight was able to glide in without the slightest of boat rocking. Better yet, I entirely avoided the puddle of water in the bottom of the boat that was leftover from last night's rain. Then it just took a simple push away from the dock, two or three paddle strokes, and I was beyond the lily pads and into clear water.

As I said earlier, the moon was bright. Just bright enough to see the masses of clouds whip along below it in the atmosphere, making way for what the weather services says will be severe thunderstorms overnight and into tomorrow, just in time for my long-planned hike up in the Whites.

It made for perfect night paddling conditions, though. I cracked my beer, a Gritty's Halloween Ale, with my teeth, pocketed the cap, placed the bottle between my legs and canoed my way across the pond to the northeast corner where I typically run into the most wildlife.

In fact, it was just yesterday when I had my closest run-in to date here in New Hampshire with the beasts that live all around us. After my debate prep article I stuck to my word and jumped in the water for a little exercise before heading up to Hanover to stuff my face with cedar plank salmon and mashed potatoes. But after a few strokes of the crawl I pulled my head up from the water and noticed a Great Blue Heron in the same far corner of the pond, and I decided to investigate.

So I ditched the crawl stroke, pulled my body into a near vertical position with nothing but my goggled eyes and nostrils sticking out and slowly pulled my way toward the massive bird like a great crocodile casually and deceptively stalking it's prey. Five minutes of patience and execution later, I was as close as I could get to the shore without touching bottom, staring at the Heron while he darted his head around seeking full knowledge of predator and prey, either unaware of my furtive approach or entirely unaroused. Given all wild beasts' well-deserved fear of humans I can only assume the latter.

But I was no predator, and the debate was looming, so I spun a 180 and treaded for a few more yards out of respect for the Heron before hightailing it back to shore and hitting the road. Had I truly been the crocodile of legend, that bird would have been toast. It just goes to show, in nature as well as politics, that all the deadly attacks come when you can't see 'em.

Back to the canoe.

There were no birds this time, no nuthin'. But the longer I stayed out there sipping beer and contemplating the events of the last two days the more I came to realize all that there was on and around the pond at night, even if I couldn't see shit beyond the shoreline, save a few errant kitchen and bedroom lights.

In the middle of the pond I realized that the northern sky was a dark blue, while the southern end of it was glowing red. I tried to make some great political red/blue metaphor out of it involving the respective truths of nature and commerce but then I realized that I wasn't high, and it was only a small pond in central New Hampshire. Anything substantive that I tried to create out of it would be nothing but poetry or political hackery. I may have opted for the former at one point or another, but not tonight. Tonight I just decided to do another lap of the pond, this time closely skirting the lilied shoreline.

The feeling of paddling as near as possible to the lily pads that cover the shallowest ten-to-fifteen feet of the entire pond was liberating. The control that I had over the canoe made me feel at ease with the water and myself. It allowed me to listen more closely to the beautiful sound made by the dripping of the errant water off of the end of the paddle a few feet behind me as I continued on in my voyage, leaving only a slight ripple in the water behind me, and see the occasional perfectly round whirlpool that only comes from the movement of a paddle through the water.

The smell of the bushes and trees encapsulating the pond also began to make themselves known at this point. Where at first I could only smell the vaguely scummy pond water, now I could pick up the musk of the trees and the slight decay of the newly orange leaves. They combined to make, for the lack of a better word, a perfume that spilled out over the surface of the water leaving nothing but pleasantries in my nose as I gazed out into the woods along the shore thinking I might see some spectacular flower or blueberry bush. But it was just the leaves, the trees and the tall, tall reeds.

Not to be lulled too far into the calm of the night air, the virgin smoothness of the water and the sweet smell of the air, I was suddenly alerted by a loud smack and, out of the corner of my eye, a tall splash in the water. Coincidentally, I was back in the wild northeast corner of the pond. The slap came from about 50 yards south of me and fairly close to the shore.

I eased up on paddling and let the boat coast in the general direction it was headed, halfway between the slap and the home dock, as I considered what I might be witnessing. Croc? Definitely not. Incredibly large turtle? Doubtful. Record-sized bass? Potentially. Beaver? Probably. I paddled some more. She struck again. Same boom. Same splash.

This time I knew it was a beaver. And if there is one thing I have learned, on the mountain trail if not on the campaign trail, it is that you don't mess with wildlife in protection mofe. Especially if you are in a canoe at night. Because, as with any dealings with a volatile beaver, when you get tossed up it ain't pretty. Never mind that it was probably the last warm night until April, I had no interest in trying to climb back into the boat or, worse still, swimming across the pond with the canoe in tow.

So I hightailed it back. Ever the coward, the beaver waited until I was halfway home before slapping her tail another three times. I didn't hold it against her. It was time for me to get home to the barn, anyway.

Back at the shore the ducks and geese were waiting for me, although this time with considerably less hostility. I climbed out of the canoe and onto the dock, politely warned the birds to get out of the way and slid the boat across the remaining bit of water and onto the shore. I walked down the dock, flipped the canoe over in anticipation of heavy rain and walked to the house.

Right now the rain is falling as hard as it has all month, a well needed shower for the dry landscape, and the sound is dramatically amplified by the corrugated metal roof of the goat pen and the splash on splash sound of the pond just a few yards away.

Sometimes, when you haven't talked to anyone besides your keyboard in half a day, there is no better voice to hear than a heavy New England rain coming down hard after midnight with an empty beer bottle at your side and a fluffy looking pillow across the room. Hell, Its looking fluffier by the minute.

No comments: