The View From a Canoe

By Eric Mills
July 15, 2019


Has your choice of favorite season changed at different times in your life ? For many years, fall was my ne plus ultra; at different points over the decades, spring was the off-and-on favorite. But when I was a kid, and each year lasted far longer than the years do now that they zing by, and each long year’s cycle was defined by that looming presence called Going To School, summer was always the easy and obvious favorite season. Summer equaled the fullest freedom, the most unfettered carefree day-to-day liberty of a kid’s entire year. Our bikes were our horses, and we explored everywhere, every day. Since time moves slower in childhood than in maturity, when summer rolled around and school closed up, September seemed a blessed eternity away, too remotely far off to worry about.

And now, every summer, that old magic washes over me again, and I feel that excitement, that tangible sense of adventure, that thrill of being free. It’s no longer logical; school doesn’t start again in September, work starts again on Monday. But that school-year-cycle time stamp left an indelible impression on my psyche, and I feel that rush of liberation now, just as I did back then. And no matter how many years pass, when I hear a lone mourning dove calling plaintively through the stillness of a lazy summer day, I’m 11 years old again, back on Dumbarton Road, reading comic books in the mimosa tree or gearing up for an expedition to the pond to catch frogs.

This summer has felt particularly tapped into that childhood call of the wild. Maryland Master Naturalist training is wrapping up, and the year’s course of study has instilled something in me beyond all the vital factual knowledge about nature science: By opening up my mind to whole new avenues of inquiry and exploration into the natural world, it has underscored that age-old truism that the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn, and that you can never learn it all. Nature study epitomizes that better than anything else, maybe. It is all so vast, so intricate, so complexly networked, it’s simultaneously mind-boggling and inspiring. It’s enough to keep you learning for the rest of your life—and that is exciting. Exciting like that feeling a kid gets in summer.

Alongside that, it happens to be what I’ve started to think of as the Summer of My Canoe. I bought a canoe in spring, and it is a true beauty: a Stowe Mansfield, built in Vermont in 1980, with that iconic mahogany ribbing buttressing a dark green hull. But instead of wood and canvas, it’s wood and fiberglass, thus preserving the classic look of a vintage canoe with a tougher, more durable hull. The wildlife artist from whom I bought it customized it with a pair of tooled-leather renderings atop the bow and stern prows, one depicting a leaping trout, the other a pintail taking to wing. It has become my passport to nature adventure: On the Tuckahoe (our main base of operations). On nearby Watts Creek at Martinak State Park. On King’s Creek, that best-kept secret in Talbot County that, if you paddle up far enough, starts to seem like the Land Before Time, as well as the secret headquarters of myriad redwing blackbirds, who kick forth with the O-ka-leeee o-ka-leeee harangue as interlopers venture into their hidden realm.

On Wye Lake, where the great blue herons abound more prolifically than anywhere else I’ve ever spied them, and where I had the good fortune to watch, in sharp close-up through the Bushnell 7 x 35s, a great blue stab the water, snatch up a fish, and gulp it down that S-shaped neck in a flash. And then it stood there, posed, perfectly still, like a feathered pterodactyl.

On Trussum Pond, part of the northernmost stand of bald cypress in North America, where the weird prehistoric-looking trees rise up out of the water, and the aquatic vegetation grows so thick it’s like paddling through green molasses, and if you didn’t know you were in Delaware you’d swear you were in a Deep South bayou.

Now, a host of other summer expeditions lie ahead: Marshyhope Creek, the Chicamacomico River, the Pocomoke. The more rivers you paddle, the more of them you realize there are to explore.

Just like the study of nature.

Eric Mills is a member of the Arboretum’s Maryland Master Naturalist 2018-2019 training class. Offered in cooperation with Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, and ShoreRivers, training is offered annually. Applications are being accepted for the 2019-2020 class, which begins in October. Learn more here.

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