Fishing with Butterflies
This essay is dedicated to the late Dave Foreman who never missed an opportunity to share with folks the importance of getting outside and experiencing firsthand the wild places we struggle to protect.
The roar of the diesel engine coming down the darkened back street to my home well before first light woke me. At the time I occupied the 2nd floor rear studio of a 150-year-old Victorian beach house originally owned by a spice trader that included a wrap around porch with an uninterrupted view of the bay. When I heard the engine stop at my driveway, I got out of bed and went to the window. I looked down to see a colleague coming towards my van. Strapped down atop, lay my single and double sea kayaks.
When he began removing the tethers on my two-person sit-on-top sea kayak, I asked, “You stealing that?”
“Maybe,” came the reply from Double D as he slid the kayak off my rack.
“Do I need to call the sheriff?”
“Not if you’ve got the coffee brewing.”
“It’ll be ready by the time you’re done loading. School or work?” I asked. It was a fair question given that’s all we did during the past two seasons.
“Neither. It’s a play day.”
“Good question, although the more important one at this hour is how that coffee’s coming along,” he said as he lifted the kayak straight up over his head before walking it to his vehicle. I hustled off to the kitchen.
Down the steps, I hobbled on my gimpy bone-on-bone arthritic knees with the enthusiasm a child has when making a beeline to the sandbox. A play day! What a concept. Truth is I couldn’t remember either of us taking a proper break since the migration went into full swing this past spring. Between fighting off everything from ill-conceived, poorly planned public works projects, to doing public education, to guiding kayaking trips… we were pooped.
In the kitchen, I started the coffee perking before heading off to the collection of gear bags I kept ready by the back door. Out of the saltwater rucksack came my swim trunks, and a light hoodie, and onto my body they went. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to play we go. Yahoo!
Double D and I’d been following this easy routine together now for almost five years to the day. He first came onto my radar screen when he had his life threatened at a public hearing that I attended. The next day I tracked him down. The question for me became why him and not the local enviro-leaders who spoke out against this proposal. Granted they were heckled but nothing threatening. We met for coffee the next morning followed by a four-mile paddle through the landscape for the proposed dredging project. By the time we took out five hours later, I had my answer. The wealth of biodiversity using it as a safe haven from the ever-expanding coastal development said it all, and so off we went.
With only a thirty-day window, we teamed up and got to work. He knew the landscape and I did not, whereas I knew the administrative process and he did not. We hatched a plan and shared every duty that reached from kayaking tours with regulators, lawyers, and enviro-types; to road trips to the big city for legal strategizing. We spent countless hours in the library reviewing scientific documents, and, since time was of the essence, we did no politicking or media work. Moving with as much stealth as possible became the order of the day. The sharing of our skills became the exchange of energy, and damn if we didn’t bring it to a grinding halt inside that timeframe.
At that time, he was gigging as a short-order cook at a beachside diner while getting his local sea kayaking guide enterprise off the ground. I was caretaking a five-story beach house and living in the cottage behind it. The flexible hours trumped the low pay because it allowed each of us free time to explore. Him the bays, ocean, and rivers in one of his sea kayaks. Me the beaches and back roads by boots and bike.
Now here we were, him with his guided tours business going strong, and me with a full-time gig with a national environmental organization. Fat times…
The coffee had just finished perking when he walked in and suggested I pack enough food and drink to hold me over until mid-morning. I asked no questions and took care of business by first firing off a note to my supervisor letting her know today’s plans so far before locking up, stashing my food and cash in my bag by the door and slipping it on before taking my Irish Blackthorn walking stick in hand. Just outside I picked up my 5-gallon container of fresh water sitting by the garden hose and kept going. At his truck, I secured my gear in the bed before saddling up with my walking stick across my lap.
We rolled across the mainland heading due south and onto a coastal barrier island where we cruised through two sleeping hamlets. Leaving them behind we hit the narrowest stretch of the island on a divided highway devoid of any type of street lighting. To the east lay a wall of sand dunes, beach, and ocean, and on our right were stretches of saltwater marshes and the bay where small wild things cling for a stretch of four miles.
Little was said as our attention focused on scanning for any wildlife movements to avoid crossing paths as best we could. This stretch of highway was a killing field where our wild neighbors didn’t stand a chance against the behemoth that carried us. The crisp salt air gave off the first wisp of the coming fall season.
We turned west just before the inlet and followed the road around past the small marina and stopped at our launching point. Under the cover of darkness, we unloaded. He tied off his enclosed kayak before leaving to stash the truck. I busied myself securing my container of water in the front seat to keep my bow down and my dry sack loaded with a change of clothes, cash, first aid kit, small jug of drinking water, and food in the well behind me. That done, I launched to mid-channel where I kept the bow pointed south, leaving the barrier island on my port and the bay island on my starboard.
I looked towards the bay island and couldn’t recall ever having set foot on it except along the shoreline. To me, that island is a refuge for those that can handle biting flies, bloodsucking mosquitoes, and ticks ready to hop on when you walk by. Best left alone.
Things had been tame up to this point, but once I cast off that changed in that I’d entered into wild waters where big things cling, thus leveling the playing field. I got humble fast. My spirits were high, so now I just needed to get my mind and body in sync. Time to close lips, open nostrils, do a four-count inhale, hold for seven, and release over an eight-count. After executing a few of those I was good to go.
Double D drifted alongside me and said, “Meet-up spot is the center of the shoaled mudflats on the southwestern side. The goal here is to be over them without light or noise and settled before the curtain goes up at first light.” With my nod, he took the lead while I cinched up my brimmed hat and put on sunglasses to help diffuse the oncoming marina lights overhead. I did a little wiggle-waggle in my seat to get comfortable, switched on my running lights, and headed out.
Once outside of this shelter, you’re in the grips of the tide. What makes these marina waters calm is the seawall built long ago across the northern end of a natural strait. With an easy paddle, I projected my route to the shoals. It consisted of three segments with the first and last being places one would not want to get turned around in. The first came when leaving the harbor and emerging into the main channel of a river in a drowned river valley. This is where the inlet to the sea would lay a short distance off my port side. It’s a rough, sea-walled, scoured-out sluice of a place that I didn’t want to go through right now.
So, the plan is to go south, and just beyond the marina lights, remove glasses and hat so my eyes can better adjust to the natural light. One, out in the tide turn bow northwest and make for the channel near the southern shoreline. Pull up, turn off running lights, and give the eyes time to acclimate. The second one dictated navigating a narrow, snakelike channel around to the promontory. The third came when leaving the channel in order to cross deep, open water to get to the shoals.
I watched Double D up ahead hug the main channel just right of center and start paddling at the entrance while turning west. By the time I got to that point and turned west, I’d lost sight of him. I had other things on my mind.
When I emerged into this outgoing tide the pull came on fast and strong. The sheer force of it tried to wrestle my bow to port as if beckoning me to join in the rush to the sea. Add in the water piling up, which gave the surface some good rolling action, and it wasn’t a place I wanted to hang out in. With a mental shift, I concentrated my center of gravity to my hips and in a gliding motion steered the bow to starboard on the outer edge of the rolls and away from the pull. It worked. Once free, I paddled in deep, leveraged strokes and began angling for the southern shoreline while keeping the inlet at my back.
I’d done this route many times before around this hour so I had a good feel for it. Below me now lay deep water filled with wild things that could eat me and no one would be the wiser. Off my port side, the sounds emitted when one or more of them broke the surface, served as a reminder. Two other things to be ready for here came in the fashion of a large marine animal coming up for a blow and flipping me, with the other in the form of a large predator near the surface coming in for a kill and slamming into me. With the tide going out I left nothing to chance.
Onward I paddled unscathed to the shallower shoreline finally sliding into a tiny patch of beach with no overhanging vegetation. I hung out for a bit, letting the eyes get more acclimated and to think through this next segment, while in near total darkness, and caught a break when the moon came out from behind the clouds.
Feeling okay I slipped into the narrow serpentine channel just offshore and held center as best I could through the windings. This route allowed me to take advantage of the tidal actions being weakest here thanks to the small promontory to the west that provided relief from the tides, as well as reducing the odds of a predator getting between the land and me in an effort to herd me out to deeper waters. I saw that happen to a shark expert who narrowly dodged that once and never forgot it. Easy, smooth paddle strokes rule here.
Not too close, not too far philosophy held through this gauntlet until coming around the promontory where things changed again. This is where the shallow waters of the channel give way to the deep. The pull here is strong due to it being a saucony where the bay north of the island meets up with the river now on the way to the sea. This spot is a known hangout for big predators for whom I had a healthy respect. Even the babies here bite.
I pulled up on the edge of this change, got my bearings, and went for it into the open water in the grips of the outgoing tide, moving on instinct with paddle stroking in high gear just a notch below making a splash or waves and with hearing and sight on high alert. Too many experiences here over the years taught me to do so. This morning proved uneventful and that worked for me.
We met back up over the mudflats and got positioned about thirty yards offshore with our bows facing the brush and marsh grasses to the north where only a thin strip of sandy beach with a slight berm separated the bay from the marsh. It’d be light soon, so I held fast by using my paddle to hold steady. Double D held fixed using his foot pedals cabled to his rudder. Overhead the unobservable birds migrating south serenaded us. At the first tints of dawn, I noticed the vegetation in front of me appeared to be shimmering. Given the low light, I couldn’t imagine what I was looking at until a slight puff of wind brushed my cheeks. Showtime.
In unison, butterflies by the score lifted up from the marsh flying right at us. Front row seats as today’s first migratory wave came closer, each one beating their wings to an ancient rhythm known only to them. So fragile. So strong. So determined.
As they neared, I released the side straps on my portable seat and laid back almost flat with legs stretched out and the paddle on top to minimize my presence. No longer holding fast, the tide began twirling me in an easy, circular drift. My view now incorporated brilliant colors passing close up overhead with a pale baby blue sky as the backdrop. Magic. The migration across the bay went on and on until as quickly as it started, it stopped. I could see when I came upright a second wave of them now gathering on the edge of the marsh.
“And there you go,” Double D said with the glee of a kid in a candy store.
“That, sir, was amazing,” I responded while dipping my shades into the salt water and saw we were in only about six inches now. “Looks like it’s time to boogie.”
We paddled to deeper waters on the west side of the island where we slipped in for a swim. At one point I looked back to see the mudflats fully exposed and felt good not to be beached there. With kayaks in tow, we walked the western shoreline north to dry off. I lagged behind and took it all in as more butterflies came down the beach.
While walking along, I noticed a freshly cut stream of a good size rushing out of the marsh and emptying into the bay capture Double D’s attention. While passing this confluence, his gaze shifted to the marsh where he kept it as if his head were on a turret as he strove on. About fifty feet up bay he left his kayak above the wrack line and came back to the stream as focused as a good golfer walking up to a big money putt. I followed suit and lagged twenty feet behind him. At the point where the stream met the bay, he eased into a full primal squat while placing his turned-up hands and forearms in the water on the way down and stayed there motionless for the longest time. The artistry of his fluid movements and Zen-like repose once in place made it all worth the price of admission. But ‘the why’ still niggled me.
I sat off to his back left side above the wrack line well out of the way. My eyes stayed transfixed on him, unable to imagine what lay in store. I could hear the shorebirds dropping into where we’d just left to feed on the smorgasbord of seafood. The water’s edges in front of me glistened in a panorama of colors from the mass of butterflies doing what they do in the wet sand until all at once they lifted and split in every direction like I’d experienced packs of javelinas do when I’d inadvertently spook them while clomping around the Sonoran Desert.
I wanted to watch them go, but the flash of silver that emerged from the marsh, plowing a wall of water with a trailing rooster tail, kicked those winged beauties out of the moment. I dared not look away and kept my eyes transfixed on Double D. As the silver flash came over his forearms, he stood straight up with a huge striped bass in his arms with her head and tail extending well beyond his grip. When he attempted to pull her closer to his chest, she let go with a whoop of her powerful tail, catching him shoulder-high and knocking him right on his heels. A lot of grunting and squirming ensued between the two until he began laughing out loud. That seemed to be when she knew she had him and with a quick wiggle-waggle proceeded to shoot out of his arms and right into the bay. He continued to shake with laughter even as he bowed to her before following her in to rinse off.
I started walking back to the kayaks while he swam to them and we met up.
“For a moment I thought you had breakfast.”
“Yeah, that along with enough provisions for the two of us for this coming winter,” he said while checking out the position of the sun to get the time. “If we start back now with an easy paddle around the northern side, we’ll hit the diner right after the breakfast rush. Stack of buckwheat pancakes sound good?”
“Perfect.” And with that, we set off. Ospreys and terns heading south dropped in for a quick meal before continuing on. The aerial southern migration in high gear was clearly on display, but the one below me remained hidden.
Double D went on ahead as I lingered behind moseying offshore to watch the herons hunting along the shoreline. They presented me with the real possibility of a rare opportunity to see a silver eel, but only if one of these adult’s good fortune ran out at the beak of one of these grand birds. I paddled on with no luck.
I found myself daydreaming about the amazing life cycle of all nineteen species of Anguillas found around the world. The ones below me now are commonly known as American eels of which many would be adults getting ready to make what we believe, but do not know for sure, is their final journey back to the open waters of the ocean to spawn. Up to this point, we knew the baby eels emigrated out from the Sargasso Sea and would eventually work their way up into the freshwater systems that extended from Greenland to the northern rim of South America, where they’d spend the next three plus years before returning to the ocean. The great mystery still being in not knowing where they spawned. Part of me doesn’t want to know where that is, but the other part does in case this habitat needs protecting. Yin-Yang…
The splash of an osprey ten feet off my port and seeing her come up with a menhaden shifted my attention. I strained to see her curved talon action rotate the fish forward for better aerodynamics, but to no avail, despite seeing him turned and now facing ahead. Up and away they went.
Back now in open water, I daydreamed of the different adventures we’d shared over the years going around this ever-changing island. This summer alone we’d averaged an easy two to three times a week for one reason or another. Unbeknownst to either of us this would be the last time he and I would navigate these island waters together. In the coming season, life would send us in different directions.
With movement up ahead, I saw Double D patiently waiting on the beach. I made for it while reminding myself to learn more about the ospreys’ great comeback from the brink of extinction. By the time my bow slid up onto the sand my thoughts had shifted to food.
At the diner, he went into the kitchen, and I kept going to a booth. He arrived a little later with two mugs of coffee and breakfast. Back in the truck heading north and feeling reinvigorated, I decided to take the rest of the day off and hang out at my local beach.
We unloaded my gear at my place with the sun straight up before Double D continued north for a scheduled rendezvous. After rinsing and stashing my gear, I got under the outdoor shower where I rinsed body and clothes. After a quick top-to-bottom run of the towel, I slipped into dry clothes and hung the wet ones on a line before walking four blocks up to my public library and back down one to a deli where I bought two large bottles of warm Irish beer and a sandwich. Once settled in my rucksack and with Blackthorn in hand, I meandered a bit and finally closed the loop down by the water’s edge. The clock from the sun showed it was mid-afternoon.
At the shoreline, I turned up the bay but didn’t get very far. There buried in the sand I saw a large female horseshoe crab all by her lonesome. The foot traffic being somewhat heavy for this late in the season, I made camp next to my wild neighbor so people wouldn’t inadvertently step on her. This time of year, her being here is not a normal occurrence, but I’d seen enough over the years to not be surprised. She never moved even when I shaded her with a makeshift lean-to or wet her down. Alive? Dead? I’d no way of telling unless I disturbed her and that wasn’t going to happen. She became an ambassador of sorts, and I her diplomatic envoy when people inquired. When I wasn’t doing those things, I read the book on ospreys I’d scored earlier at the library. Near dusk, she freed herself and went back into the sea, and I put on my dive boots and followed her in.
One of my favorite things to do this late in the day, on a beach near empty of humans, was to walk out into the bay and when the water became chest-high I’d turn around and go into a moderate squat that gave me some springing action if needed. Once settled in place, I watched and waited for dusk to come on. My view spanned the beach but left me vulnerable from behind. All I can do here is listen, watch, and hope that today I’m not on some marine critter’s catch-of-the-day dinner menu.
Down the coastline came a great blue heron with wings moving to a lazy beat and seemed to me to be daydreaming. Below me, something of a good size brushed my right calf before rushing off. From the dunes, a red fox trotted out and began scavenging along the beach. Around my head schools of little fish jumped. Before I could go on alert as to what was making them jump, my ears picked up wing beats. I turned my head west in time to see a black skimmer unaware of me and closing in fast right above the water zeroing in on those fish. At the last second our eyes met and startled both of us, given our close proximity. I exhaled air out of every available orifice and submerged to avert a head-on collision.
When I came back up in one piece, I called it a day. By the time I walked up onto the beach, nighttime had settled in. In the dunes, I found my stash of small pieces of driftwood and started a tiny fire before changing into dry clothes. I buried the fire, now in embers, before throwing out a large towel over it to sleep on and drifted off serenaded again from our neighbors above winging it to warmer climes. In my dreams, I flew with them.