Matt Dickerson: Summer of discovery by canoe, continued

We slid the canoe down into the waters of Otter Creek and turned it parallel to the grassy shore. I held it steady while my wife, Deborah, stepped in, keeping her shoes dry. Since I was wearing water sandals, I had the privilege of pushing us away from shore and stepping in from ankle-deep water. A few seconds later we were paddling up the creek, away from the one-lane bridge and dam.
The sharp peeps of an annoyed osprey alerted us to its presence before we saw the iconic curve of it white-feathered wings soaring over the trees ahead of us, departing its hunting ground at our approach. The great blue heron along the grass banks of the near shoreline was quieter as it lifted its lanky, prehistoric-looking form into the air on a broad majestic wingspan. Much smaller kingfishers chatted from branches hanging low over the water, occasionally plunging down for a little fish, or just moving off to another perch as we approached. “You don’t have to leave,” I wanted to tell them all. “We aren’t a threat.” I was feeling guilty at having spooked representatives of all three species away from their river hunting grounds. But the scene kept replaying itself over the next mile as we continued paddling our way upstream, and my guilt did not get appeased.
Thanks to effortlessness of lifting our new ultralight canoe on and off our car, our summer of discovery of local paddling spots continued. In some sense, it was not really a “discovery.” We have spent the last 30 years living near the shores of Otter Creek, crossing over it on bridges several times a day — sometimes on several different bridges. We follow its course on every trip south to Rutland, or when we meander from Vergennes over to the state park at Button Bay. The river is a familiar neighbor and an important character in the history of the county and the valley.
And yet much of the path of Otter Creek from Rutland all the way down to the falls in Vergennes is hidden from view, and in some cases is largely inaccessible except by boat. There are miles of river flowing through Brandon, Middlebury, Weybridge, etc., that even many long-time area residents have never seen. Many other stretches run through thick woods permeated by quiet and a sense of mystery, or through narrow cuts at the bottom of steep banks. Even the stretches running along the backs of farm fields are relatively quiet beneath the canopy of trees that often touch overhead.
Though I have in the past drifted the river from Brandon to Middlebury on fishing expeditions — before falling trees clogged portions of that float in recent years — I had never paddled it between Middlebury and the confluence of the Lemon Fair. This summer my wife and I have gone a long way to remedying that shortcoming. From Brandon down to Middlebury the river is readily navigable — or it would be except for the aforementioned tree snags — and could potentially be done in a half-day paddle. For several miles downstream of downtown Middlebury, however, the river is fragmented by numerous dams and waterfalls. Trails do offer portages around these obstacles, but even with a lightweight canoe they are often longer than I am motivated to take. However, most of these fragmented sections do offer easy access at one end or another, and many are long enough to make for a nice evening paddle of an hour or even two or three hours depending on the section and how leisurely your paddling speed. Or how often you stop to watch the blue heron. Or on whether you have your fishing rod with you.
On the first of our Labor Day paddles, on the stretch above Huntington Falls, I happen to have my rod along, and at the upper end of the stretch I paused to take some casts. We also paused to watch a family of mergansers, a pair of deer browsing on the shoreline, and a turtle sitting on a log.
On our second paddle of the weekend, I left the rod behind. We worked upstream from the confluence of Middlebury River at the end of Three Mile Bridge Road as late afternoon sunlight streamed past tall thunderclouds to be filtered and softened by the streamside trees before settling on the water around us. We saw no blue heron, but the familiar calls of osprey still provided a sound track, and a bald eagle even larger than its osprey cousins soared overhead. We navigated around several of the big fallen trees that stretched almost across the river. Some had been there so long that flowers were growing on them and soil was beginning to gather. They looked well on their way to becoming islands.
The only thing that slightly marred the excursion were the piece of trash — sometimes rather large — drifting here and there, or stuck against the log jams. But not enough to spoil the sense of quiet and mystery. We wondered that we had never heard of an Otter Creek Paddling Club, (or an Otter Creek Cleanup Day). In any case, despite those occasional bits of unsightly trash, we were already planning our next outing.

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