Paddle to the Sea

by Sid Baglini

The pond abuts the dunes. The dunes abut the Gulf of Maine. A mere half mile long mound of sand, capped by grasses and a few hardy Bayberry and Alders separate the freshwater from the saltwater. A narrow outlet, squeezed between acres of beach rose, opens to the beach. One can paddle to the sea in a matter of five or ten minutes. When tides are extremely high or storms pound the coast, the two waters merge in a brackish blend as a tidal bore pushes into the pond. The same natural forces determine whether the pond drains into the sea or whether the sea wall of shifting rock and sand form a dam that impounds the pond and its residents until the next extreme tide or weather event.

This liquid landscape, called a pond by the locals but in fact it is lake-like, is where my perfect summer and early autumn days fade into twilight. Norm, my husband, encourages me to go kayaking while he does the dinner dishes. Rising from the table, I grab my hat, sunglasses, and binoculars and stroll downhill through meadow and scrub to the edge of the pond where the kayak is tethered at our buoy bordered dock. Sporting a jaunty yellow PFD (Personal Flotation Device for you landlubbers), I inelegantly plop into the kayak, take up my paddle, and push off for a sprint toward the dunes and the setting sun. Depending on the chop and wind direction, it’s between 130 and 150 strokes to the dunes. Then, I pause to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.

The pond is home to a multitude of small fish, the offspring of Alewives that live in the ocean but spawn in freshwater. They go by many names in our part of the world — “Kyack,” “Alewive,” and “Gaspereau,” depending on your ethnic roots. When the water is calm, there is a moment when the first one leaps into the air to seize a minute, hovering insect, and flops back in an expanding ring of watery light. Moments later, others take the bait in a similar fashion. Within a minute or so, three inch fry by the thousands are leaping in a feeding frenzy. Some shoot straight up, some propel themselves up and forward, but the champions pop along the surface like a stone skimmed by a practiced thrower, making two to three splashes before disappearing beneath the surface. Occasionally, a louder splash marks the feeding efforts of a larger fish, perhaps Bass or Perch. The sun setting in the west reflects off their airborne bodies, flashing golden or silver. Drifting through this dining extravaganza, surrounded by small fish arcing through air, I am at once calmed and excited by the bounty of life normally hidden beneath the surface. The sudden transition from a placid surface to a phenomenon not unlike popping corn erupting from the water is endlessly fascinating.

Next on my paddling “To Do List” is to check in with the avian residents on the pond. Concurrent with the fish feeding frenzy, the Great Blue Heron strikes a pose in the shallows of the outlet. Motionless, it displays the intense focus that precedes the blink of an eye thrust of its long, sharp beak. If my craft drifts too close, a flap of wings lifts the giant bird off the water and its cranky call echoes across the water as it relocates the hunt elsewhere. 

Less obvious but equally fascinating, one of our resident American Bitterns is liable to be fishing at the verge of the marsh grasses or Cattails. Its tendency to freeze with neck extended, head and beak pointed skyward, allows it to blend with the background so spotting the Bittern is a special event. We know they occupy our pond. We hear the repetitive mating call in the spring and early summer. One of two bird species in the world that use their esophagus to give voice to their thoughts, the resulting sound is much like a toilet being plunged. 

Other avian neighbors draw my attention. The occasional Loon, a Kingfisher, and in late summer, flocks of ducks and Canada Geese draw me closer. At sunset, a flock of geese fly in just over my head on a landing path to the safety of the pond. The low lying sun tints their white bellies with a rosey glow. I lean back, looking straight up as they glide just over my head, feeling like when I was a child sitting at the end of an airport runway with my parents.

Even the raptors make an appearance. Northern Harriers hover and dip low along the grassy edges hunting a variety of small prey. One of our resident Bald Eagles may pass overhead en route to roost in a tree at the private north end of the pond. A sudden interruption of its progress, marked by a hummingbird like hover, is the prelude to a dive to snatch an unsuspecting fish from near the surface.

An evening paddle isn’t complete until I check in with the Muskrats. They make their homes along the edges hidden in the Cattails or in the mud of the banks but they emerge in the evening to munch on the aquatic plants. Scanning the surface of the water, I look for floating “logs”, between 1 and 2 feet in length with three protuberences which are the head, the back and the tail showing above the water as they float. A large one occupies a quiet cove near the dirt road leading to the beach. Another chose real estate near the outlet of the pond, just yards from the beach. Two can usually be found feeding directly across the pond from the dock, and two feed just off our dock, watching warily as I set off for my evening paddle. All of them are shy, diving like a beaver — minus the tail slap— if I approach too near. But, they pop up nearby and sometimes swim toward me to get a better look. The ones nearest us use the cover of darkness to check out our dock, canoe and kayak. Their footprints in the sand tell the tale, as does the scat they leave as a calling card on the end of the dock leading us to christen it the “poop deck”.

Finally, as I beach the kayak by the dock, I keep an eye out for the Green Frogs and the dragons and damsels. Frogs hide along the fringes of the pond and populate the shallows with their tadpoles in early summer. One of the frogs likes the shadow of the kayak and often sits beneath it on the wet sand. I always watch to see if it is waiting for the return of its bulky shelter. Sometimes, several will float motionless, legs and arms hanging, with their heads poking up with intense yellow eyes that study the world around them. Dragonflies patrol the marshy edges like miniature helicopters, alternately hovering and dashing away. Their cousins, the neon blue Damselflies, seem to take life less seriously, resting on grass stems, and often traveling in tandem as they mate in the air.

Each nightly ritual of checking on the “neighbors” enlarges my understanding of their quirks and habits. Knowing when the Alewives or the Muskrats will be feeding is not crucial information but that intimacy with the wild creatures with whom we share this landscape lends a richness to our days. 

Sid Baglini, a native of southeast PA, and her husband Norm have lived in Malvern for 10 years.  A lifelong amateur naturalist, she is a retired educator with experience in public schools, adult education, and as an “unschooling” parent to the youngest of their 3 daughters. Sid and Norm spend nearly half the year in their home in Nova Scotia.