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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Paddling Naturalist

Life on the Edge

By Tamia Nelson

September 11, 2007

The liveliest spots in the natural world are the places where one environment butts up against another. Hedgerows. Shorelines. The untidy margin separating forest and field. You'll find a lot of comings and goings in places like these. They give new meaning to the expression "life on the edge." Maybe that's why I love messing about in the shallows of streams and ponds. Water lures birds and animals to drink or feed or hunt, while the invisible world beneath the surface roils with endless drama. Romance and regeneration, intrigue and deception, conflict and death — they're all happening right under the keel of your boat. And the cast in this never-ending production is as bizarre as anything you'll see in the latest techno-action-thriller. It just might be the greatest free show on earth.

Yet it usually plays to an empty house. Why? Well, to begin with, many paddlers never look, and even the few who do are often handicapped by not knowing where and how to find the action. That's not surprising. Unlike the "charismatic megafauna" — the large furred and feathered predators who star in so many TV nature shows — the tiny creatures who inhabit the shallows don't get much prime-time exposure. And then there's what you might call the Ick Factor. Muck, slime, and creepy-crawlies are a definite turn-off for many folks. This is understandable, I suppose, but it's their loss, nonetheless. The secret world of the shallows is fascinating, and it's a secret that anyone can share. So let's peep behind the scenes, beginning with the larvae whose adult alter egos are known to almost every paddler and angler: blackflies, mayflies, stone flies, damselflies, dragonflies, and caddis flies.

First, though, a brief personal aside: I haven't always been intrigued by what goes on beneath the water's surface, and insect life didn't much interest me as a child. I never chased after butterflies or hankered to pin a neatly labelled collection of beetles to cardboard display mounts. But later in life, not long before I started college, I did a stint as a technician in a biological field station. I was hired to nurture laboratory populations of blackfly larvae, in order that new and better ways could be found to poison their descendents. That project wasn't a great success, however. The blackflies proved more than equal to the challenge, and generations of their offspring have since revenged themselves on me. But my time wasn't entirely wasted. Every now and then, my duties also took me out of doors, where I helped to survey stream insect populations. The subsequent days spent squinting through a microscope and battling formalin-induced headaches weren't much fun, I admit, but I came away from the job with a deep appreciation for the wonderful diversity of aquatic life-forms. And ever since then I've found the ebb and flow of insect life under my keel almost as engaging as the antics of waterbirds and avian songsters. The years I spent tying flies only deepened my enthusiasm.

What about you? Are you, too, intrigued by the idea of exploring the hidden subaqueous world? It's true that summer is nearly over in Canoe Country, but there's still plenty of life left in the shallows. All you need to embark on a voyage of discovery are …

A Few Good Tools

The list is short (and the starred items are optional):

  • An observant eye
  • A healthy bump of curiosity
  • Hand lens or magnifying glass
  • One or more field guides
  • Notebook and pencil
  • Sketchbook*
  • Camera*
  • Diver's mask*

The first two items are the most important, of course. Without curiosity and an educated eye, there's no point in getting your feet wet. Best of all, both of these essentials are free. And what about the rest? Well, I've written a whole column about the uses of a hand lens, but here's the executive summary: If you don't have one, get one now. They're cheap (prices start at under US$10), and they do almost as much to widen your world as a good pair of binoculars. A 10X Hastings triplet is ideal.

Field guides? Farwell and I own 30 or more between us, but you'll probably get along fine with a much smaller library. Three that I've found particularly useful are Donald J. Borror's Field Guide to the Insects of America, Donald Stokes' Observing Insect Lives, and W. Patrick McCafferty's Aquatic Entomology, though the last of these is mighty big for a field guide. Better leave it at home. A fourth volume merits special mention: Anne Haven Morgan's Field Book of Ponds and Streams. It was published almost 80 years ago, but it's still one of the most comprehensive — and handiest — guides to freshwater life. There are many excellent local and regional field guides, too, some of them just the right size for the pockets in your fishing vest. Ask any anglers among your friends for their recommendations, and don't neglect the offerings of state and provincial wildlife agencies, both in print and online.

Notebook and pencil? I don't leave home without 'em, and neither should you. You'll need both if you want to keep a trip journal, after all, and a notebook is must-have gear for any amateur naturalist, afloat or ashore. Size matters here. Five by seven inches is about the minimum if you plan on sketching what you see, though four by six is better than nothing. Either size fits nicely into the pockets of most vests and getaway packs. Are you an artist? Then bring along a sketchpad, a good selection of pencils in varying degrees of hardness, and — for the painters among you — a basic inventory of brushes and watercolors (or oils). Or are you a photographer? Then don't forget your camera — and be sure to store it in a waterproof bag. A transparent waterproof housing is nice to have, too.

You say you're not an artist? No matter. Every explorer will find a sketchpad or camera invaluable. No field guide can ID all the creatures you'll find in the shallows of even the smallest pond. But if you make a sketch or take a photo, you can continue your voyage of discovery when you get home.

And what about the diver's mask? Snorkeling is a great way to explore the underwater world, though the visibility in many lakes and ponds is limited to a few feet. Even if you never intend to get your face wet, however, you can use your mask as a viewing tube. Simply hold it so that the lens is just under the water's surface. You'll find that the distortions produced by ripples disappear as if by magic. Don't let your mask fill with water, though, or the effect will be lost.

One more thing. It's not on my list, but proper footwear is a must: Wellies, waders, or watersports shoes or sandals will all do fine. The important thing is to wear something on your feet. Only the brave (or foolish) wade barefoot.

OK. So much for gear. Now only one question remains …

Where Am I to Go?

The short answer? Anywhere you'd want to wade or paddle, from placid farm ponds to the most turbulent mountain torrents. Farwell and I once watched at a distance as a mallard hen and her intrepid brood scrambled up and down a stony waterfall, stopping here and there to graze greedily on what looked like moss. Until that day, I'd thought mallards were rather unadventurous creatures, more at home on Golden Pond than lively mountain freshets. But after I'd seen one chick swept 30 feet downstream, only to be led quickly back to the brood by its ever-watchful mum, I had to rethink my assumptions. And even bigger surprises lay in store. When we'd dug our binoculars out of our packs, we discovered that the "moss" that the mallards found so tasty was in fact a living carpet of blackfly larvae, tiny cigar-shaped animalcules with swollen holdfasts on one end and constantly moving mouths on the other. (You'll find a picture on page 269 of the 1970 edition of Borror's Field Guide.) These larvae — anglers who fish the Black Gnat pattern have been imitating them all their lives, whether they realize it or not — are filter feeders, deploying strainerlike cephalic fans in currents to entrap floating food particles, which the larvae then sweep into their mouths. No current? No blackflies. That explains why you won't find blackfly larvae in a farm pond.

All in all, quite a few long-held assumptions crumbled away in the course of that sunny Adirondack afternoon, while Farwell and I watched the mallards feeding among the rocks in the waterfall. I'd often cursed blackflies when paddling on northern rivers, and (as I've already mentioned) I'd played a small part in one of many fruitless attempts to poison them out of existence. Now that I knew their larvae were a much-valued, protein-rich treat for mallard chicks, though, I began to take a more tolerant view. Don't get me wrong. I still curse and swat my way through May and June. But I'm also very glad that efforts to exterminate the race of blackflies have led nowhere. If eliminating blackflies from the world would mean fewer wild mallards, I'm happy to keep swatting and cursing.


As exciting as it is to prospect for insect life among the eddies and currents of fast-flowing streams, however, it's probably best to begin your exploration of the hidden world of the shallows in calmer waters. There, you can just …

Wade Right In …

Without having to worry about being swept off your feet. There are still rules, of course. Most importantly, do no harm. Leave things as you find them. Better yet, when you come across trash left behind by others, take it out with you, especially if it's deadly stuff like monofilament or discarded plastic bags. And wade lightly. If you overturn rocks or lift logs to see who might be living underneath, return them to their original positions as soon as you've satisfied your curiosity.

Ready to get your feet wet? Good! Then wade out into the shallows, or just squat at the water's edge for a bit. Pick a place with plenty of structure: pondweed, cobbles, waterlogged limbs. Now emulate the patient heron. Keep as still as possible. Look beneath the surface. Watch for movement. Fish, crayfish, snails, and frogs are all familiar sights in shallow water. But you're stalking more elusive game, and if you've done a little preliminary homework, you'll soon recognize aquatic beetles and water striders, as well as the larvae of midges, mayflies, caddis flies, damselflies, dragonflies, crane flies, and dobsonflies.

No luck? Then try turning over a new leaf, and while you're at it, check under cobbles and pebbles, too. While some insect larvae roam far and wide along the bottom in search for food, others wait for their meals to come to them, particularly in moving water. Inspect the undersurfaces of leaves, logs, and rocks carefully. And don't be too quick to conclude that nothing's there. Many insect larvae are masters of camouflage. Caddis-fly larvae even build portable shelters for themselves from sand grains, small stones, leaf fragments, or tiny sticks. The upshot? Although what you see will depend on when and where you look, one thing at least is certain — if you're patient and watchful, you're sure to be entertained, even if you won't recognize every one of the actors.

Late summer and early autumn are great times to get better acquainted with the cast of characters on the subaqueous stage. The water's warm, the streams are low, and the biting flies are on the wane. So why not spend a little time poking around on the edge of your favorite waterway? There's abundant life in the shallows. Catch the show before winter brings the curtain down! You won't regret it. Once you're bitten by the bug of curiosity, the fever will stay in your blood forever. Nothing will make it go away. And that's just fine by me.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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