Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solstice magic and the summer ceasefire

I almost didn't go to the lake today. It was hot - 105 degrees on the south side of my house - and crazy windy, which doesn't make for good paddling. But something told me to put my book down, get off the couch, load up my kayak and just do it.

Now, as the sun is setting on the longest day of the year, I'm glad I did. Read more...

My lake is Lake Natoma. It's a manmade lake five minutes from my house, created by the lowermost dam on the American River - the same river where gold was discovered in 1848. It is surrounded by development, crisscrossed by power lines and contaminated, in places, with stupid people who don't have the sense to pack out the trash they pack in.

But invariably, when I paddle away from the clusters of people - going out where oaks, willows, gray pines, spicy native grasses and sandstone dominate the shoreline - I find something that makes it all worthwhile.

This time of year, the lake is filled with Canada goslings and mallard ducklings. You don't even have to leave the dock to see them. But today I would be rewarded with more.

I struggled against the strong winds, paddling close to the south shore in hopes the land would buffer me from the gusts. This meant I was downwind of everything, and time after time I would round a corner and surprise some critter. First a beaver, slipping into the choppy water. I'd seen them here before, though.

Then a turkey hen, idly grazing along a thin sandstone shore, 50 yards from two groups of kids making rope swings on gray pines over the lake.

Then a quail - which I'd also seen on these shores - but this time she was with her chicks, tiny fuzzy little creatures who darted - in that clumsy baby way - into the grass, then into a bush, when they saw me. Ahhhhhhh... Not that I have any experience with this, but it's kinda like a massive shot of opiates when you see something that precious, normally so hidden from view. All your stress just evaporates in seconds.

A hundred yards later, I spotted a great blue heron perched on a fallen gray pine in a green little cove. I see them on this lake all the time because they have nesting grounds here. But I see them at a distance. When I spotted this one, I stopped paddling, held still and just drifted, floating within 10 feet of this enormous bird before it assessed the situation and decided to take off, with that lumbering wingbeat. Ahhhhh...

I crossed the narrow lake for my return trip, assuming the wind would send my noise and scent to any wildlife that might be on the shore. I was wrong.

As I rounded the bend of an enormous rock pile - "tailings" or detritus from the goldmining that wracked what was once riverbed here - I saw a young black-tail buck, with his 6-inch velvet spikes, taking a drink at the shore. I drifted closer and closer in my blaze-orange kayak. He let me get within 20 feet of him.

I knew I wasn't going to beat that. I'd never seen any bucks around this lake.

As he romped up the rockpile, I began paddling again, and not 50 yards later I saw a doe just above the shore under an oak tree. She looked my way at first, then turned around. I stopped paddling, drifted closer and closer, and still she looked away stubbornly. What could she be looking at?

Or perhaps that was the wrong question. Who was she looking out for? My eyes dropped 10 feet below her to the rocky shore, where a gangly fawn, less then two feet tall at the shoulders, was taking a drink. I gasped quietly. Tiny, tiny baby.

Mama, you should be looking this way...

The fawn finally looked up, saw me, and assessed me the way the buck had and decided he oughtta clamber back up the hill to mama. She turned around and saw me. Together they held still and watched as I drifted by.

Now I was approaching the more heavily populated area. Four mallards zoomed over me, cupped and committed.

I saw another pair of kayakers, fishing.

"Catch anything?" I asked the woman.

"No," she said, grinning ear to ear.

Kindred spirit - it didn't matter. I told her about the doe and fawn. She told me about a doe she'd just seen. Clearly, it was a magical day at the lake.

Back closer to my dock, I heard a whine - some brat taking a motorized scooter on the bike trail. I really need to bring my cell phone to the lake so I can call rangers about crap like this - it would be 15 minutes before I'd get back to the gate attendant.

That was it - my ride through heaven was over now.

I've always enjoyed getting as close to wildlife as possible, but something about hunting has changed the way I engage with nature. I take stealth more seriously now. How close will you let me get to you?

And today - the summer solstice - when I was encountering babies of so many species, I was acutely aware of the meaning of the seasons, so much more than I ever was when I didn't hunt.

Declaring a ceasefire on animals when they are raising their young is an ancient conservation practice. Each time I came upon one of these animals, I knew that if this were hunting season for that animal, it would've been dead. Time after time today, I got closer to animals than I ever do in season. And time after time, I was thinking to myself, Go! Don't trust me! You must be more careful! When the time comes that we are adversaries again, I want it to be a fair fight.

But today, they had nothing to fear from humans. They still have to fight hawks and coyotes, but not us - not now. This is their time.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Phillip said...

Very nice, Holly. I enjoyed that a lot.

Becoming a hunter does change your perspective a lot. I think it adds a whole new level of understanding to natural observations.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks! It was without a doubt my most amazing day on the lake. Usually I'll have one interesting sighting on each outing, so this was way out of the ordinary.

Blessed said...

This is exactly why I like fishing season - I get to see a lot of other wildlife along the river, the lake or the stream we're fishing in.

I like to eat fish, but I can't get real excited about catching them - I do however enjoy going on the fishing trips, usually I get to drive the boat :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great day on the lake, and you tell the story beautifully. It almost feels like I was there with you.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Blessed, are you just trying to provoke the Hunter's Wife?

Tom Sorenson said...

What an awesome day on the lake!

Too bad about the people that try so hard to ruin a good day on the lake - but at the same time, it's so nice to meet a 'kindred spirit' as you call them.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yeah, as the summer wears on, I'll start taking garbage bags out with me, and I'll zip from one piece of floating trash to another, like Pac Man, trying to pick it all up. I know some of the trash is accidental (things fall out of boats, wind blows things off the beaches), but one day I saw a group of kids sitting on a cliff chucking beer bottles into the water, just for fun. Retards.

As for scooter boy? I did alert rangers, so hopefully he got a ticket. The good news is the biggest a-holes at the lake are too lazy to venture very far, so all I have to do is paddle for 15-20 minutes and I've left them behind.

The Hunter's Wife said...

I think Blessed is trying to provoke me. :)

Being on the water is one of my favorite things to do not just for the fishing but the scenery as well.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Being a hunter definitely changes your perspective of animals and nature.

Sounds like a great day on the lake.

flanhammer said...

Your imagery left me sighing longingly, wishing for a few moments out on the lake. Mmmm.

Can anyone try to put into words why it is that hunting gives you a different perspective, for an open-minded nonhunter? Is it the adversarial relationship, per Cazadora's description?

NorCal Cazadora said...

That's such a good question that I'm going to do a fresh post on it, rather than put another Holly dissertation in the comments section. Coming shortly...