Matt Dickerson: Coping, Part 2: Wildlife noisy on Otter Creek

I heard the osprey before I saw them. Though their high-pitched peeps may be less majestic than their famous talons-first plunges into water from 60 feet in the air, they are loud.
I looked into the sky and spotted the talkative raptor soaring at treetop level, circling its nest with a fish dangling from its talons. Was it excited about its catch? Or had it been disturbed from its nest by our presence or the presence of an angler fishing from the bank nearby?
An answering call brought my eyes across the river to a branch near the top of a tall dead tree, where a second osprey perched with its handsome white, black, and tan body silhouetted against a cloudless blue evening sky.
A few more seconds passed, along with several more answering peeps, before I realized a third and fourth osprey were also perched on the same tree on branches a little lower down. My wife wondered if these were two pairs of osprey out on a dinner date. I thought it more likely a family of four, with mom and dad treating the two teenagers to a fish dinner.
Minutes earlier we had pulled into the little parking area off Morgan Horse Farm Road by the power station below the Pulp Mill Covered Bridge on Otter Creek. Although I had gone fishing here before from the shore — and had watched kayakers paddle around, some fishing, some just playing — I had never actually put a boat in here myself.
However, the delight my wife and I have had paddling around in our new Wenonah Kevlar canoe since we got it for each other for our anniversary, and the ease of lifting the lightweight craft off and on our roof, had motivated us to search for new local waters to explore.
Along with our little morning or evening bike loops (see my previous column), paddling our canoe is our other favorite way of coping with July and August heat in our warming climate. In fact, it was our regular bike trip along that same road that prompted us to put in a canoe at this particular spot.
Every time I rode past the osprey family nesting atop their tall platform, and looked down at the long pool and the wooded shoreline below the power station, I thought that it looked like a nice quiet place for an evening paddle.
Although the size and depth of Otter Creek in theory could make it a nice canoeing river as it flows through Addison County — and the gentle current also, which in summer months is slow enough to allow paddling both upriver and down so that canoers don’t need to coordinate a shuttle pickup — there are not as many places on the river for a good paddle as one might expect.
A series of five waterfalls and dams spread out from downtown Middlebury downstream through the gorge below the Rattlin’ Bridge and the power station at the Quaker Village Road bridge fragment at Otter Creek. But the stretch from below the Pulp Mill Bridge down to the hydro project at Belden Falls, at 1.75 miles in each direction, looked just long enough for a leisurely evening paddle of 60 to 90 minutes, with a convenient put-in at the parking area across from the power station.
I am continually amazed that as I enter my 30th year living in Addison County, and working or living in Middlebury, that the area continues to reveal new secrets and gems. The paddle proved to be a much prettier and more secluded excursion than I had hoped for when I selected it after looking at maps and satellite photos.
Once around the first corner downstream of the power station, the river enters a stretch with wooded banks on both sides, and passes through a sort of shallow cut with high banks that make it feel even quieter and more secluded—especially after the sounds of the boisterous osprey faded.
Not a single house or building was visible on either side for the entire length of the paddle. The steep west bank follows the back side of the Morgan Horse Farm property. The east bank follows the Wright Park property, a nice wooded preserve with a few walking trails that connect up on the northern end with the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) and the corner of the Otter Creek Gorge Preserve.
Not that it was completely quiet. Twenty minutes or so after the calls of osprey faded, we heard another loud sound: a very great splash. Our eyes were drawn toward the sound, where we saw the expanding wave circle caused by some large creature impacting the surface.
There are pike in Otter Creek. Many grow between three and three-and-a-half feet long. My wife’s first thought was that it had been a huge fish taking food off the surface. As an angler, I’m certainly willing to entertain such a notion. And if that splash had been caused by a pike, it would have been a mighty pike indeed.
I had recognized the distinctive sound, however, and I named it. “Beaver.” We hadn’t seen any signs of beaver. No beaver homes, and certainly no foolish attempts of a beaver to put a dam across the entire Otter Creek. Still, I’d spent enough time on rivers to know the sound. A few seconds later I was proved right, when the beaver surfaced not far in front of our canoe.
We both love beavers. My wife especially enjoys them, and will often choose paddles based on the possibility of seeing one. This beaver decided to reward her. As we slowly paddled through that quiet wooded stretch of water, the beaver repeatedly kept surfacing, slapping its tail in loudly dramatic fashion, disappearing and then reappearing for repeated encores. It was almost as loud and raucous as the entire family of osprey, though less shrill.
We reached the top of Belden Falls, noted the signs for the portage in case we ever wanted to attempt a longer one-way paddle with a shuttle, but then turned and headed back upriver past the beavers and osprey — both of which were much quieter on our return trip. Before we were back to the car, I was already plotting a return trip.

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