Matt Dickerson: Paddling on fall's quiet lake waters
There are many things I look forward to every fall. Apples. Apple pie. Apple cider. Cider donuts from Happy Valley Orchard. Also autumn vegetables. Fall foliage. Chilly mornings. Warm afternoons that follow chilly mornings. Cool evenings. Spawning brown trout, brook trout and landlocked salmon.
And very high on that list: fall afternoons paddling our canoe around the local lakes.
Growing up, I usually thought of spring and summer as the months for canoeing. Spring was when I canoed rivers, because the water was higher. Many of my favorite New England rivers are small to medium-sized waters too low to paddle in the summer — not without frequent stops to haul the canoe over gravel bars. You have to catch these rivers in May and early June, or maybe even late April, for a good paddle. Water is also cooler then, meaning the trout fishing is better. My earliest memories of canoeing are on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in Maine in mid-May about two weeks after ice-out. I was eight years old with my father. We were fishing for the big brook trout that came into the rivers out of the deep lakes for only a few days each year to chase spawning smelt.
Summer was the month for paddling lakes. In July and August I paddled in a swimsuit and T-shirt. The pace was leisurely. I could stop and watch loons and osprey. If I got hot, I’d pull over to some nice rock and jump into the water. Summer paddles in the morning when the turtles were just coming out to warm up on rocks, or in the late evening when the sun was setting, were favorites. Canoeing excursions were often combined with camping trips.
Now, however, it is fall canoeing I look forward to the most. Although the fishing may not be as good as in the spring, the water temperature has dropped considerably from the summer and cold-water fish are once again closer to the surface. I will often bring two rods with me. I’ll rig one for trolling, tying on a streamer fly, or if I want something with more action I’ll use a Rapala or a wobbler. I leave the rod in a holder bolted to the side of the canoe within easy reach, or just sitting between my legs leaning over my shoulder as I paddle. I’ll bring a second rod for casting, in case we canoe past a fishy looking area like the mouth of some tributary stream or river.
But much as I enjoy fishing from a canoe, it is not the primary draw of fall paddling for me. Certainly something of the attraction has to do with the foliage. Show me a Vermont lake and I will show you a body of water at least partly encircled by wooded hills. That’s the beauty of living in the Green Mountain state. It is almost 80 percent forested, and nowhere is it flat. That is to say, nowhere is it flat except on the surface of a lake. And paddling out on those flat lakes can provide the best panoramic vistas of the surrounding hills.
Or, rather, the best two panoramic vistas. Because on a perfect fall day — the kind where the lake is like glass — you get to see every wooded hillside twice: once right side up, and one upside down but every bit as vibrant in its crimsons and yellows and fiery oranges.
And that gets to perhaps my favorite part of fall paddling. For the most part, Vermont lakes are also much quieter in the autumn than in the summer. A few pontoon boats may putter around the bigger lakes, but the water-skiers, wake-boarders, knee-boarders and other big outboard motor thrill-seekers have packed it up for the year. I may not be motivated to jump in the water, but I also don’t have to continually contend with the wakes of passing boats, or shout over the roar of 125 horses to carry on a conversation with my wife.
This past weekend my wife and I escaped the busyness of our daily lives, made our way down to Dunmore, and paddled all around the north end. The foliage had not yet reached its peak down here in the valley; the hills were not yet as fully aflame as we expect them to be in a few more days. But there were enough trees engulfed in vivid color to continually draw our eyes, or to cause us to point out to each other with our paddles some particularly stunning specimens.
It was the sort of day that plants itself in the memory like a photo in a favorite album. The sort of day that will keep us from ever selling our canoe, even if that were the only day all year we used it. The sort of day that will have us looking forward to fall again next year.