TWILIGHT KAYAK IDYLL – MID-AUGUST

Entry from the Turning Basin into the D&R Canal

Entry from the Turning Basin into the D&R Canal

My new favorite kayaking hour has become 5:30 p.m.  Although a life-long morning person, the twilight hours have lately come to enchant me on these sacred preserved waters.

Stillness surrounded us, as yet another ‘virgin kayaker’ and I glided out of the Turning Basin at Alexander, heading south on the shimmering D&R Canal.

On both sides, and reflected in curiously profound waters, the banks were still garbed in high summer’s uninterrupted green.  Lush and bountiful ‘wine-dark’ greens negated hard trunks, melded single leaves.  It was as though some mad decorator had strewn enormous sofa cushions all along our route.

At outset, there were few clouds — but that billowy forest did a superb and startling role as stand-ins.  Here and there, the long red throats of trumpet flowers (hummingbirds’ favorites) punctuated the text of the forest.  As clouds arrived, their reflections and those of canalside trees, reminded us first of Monet, then Constable.

The old maritime word, ‘williwaws’, came to mind, as gentlest breezes wrinkled first one side of the water, then the other.

Its color fascinated — various rich tones of grey, beyond pewter to black pearl.  One or two curled gold leaves had somehow materialized, bobbing along like miniature watercraft, turning this way and that against the darkness.

Silence was everywhere.   Time stopped.

Ever since Sandy scoured these historic banks, we have been deprived of many wildflowers and most turtles.  Reparations brought in new stoniness, so far inhospitable to most blooms.  Furious torrents swept all the slanted turtle logs downstream, (up-canal).  Downed trunks have yet to reappear, making it hard for turtles to emerge from the depths, bask in the light.

Marsh mallow was our first floral gift.  Because it was twilight, pink blooms, then later white ones, were “folding their tents like the Arabs.”  Twined, from a distance, these towering hibiscus-like plants seemed more lily than mallow.  I told my (enormously skillful already) kayaking companion, “The Lenni Lenape made a sweet out of their roots, which was white and sticky.  We named marshmallows after those roots.”

Goldenthread vines wove in and out and over and under on the banks to our right.  It seems to smother the plants that it covers.  But late light on gold webs was stunning.  Long ago, a woman from Jamaica told me, “We use this plant to treat prostate problems in my country.”

A few double kayaks of new paddlers gave us pause along this usually empty route.  Their skills led them repeatedly toward the tangled banks, rather than up-canal or down-canal.

I was deeply aware, listening to their laughter, of the sounds we were not hearing — no wood thrushes, though evening.  No kingfisher, rattling in his fishing dives.  Not a goose yet — proving again that we are still in summer’s hands.  Not even a mourning dove, although neither of us unfortunately ever needs to be reminded of mourning.

Only a few round tight golden spatterdock blooms remained among the lily pads.  About the size of ping pong balls, these waterlily blooms will never enlarge.  They seemed to be playing hide and seek in the shadows.

I had alerted my traveling companion to be on the lookout for shy cardinal flower.  Fondest of deep shade, often solitary, these slender stalks hold tiny trumpet-y flowers the color of the bird for whom they are named.  In sunlight, they can be visited by ravening hummingbirds.

She found the first stalk, and most thereafter, until my eyes adjusted to such minuscule splashes of crimson hidden in underbrush.  It reminded me of snorkeling – when you don’t even realize there are tiny fish at first; and then, they are everywhere.  We lost count of cardinal flower last night.

For all the high heat days we have had lately, the canal water was surprisingly cool.  I always dip eager hands into that secret-keeping surface, ritually baptize my legs with her waters.  A certain communion with the canal is essential.

This night was the most contemplative of all my shared ‘rides’.  There is such a thing as ‘walking meditation.’  I think we were given ‘paddling meditation’.  Occasional companionable talk, –of art and of camping, of books — drifted from her chartreuse craft to my cardinal-flower-hued one.

Two deer, mirrored in the canal, strolled down to sip.  Being in their calm presence was either mirage or tapestry.

I had told her, “If we’re lucky, we might see the green heron at this hour.”  Riding tall and proud as a skilled Lenni Lenape, her bright eyes missed nothing.  My friend discovered this wild herald, high overhead, exactly matching leaves in late light.  Silently, it coasted more than flew, from its observatory branch, angling down along the bank to our left.  The lowering sun was taking on subtle flame hues itself, highlighting its coppery feathers.

We had been wondering what would be our turning point.  The green heron was the deity we had awaited.

Heading South from Alexander, 5 to 6:30 on a golden Sunday evening

Heading South from Alexander, 5 to 6:30 on a golden Sunday evening

WOODCOCKING – SEEKING THE ELUSIVE AT MAPLETON PRESERVE

Sometimes, a bizarre pursuit can result in exorbitant pleasure.

Birders know that late March, –as dusk plunges into darkness, in empty fields, even in cold wind and after drizzling rain–, one of the keenest joys of birding can unfold.  Woodcocks, –even right here in Princeton and Kingston and Rocky Hill and Plainsboro Preserve –perform their mating dance at sundown.  Birders strain to hear that characteristic “Peent”, and the odd ascending/descending whirling buzz that alerts those in the know to look up for that short-lived dance, something unique in all the world.

Last weekend, my intrepid friend, Karen Linder, and I trekked from her Kingston house over to Mapleton Preserve.  We were on a woodcock quest.  She had heard them once this season; I not at all.

When you ‘woodcock’, yes, you have your best light-gathering binoculars at the ready.  But a stellar sense of hearing is even more important.

Also warm clothes, layers and layers, because woodcocking involves a great deal of standing around, every nerve aquiver, as silently as possible.

There’s always the sense that this is absolutely impossible.

And absolutely crazy — it’s almost dark out here.  (It never occurred to us to bring flashlights.  I don’t know if they would alarm the birds.)

Whatever you do, you don’t want to interfere with these essential rituals, without which there would be no more woodcocks.

We tromped Mapleton’s expansive fields, like detectives looking for essential clues.

We came upon a noble skeleton of a deer, ribs like antique scrimshaw, hooves still glossy.  One leg and haunch had been carried elsewhere, and by what?  I hoped coyote.

In an adjacent field, we found the elegant skeleton of a fox.  I don’t know what was more arresting — that glowing, still bushy tail, or that stripped head and o! those fangs…

A great blue heron sailed silently above, an exclamation point against the lowering sky.

Here and there, a bustly robin went about final foraging of the day.

We reminisced about the year when Rush Holt began and successfully completed his first run for office, using the lodge-like building that had been essential to Flemer Nurseries on what is now the Mapleton Preserve.  Rush Holt, that rare politician, who gets it that all nature is connected.  Who does whatever he can to preserve habitat in our region.  Who is in his final term now, to our great regret – although we are happy for Rush. 

Maybe politics and woodcocks seem far-fetched to some NJWILDBEAUTY readers.  But no — without crusading and courageous champions, those fields we were traversing would be concrete and buildings and parking lots and lights that shine all night.  It’s a miracle that this handful of acres stretches golden in last light, shorn and welcoming to woodcocks in their dance.

Suddenly, Karen stiffened, pointed toward a shadowy row of trees.  “Hear that?!”, she exulted.

I missed her sound, but heard my own in trees across another field, –in fact, near the famous allee of Flemer gingko trees.  It wasn’t so much a “Peent”, as the sound of my children’s hushed “neat”, in their teen years — the way modern teenagers almost whisper “cool”.  the more whispery, the more important.

Then a small zippy slate-colored something zoomed over our heads going west.  Something else did the same going the other way.

“Neat”

“Peent”

“Neat”

“Peent”

zip

zoom

All color had left the sky, except a hint of tinfoil.  So we could see no field marks, only woodcock silhouettes.  And very determined they were.

A single charcoal-blue cloud stretched across a backdrop of tarnished silver — a cloud exactly like a mackerel, crossed with a whale.

We tiptoed.

We craned our necks.

We cocked our ears.

A few more zips and peents.

And then it was time to make our almost blind way home.

Something about the sheer outrageousness of our quest conferred profound drama and dignity to our hour in the field.

Something like this would have occasioned my mother’s one profanity, “No other damfool.”…

That’s just the point.

We were out there in the bitter cold, and winds so strong the woodcocks could not create their DNA-spiral dance, because we honor those birds, their wildness and their traditions.

And because we were among those brave committed souls who said, “The Princeton Nursery Lands must be saved.  Attention must be paid.”  Those ghastly hours at those loaded hearings, the grave discouragements, our seemingly futile arguments with frankly pompous experts determined to develop, were not in vain.

Because of preservation, on that cold March night, in Mapleton’s preserved fields, we were in the presence of woodcocks.