My first experience of kayaking occurred up at a remote lake in Michigan, where I was a guest of BVC alumna Jessica Freely. Jessica owns a canoe, and this I took out on the lake, with her sister-in-law sitting the the back of the canoe, and self in the prow using the paddle. The paddle worked wonders and I remember Jessica telling me that she’d gotten one off of globosurfer.com. I was surprised to find next day that after two and a half hours on the lake, I felt no ill effects, not even shoulder stiffness. The lake is small but gloriously outfitted with loons, ravens, sandhill cranes, and an assortment of ducks and herons of the most ornamental. Her crows played copycat with me. It was magical.
The following morning I was encouraged to go out alone at dawn in what Jessica calls a kayak, but I would call rather a streamlined and miniature pedalo for one, with very low-key paddles hidden under the hull and a tiller more like a dial on the side of the boat. On the other side is a long-handled, double-headed paddle, for use when the underwater paddles get entangled in water-lily stems. One of the virtues of this craft is that it is absolutely silent, and moves with barely a ripple.
I embarked before first light, while mist still lay thick on the water and the opposite shore was black with undistinguished trees I struck out as far as I could into the center of the lake and stopped there, watching and listening to the lake wake up. A trio of sandhill cranes came overhead like 747s, making their ungodly warbling trill bounce off the water and trees from all sides of the lake. I heard a raven croak on the far side.
Not far from me, out in the middle of the water, I noticed a group of loons doing something intently. The day before, I’d spotted muddy-looking young loons in shallow water, far from where my friends and I were paddling. This time I was quite close. These loons had all the striking black and white markings of adults. Surely and smoothly, they swam in a tight circle less than six feet in diameter. Every now and then, a loon would dive into the center of the circle and vanish, and a little while later one would pop up to the surface and rejoin the circle. The same loon? A different one? I’d say there were six loons, after careful watching and counting. The whole thing smacked of the occult. After a while I felt I was intruding on a private and unquestionably magical ritual peculiar to loons, and ought to move the hell on before I offended. So I moved on.
The crows awoke a good twenty minute later than the ravens. They played copycat with me over the water, as I tried to imitate their tone, percussive accents, and number and articulation of calls. One young crow seemed highly entertained by the whole thing. It hadn’t much vocabulary, but it was intensely amused to get this weird echo off the lake…me. I saw a raven, twice, but far off. My life’s luck hasn’t let me see many ravens.
This lake was largely unsettled, although there was a spit of land thrusting into the water at one end with an impressively large, low house on it and a green lawn manicured all the way down to the water’s edge.
Another tiny island not far from there had a tall pine on it, not looking healthy, possibly because there was a huge ball of mistletoe quite close to the top of the tree, turning it from a cone shape into a lollipop shape.
I watched the mist move around on the water for a long time, hearing fish leaping and splashing nearby, and the songs of jays, cardinals, and kingfishers. I finally went in when the first speedboat started up—why don’t those clowns sleep longer? On the shore I saw footprints of summer residents’ dogs, deer, coyote, raccoon, and a few marks I was sure were of a big cat. That was pretty thrilling.
I thought this experience would remain a complete anomaly in my skimpy boating history, but this year I got out again on a little lake. Felter and fiber artist Kim Hirschman invited me to come kayaking with her up at Busse Lake, about forty minutes away by car. Busse Lake is a large collection of wonderfully blobby and irregularly linked lakes, located in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, not far from several major highways and a formidable shopping mall. Kim had her own inflatable kayak; I rented a wide-bottom, large-mouth model, having no flaming urge for speed and happy to have the stability. I did reject the paddle they offered me. I’m only five feet tall, but I have considerably stronger arms and core than a ten-year-old who would normally use that dinky paddle. While we inflated Kim’s raft and suited up and signed all the paperwork, a great egret stood like an immense splash of white on the nearest shore opposite us, ignoring us and the mostly foreign tourists who were renting today.
The bird life was pretty good at Busse, in spite of its being in the belly of civilization, compared to the remote Michigan lake. Fish jumped everywhere. Mallards and geese and cormorants ruled. We saw perhaps six great egrets and at least three great blue herons.
Once a peregrine falcon zipped overhead and landed in a waterside tree. It waited long enough for us to get close and identify it; then it was gone into the deep woods.
We passed a tiny island covered with mature hardwood trees, and the hardwoods were covered with cormorants, stretching their wings and drying off after an underwater fishing dip, leaving, returning, occasionally croaking in their low voices. At the foot of their trees stood one great egret and a great blue heron, quite close together, as if they were too tired to fish any longer and willing to share the shore. A small turtle sat on a log near their feet.
The big score was when we spotted a large bird in a tall dead tree near the water. Kim said, Let’s go look. I thought it might be a red tailed hawk…but it was a bald eagle! It took off as we neared it, carrying a big fish in its talons in the classic eagle pose. It moved across the lake, spiraled low to the treetops, and then disappeared over the trees, soon to return with its big fish still in its grip. Five minutes or less later we saw another eagle coming across the lake. Twice more we were to see eagles, but so far away and at such time intervals that we had no way of guessing whether they were all the same eagle, or two eagles, or three, or four, moving one at a time across the water. That was a thrill for me.
That whole excursion, three hours of it, cost forty-five dollars. Such a deal! I really have to go back there. I’d also like to try some of the little rivers around Chicago. As I write this, the crickets and tree frogs are at it in the back yard, two a.m. and carrying on as if they personally invented sex. The world is beautiful tonight.