Sterling has a fifty-year tradition of sending students out into the wilderness in December (adequately prepared and with chaperones, of course) for three nights in what is referred to as Winter Expedition. Everyone who takes Bounder—and almost all students are required to take Bounder—must go on this expedition. For someone with really awful knees, this poses a problem.
Thankfully, Sterling and its faculty are also very accommodating. I think you’d be hard pressed to find another school this accommodating in New England. So when, after the preliminary winter overnight last year, I expressed deep concern about not being able to complete the Winter Expedition, I was met with lots of support and encouragement to find an alternative.
I developed my own canoe expedition for the following summer. Although my first choice was the Lake Champlain islands, I quickly realized how potentially disastrous that could be. Replanning the site and route, checking emergency measures, and packing lists were analyzed, and my partner and I set off for Green River Reservoir earlier this month.
Aug. 3rd. After driving up to Sterling early in the day and loading up the canoe, paddles, PFDs, and a tea kettle, Sam and I made our way to Green River Reservoir in Hyde Park. We only missed one turn, and arrived at the boat landing around 10:00. The ranger at the kiosk informed us that check-in was not until 14:00, and the fastest route to camp site #12 would get us there in about half an hour, so we could explore some of the islands if the previous campers had not yet left.
As it happens, it took us 50 minutes to just get into the water. Great, one hour down and three to go. A miscommunication issue at the get-go caused me to take a canoe to the head. I sustained minor injuries to my left ear, right palm, and right thigh. After that, we made a conscious effort to communicate more clearly, even about seemingly small things, like switching paddling sides.
The reservoir is known for its loon population. Almost immediately, as we followed the shoreline counter-clockwise and paddled south down a finger, one of the symbolic northern birds graced us with its presence. At the end of this finger, we happened upon a clearing, perfect for a picnic, and landed the boat. I explored the site, making note of wood fern species and a spectacular inchworm while Sam made us sandwiches with peanut butter and blackberry jelly. The stillness of the place hushed our voices to whispers as we relaxed in the early afternoon sunshine. Eventually, other people showed up with a dog, and we packed up and left, having no interest in their conversations about work troubles.
We followed the coastline north almost to Heron Bay, finding the small brown placard declaring “12” in white lines northwest of Picnic Island. Someone—perhaps the last campers to use the site—had built a tiny village out of bits of moss, birch bark, and small stones to the side of the trail. Our site was on high ground, with a fire pit ringed in large rocks and two flat places in which to pitch a tent. Boat unloaded, feet tender from the gravel trail, we set to work constructing our temporary home. Tents these days are too easy, and it was up and protected against rain in a matter of minutes.
Here, we came to an impasse. I wanted to lay down for a nap, and Sam wanted to tie the tarp over our cooking area before the gray clouds made good on their threats of rain. He made a compelling argument, and I conceded. Good thing, too, as the sky started sprinkling as I was tying a taut line hitch on the last corner of the tarp. Then, nap time to the sound of water gently pattering on the rainfly of our tent.
I awoke later in the afternoon, and we explored inland a bit, finding the composting toilet and, further in, a mass of raspberry bushes, bracken, and interrupted ferns. Not yet ready for dinner, we set out in the canoe once again to explore a bit, and watched the flat head of an American beaver cruise along the water’s surface near the shore opposite ours. We noticed a small flock of Canada Geese bedding down for the night on a rock just poking above the water. A Green Frog sang us an aria with backup vocals from a nuthatch. I thought I heard the bassy thrumming of an American Bullfrog, as well.
We built a fire as the sky started to darken, having trouble getting it started at first, then using dried fir boughs, crackling and flaring intensely before petering out to smoke, as starter under the kindling. One last trip to the water’s edge to enjoy the sunset and take photos, and we spent the next hour or so cuddling and singing next to the fire, rediscovering how much we love to watch the flames licking up branches and logs, before cozying up around 22:00 in our sleeping bags and blow-up mattress pads for the night.
Aug. 4th. One of the loons yodeled throughout the night. I am unsure if he was an established male protecting territory, or one of the younger ones trying to grab a piece of the pie for his own. The intermittent bird calls coupled with the constant sensation of falling (my sleeping bag was on an incline) made for a very unrestful night. I woke up, stiff and groggy, around 6:00. Wishing I had brought socks just for the few chilly hours each morning, I padded barefoot through camp and helped Sam get a fire going to boil water for instant coffee and green tea.
After a breakfast of bananas and Larabars, we set out to explore Heron Bay. A restless family of swallows dove and flitted around the large island near our camp. The mouth of Heron Bay, guarded by a low foot-bridge, bore a sign reading “Bird Nesting Area Closed Ice Out to August 1.” We speculated it was likely for Common Loons that the area was closed, as we had already seen one chick on another part of the reservoir. Brasenia leaves blanketed the surface of the bay, and a curious channel carved between the oblong green pads. We made a game of it, Sam powering the boat as I steered my best to keep the craft within the channel. We mostly succeeded.
At the far edge of the bay, we stopped the canoe amid emergent vegetation to talk. It’s interesting to me, how being out in nature with only one other person stirs the need for meaningful conversation. As we spoke, I noticed two tiny green flies engaged in a mating dance. One would fly back and forth rapidly before landing on a lily pad next to the other. Then the other would flit to another pad, and the dance started anew. We also noticed a small, pointed face sticking up through the Brasenia to watch us, and as we left the bay, two good-sized Painted Turtles basked on a log near the shore—the more skittish one plopping into the water when we neared.
Stopping at camp for a short bathroom break, we then followed the northwest finger of the reservoir up until pain shot through our shoulders with each stroke. Along one bank, the Pacman-shaped leaves of Nuphar surrounded a single yellow, cup-shaped flower. Getting a decent photo of the flower was an exercise in patience, and I think it helped me to improve respectful communication under so much frustration. A Common Loon bringing food to its chick escorted our route back down the finger. We arrived at our base camp just ahead of another rainstorm.
As I laid down for a much-needed nap, Sam went for a swim in our secluded cove and built a fire. Wouldn’t you know it? Shortly after I woke up, I stumbled upon a yellow birch that had been felled (presumably) by the state park’s maintenance crew. We could have been using the bark as starter all along! Our dinner consisted of hummus and celery, after which we broke apart and cut up our kindling for the next morning.
One last outing before bed took us to Picnic Island, where I explained the behavior of two loons to Sam as we watched. The loons swam hurriedly together, diving, bill dipping, and preening. Given the yodeling of the previous night and the knowledge of unestablished loons on the reservoir, I interpreted these behaviors as aggression. At the very least, I think these loons were engaged in feeling each other out in order to claim a territory. We also visited the larger island directly west of our camp, finding a male American Bullfrog hiding among the Brasenia, and listening to a pair of Green Frogs in vocal combat over prized breeding zones.
Aug. 5th. Sore and exhausted, we awoke again to the sound of loons telling each other off at 6:00. During the night, a raccoon had gotten into our garbage. Thankfully, we did not have anything too appealing, as we had been subsisting off of bananas, Larabars, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and hummus. I was impressed, however, that the little beast had been able to twist the top from an empty hummus jar.
We broke camp, striking the tent and rolling everything up into easily manageable sizes, then loaded the boat and set out. Tired and stiff as we were, we opted for a bit more open-water paddling than previously in order to get back to the landing faster. Three large birds flew low over our boat, and it wasn’t until they had almost passed that I realized they were not Canada Geese, but Common Loons.
One corner we rounded presented us with two small, brown things in the water. At a distance, I thought they were a pair of American beavers swimming towards us, and was astonished at how fearless they were. An adult loon popped up near the canoe and seemed to be keeping an eye on us, and it was then I realized that the brown things were loon chicks. I excitedly whipped out my camera and started snapping as many photos as I could while Sam paddled the boat backwards and out from between the adult and two chicks.
So early in the morning, the landing was very quiet, and we quickly loaded everything back into the car and headed back for Sterling. There are a few things I wish I had brought on the trip, not the least of which was a proper air mattress. These old bones are too finicky for sleeping pads anymore.
All photographs are property of Heather Cullen.