© Vince Marquis
(Photo credit, Nature Canada)
How beautiful this day has been! Quiet and peaceful down by the river, listening and being with the birds and small creatures, reading and dozing pleasantly in company with my Most Special. The river moves around and through the rocks and boulders, eddying along the shore, cool and soothing to the spirit as it gurgles and splashes, ever constant and ever changing.
In mid-July the bugs have mostly gone, while our little gazebo on our tiny islet provides just enough shelter from any persisting little blood-suckers and biters still seeking our tasty flesh. Since early afternoon we have enjoyed our haven, the sun shining off the moving, shimmering water, and dappling the shores and their slopes with an ever-changing artistry.
If we get too warm, our little bathing pool awaits along with at least a score of young fish who come curiously to see if we have anything for them. If not, they will try a little nibble at a mole or spot that looks like a grub or little worm on our legs or torso. Disturb a rock here and there, and the crayfish scamper away to seek shelter. These little pinchers have a surprisingly hard nip if you tempt them with a finger.
There are frogs along the shallows – leopards mostly but a few bulls too. The two do not mix, for the leopards know that their big dull-green cousins will happily make a meal of them. The leopards are energetic in their hunting, while the bulls mostly sit stalk-still waiting for unwary prey. Both species like damsel- and dragon-flies, or deer- and horse-flies, the staple of their diet at this time of year. But they are opportunists and will snag anything they can swallow that comes within range of their lightning fast tongues or a powerful kick and thrust of their rear legs through the water. How incredibly fast are their reflexes and precise their brains in computing those flies-in-flight trajectories!
Every once in a while we may catch sight of one of the neighbourhood turtles, painted or snapping. If the snapper is around, it is time to be cautious about venturing into the water, but she is very shy, while we are happy to observe her sly movements as she seeks a good hunting hide-away. Froggies beware! And perhaps a rat-snake will pass through, maybe even sunning itself on a flat rock.
The great blue heron may occasionally glide into the shore-weeds along the other bank and take post in its own frog-hunt or fishing sally. Perhaps mother wood-duck will tootle along with her gaggle of fuzzy little cuties. Or Mr. Ferret will nimbly hop and jog along the shore. All in all, frogs have a lot to look out for – even raccoons!
The pileated woodpeckers are never far off, frequently making the rounds of their best boring trees with the most grubs and wood-digging pest-nests. Their patient, solid knocking is easy to recognize, while their smaller relatives, the downies, rat-a-tat like cartoon Woody. And many other birds can be heard with their various chirpings, cooings, and buzz-songs.
The hawks have been nesting atop one of the big, tall trees and we can hear the parents calling the hawklets in their piercing cry, coaxing the young to practice flying. Sometimes we get to see them. Hawks always return to the same nests if they can, so they are regulars.
As wonderful as all this “regular” riot of nature’s life all around us is, it is not quite la pièce de résistance. Every once in a blue moon, there are true rarities that only presence and patience can harvest by being there serendipitously at the right time. Over the years, we have seen the sort of stuff which most people will never see in their whole lives, even if they are wilderness trekkers.
Perhaps an indomitable nature photographer may catch something of the sort. There was Mother Otter with three kits coming down the river to play around our special standing rock in our pool, delighting my spouse as she stands on the rock revelling in their game and very quietly “chatting” with the boldest of the three gambolling young-uns. For an instant, their eyes lock, the playing baby wide-eyed and tremulously curious, unsure, just a meter from her fingertips, until Momma chatters to back off and the family jauntily turns about to head back upriver to their den.
Or the time when she heard a great splashing coming downriver from behind her and turned to see a yearling deer bounding in panic as a large coyote was in hot pursuit. Her sudden “Hey!” to the coyote balked it while the deer caught a break and raced onto the opposite shore and up the wooded hill before the coyote could regain its stride. She had given the losing dear a few precious seconds, maybe just enough. The coyote returned to his hunt, but now with far less chance of catching his prey. “Interfering in the natural order!” you might say. Our natural sympathies favour the underdog, I guess. Maybe it’s the old human fear of wolves who hunted our ancestors.
Unfortunately for me, I missed the otters and hunting coyote dramas. These are my spouse’s special moments.
We have both had encounters with bear cubs down there, Momma Bear not in sight, I with two grand-daughters in tow. For obvious reasons, these are not comfortable encounters. In P’s case, the cub got so close that she took refuge with her cell-phone up a nearby tree and called me to come rescue her with something very noisy to scare the bruins away. We keep boat-horns to blast if there is any real danger, but the horn hadn’t worked! I resorted to the weed trimmer running at full-tilt, and it did the trick! Lesson learned to check the horns regularly. They are actually much better and safer than bear-spray – or a clumsy weed-trimmer. We take these dandy super noise-makers with us when wilderness canoeing.
My personal summit of sightings was two summers past with a creature so rare to encounter that I was at first quite incredulous that it had really happened. It was at the end of the particularly idyllic day in question above. It was the day before P’s birthday, and she and I had quite enjoyed our afternoon together. She went back to the house ahead of me to put supper on the table. I was savouring the last half hour or so before heading back.
Finally, it was time to go. I gathered my things and got off my chaise-longue, putting on my clogs. I rose and picked up my day-pack, then exited the gazebo. It was a lovely evening just before the sun really begins to retire. I stood quietly, just listening to the river’s soothing patter and savouring the fresh evening air. I took a few steps to the flat rock that is our step as you go down into the water. There was some extra splashing coming from the right, and from the corner of my eye there was movement a good way off.
When I turned my head to see what it was, I perceived a large animal in mid-stream, about 75 meters away. I could not quite fathom what it was – tawny beige colour, too short for a deer, too big for anything else in my categories of “the usual suspects” of river denizens and neighbours. Right general size for a middling bear, but totally wrong colour. A really big dog? This animal was lunging about in the deeper pool down there. It dawned on me; it was fishing! Its movements were wonderfully graceful in a feline fashion. What???
As it was turned away from me, I gazed intently, waiting for it to present itself in full profile as it continued to poise for successive plunges. Certainly no deer, or dog, or wolf-kind! Catlike in movement and grace and poise. Then it turned full sideways and I clearly saw the curve of its back, the long, furry tail with the end-tuft rising in that very catlike manner, and, finally, the massive head. Cougar!! No possibility of mistaking this top-of-the-food-chain monarch! Full-grown and quite large, archetypical specimen in size, colour, form, and grace. Absolutely awesome!
He turned his head, sensing he was being watched. He had not scented me, for the breeze was from him to me, and I had been stalk-still, entranced, transfixed! He saw me and his yellow eyes locked onto mine. Neither moved, but there was an electric moment of contact and acknowledgement.
“I see you there,” was what I sensed from him. I should perhaps have been afraid. After all, if he had decided to change his menu to go for bigger game, he was far faster than I, and trees and logs are no obstacle to a creature who climbs trees like a baboon. But I felt an uncanny calm. My own sense was, “You are king of your domain, but I, the human, am your master in God’s order of things.” It was not a contest of wills or a challenge. It was a moment of mutual recognition. Satisfied that I was no threat to him, he turned once more to his graceful fishing venture. I decided that it was a good time to make my way home. No hurry, no running to convey fear, just keep a good pace and go quietly, leaving him to enjoy his mastery of the land that evening. For my part, I felt like I had been hugged and kissed by the Creator.