Matt Dickerson: Canoeing provides outdoor rewards
My wife, Deborah, likes to angle for beavers.
No, not in the same way that I angle for trout. She doesn’t try to catch them. She definitely would not want to hook them, or net them, or get them to try to eat something that looks like food but isn’t.
But when we go out on the water paddling together, seeing a beaver or two is for her a sort of extra reward. This is also true for her of turtles, or osprey, or blue heron, or really any wildlife. But especially beavers.
I recently did a radio interview on my new book with a radio program out of New Hampshire. I had a very enjoyable conversation with the host, and it turned out we had fished many of the same waters over the course of our lives, mostly in Maine but also some out west. He told a story (on air) about a day he spent at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in Arizona — a place I have also spent some time fly fishing. After a day of spectacular scenery of vermillion cliffs rising straight out of the water, and California condors with nine-foot wing spans soaring overhead, a ranger asked him if he’d caught any fish. “Yes,” he answered. “A nice bonus, isn’t it?” the ranger said. I understood my host’s point at once, just as he’d understood the ranger’s point. Appreciating the beauty of the place is a big part of why we fish. Often times, it’s enough. However catching a few fat, gorgeously colored trout is a pretty nice addition.
There have been a few days in my life where all the conditions were perfect and I caught so many fish I lost track. Usually, however, at the end of a fishing trip, I can tell you how many fish I caught (and sometimes even how many I lost), and what type of fly each took, and where I hooked it. It isn’t that I’m intentionally tallying some score, as though the number of fish I catch is critical to the trip being a “success.” I have had more than one steelhead fishing trip where I landed nothing, and still had a great time. It’s more that each individual fish is such a pleasure to dance with for a short time, that the experience is embedded in my memory.
That’s how Deborah feels about beavers and turtles. They are, for her, the bonuses on our canoeing outings.
When we go paddling together, I usually bring a fishing rod with me. We canoe a variety of waters: various sections of Otter Creek in between the local dams, bigger lakes down in the valley like Bristol Pond or Lake Dunmore, and mountain ponds like Goshen Dam. Most of our favorite state parks are also on water, and we bring our canoe when we go camping—taking it for morning or evening paddles. Depending on the water, I might be after pike, bass, trout, or even some rarer fish like a bowfin. The point of the trip isn’t to catch fish. The point is to enjoy the water and activity of propelling a watercraft across it by our own power, to appreciate the beauty of Vermont’s mountains and the shapes and colors of their slopes, or the variety and majesty of trees lining the shorelines: cedars, oaks, sycamore, maples. And especially the point is just to enjoy time together. Sometimes I don’t even bother casting, if the conditions don’t look very promising and I don’t want to make Deborah stop the canoe.
But Deborah always looks for turtles and beavers. As a result of the unusually high levels of Otter Creek, which resulted from the unusual amount of rain we’ve been receiving, our paddling season began this year on Dunmore and Goshen Dam. Dunmore isn’t a great place for beavers. It’s too busy with boat traffic. But we do often see loons there, and bald eagles. And turtles. Our recent trip to Goshen Dam was even more fruitful. Not only did a couple beavers come out and warn the world of our presence by proceeding to slap their tails several times on the water, but we also saw a loon mother carrying a fluffy little chick on her back.
Eventually, after the mud from yet another hard rain settled, we finally made it out on Otter Creek and paddled up from Huntington Falls to the confluence of the New Haven River and the base of the rapids below Belden Falls. I brought my rod and took several casts, in both likely looking smallmouth water and in some water I thought might hold trout. I didn’t catch anything. We did see numerous kingfishers and two families of ducks, both with too many ducklings to number. We listened to wood thrush singing to us from the woods, and watched damselflies and dragonflies dance above the water surface. We marveled at the majesty of some big old riverside sycamores.
Deborah also saw three beavers. But who’s counting?
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