Kayaking: Wildlife, Nature and Irony Abound

Ossipee — June 26, 2007 — Here are descriptions of a couple recent interesting and contrasting kayak forays. One is in a 180-acre shallow pond created by a dam, which is quiet and offers wonderful wildlife sighting opportunities. The other involves a short river trip out to the fifth largest lake in New Hampshire, and a journey across it to an endangered shoreline.

There are often ironies to be seen in the preservation of the natural landscape. In these two contrasting cases, a manmade lake turns into a treasure trove of wildlife rarely visited by anyone other than seasonal birders or duck hunters, and occasional kayakers before the lily pads get too thick in July. In the other case, a fragile natural shoreline on a busy lake gets neglected and is considered being utilized for a town beach.

It all depends on the needs of the dominant species.

Copp’s Pond
Copp’s Pond in Melvin Village is a quiet expanse of water lilies and blue water patrolled by dragonflies and presided over by great blue herons. Two of us drove there on a sunny late afternoon, parked next to the Copp’s Pond Wildlife Management Area sign, located beneath tall pines, and carried our kayaks down the bank to the brown water next to the dam.

We slowly paddled out of the small cove, heading toward a big boulder in the water with a mysterious brown cap on top of it. It looked too big to be a snapper, and was more than likely the dead root of an old tree. But it turned out to be our welcoming committee. We recognized it as an old snapper an instant before it began to move. It labored to dislodge itself from its perch, and then let gravity take it to the muddy bottom, where it was at home.

It is surprising that snapping turtles are the most common species of turtle in the state. They like to hide on the muddy bottom, and have an apparatus on their rear cloacal cavity that absorbs dissolved oxygen, so they don’t have to come up to get air if they are quiet. We took to the west shore, and paddled past brown mats of old lily pad roots that had begun to rot and float to the surface in a natural thinning process.

Pickerel shot away from us, leaving small V’s. Other small fish jumped in alarm. These got so numerous as the afternoon progressed, it became normal for the water around us to be alive with splashes amongst the lily pads. Looking down into the brownness between pads, schools of minnows shot by.

We approached a forested island, with another boulder in the water next to it. Another mysterious brown blob sat on top of the boulder. It was smaller than the snapper, and it moved slightly, causing us to speculate on what it was. An otter? We moved closer, silent and slow. At the magic moment of truth, the object divided in three. It was three ducklings. They ran down, jumped in and scattered in different directions. The parent flew up for the wooded island. We felt intrusive, had learned not to get too close to ducklings. We would utilize that knowledge again and again that afternoon.

Swinging by the southern end, two great blue heron landed near us. We watched the closest one walk with its hunter’s gait, a Mister Natural of the marsh. A muskrat surfaced and dived, surfaced and dived. We paddled slowly up the eastern shore and stopped on a rocky island for a snack and beverage. The primary tree of the island — a maple — had recently been felled by wind. Its giant root system was pried up, revealing sharp granite boulders in peat. Flycatchers hovered above the greenery of the tree. We sat on smooth rocks next to the water. The peace of the afternoon was sinking into our bones.

After our snack, I bet that a crayfish would appear under the first rock I moved in the shallows. It did. We put in, and paddled swiftly to the shady northern shore, where we could cool off. Along the way, a redwing blackbird landed on lily pads. A little way off, a mysterious diving bird would probe from a pad then dive, probe from another and dive.

We reached the northern shallows, where old rotting stumps harbored communities of plants. Sundews grew out of sphagnum. I spied a fine specimen of a painted turtle, and my friend glided close to observe its colors and shape. When the turtle finally dove, it shot outward with pent up energy.

Finally we got out around 7 p.m. On the bank, a big female snapper tumbled down into the water. Later we noticed where it was digging to deposit eggs, or, as they sometimes do, making a false nest to divert predators from the real nest. Whichever it was doing, we hoped it would be back after we left.

For directions to Copp’s Pond, refer to the great Appalachian Mountain Club book “Quiet Water, New Hampshire and Vermont” by Hayes and Wilson.

Long Sands Natural Area
A week later, I got the idea of kayaking down the lower Bearcamp River to Ossipee Lake. I related my plans to my friend and headed out. From West Ossipee, I drove south on Route 16 and pulled into the dirt parking lot just after the steel bridge over the Bearcamp. I carried my kayak down the dirt road and put in beneath the bridge.

I had swum under the bridge many times after trips south. This was the first time I had dipped a boat in the Bearcamp, and I liked it. As I paddled downstream, the forested banks were many shades of green, the river deep. I passed a trailer park, and paddled away from development.

I was thinking that maybe I would kayak across the lake later, to Long Sands. It would be a sort of pilgrimage. A couple years ago, I took the pontoon boat tour of Ossipee Lake offered by the Green Mountain Conservation Group at the Watershed Weekend at Camp Calumet.

A naturalist on the boat pointed out Long Sands on the far southern shore. Rare plants and numerous archeological discoveries had made Long Sands — part of the Ossipee Lake Natural Area — an important place to protect. However, some local politicians wanted to make it an Ossipee Town Beach.

On the boat ride back to Camp Calumet, the glowing low profile of Long Sands in the distance brought my imagination back to a time when natives paddled across the lake toward it, after a long hunt.

The threat of a town beach on Long Sands is gone for now, but some neglect by the state has caused rare plants to disappear there. The question has been how to protect it and, most recently, concerned citizens in Effingham have suggested to the state that an easement be made on the land, so that some agency besides the state can manage it.

After many bends of the Bearcamp, each a discovery of sorts, I began to see blue sky behind the trees ahead, then I paddled out into Ossipee Lake. It was a lot for the senses to take in. Then, without much thought, I headed south toward Long Sands and dug deep with my paddle.

After passing a pristine cove, I passed two more with ample development. Once, a speed boat slowed to a crawl for me, and I waved to them. Finally I approached Long Sands, and the green peninsula at the mouth of Pine River.

I spied a tiny piece of sand, and slid onto it, staying long enough for a sandwich and picture. I touched none of the vegetation. One rare plant, the hairy hudsonia, is brittle to the touch. I found out later that these tiny sandy spots are being considered off limits to boaters. They were actually created over time by people landing on peat mats.

As Barry Lopez said more than once, no one is exempt from being part of the problem. At Long Sands, botanists have put in at the beaches to study the plants. But if I go back to Long Sands again via the Bearcamp River, I won’t land there, but will continue up the Pine River to an appropriate take out spot — maybe where a native village once stood.

Columnist Ed Parsons can be contacted at mtsandrivers@yahoo.com.

Kayaking: Wildlife, Nature and Irony Abound