Messing About in Boats
The Lure of Small Water
By Tamia Nelson
May 6, 2008
Bigger is better, right? Big waves mean big thrills (and occasionally, big chills). Big lakes make for great sailing. And Big Trips give you something to talk about all winter long. But is this the end of the story? No way! Small is beautiful, too. Take ponds. They’re lively, interesting places, open-air theaters where the dramas of everyday life loom large: love and loss, birth and death, hair’s-breadth escapes and tragic endings. Something’s always happening on (or in) a pond, and the action is even livelier if the pond is bordered by a swamp. Ponds are also good places for novice boaters. They’re the paddling equivalent of skiers’ nursery slopes, great places for adult beginners and kids alike. Anglers of all ages love ’em too, of course.
OK. Just what is a pond, anyway? It’s a wonderfully fuzzy word, I admit. On one hand, suburban homeowners like to boast of the “ponds” they’ve had dug in their back yards, failing to mention that they’re no larger than a child's wading pool. At the other end of the scale, weary corporate warriors refer off-handedly to “crossing the pond” from New York to London, shrinking the Atlantic to the scale of a beaver flow. Ask a limnologist, however, and you’ll likely be told that a pond is any body of fresh water that’s both shallow enough for rooted plants to thrive everywhere and too small for waves to grow much beyond the ripple stage. Most ponds have mud bottoms, as well, and this is one of the keys to their secret life. Mud is magic. Few aquatic environments are richer.
So… How about it? Let’s take a closer look at some of my favorite small waters.
As soon as the ice melts each year, I head for the neighboring ponds, where I look (and listen) for the first signs of spring. It can be an anxious time. Though the geological record provides plenty of evidence of life’s resilience, I can’t help but wonder if this won’t be the year when the pressure of human needs and wants will bring the whole wonderfully intricate living web crashing down, a fall heralded by the first silent spring of my lifetime. Happily, though, my nagging fears come to nothing each and every year. The sun advances. Winter retreats. And visible life returns to the waters, its resurgence heralded by a cheery chorus of frogs and toads.
Cheery for me, at any rate. It’s mighty serious business for the little singers, however. The chorus of frogsong is all about sex and survival. But that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the performance. And I learn something new each time around. This spring, for example, I was surprised by the degree of spatial segregation between species in a single pond. Pickerel frogs played the comb in one quadrant, while spring peepers chirped tirelessly in another, and the trill of American toads echoed from the marshy inlet. Not far away, the cackle of wood frogs rang out from a vernal pool within a maple grove. Each species kept itself to itself. I couldn’t see the boundaries separating their respective enclaves, but the borders existed nonetheless, and they were universally recognized by the competing choristers. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Territoriality isn’t uniquely human, after all.
And while we’re talking about vernal pools—strictly speaking, these short-lived pools of snowmelt aren’t ponds, though some are plenty large enough to float a boat—they, too, offer opportunities for exploration and discovery. Since predatory fish don’t cruise these smallest of small waters, they’re perfect nurseries for frogs and salamanders. Ducks also frequent vernal pools, using them as stop-overs on their long migrations, resting and refueling before flying on.
Ducks. What would spring be without these returning voyageurs? The ring-necks are usually the first to come back. Though they prefer big waters to small, their appearance among the drifting pans of ice on the Flow tells me that General Winter is in retreat at last. Before long, I can be sure I’ll spot a pair of wood ducks prospecting for a nest hole in a dead tree at the edge of some nearby pond, while the hammering of a distant pileated woodpecker—the pterodactyl of the North Woods, this striking bird is a year-round resident—tells me that new apartments will soon be available for late arrivals.
The ducks aren’t the only seasonal residents, of course. Among the first to return from down south are male red-winged blackbirds, whose strident konk-ar-EEEEE is accompanied by a flash of scarlet epaulets. Ospreys follow in short order, the old married couples (ospreys separate in the fall but pair up again in spring) reclaiming their untidy nest platforms in the tall white pines around the larger ponds, and then defending them against newlywed interlopers with unshakeable determination.
Winter’s retreat means fresh opportunities for year-round residents, too. Vultures circle languidly overhead, their sharp eyes searching for the bodies of unfortunate animals who fell victim to cold or hunger, and whose remains are now exposed by the melting snow. The vultures travel in family groups, wheeling effortlessly in their endless search for an easy meal, while the skeletal remnants of past feasts litter the forest floor, providing mice, squirrels, and chipmunks with much-needed minerals. In the living web of life, nothing is wasted.
As the sun continues its northward advance, every day brings something new. Songbirds not seen since September suddenly appear, drawn to the thickets which border my favorite ponds. Tree swallows chatter and swoop over the warming waters, skimming just above the surface to graze on early hatches of mayflies. Like the wood ducks who preceded them, the swallows nest in tree holes, though they prefer the smaller cavities left by diminutive hairy and downy woodpeckers to the great caverns excavated by the “pterodactyls of the North Woods.” New notes are added to the spring chorus, too, as aerial voices join the aquatic choir. The clear oh sam peabody, peabody, peabody of the white-throated sparrow and the eastern phoebe’s nasal fee beeee are heard almost everywhere—if you stop to listen, that is. Warblers arrive a little later in the year, flitting through the woods at water’s edge and adding their warbling (obviously!) trills to the evolving music of the season. Then, as night falls, the eerie, winnowing call of a snipe occasionally cuts through the rising mist, an unforgettable whooop whooop whooop produced by a most unlikely instrument: air rushing past a male bird’s outspread tail feathers as he dives from the heights in an effort to attract the attention of a mate.
Back to frogs for a minute. Their brief honeymoon doesn’t last long. Soon another migrant appears on the scene: great blue herons return to the shallows of the ponds, silent stalkers on spindly legs, feasting on fish and frogs and—later in the season—tadpoles. Love and loss go hand in hand in nature.
Turtles, however, have little to fear from herons. (At least I’ve never seen a heron eat a turtle.) Many spend winter buried deep in the mud at the bottoms of ponds. But by May they’re on the move. The females travel long distances overland, searching for sun-warmed sandy soil in which to bury their eggs. It’s a perilous journey. The hard carapace that protects turtles from hungry herons is no match for a speeding car. Despite this, the females aren’t dissuaded by the dangers. I often stop to help one safely across the road—when the turtle in question is a large snapper, it’s a formidable job—and I never fail to be impressed by her single-minded resolution. Do these purposeful mother turtles return to the same spot where they themselves were hatched, like their ocean-going kin? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Their stubborn insistence on the rightness of their course certainly suggests something of that sort.
Chance encounters on the roads aside, ponds are wonderful places to turtle-watch. It’s a treat to float slowly past a raft of turtles as they sun themselves on a half-submerged tree trunk.
Though I always keep my distance—this is good advice for any wildlife watcher at any time of year—I sometimes startle the sunbathers. Then they tumble into the water like so many cascading dominoes, where they keep a wary eye on me from the safety of the weedy shallows.
Notwithstanding sunbathing turtles, dawn and dusk are a pond-watcher’s best bets, as the pace of life in and around the water picks up. It’s a bit like the bustle at a factory gate at shift change. On wet mornings when spiderwebs glisten with dew, I can sometimes hear the rustle of spotted salamanders foraging under leaf litter. Turkeys strut and call, occasionally lumbering into the air like overloaded transports. Deer pause at the water’s edge to drink before they vanish, ghostlike, into the surrounding woods. Beaver swim diligently about, gathering food or shoring up their lodges and earthworks. It’s a busy time.
All is not hustle and bustle, however. Plants are the key to the life of a pond, and in the spring of the year the green of new growth supplants the gray of winter. Pussy willows explode in galaxies of brilliant white buds, followed shortly by cascades of caterpillar-like alder catkins. Wildflowers bloom in a steady progression, with yellow marsh marigolds and purple violets among the first to appear, succeeded in due course by blue flag and jewelweed, to name only a very few of many. Meanwhile, lacking buds but no less lush for all that, ferns grow thick and fast wherever damp ground offers a toehold.
Still later, as spring gives way to summer and summer winds down toward fall, fruits replace blooms. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, cranberries, and raspberries are familiar friends, often found along the weedy margins of ponds. They nourish birds and animals—and sometimes a passing paddler, too. Milkweed are less celebrated, but no less important. The pods dry out and split open in late summer, dispersing seeds to the wind. A photographer’s and artist’s delight, milkweed also has a critical role to play in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, the familiar orange-and-black beauty whose epic migratory journey from northern North America to the mountain forests of central Mexico spans generations as well as continents. Nor does milkweed’s importance stop at the monarch. Milkweed floss—the silky filaments that cling to individual seeds and catch the wind—is used by birds and small mammals as bedding and insulation. Versatile stuff!
Ponds are treasure troves for paddlers, anglers, and naturalists alike. What turns you on? Birdlife? Wildflowers? Speckled trout? Ponds have it all. Or maybe you’re just in the mood for a quiet paddle, far from the tumult of whitewater (and away from the madding crowd at the put-in, too). You’ll find what you’re looking for in a pond. And you won’t have to travel to the ends of the earth, either. There’s probably a pond close to your home. Maybe it’s even close enough to ride to on a bicycle, with a folding kayak or inflatable in tow. I think this is no-octane adventure at its best.
What about it? Are you eager to sample the imponderable pleasures of small water? Then there’s no time like the present! Ponds are at their best in spring. The margins and shallows are greening with new life, the summer birds are back from their long migrations, turtles are sunning themselves on half-submerged logs, and frogs are chorusing long into the night. Small is beautiful. Want proof? Paddle a pond in the spring of the year. I can’t think of a better time—or a better place—for messing about in boats.
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