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Matt Dickerson: Two days in autumn

Paddling the canoe around Lake Dunmore with my wife has become an annual October outing. If we don’t get our 17-foot Old Towne out at least once while a misty hillside above the Falls of Lana is blurred with red and orange and yellow, autumn feels incomplete.
What isn’t an annual outing is bringing our big black Lab along for the paddle, or being able to go out on the water without a coat or sweater.
On a week in which I had to work late in the evening several times, I managed to escape with my wife for a couple hours on a Friday afternoon. Since the calendar read October, we threw light coats in the car along with paddles and life jackets. We lifted the canoe onto the roof and strapped it down. Last went the dog. Though Coda has not always been eager to go for a car ride, on this day I think he sensed adventure — or at least that we weren’t taking him to the vet. He leapt into the back the moment the trunk was up. We headed south on Route 7.
By the time we had the canoe into the water at the public landing on Dunmore’s west shore, it was clear I wouldn’t need my coat or even long sleeves. It was also clear that the dog was not going into the canoe as willingly as he went into the car. He has gone paddling with us before, happily enough it seemed, but on this day something about the dock spooked him. We could tell he wanted to be in the canoe; he just couldn’t bring himself to leap aboard. Several times he leaned down as if to jump in, then backed off and whimpered. Finally, I got out, and lifted his 75-pound bulk off the dock and set him in the canoe. He calmed down at once and settled his rump into the canoe bottom, only occasionally shifting from side to side to throw off our balance. Off we sent out onto the lake.
My eyes were drawn at once to the far shore, and the wooded hill rising up behind it. Near the shoreline, where tree roots can soak up water, the maples showed off their bright reds. Farther up the slope, thanks either to the dryness of the fall, or the lack of a deep cold, the colors were still muted. We reached the point near the state park, and turned right.
The lake was quiet. There were no motorboats on this autumn afternoon. We saw two people fishing from human-powered crafts and another casting from the shore, but those were the only signs of human activity. Even the gulls were quiet. For the most part, they were gathered in a few dense crowds on floats. Whatever wild party had drawn them together was past its prime, and they just sat quietly on the rafts under the watchful eyes of plastic owls placed out in vain attempts to keep them off. If we paddled too close, or if Coda barked, they squawked at us and flew off, but mostly they ignored us.
As we paddled southward, a light breeze came up in our faces. We paddled into it, knowing the trip back would be faster. I heard the high-pitched peep of a bald eagle, and thought I caught a glimpse of its white head on a dead tree on the island. It was too far away for a good picture. When we reached the cove at the south end of the lake, we turned around and started back with the breeze. As we paddled closer to the island, the eagle’s tree was empty. I looked to the skies, and saw it soaring high over the ridge on the eastern shore.
Two hours after we put into the water, we neared the cove by the landing where our car awaited. A small group of college students — two of whom we recognized — were just walking out onto a dock to go sailing. We greeted them. Coda greeted them. Then we loaded back up into the car.
The next day the weather turned damp. But Monday, after a couple days of light off-and-on precipitation, heavier rain settled in. The local rivers, which have been running low and warm through this unusually dry and unseasonably toasty fall, would soon be rising, or so I suspected. The influx of water might be enough to start the larger brown and brook trout into motion on their annual migrations upriver in search of redds (spanning beds) for their fall spawn — an event even more annual and predictable than my canoe trip on Dunmore.
I called a friend. We packed our rods and hit the river for another late afternoon outing. After sliding into my waders, I put on a raincoat, and then donned my fishing vest on top of that. Almost at once I was too hot. I took off the raincoat preferring to get damp from rain than from sweat. We waded out in the Middlebury River.
The river had come up higher and quicker than I anticipated. Between the fallen foliage swirling downriver and the mud stirred up by the rain, visibility in the water was only a couple feet. I’d have to bring my fly pretty close to the fish — which, I managed to do several times. Four times, in three different holes, my streamer fly elicited a swirl just below the surface. The fish were not huge, but I still would have enjoyed landing them. However, all four times they either missed my fly or just decided at the last second to turn around.
The fifth time proved a charm. Just minutes before I had to turn and go home, a brown trout with a rich golden hue struck my fly and I was able to bring it in. It was only about 14 inches long, and I guessed from the size it was one of this year’s stocked fish. Yet it had a good girth for its length. It definitely had bent my pole more than any of the fish I didn’t catch.
My second October ritual at least partially accomplished, I headed back home, thankful for life In Vermont.

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