Matthew Dickerson: With a sense of wonder

My wife and I got out canoeing this week for the first time this year. We made our way onto Bristol Pond (a.k.a. Winona Lake) with our canoe, two paddles, two life jackets, one water bottle, a cell phone camera, a slathering of sunscreen (already applied), and a sense of wonder.

The sense of wonder was important. Almost as important as the canoe, the life jackets, and the paddles. More important by far than the camera. More important on this particular trip even than any of my fishing gear, which — although I usually carry it with me anytime I’m on the water — I decided to leave at home in order to concentrate on the time with my paddling partner and on the opportunity for wonder.

On the one hand, it’s felt like life has kept us too busy this spring to get out in our canoe (or anywhere else, for that matter). On the other hand, our feeling today was that life has kept us too busy not to get out at least for an hour. Although the unseasonably hot weather this week has reminded us of the impending summer, the hillsides around the county still hold the fresher colors of May when the foliage is still that soft yellowish hue with tints of red. It’s green to be sure, but not yet dark summer green. Everything looks brighter and newer right now.

Spring happens each year, and each year it transitions to summer. Nonetheless, seeing the process unfold in front of us like the pink and white petals on our apple tree, or the delicate white blossoms of Dutchman’s britches that bespeckle our hillside, is a bit like admiring that first snowfall of autumn; it wakes us up more fully with a new sense of wonder, as though it were the first spring of history.

Paddling out from the Bristol Pond Boat Ramp, we soon came upon a large family of sandpipers. I counted 14; there might have been more. They stood on a little clump of grass in the middle of the marsh using their long, pipe-like beaks to pluck something out of the muck. What a cool bird that has beak nearly as long as its body! They seemed unperturbed by our passing. Which is more than we could say about the pair of Canada geese we passed later. They were quite perturbed. After honking their annoyance at us, they took off to the far corner of the pond honking as they went. While on the shoreline not far away, phoebes sat on branches near redwing blackbirds, occasional flying in little loops to snag insects out of the air. They all, in their way, inspired wonder.

So did the pair of water snakes we saw slithering their way across a patch of open water near the west shoreline. They would have been wise, my wife suggested, to get closer to the brushy shoreline as quick as they could. She suggested that because we had just seen a great blue heron — a big bird, simultaneously marvelously graceful and strangely awkward, which always fills me with awe and wonder no matter how many I’ve seen before. It lifted up from the marsh to our right and winged off toward the distant trees. The snake would have made a good meal for a big bird.

Sort of like the fish — a small bass or a very large panfish — that was soon going to make a nice meal for the osprey in whose talons it had found itself. The osprey was perched atop an old, dead tree in the middle of the water. We glimpsed it from some distance away. Not until it we got closer, though, and it took off from the lake and headed toward the trees, did we see the meal it was holding in its talons.

And speaking of fish, that brings me to perhaps the most wondrous moment of the paddle, and the only instant when I might have briefly regretted not bringing any fishing rods. Paddling up one of the little side channels near the southwestern corner of the lake, I was enjoying watching the many little bluegill swimming underneath me when I saw a much larger fish hugging the bottom near a patch of grass. It was northern pike in just two feet of water. This past summer in Alaska, I landed a four-foot northern pike and another that was over 40 inches. Although this Bristol Pond pike was not quite of that awe-inspiring size, it was still a good 30 to 34 inches. It definitely would have put a good bend in a rod had I been able to entice it to taste one of my flies or lures. What brought out the wonder on this day, though, was simply that it let us paddle right past it, almost close enough to prod it with our paddles. (We didn’t try.) It just sat there, presumably waiting to ambush one of those bluegills that were also swimming around. It seemed as unperturbed by our presence as the sandpipers.

The pike was gone when we paddled past again a minute or two later. But the sense of wonder remained.

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