Tuesday, June 23, 2009

East Indies Pond

6/20/09 The weather in our area has been crud for several days and the forecast looked miserable through the weekend and into the middle of next week so after studying the internet I decided that early Saturday morning was my best window for a dry paddle. I got up early and was out of the house and on the road by 6:00 am for the 1.5 hour drive west to the put-in.

This is the only trip that I repeat on a regular basis. The only way to get to East Indies Pond is to first paddle about half a mile over Thousand Acre Swamp then carry about 1/3 of a mile on an old abandoned road to get to Mill pond. After paddling about 100 yards on Mill Pond there is a lift over at a beaver dam to get to East Indies Pond. There’s enough work involved to keep away all but the most adventuresome local paddlers.
The nearest road is more than a mile away, there must be a way to hike to the pond but I don’t know where it is. I have on occasion heard and seen ATV activity and I’m sure the occasional snow mobile get to the pond but as far as Massachusetts is concerned this is as remote as it gets.

The reward for the effort is fantastic. The fishing is wonderful, the wildflowers are spectacular, the birding is great, and the fall foliage is first rate. I’ve done this trip many times and the portage trail is getting worse which is fine by me. The blow downs aren’t that hard to go around or over and they help keep ATVs and kayakers away.

Each time I do this trip I find something new and special to see, this time was no exception. Thousand Acre Swamp seemed to be about a foot higher than normal. We’ve had lots of rain and I figured maybe the beavers had been active or debris was clogging the outlet at the dam. The water levels fluctuate so I didn’t give it much thought. At the end of the portage there is small stream to cross that, depending on the season, can get your feet wet. This time it was very high and I got wet up to my shins. Once again I figured the water was high from all the rain. As soon as I got to the end of the portage I knew something was amiss. There was very little water in Mill Pond and a brief investigation revealed that the ancient dam had somehow let go.

The whole pond, maybe an acre and a half was mostly drained and was still draining. The water level was down maybe 4ft leaving the resident beaver lodge high, dry, and exposed. I've included a picture from last fall for a reference.
I decided to do more investigation on my return and I headed off to find an alternative way to get to East Indies Pond. For a brief moment I considered going via the shore but the mud was deep and thick where the water once was and the banks were an impenetrable chaos of laurel, hemlock, and other plants.

I carried back out to the old road and headed south for a few hundred yards and then bushwhacked into the woods eventually fighting my way to the shore. I’m sure you can imagine trying to get through thick Hemlock and Mountain Laurel with a 15ft canoe and 25 pound backpack on. Fortunately the bugs weren’t too bad. I managed to put-in just below the overgrown beaver dam so it took me a minute to find a place where I could get out and not be in thigh deep water. Eventually I got the canoe over the dam with out impaling myself on any of the pointed sticks the beavers leave as booby traps for canoers like me. When ever you see a picture of a beaver dam it’s always a beautifully engineered object that any human with some degree of coordination could easily walk along the top of. In real life this isn’t the case. First, they’re made up of mud, rock, and some of the most evil looking pointed stick you can imagine. Many of the sticks are pointed up and are a serious danger if you were to fall on them.

This dam has been around long enough to be overgrown with bushes and plants that make climbing over it much more difficult that you would think. The upstream side is deep enough that you don’t want to fall in and the downstream side is deeper than you want and the bottom is muddy. I’m willing to get as wet as needed but I also know that the muddy areas around these beaver dams are prime locations for leeches so I was not particularly anxious to spend any more time in the water than I needed to. I eventually got over the dam and into East Indies Pond where the paddling was easy.

I go here every year because the mountain Laurel Bloom is usually spectacular. This year the Mountain Laurels were only fair but there were lots of other wildflowers that were fantastic. The Blue Flags were great, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many and such large groups of these irises as I have this year. The same is true for the Lady Slippers earlier in the year.

I paddled along the shore doing a little fishing. After catching 3 Pickerel and a Sunfish I put the rod away so I could do a little more exploring along the banks. There is great little campsite on the north shore that I got out and looked at. It has been used sometime this spring because the fire pit was used and there were some half burned beer cans in it. They also left a couple of old lawn chairs. Other than that the site was in good shape. I spent the night there once and probably will again sometime.

As I mentioned earlier the blue flag were impressive and I took lots of pictures trying to get the perfect shot. While I was paddling by a beaver lodge an obviously agitated female red wing blackbird flew out of a hummock of grass. The hummock was surrounded by water and not much bigger than a basketball and sure enough right in the middle of it was the nest with three eggs. I took some pictures and moved on so as not to aggravate the mother any more than I already had.

Nearby in the boggy south end of the lake is some sheeps-laural which I wanted to get a picture of. It’s a beautiful miniature laurel found in this habitat. It’s also called lambs kill because it’s poisonous, I didn’t eat any.

I also came across a wildflower that I wasn’t able to identify in any of my books or on the internet. If any of the 2 or 3 people who ever read this can identify it please let me know. I did a bit more poking around by the shore and then headed to a small clearing on the east shore. I recalled from reading a guide book that there was an alternative carry here that should bring me back to the old road that I portaged in on. The trail headed up hill and trended in the wrong direction but eventually met up with the old road which I followed back north towards Mill Pond passing some impressive glacial erratics along the way. I went back to take photos of the dam collapse and the emptied pond and then finished the carry back to Thousand Acre Swamp. I’m sure that the failure of the dam and subsequent draining of the pond is what raised the water level in Thousand Acre Swamp. Many of the pond plants were under water so the rise in water level must have been fast. I’m looking forward to coming back later in the year to see how things have changes. I think I’ll come back later in the summer and then in the fall.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NFCT Missisquoi river, Enosburg Falls to Swanton

Patty and I took our now annual anniversary weekend together paddling the Missisquoi River from Enosburg Falls to Swanson, Vt. As is our usual plan we traveled up to the put-in on Friday evening and stayed in a motel so we could get an early start on Saturday morning. I left work early on Friday and the days are long so we got to do some scouting of the river on our way to the motel. We got a reasonably early start on Saturday morning at the very picturesque put-in below the dam in Enosburg Falls. Around the first bend in the river are a series of easy class II rapids.(at least at this water level, about 1000cfs) This was a fun section of white water requiring some maneuvering around some rocks and a couple of small ledge drops. We scouted once from the shore and Patty stood up in the canoe to get a better look at the less difficult looking sections. We didn’t miss all the rocks but I think we did pretty well especially in a fully loaded canoe.

After this series of rapids there are about 6 miles of flat and quick water. The scenery is very nice along this river with lots of wildflowers and plenty of wildlife. We saw some muskrats and deer as well as osprey, bald eagles, redtail hawks and lots of song birds. We passed several spots where the banks were sliding down into the river, some of these slides were small and some were big, the largest one I saw must have been 1/2 to ¾ of and acre and it was pretty fresh. I wonder if the happen slowly or quickly enough to cause a small tsunami as the earth displaces the water in the river. I’ve mentioned before that the clay banks of the Missisquoi are some of the slipperiest that I have ever tried to climb. I guess the soil is not very stable.

This section of the Missisquoi has a remote feel to it even though you are never far from a road or houses. The sound of the river blocks out most of the car noises and because you are paddling below the river banks much of the nearby civilization is blocked from view. There is however no escaping the odors that remind you that you are in dairy country.

Soon enough we arrived at the North Sheldon Bridge and the beginning of Abby Rapids, a long series of class I and maybe some class II water. This was a great section, never to hard but still plenty hard enough with constant maneuvering around rocks, lots of fun to read on the fly. We stopped once to scout and take some pictures. Patty is quite good at finding the best way through these sections and we did well although once again we did scratch a bit. We had to change course quickly at one point and it’s obvious to me that we are getting better as a team in the canoe; this is a good thing because in the future we have to do some sections of the NFCT with more difficult water.

At the end of the Abby rapids as a campsite that we stopped to have a look at. It was a really nice site and I’m sorry that we didn’t get to stay at it. Its under some large white pine and hemlock with a nice view of the river, it’s got a picnic table and lots of fire wood available. Much of the firewood is from a huge dead hemlock that fell sometime last winter. I don’t think anyone would have put up a tent where it fell but if they had been camping there at the time it would have scared ‘em to death. The thunderbox was a bit hard to find. If you visit the site it’s under some pine trees to the left on the other side of the clearing.

We did some very pleasant paddling and stopped for lunch under the bridge in Sheldon Junction. We had crackers, and cheese, and salami, and an apple. I washed it down with some GatorAide.

Our next obstacle was the portage around the dam at Sheldon Springs. The map says that there are two options one is ½ mile and the other is ¾ mile and wheel-able. We chose the longer option. It turns out to be 1 ½ mile long, and easily wheel-able although hilly. It was much hotter on the road than it was on the river. Patty and I worked out a good way to tow the canoe. We tied a paddle to the bow line about a foot from the carrying thwart. We each grabbed an end of the paddle and together we could lift the bow and tow the boat easily. We stopped to eat some of the sweet little wild raspberries growing on the side of the road.

At the put-in there was a gentleman fishing who told us that the put-in on the other side was much easier, I wonder if he thought we were going to go all the way back to the start and then ½ mile down the other side so we could enter the river at a beach instead of on the rocks?

After the put-in the NFCT map says there are some rapids that can approach Class III in high water. After having gone through them I’m sure they are right. I think we didn’t take the suggestion seriously enough, although the water was up and the rapids were only class II they were certainly the most difficult we did that day. There was lots of maneuvering involved with a couple of good size drops, one of which kind of snuck up on us. This set of whitewater was right at the upper limit of my comfort zone and caused a little bit of excitement. I think we did a good job of getting through but we easily could have made a wrong decision and dumped. After negotiated them without mishap we were quickly on our way to the East Highgate Ledges.

We followed the well marked new portage though town choosing to be conservative and not run the rapids. The marked take-out is right below a nasty looking little ledge so we took out about 150 feet upstream and lined the drop. The portage is along a surprisingly busy road. The marked put-in was down a steep bank and was full of limbs and branches so we opted to wheel the boat another ¼ mile down the road to a much easier put-put. We did miss out on a couple of really fun looking ledge drops by bypassing the signed put-in.

The weather started to cloud over as we paddled to our final carry of the day at the Highgate Falls dam. The clouds were not unwelcome as they helped to keep things cooler. The final take-out of the day was at a public boat launch where we met the only other canoe we saw on our trip, a couple of local youth headed out to do some fishing. The portage follows an ATV trail through the woods, over the road, under some power lines and steeply down hill to the campsite. The combination of ATVs, rain, and clay has made the carry treacherous especially on last section. Patty and I were both glad we had the canoe to hold on to a as we went down the last hill.

The campsite is in the woods but we chose to put up our hammocks down by the river where there was a breeze, a view, and a sunset. In the heat of the summer I bet one would choose to camp in the woods where it might be cooler. Amazingly the bugs were a non factor but there were a lot of slugs which seemed to get onto everything we put down in the grass. As usual we cooked too much food and had leftovers for the next day. Noodles with sauce, broccoli, carrots, and cheese. Cookies for desert.

We went to bed at about 8:30. After sleeping for a couple of hours I woke up and read a bit. There where some weird animal noises on the other side of the river which I think was a fisher cat, other than that I slept until about 6:00. Coffee and oatmeal for breakfast and we were off on day two.

This was a very uneventful and peaceful paddle for about 6 miles to Swanton.
The take-out in Swanton is surprising close to the dam although it’s an easy one. It has a really nice grassy area to organize gear in and there were some beautiful yellow iris on the bank. We carried our gear a couple hundred yards to the river front park and had a snack while waiting for the cab to shuttle one of us back to get the car. Patty volunteered so I took about an hour nap under the cottonwoods. The “cotton” was blowing out of the trees and it was almost like a warm snowstorm. I wish we had had time to paddle further and gotten to Lake Champlain although it would have been into an increasing headwind.