My daughter holds the painter line as I push our canoe into the water. Even though the lake is calm, the momentum of the canoe pulls my daughter to the waters edge. I steady the canoe against the marina’s short cement wall.
Marina is a generous term. Landscaping timbers form parallel tracks along the curve of the lake. Every ten yards or so shorter timbers, perpendicular to the lake, elevate the larger timbers eight inches off the ground. The parallel timbers hold inverted canoes, kayaks and row boats. A six inch concrete retaining wall provides the hard stop between land and water.
I’m the biggest of the three paddlers tonight, so I enter the boat first. Crouching low and holding the gunnels, I walk to the stern. Our canoe rocks gently as I take my seat.
My wife passes the wooden paddles, float cushions and bag of snacks (tortilla chips, craisins and homemade lemonade) to me. I arrange the float cushions in the middle of the boat and spread a towel over them – the perfect place for the smallest paddler to lay and watch the clouds pass by.
Next my daughter steps from terra firma into the canoe. The rocking fluid motions of the boat return her to the I-just-learned-to-walk state of unsteadiness. She instinctively grabs for the gunnel and refuses to release her mom’s steady hand. I convince her to grab the outstretched paddle and walk to her float cushion nest.
Before stepping into the canoe, my wife surveys the marina to make sure nothing is left ashore. After she has taken the bow seat, I steer the boat through the reeds at water’s edge and enter the lake.
“Which way do you want to go?” I ask my daughter. A moment’s pause and she points south. “That way.”
A deep, gravely “Stroooke…stroooke…stroooke” encourages us from the cattails at shore’s edge. A bullfrog is making his presence known. The cadence, variety and intensity of the croaking attract female frogs not dissimilar to certain dance floor rituals performed by homo sapiens. “Come here my Love” is the closest English translation of the frog’s croak.
After five minutes, my wife and I have found our paddling cadence. She performs two forward strokes to each one of my J strokes. Our’s is a comfortably lazy paddle, a perfect speed for the end of a hard day of work. My wife and daughter had worked, stooped over in the garden, most of the day. I had worked, stooped over in a half-height basement, mixing and pouring a concrete pad.
The evening is quickly approaching the golden hour, those few magical minutes at the end of the day when humidity seems to drop, the mosquitoes temporarily stop biting and the sunlight makes the world look storybook-perfect.
After ten minutes of paddling, we’ve reached the lake’s southern terminus.
“Mom, I’m hungry.” The snack bag is out and the toddler’s crunch crunch crunch can be heard over the dip swish of the paddles.
I (expertly) turn the canoe west and head for the opposite shore, along the earthen dam forming Lake Perez. Red-winged black birds buzz at the top of the dam while swallows skim the water’s surface hunting bugs.
We enter a cove on the western edge of the lake just south of the Civil Engineering lodge and high ropes course. The ropes course’s towers loom over the cove; in a previous mythical era, I could imagine the ropes towers covered in Saruman’s standards while our group of Isildur spies prepare for Aragorn’s main assault.
This is not Middle Earth and like the marina, “cove” is a generous term. On a larger lake, the dip in the shoreline we entered might not even register on a map. However, in the magical world of quiet evening canoe paddles, this is a cove.
We see our first painted turtle, enjoying the remaining sun’s rays atop a fallen tree. The turtle slips off the log and into the tannin-dark lake water as we approach.
We cross the cove. It takes us less than a minute – six forward strokes and three J strokes. I watch the shoreline for birds and other wildlife. We’ve seen green herons, pileated woodpeckers, osprey, geese, wood ducks, mallards and yellow warblers.
I’m unconsciously filtering frog and human sounds while trying to pay attention to bird sounds.
“Green frog” my daughter says.
“What?” I reply, mildly annoyed.
“Listen” my wife instructs. Then, in the reeds at shore’s edge, I hear the unmistakable banjo twang of a green frog. As always, my daughter was right and she was paying attention (what have I missed?). With a little imagination, I hear the green frog saying “good-bye” as we pass by.
We paddle north, along the western shore. An osprey flies overhead, alighting in a dead tree to survey the lake for an evening meal. The trees along the shore shade our boat trip; the eastern shore is bathed in the remaining rays of the golden hour’s sun.
The lake is shaped like a crude ‘Y’ and we enter the northwest cove. One painted turtle remains on a partially submerged log, unaware the sun has set in this cove. As we approach, the turtle slips into the water and I watch the wake created as it swims six feet away from the log. The turtle’s head then pops up and he observes our progress around the cove. I’m reminded of the diving spotted turtles in David Carroll’s book “The Year of the Turtle”.
For five minutes, we drift in silence, observing the world.
“Oh, look!” my daughter whispers. An unidentifiable bird flits between trees where the branches meet the water. Somehow, in the perfect quiet of the evening, my daughter knows her whisper carries more strength than a shout.
I turn the boat back to the marina. Taking care to make the dip-swish of the paddle silent. My wife’s forward strokes join my J strokes as we enter the open water. Four minutes later, we are back to the marina.
Getting out of the canoe, we exactly reverse the sequence for getting into the canoe.
My wife packs the car as I lock the canoe to the parallel timbers. My daughter climbs into her car seat as I watch the sun setting over the lake. I turn my back and head to the car.
“Good-Bye…Good-Bye…Good-Bye” twangs a green frog.
Growing up, I remember my mom’s tales of spring time in New Hampshire – roads slick with the smashed bodies of spring peepers; drivers navigating turns as if black ice covered the road. For some reason, these tales made me want to hear and see spring peepers. These tales also instilled a love of all cold blooded animals (the ones with four legs at least).
In third grade, I found a male box turtle that I named Boxer. Not knowing how to care for box turtles, I decided the best plan of action was to call the Philadelphia Zoo and ask their reptile experts. The zoo’s employees were quite helpful and for the next four years I kept three box turtles: Boxer, Shelly and Mr. Dinosaur.
The turtles hibernated in the leaf pits, swam in a foil tray of water and ate bugs and ground beef. Eventually they escaped their enclosures to return to the woods directly behind my house. At about this time in my life, I began noticing the opposite sex and my interest in cold blooded companions waned but never disappeared.
Never did I want to risk the life of a delicate creature such as a frog, toad or tadpole until my wedding day. I was mowing my parent’s lawn in the morning and I found a three legged toad. Unsure what accident befell this small fellow, I decided an appropriate name was Moe. He lived with my wife and I in a terrarium for six years.
As an adult, I feel I now spend more time in the woods than I did as a child. Weekly my daughter and I go to the farmer’s market and then on a woodland expedition/adventure (expedition if it’s raining, adventure if sunny). We venture many places around our town: Bear Meadows, Little Flat Top Mountain, and The Kombucha Water Place (the spring on Three Bridges Trail) to name a few. One day in April, she and I ventured to Bear Meadows.
Bear Meadows is a fen wetland surrounded by mountains. I enjoy hiking and trail running around the wetland. Low- and high-bush blueberries grow along the trail and through the fen. The rocky trail stays wet for long periods of time resulting in some pretty epic muddy spots. The most beautiful view in all of Pennsylvania is standing on the bridge at Bear Meadows facing the fen while the sun is setting over Little Flat Top mountain.
On this particular April day, the noise from the spring peepers was physically-hurting-your-ears loud. The video above does not do justice to the cacophony. As we walked by the vernal pond, the peepers closest to us would quiet until we passed.
Two weeks later, we were again on an adventure, only this time to the large pond in the Scotia Game Lands. She and I have seen a family of geese, heard woodcocks, and caught salamanders at this pond. However, on this day, our normal salamander spot had been taken over by hundreds of tadpoles.
Seeing or hearing frogs and toads always makes me smile, bringing me back to my childhood and reading all the Frog and Toad stories. For some reason, the image of Toad covered in melting ice cream with two horns of waffle cone is etched in my memory. My daughter now enjoys the stories, not yet reading them to herself but pointing out the letters she knows – P, W, O, M, T, S.
Reading these stories to my daughter allows me to relive my childhood, only to rediscover how special my childhood really was.
A favorite story of mine growing up was “Tailypo” by the Galdones. As an eight year old, I remember a primordial fear of the Tailypo. My daughter loves the story as well, even though she’s not even four. In the world of Circleville, a few tailypos are known to make an appearance; all are bad, but the biggest and nastiest is Rothrock (who also happens to own a coffee shop).
Thinking about the telling of “Tailypo”, I stumbled across this spectacular stop-motion film. It’s worth the seven minutes of your time.
I awoke before my alarm. The sun had yet to color the eastern sky over Mt. Nittany. In the predawn dark, one bird began a solo. A second joined in a duet a minute later. Within fifteen minutes, as the sun began to color the sky orange a multitude of birds joined the chorus, transforming the quiet night, drawing me out of my slumber.
My alarm broke the bird’s cadence, jolting me out of bed. I rose and caught sight of the sunrise. My pre-caffeine brain could only muster an “oh wow” and a quick moment of thanks for the beautiful morning.
The demands of the morning drew me downstairs to start the coffee and begin work for the day. I planned to run in the early morning coolness but my wife and daughter woke earlier than I anticipated, possibly pulled out of bed by the same bird chorus I had enjoyed. My wife announced her intention to run (after a dozen years of marriage my dad’s wedding day advice still holds true: When in doubt, say “Yes Dear”). My run postponed, I completed my morning work while juggling a toddler’s demands for her dad’s attention.
Forty-five minutes later, it was my turn for a run. Late spring humid-morning air, the kind of air that you know brings with it the first of the summer season’s scorchers, replaced the cooler nighttime temperatures. I laced up my shoes, stepped out into the humid morning, told myself the warm temperature would not affect my run and pushed off the curb.
I spotted a flicker within the first mile. The white spot on his back a dead giveaway as he flew.
Entering the woods, the humidity and temperature increased. If the day had been hotter and birds more exotic, I could have imagined I was running on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, passing Banana Quits and hermit crabs.
After two miles of trail running, focusing on my feet to ensure I don’t twist an ankle, I happened to glance up and spot a brilliant red bird with black wings flying through some of the mature oaks. “Scarlet Tanager” popped into my head followed by the question “why?” “Mr. Straight” was the answer.
George Straight, ninth grade biology teacher. As a fifteen year old, I always thought Mr. Straight embodied high school teachers of the 1960’s. He always wore pleated khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt. His shirt was always white. I don’t recall if he wore a tie, but would have a hard time believing he didn’t. Mr. Straight taught biology as if he were a college professor. Gruff and exacting, he required his students to learn how to identify trees, flowers, birds and a fourth organism which I fail to recall. Each quarter, Mr. Straight would test us on our abilities to name the different species. On test day, the biology class room would be darkened, a slide projector set up at the back of the classroom and at our seats, half sheets of paper for our answers.
Mild terror energized me during the first identification test. The trees I think. Mr. Straight sat in the back of the classroom at the slide projector. “Number one” he called. Thirty seconds passed and I heard the click-click of the advancing slides and a new tree to identify would be shown on the projector screen; from the back of the classroom: “Number two”. By far, the trickiest plant to identify was the tulip. The photo to identify was taken from directly above the flower. Only the shadow showed a hint of tulip-ness.
By the time I needed to identify birds, I had learned how to study for the tests. Audubon identification guides had been purchased and weekly I would try to memorize new species. The day of the bird test, I woke early to brush up on my species. I looked outside and a flock of birds was eating the remaining winter-wrinkled crab apples. I knew the birds were cedar waxwings. I felt ready for the test.
I completed my run, smiling, remembering Mr. Straight and ninth grade biology. When I returned home, I asked my daughter for the bird field guide (one of her favorite books) and she and I identified the scarlet tanager. I had been right! Mr. Straight would be proud.
We received a set of identification books as a wedding gift from my grandmother. The books are spectacular and I thoroughly enjoy learning the different species (again) alongside my daughter. While not a ‘reading’ book, the guides are awesome and it never ceases to amaze me how much my daughter learns (and she is rarely wrong).
Blooming crocus, turkey buzzards and robin red-breast signal the early arrival of spring this year. One abnormally warm day in early March, I visited a near-by state park for a run followed by an invigorating dip in the lake. My run took me on a new trail overlooking the bog. As I neared the end of the bog path, an alien wailing hoot stopped me. My attention ripped from the roots and rocks at my feet and out onto the lake. There, floating like downy feathers on tannin-black water, were ninety-two tundra swans.
The run and swim forgotten – replaced with the memory of this one afternoon.
Daily, I ride my bike to and from school. The three and a half mile ride takes me through farm fields being converted to housing developments, along a golf course and through campus to North Commons, across from the Business Building. I change from my riding clothing to my classroom clothing and then finish the ride by crossing the street and locking my bike in front of the Business Building.
During my ride my mind flits from thought to thought in some semi-logical way. The random thoughts remind me of the flight of a honeybee during the summer – flying from clover to clover in a thoughtfully erratic pattern, pausing long enough to drink the sweet liquid sunshine hidden deep in each bloom.
Most times I can not recall my ride; just that I arrived at school ready for class, satisfied with twenty five minutes of quiet contemplation. However, one ride on a cold December morning remains etched in my memory.
In mid-November, we borrowed a copy of Snowflake Bentley from our local library, Schlow Library. My daughter binge reads new books and Snowflake Bentley proved an arresting read. The book describes Wilson Bentley’s life and his quest to photograph snowflakes. The author, Jacqueline Martin, and illustrator, Mary Azarian, described Bentley’s life and drive to photograph snowflakes that I gained a deeper appreciation for the art of snowflake photography.
For three days in early December, spectacular frost covered the earth. Snowflake Bentley caused me to be more aware of this special frost. Each morning the frost was somehow grander than the last.
On the last day of the magnificent frosts, I cruised downhill through a thicket adjacent to a new housing development under a brilliant sun and robin’s egg blue sky. The path through the thicket ends with a hard left hand turn at a farmer’s field before continuing uphill along the field. The most amazing sight awaited me as I exited the thicket.
Frost as thick as feathers covered the flora on the embankment opposite the bike path. The frosty embankment looked like a wave frozen mid-crash. The sun glinted through the frost. Individual plants hid behind the wispy brush strokes of ice. The sun melted the outline of the farmer’s fence into exposed frost.
After passing the farmer’s field, most of the frost had melted under the intense rays of the sun.
As I biked through Hort Woods on my way to North Commons, minuscule shooting stars appeared. Confused, I paused to observe the clear sky – not a snow cloud in sight. Then I noticed the sun-warmed tree tops. As the sun warmed the trees, the frost crystals began to melt and fall to the ground. The reflection of the sun off of each crystal gave the illusion of children’s sparklers on a mid-summer’s night.
I ended my ride, as I always do, at North Commons to change my clothes. As I changed, I thought of Snowflake Bentley and how much he would have appreciated the ice show.
[Note: I started this post a while back, but never posted it. Not sure why. Here it is:]
As I sit here and write at my kitchen table, I’m cold. Even though it’s early June and two weeks past the frost free date, the weather is still cool. I’ve got two long sleeve shirts on but still feel on the verge of shivering. Most people would simply click the thermostat up a few degrees and wait for the fossil fuels to be converted from chemical energy to thermal energy. Convenience.
I feel fortunate to heat with wood. Not only would I have to lug a load of wood inside, but I would also have to start the fire. After the fire has been started I then have to wait some time for the wood stove to warm up, popping and pinging as the metal expands. After the wood stove is warm, the wood stove room warms up; then the next room and, by degrees, the house warms. It is far easier to make a pot of expresso, throw on another shirt and wait for the day to warm up.
I am fortunate to have such a connection to the planet and my place within it. By not walking to a wall, pushing a button and waiting, I am forced to pay attention to the weather and enjoy the pleasures of a warm morning or hot cup of espresso. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to believe that I do a good job paying attention. However, as a father, I’ve learned that I apply a filter to the world.
Much research has been conducted on this subject. As we evolved, our brains were able to detect patterns which alerted us to either a saber-tooth cat in the brush or simply a gentle breeze moving the leaves. We were then able to quickly determine if we need to run or enjoy a cool breeze on a hot summer day.
While this massive filter is a great survival mechanism, I would have missed seeing the pileated woodpecker flying between trees; missed hearing the spring peepers; missed the beautiful sunrise. I would have missed all this while trying to determine if my fight-or-flight mechanism needs to kick in.
One of the beautiful things about having a kid is being able to watch them learn and develop. Mine is now closer to three years old than two years old. She is not as steady on her feet as I am but that doesn’t stop her from enjoying her time in the woods. On one of our trips to the woods, my wife pointed out that my daughter talks to herself when she is walking over rocky/rooty ground. She says “Pay’tention, careful”. I run in the woods. I try to run as quickly as possible over the roots and rocks. My daughter looks at each one, determining the best way to step on or around so she doesn’t trip.
What has she seen that I have missed?
This past weekend my family and I hiked through the local game lands. The dogs relish exploring off-lead and I enjoy watching my daughter explore the new sights, sounds and smells. My daughter wanted to hike through the field in the middle of the woods. Every year someone allows the field to be planted; sometimes corn, sometimes hay, sometimes fallow. This weekend we watched twenty three gold finches flitting among the thistle.
A few years ago my wife gave me the book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone” by Jack Turner. Turner’s writing changed the way I view life. Turner defines ‘paths’ and ‘trails’ differently. Without looking for the exact definition, I vaguely remember ‘trails’ have meaning: they allow a traveler to get from point A to point B in a straight forward manner. ‘Paths’ are fickle; they do not get travelers from point A to point B in the most efficient way, but might veer off the trail to allow the traveler a glimpse of a vista. Paths lend meaning to the trail. Trails grow and become more permanent; paths are ephemeral.
Never had I considered the impermanent nature of footpaths in the woods until my wife and I were hiking a familiar path used as a short cut between two longer trails. A mountain biker materialized out of a section of woods where we had no knowledge of any paths. We investigated the area that birthed the bicyclist and discovered tramped down plants, but no defined path. Following the trampled plants we discovered the beginning of a forest path.
That forest path now forms a more permanent fixture in the woods; local trail maps feature this footpath and disused forest floor is replacing a section of the now-unused shortcut path.
Life reflects this transitory nature of paths. The transition of a baby being carried by mom to a two-and-a-half year old running through the field of thistle serves to magnify this ephemeral nature. Three years ago, sunflowers filled the field as my then-pregnant wife and I hiked with just our dogs. This weekend my daughter pointed to tiger swallowtails and meadow fritillary butterflies. I can’t help but wonder where we will be in three years?
Maybe it is too much to jump from woodland paths to the nature of life, but I don’t think so (neither did Robert Frost). I try to appreciate and celebrate the small changes; caterpillars to butterflies, sunflowers to thistles.
If life is a trail then the small changes are the paths that encourage us to slow down and enjoy what we have.