Beaver Creek Marsh
Lake Ontario Log Kayaking
Little boats do have their place on Great Lakes. With a very little boat you can explore that always intriguing interface between lake and land. The ecologists call it the near shore zone. Writers call it the edge, and its rich in interest for those who travel with small slow silent boats.
Twenty five years ago, when I created a wood frame canvas covered canoe inspired by a British design for home construction from a library book, molded plastic kayaks didn't exist. But technology and better living through chemistry gave us strong light weight car toppers, and as a result in the 1980s hundreds of thousands of people re-discovered paddling. Today kayaks are everywhere around Lake Ontario I saw a number of them on the Erie Canal last fall.
In previous years the mainstay boat for paddling on the Great Lakes was the open undecked so-called Canadian canoe usually paddled with a single bladed paddle. When I was a kid if you hadn't mastered the jay stroke you went with a partner and changed sides a lot in such canoes.
Kayaks, I decided the first time I tried one, have a lot going for them compared to the Canadian canoe. You use a double bladed paddle which seems to me for solo work far more efficient than the single blade. You sit lower in the boat too, making the kayak more stable and the kayak is decked over. This is a nice feature in rainy weather or when it's rough and there's the potential of taking a greenie aboard. I compare the kayak and canoe as being akin to the recumbent versus the regular bicycle. They each have their strong points and drawbacks. But for me, going solo, the comfort and efficiency of recumbent and kayak make them the hands down choice for peddling or paddling.
With its many lake shore marsh areas south shore bays and tributary rivers my home waters of Lake Ontario offer enough territory to keep a kayaker busy exploring for decades. Perhaps a couple typical sample trips from my immediate neighborhood can give an idea of what to expect along most stretches of shoreline. Of the dozen or so bays, rivers, and marshes I've sampled along Lake Ontario some of my favorites lie within ten miles of my home near Port Bay. A couple years ago, I yielded to impulse on an exceptionally mild day in early December to go paddling in one of them.
The afternoon thermometer reading stood in the upper 60s but the long slanted shadows of the bare trees of December and the low lake levels of the season said "winter". Although it was only 1 pm when I lifted the boat off the car roof at the ramp, I looked at the pale low sun and thought I'll have to be back here before 4:30 or so. It will be getting dark by then.
Scotts Bluff, Lake Ontario
Most of my expeditions afloat are conducted when days are long and lazy and twilight lingers. It was strange to think that in just three hours shadows from surrounding hills and knolls would reach across the little valley Red Creek runs down before entering the lake. The afternoon was very still with just the lightest hint of a northwest wind. A light mist gave the low sunlight a soft luminous quality a bit like April but not nearly as strong. It was also a very quiet day in the marsh. Though the wetland with its tawny dried cattails looked now much as it would late next March, it seemed very empty of life. No redwings called, no geese honked warnings by their nests, no mallards exploded up from the water, no peepers called. There wasn't even a rustle of dried reeds, just a deep profound December silence of a land waiting for winter.
I paddled down the seemingly lifeless dark waters of the creek towards the wide sunlit lake's spaces. A kingfisher flew over head, the only bird I saw that day in the marsh. Upon reaching the barrier beach across the marsh entrance I beached the boat to take a stroll along the shore, wondering if perhaps the creek might be open to the lake.
It was, its clear wintery waters gushing over the gravel through a channel perhaps about four feet wide to meet the cold green lake. And here I found a half dozen or so large spotted brown trout in the tiny outlet.
Brown trout in their native lands of Europe are fall spawners. Although most of Lake Ontario's browns are raised in hatcheries and are dumped into t he lake from the DEC truck as youngsters, the instinct to reproduce remains strong and true So each fall the now grown five to ten pound trout try to enter rivers and streams in search of spawning redds. By December though the run was over. These fish had tried, perhaps successfully perhaps not, to perpetuate their species. Now spent and worn, spotted with white blobs of fungus, battered by stones and the shallows they had thrashed through, they were headed back to the lake to rest and recuperate.(Unlike chinook and coho salmon that give it just one shot, many brown trout spawn several times.)
Scarred and tired as they were, their sleek shapes still hung effortlessly in the glass clear flow of the little creek. Their power remained. I saw one fish hang for a moment in mid channel motionless except that her tail was curled to one side as if she were getting a lift like a soaring bird. Then with a lazy wiggle, she was gone, dropped down into the anonymous depths of the lake. It was somehow satisfying to see these aliens asserting their ancient wisdom and wildness to claim Red Creek as their own. And I saw one small trout, a yearling, who had almost certainly been produced by natural spawning since it was much to late for a fish of that size to have been stocked. I paddled upstream feeling very satisfied at seeing the conclusion of a fish run.
A half year later I was back to venture up this same marsh in late summer. Now the sun overhead was uncomfortably hot and a light cooling wind off the lake was very welcome indeed. This time I paddled along the lake shore and entered as the brown trout had from the lake, though I had to carry my boat across the narrow barrier beach.
Once inside the contrast of the breathless sultry marsh to that of the wind rippled cool waters of the wide lake was very sharp. Unlike December, now the tepid marsh waters were murky and rank with weed growth. A scum of green duckweed covered large areas of water and a short way above the Larkin Road bridge a thick tangle of rooted weeds snarled paddle blades and held back the boat. Pushing through the vegetation was like trying to paddle in a pot of cooked spinach. Progress was possible but not pleasant after the channel petered out, so I soon turned back.
While the marsh was unexpectedly empty of animal life this day, the lush summer flora more than made up for the lack of fauna. The marsh was like a vast water garden this warm August day. Pretty purple pickerel weed, snow white arrow leaf, white and yellow water lily, purple loosestrife, marsh loosestrife, and jewel weed bloomed in great profusion among the cattails. Big pale pink mallow and wild rose bushes also spangled the green with color. Even the scraggly buttonwood shrubs were in bloom, decorated with attractive round white globes.
I saw just one basking turtle during this excursion but on other Lake Ontario tributary paddles I've seen a lot of animal life. I've gotten within a few yards of deer, and I've seen beavers, muskrat, mink and raccoons on the water and along its edge. Kayaks also offer good bird watching opportunities too. I've watched coots, green, night, and great blue herons, and have flushed up a half dozen kinds of ducks. I've paddled right past trees with turkeys in them and flushed ospreys from their perches overhead.
Because the weeds do tend to clog up narrow channels in the marshes during the summer, my favorite times for exploring the marshes are spring and fall. During summer's warm days, I either paddle along the shore of the open lake on evening excursions when it cools off or stick to sailing. Still, if you can time your swamping right, you'll find a world their rich in life and beauty. It's seldom visited and very foreign to most of us and so it seems somehow a bit exotic, And I know of no other boat better suited for exploring our "jungle rivers" than a kayak.