I had two, rare, days in a row off. I shopped for dog biscuits, a portable hard drive (the desktop is making weird noises: I envision its guts imploding like a second Big Bang). I think about throwing a boat into the water. I think about a kid who wanted to go out on an adventure. I call.
"Hey, we were just thinking about you, in fact, Danielle mentioned that we should call you..."
I heaved the spare boat out of the backyard and onto the roof of the mighty van Fearaf ("Wolf Spirit" in one of the Elvish languages of J.R.R. Tolkien). I heaved Finrod's (the spare boat: it's a blond and user friendly) gear boxes out of the basement where I had stowed them that morning (after sitting on the porch for a week). I got lost six times before I found Danielle's house (really really getting one of those dashboard GPS thingies).
She climbed in armed with a swimsuit (contrary to Inuit belief, kayaking is not a dry sport), a Tinkerbell fleece (works when wet), and shoes that weren't flip-flops. We set forth, took two wrong turns and finally found Pinchot Lake.
We launched into a grey lake, pockmarked with drizzle. In the opinion of the fishermen launching bass boats and jon boats, it would remain drizzle, not a thunderstorm or a mighty downpour. We set off up Beaver Creek in deepening twilight. No beavers appeared (they're crepuscular, so it was their time), perhaps the random splashing and zigzag course Danielle was setting scared them off. I'd put her in Makenuk's Fin, a seventeen and a half foot blue plastic Perception Sea Lion; a long, narrow sea kayak with a flat bottom and a rudder, sleek, efficient, fast. It turns like a tank. Finrod is a Mainstream Tango; a bright yellow sit-on-top, a bluff bowed beamy raft Huck Finn would have been proud of. You can load in kids, dogs, and dance on the gunnels.
Finrod vs Turtle; turtle wins.
Danielle glided alongside, then slightly ahead, then slightly behind, then into my side, bounced off, slid the other way, lurched, splashed...
She was doing pretty good for her first time in a real kayak. We threaded our way up Beaver Creek, searching for wood ducks, owls, beavers, deer coming down to the water. The geese and wood ducks would no longer be guarding nests. Wood duck nest boxes stood empty. Turtle rocks were devoid of turtles. "Where did they go?" She asked. I don't know where turtles go at night.
A kingfisher flashed out of the trees and fluttered down the bank, a flash of sky blue. The owls were silent. Often you can hear the barred owls calling from these woods: "whooo! Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaaaalllllll!" With my other headlamp in red LED mode, the eyes of fishing spiders glow like red gems from the banks, where they skate on the water's surface. Now I catch a few glimpses of faint green glows, like faerie fire.
We straggle back out of the Eurasian milfoil. Danielle has noted a sign at our put-in which shows a few spots along the lakeshore where we should "not fish or boat". A weevil has been introduced there to eat the invasive milfoil. We dutifully paddle around the spot in the dark, under the bridge, where we howl like wolves, the echoes bouncing off the concrete. Geese fly over, sounding like distant hounds.
Out on the lake a big bird lifts off of the water, trailing long legs.
"Look, a heron." Danielle says.
I watch it lift, circle. It seems pale for a Great Blue Heron. It tilts and a wing reflects sky. A white wing. "Wow, that's a Great Egret!" I say. Not as common as the blues. I've forgotten my glasses, so the white flash of egret becomes a blur and vanishes. I think I see two, standing along the shoreline, flashes of white in the growing dark.
"Those are posts."
We drift down the night lake, Danielle discovering the zen of kayaking, and that it's much harder to paddle in a straight line than it looks. A flash of sparkly red appears over the treeline; fireworks (I learn later that the local stadium is having a celebration). We nearly trip over a Great Blue Heron, fishing on a rock. He and the rock are grey against grey, only Danielle's dive light illuminates him at the last minute. He lifts off with a startled graaaack!
We drift past the campground, and it smells like summer and hot dogs and marshmallows. Mysterious light glint through the trees; fires? Lanterns? Cars? Martians?
We poke along the edges of the lake. Bats perform an air show around us and we turn on our lights which attracts even more bugs for them. We find more fishing spiders. At least one becomes an unwelcome guest in Danielle's boat. I expound on the virtues of bats and spiders (they eat bugs). We pass along the wooded shore and another bird flies out. Danielle sees this one, I only hear the distinctive craack! of a Green Heron, higher pitched than the Great Blue's.
The water is perfectly still, our boats' bows wrinkle it in perfect V-shapes. The treelines are darkest black, the water pewter to match the sky. A flash lights the sky to the south.
"Is that lightning?"
"I think so."
"Maybe it's only more fireworks." I ponder the sky for a minute, then turn around. We drift back, in no hurry, but with one eye on the sky, and a couple of ears too. Past the campground smokefires, Danielle wobbling into me as she tries to navigate in the dark. She turns on the Mighty Ikelite Mini C dive light (a mini spotlight with an intense beam) and stabs the shrubbery with it, then the underwater realm of the weedbeds below us. We wander back to the dock, lit by a single pole light in that pinkie-orange sodium vapor color. We pull the boats up on the boat ramp, Danielle bails out and notices things under her feet. She shines the dive light into the few inches of water that still floats half the kayaks.
I come over and shine my tiny headlamp into the water beside her. There are crayfish, scuttling away. The flash of tiny minnows. The darker wriggle of something decidedly creepy.
"Baby catfish." She says with authority. I watch and find another wriggler. It pauses; sure enough, I can see the bright small eyes, the whiskers. She makes several attempts and finally catches one in her hand; it's golden, not like the very tiny catfish in the baby ball at the diving quarry, guarded by two parents. This is golden with dark edged fins and those miniature whiskers. She releases it and it wriggles away, bonelessly, totally unlike a normal minnow. We poke farther along the shore; find tiny water bugs, and bugs that don't belong in the water; walking sticks. We pull a bunch out of the lake, scooping them up on our hands, depositing them back on the grass. At least a few of them weren't even on the surface, they were swimming underwater!
Crayfish, large and small and smaller abound. More tiny catfish, minnows, snails. No frogs, I can never find frogs. I head downbeach, peer with my light into the grassier edges. A big grey shape comes into sight, lurking in a few inches of water, a branch behind it, its nose pointed toward shore. A footlong fish, motionless.
"It looks dead." I say.
"It's sleeping." Danielle asserts. She goes fishing with her aunt a lot. My experience with fish is from the other side of a dive mask.
"Dead." I'm really sure. "You can't see the eyes."
"I don't think they can close their eyes." I say uncertainly.
"Sleeping." Danielle says, "poke it."
At this point the ick factor creeps in. Dead fish, bleargh. I pick up a twig, twiddle the water experimentally in front of the fish.
"See..." The fish explodes upward, outward and is gone.
We pack up the boats, her aunt shows up, wondering if we've drowned or something. No, you know how these things go. In a kayak, there is no cell phone. No Gameboy. No time. Just the zen of being in the moment, of taking notice of the flash of white of an egret's wing, of the voices of geese overhead, of what's in the drain holes under the bridge (spiders, and something that looks like bird nests), and of walking sticks who swim and carp who play dead.
Postscript: the "walking sticks who swim" turn out to be water scorpions, harmless water bugs (no relation to actual scorpions) whose pointy rear end (actually a breathing snorkel) suggests the desert bug.