I love to spend time on the water! I grew up around boats sailing, paddling and motoring the backwaters of the Sheepscot River near Boothbay, Maine. Being around traditional boats has been in my blood for as long as I can remember.
When my mother sold the house in Maine it cut me off from my watery obsession. A schoolteacher with a family and a house cannot afford to “summer” in the backyard, let alone 1200 miles away. I gave up boats (but not reading about them). I don’t like the Indiana’s small water, pack-the-lake-with-over-powered-boats-we-have-no-need-for-tradition-or-common-sense. I have a need to accomplish something when boating — to go somewhere. In Maine I would travel for mile to explore a salt marsh or uninhabited offshore island. Indiana’s house ringed lakes have no appeal.
Then I discovered canoes. Canoes fulfilled all of my requirements for boating. I get a good workout. The are a traditional Indiana means of transportation. I can go somewhere. I can experience solitude.
I’ve wanted to do some winter paddling for a long time. The conditions have to be right. You have to be prepared. A mistake can be fatal. A dunking in sub-freezing weather leads to hypothermia. An iced up river makes navigation difficult.
(How many times have you read about some idiot in a canoe that gets stuck somewhere they should not have been in sub-freezing weather? You never hear about the ones that are prepared.)
My level of preparedness, water levels and my available time seldom align. Yesterday they did.
I’ve been birding an interesting spot for a couple of years. Stony Creek, Noblesville’s traditional rural stream and namesake for farms, streets, neighborhoods and a school, meanders through a few miles of mixed grass and trees. It is the most beautiful stretches of water in Noblesville. Several years ago development exploded along the creek and I thought it was going to be bulldozed and channeled. That never happened. The development has been respectful. A small pond, designed to hold flood water has actually enhance the creek and attracted waterfowl.
Along the adjacent development (an appliance store, a movie theater, a tire shop and a car dealership
H.H. Gregg, Office Max and stripmall landscaping.
I’ve felt pretty free to wander its banks. It’s a great place to watch waterfowl, kingfisher, great blue herons, muskrat and other wildlife associated with small waterways.
Access beyond the businesses gets a little uncomfortable. The grass is tall and full of stickery nasty things. It can get very wet walking. I have a sense that I’m in a place I’m not supposed to be in. (I remember walking up and down the creek behind my mom’s house. I remember having the same feeling every time we crossed a fence or property line. Was I supposed to be here? What is someone calls the police?
Creeks are magic. They are my favorite field environment. Creeks are intimate. You can see the bottom and the fish and the mussels and the snakes and the crayfish. They banks of the creek provide the margins that wildlife loves — water and trees, water and grass water and fields. Around every corner is a surprise — a new scene. When you do come across a great blue heron or a muskrat it’s just a few feet away.
(I once came around a bend in Cicero Creek (another great Noblesville waterway) and over 20 deer pound through chest high water less than 20 feet ahead of me. Another time on the same creek a double crested cormorant surfaced right beside me.)
Creeks also offer a balance of challenge (fast, shallow water) and the comfort of knowing that the water is shallow enough that you can walk away from a disaster.
I’ve thought that, in the right conditions, a cone would be an ideal way to gain access to a mile, or so, of prime wildlife viewing on Stony Creek. Yesterday was the the day.
I paddle a small (13′) fiberglass canoe that I picked up for song. It had been left on the ground and all of the wood had rotted. It took about a week to replace the ash rails and cane seats and paint. I would prefer a wood and canvas boat (and that is the dream) but this will do. I carry traditional pack baskets. These packs evolved for canoe use stand about an inch from the bottom of the canoe and keep my gear above sloshing water. I carry two paddles (a Shaw and Tenney beavertail and a long otter tail that I made.) and a pole.
I always wear a life preserver with an affixed whistle.
I live in wool in the winter. I wore wool pants (bought for $6 at Goodwill) two cotton shirts and a wool vest and a Stormy Kromer hat. On my feet I wore an ancient pair of LL Bean Hunting Shoes with Gore-tex liners. The air temperature was in the mid 50s. I never checked the water temperature but it was cold. There was a skim of ice when I put in.
I mention the clothing because it worked so outstandingly well. I know from experience and research that wool keeps you warm even when wet. This is essential in winter paddling. I got pretty wet from the knees down and I never felt cold of wet — even when the wind kicked up.
I put in at the little flood control pond below H.H. Gregg and Office Max (There was plenty of free parking). The grade is steep but the canoe slides easily on the grass. I wanted to begin in the pond so that I could hone my skills. I didn’t want to get out into moving water only to discover I couldn’t stand and handle a pole.
After tying my gear in I slid out into the pond and paddled to the middle. The water was very shallow. I stood to practice poling. It took a few minutes to get myself situated. I ended up moving my gear forward so that I had more room to work. the bottom was really sticky and I had to get the hang of twisting the pole free from the bottom.
I moved out into the moving water and began poling my way upstream. It felt amazing to be on the water. In spite of the highway noise, the PA at the car dealership and the looming movie theater I really did feel like I was alone. This is really when I’m at my very best.
The creek offered a series of tight meanders punctuated by riffles and deep pools. I had the wind at my back so it made sense to paddle the pools and to pole the faster water. The meanders left a variety of great spaces to nose in to rest and to scope the trees for birds.
Winter birding is much different than any other season. Most of the birds that we relish in the other three seasons have left and a few have arrived from elsewhere. There’s often not a lot to see and many trips are about seeing one or two specific birds. I wanted to add the belted kingfisher to this year’s list.
I progressed upstream for about an hour and encountered a fence across the creek. It was flush with the surface of the water and had trapped a variety of creek junk — trees, plastic buckets, boards, etc. I decided that that was as far as I needed to go. I would like to progress further in the future.
I paddled downstream and found the strong wind a bit challenging. In many spots I had to fight the wind to continue downstream. When I arrived back to the put-in a continued downstream, under Cumberland Road and S.R. 37 through a series of strong and shallow riffles.
Downstream from the bridges the landscape changed drastically as the trees closed in and formed a wooded canopy over the creek. A rounded a meander and came up under a huge house with a deck over the creek. I began to feel like the kid following Mom’s creek through neighbor’s yards and decided it was time to go back upstream. As soon as I stood to pole back up, A hound dog began baying at me and continued until I was well out of sight.
Working my way back up through these shallow riffles was out of the question so I lined the canoe up through them. Lining — towing an empty canoe from the shore — is a traditional way to work through impassable water.
MacMansion of the Starboard Bow!
I encounter dozens of fresh and huge deer tracks beneath the bridge. I would love to have seen this herd!
When I arrived back at the pond I nudged up into a small inlet and soaked it all in.
The temperatures will plummet (I think) and I’m going back to school on Monday. This may be my last chance to be on the water until March.
Not many birds seen but I wasn’t disappointed — mourning dove, American crow, European starling, a variety of sparrows (I have to learn sparrows!), mallard, great blue heron, belted kingfisher and northern flicker.
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