To add variety to the blog and to offer a fresh perspective from our visitors, we are inviting guest bloggers to write posts describing their visits and thoughts while at the reserve. The guest blog and photos today are brought to you by M.L. Christmas and her thoughts on canoeing. Enjoy! (Maggie Pletta, DNERR Education Coordinator & Blog Editor)
I Canoe! You Can, Too!
There is a time for talking and a time for doing. The DNERR eblast of upcoming events spurred me to action. Having enjoyed the St. Jones Reserve from various, terrestrial vantage-points, and then writing about them for this blog, it was time for me to take to the water and to do so at the Blackbird Creek Reserve. One should not go around recommending to others what one would not first do oneself. For the sake of journalistic integrity, it was high time for me to heed the clarion call: To the canoe!
The Blackbird event was free of charge; prior canoeing experience was stated not to be necessary; and lifejackets would be provided. Talk about a no-brainer! But could it really be that simple? I had my doubts.
Frankly, I was not sure what to expect on the water. Would we process in a line like ducks? Or would each two-person craft strike out in its own direction? Might we get lost in the maze of waterways? (Have you seen the riparian map of the area between Blackbird Creek Landing and the Delaware River?) Or make a break for the open water of the busy shipping-channel…and beyond? My head was filling with all sorts of theoretical high-seas adventures.
So I quickly placed my registration for the Blackbird canoe trip, signing up before I turned chicken. (Chicken: a favorite bait used by crabbers; not a good look when one is sitting inches from the water.)
Rule 1 of any new endeavor is, for me, doing all the reading I can do on the subject and only then attempting that activity. This writer has not self-propelled a personal watercraft in decades; and never before in a canoe; so in order to publicly display a paddle technique that would belie my raw, rudimentary status, I made a trip to the library and came away with a treasure: a book on canoeing basics.
Good thing I never got around to reading it beforehand. The descriptions of “J-strokes,” “draw strokes,” “pushaway strokes,” “forward and reverse sweeps,” “pivots,” and “switch paddling” would have been off-putting. Good skills, all, I am sure, but too much to learn in only a few days’ time while firmly on shore. Hey, I reasoned, while driving north from Dover the day of the event, if I am going to go down with the proverbial ship, at least I will be doing so with a pure heart, an open mind, and not with a head overweighted with book-learning.
The excursion was scheduled to last from 1:30 to 3:30 pm, which I reasoned should be enough time to get an initial taste of what it’s like—and by “taste,” I don’t mean capsizing and ending up with a mouthful of cordgrass, reeds, and mud. However, I realized that was still a possibility. Seriously.
I found the entrance to the Blackbird Creek Reserve, parked alongside a few other vehicles assembled on a grassy knoll, and eyeballed my fellow participants. I was clearly alone in the newbie department. They all had the steely-eyed look of canoeing professionals-even the children! Jaws were squared, sunglasses were on, the dry-bags of water bottles and snacks were at the ready, and the application of sunblock was being conducted with minimal talking, because they were on a mission. They were in The Zone. I was…I was…well, at that point, I was just happy I had pre-slathered myself with waterproof sunblock and bug repellent and had brought along a baseball cap to serve as a sun visor.
The rest of my attire consisted of old, torn jeans (perfect for this purpose) and old, grungy sneakers (ditto). From the waist up, I went outdoors-formal by wearing my special Henry David Thoreau t-shirt purchased in Concord, MA, a few years ago. After all, the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers could serve as an able, invisible guide, to supplement the oarsperson-ship of the DNERR staffer having drawn the short-straw and thus stuck as my instructor for the afternoon. More on that shortly.
The Blackbird Reserve’s Conservation Intern came out to greet us, and she led us as a group to the boat launch area, where we would receive further instruction. Already down at the water’s edge was a truck-towed trailer of eight canoes, out of which we would be using three, with the Education Intern following in a kayak. Also on site was Maggie Pletta, Education Coordinator, exuding her usual mix of good cheer and feisty gumption. She would be in the canoe at the head of our neat and tidy flotilla.
The promised lifejacket was distributed to Yours Truly, along with an oar; the basic paddle-stroke was demonstrated to all, along with the reminder that strokes made on the port side direct the boat toward starboard (and vice versa); and we were off. It’s a good thing I listened well, because Yours Truly got assigned to the bow of the boat that had Maggie in the stern.
Our first stop? Ramming into the side of a cement road-bridge. At least that’s what it looked like to me. The high tide was nearly tickling the underside of the very two-lane bridge I had just driven over to get there. Per instructions, we would be going under the bridge by stowing our oars, lying on our backs, and pulling ourselves along underneath the roadbed with our fingers. Son of a dowitcher: It worked!
Each canoe, in turn, smoothly emerged on the other side. We were going upstream, toward the headwaters. In other words, no salt-water pirate-adventures for anyone today. In fact, Maggie told all of us, while we paddled, about the source of the creek’s water, its good water-quality, and its (gulp) drinkability. Yes, that kind of gulp. I didn’t see it, as she was seated behind me in the stern, but I thought I heard it.
She noted the mix of DNERR and private property located along the creek and that we would be passing by some private docks. (Lucky ducks! To have such a terrific canoeing venue adjoining one’s very own property!) Also along here were sometimes seen Bald Eagles, we were told. And river otters were reported from time to time, back in the day.
Then Maggie announced the first of what would be several “racking up” sessions, which consisted of everyone gently beaching themselves, as a group, into a shoal area. At each of these points, she would select one or more topics to discuss: Arrow Arum; Pickerelweed; Phragmites; Wild Rice; tides and water currents; and even what’s edible (in a pinch) in nature, and what’s not. It made me wish I’d had along in the canoe one of those all-weather notebook-and-pen sets one can purchase at camping-supply outfitters.
The time flew. Speaking of flight, we saw several hawks, a Turkey Vulture or two, the inevitable smattering of Red-Winged Blackbirds, and some Tree Swallows. Dozens and dozens of dragonflies darted in and out, throughout the course of the afternoon. (Maggie gave us a mnemonic for differentiating dragonflies from damselflies.) Still no Bald Eagles, unfortunately. Or turtles-though we did have a false alarm. But in the bald department, we did get to see some cultivated Bald Cypress, long ago abandoned and now gone wild, noteworthy for exceeding its customary geographic range.
My attempt at a canoey-selfie did not go completely as planned. My compact, digital camera does not have a front display-screen, and the sun’s intensity was such that I could not view the back-facing display-screen to see what I’d just snapped. So it was not until I was home that I saw what I had caught with my lens. I know what you are thinking, and no, it was not the Loch Ness Monster-although that would have been way cool. No, my unsteady aim had captured a quadrant of Yours Truly, a sliver of creek, and a nice view of Maggie Pletta (behind those Foster Grants), who had happened to choose that particular moment to hydrate.
We soon reached our turning-around point; and the breeze that was hoped to carry all of us back more speedily, with less-vigorous paddling, had pretty much disappeared. The return trip went too quickly, anyway. After two hours, I was just getting warmed up! But hey, that’s what DNERR’s future canoeing offerings are for, right?
All in all, canoeing at Blackbird was a pleasing and pleasurable experience-with no big splash! Henry David Thoreau would be so proud.
Bottom line? Take it from me: If I canoe, you can, too!
Text, photos, and canoey-selfie by M. L. Christmas
M.L. Christmas, MSM, is a freelance writer/editor living in the Dover area. She has written dozens of articles for newsletters, newspapers, magazines, and websites. Her work has appeared in local, regional, national and international publications and other venues, and she has written in tones ranging from scholarly to humorous, depending on the audience. She is a longtime member of Delaware Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women. Her approach to nature writing, she says, is part Henry David Thoreau and part Dave Barry.
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Want to try your own beginner’s skill? Or put your already practiced hand to the oar? Canoeing at the Blackbird Creek Reserve will again be offered on 7/25/2015 and 7/29/2015. Advance registration is required. To register call 302-739-6377.