December 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
First run back in the preserve since my return from Oregon. I enter the park through the water authority entrance, intending first to run the back loop closer to the Mohawk. After seeing construction vehicles parked up ahead, I change course and run along the rustic trail between the Erie Canal and the marsh, next to the old beaver lodge. I notice signs of fresh beaver chews, the telltale shavings and pointed stump ends showing me the beavers had been busy lately. I’ve not seen beaver activity on this segment of the trail and found it unusual, but soon learn the possible cause. As I come up to the bridge at the main entrance to the preserve, I am stunned to see the trail, the one that extended about 2 miles down the canal, is under construction, widened to the width of a car and graveled, trees cut down along significant stretches.
This trail, although well-traveled by horses and pedestrians, had been a delightful haven for all kinds of critters, the place to go if one wanted to see a turtle, chipmunk, muskrat, frog, snake, heron, ducks and geese, and, if lucky, a beaver, mink, or otter. In fact, the huge beaver lodge I had watched so carefully while under construction is along this trail, and as I run on the gravel I wonder whether those tenacious home-builders will stay put next to the roar of excavators and steamrollers. I cry.
Why can’t we leave well-enough alone? Why is “development” better? Where can a person go to escape the concrete and busy-ness of city life and walk on earth, not material? I envision a bustling bike path and traffic and parking and garbage as this place was made more “accessible.” Those magical little moments encountering a sunbathing snake, or a turtle laying its eggs, or startling a white-tail deer into the marsh – all vanish as human beings noisily make our presence known with a disgusting sense of entitlement. I continue my run thinking of these things, veering past the beeping reverse of the backhoe and into the woods, reassured marginally by the enveloping silence and the three white flagged butts leaping off into the trees ahead of me.
August 2016, Juniper Ridge Park, Madras, OR
Early morning run after a rainstorm. The dirt road is lined with sage, and with sun-baked wheat, cheatgrass, and native grasses creating a savory, cleansing aroma I inhale deeply into the cells of my lungs. I listen for the tap tap of my running buddy’s paws behind me, catching up after some deliciously distracting smell that is too faint, and likely too gross, for my human nose. I listen to the sound of disgruntled quail wings as the flock settles into a nearby tree, vocally resentful of our intrusion into their morning. Looking up, I see the Mighty Mt. Jefferson in its dawn alpenglow, refusing to be cloaked by the lingering clouds. I am grateful.
June 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
There is a two or so mile-long stretch of trail in the preserve that divides the lethargic Erie Canal on the east side and a large marsh on the west side. One section of this stretch is particularly abundant with critters, from the ubiquitous water fowl, chipmunks, and turtles, to occasional Great Blue Herons and muskrats. Rarer are the beavers, evidence of whom abound with their enormous lodge and felled trees, but whom I’ve only had the privilege of seeing one time. Earlier this week I saw a juvenile mink who left behind a crayfish carcass in a rush to get out of my way. Today I am treated to another special sight. Two whitetail deer flee my passing in the most expedient way available to them: across the big marsh. With a giant splash they leap in and bound across the shoulder-high water, coming to rest in the shelter of tall cattails and reeds. One bugles out her displeasure, or distress, and I wonder whether she might also be calling to a fawn hidden nearby.
June 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
This morning running through the preserve there is not a single goose to be found. For the past six weeks they have been near every trail, in every body of water with their young close by. I have watched these families gradually dwindle from seven or nine goslings down to just two or even one. I have examined piles of molted feathers and have seen baby down transformed into the elegant grey and black that distinguishes Canada geese. I have interrupted their morning trailside slumbers and negotiated with moms and dads about whether they should stand there and hiss or let me by. I have watched their delightful single file parade through the green-coated marsh. But today, nothing, though I know there are many who are incapable of flight yet. I wonder at my ignorance of a behavior that feels rather important, really.
April 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
There is a simple bird song, three descending notes, eighth, quarter, half. Today, as I run alone through the preserve I recognize the deep ache in my chest as I hear that song: loneliness. Not the adult isolation so often constricting my diaphragm these days, but a cloud that sifts into the memory; not a single moment but rather a collage of momentary emotions creating a pervasive sense of loneliness that encompassed much of my childhood. That simple song, a soundtrack to a young girl’s life she did not know had settled, like powder, over a blue banana seat bike, over an old white house, over the backs of her horses, over her open books, and over her troubled mind. I don’t know the bird’s name or even image. Maybe one day I will find out.
April 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
A warm spring run this morning in the preserve, sunlight popping colors of newly grown greens, charcoal waters, vivid blue sky. The slumbering sanctuary has come roaring to life with all the urgency of procreation behind it. The frogs have changed their duck-like croaks to songbird chirps. Warbling, honking, quacking, trilling fills the airwaves above and around me. It is a delight.
April 2016, Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, New York
Out for a run on this warm, sunny spring morning looking for signs of awakening life in the preserve. As I pass the beaver mansion on my right side I resume plotting various ways in which I can actually see its constructors. Maybe a 2am tree climbing expedition with head lamp will, in fact, yield the result of a beaver sighting, since daylight hours for over a year have yielded exactly zero. Evidence of them abounds. There are the pointed stubs of various sacrificial trees that line the path. There is the ever-growing lodge itself, large enough to house quite a number of the extended beaver family, I imagine. My favorite beaver sign, though, is the slimy, two foot wide trail that crosses the path from the marsh to the canal just upstream from the lodge. The debris left behind on the trail varies from muddy silt to a mixture of wet algae presumably stuck to the underbellies of our industrious friends as they drag the results of their labor across to reinforce and supply their home for the winter. I never step on this trail, I guess out of respect for the hard work it represents. But every time I see it, especially when it is still wet with the night’s forays, I have to grin with admiration and longing.
I am jolted out of these deep thoughts by an assertive slap! just behind me and I stop in my tracks to turn and see large ripples of water radiate from bank to bank. I am on a small isthmus, a strip of land less than 10 feet wide that divides the body of the marsh from the Erie Canal, which along this stretch is more like a slew by the standards where I come from. Nonetheless, it is in the still waters of the canal the telltale slap of a beaver’s tale has jarred me out of my wishful wistful thinking and into the reality I have been seeking. I search for awhile. Empty water. Sigh. As I turn to resume my run I am rewarded at last, but quite a distance upstream. A little head comes poking along the surface of the water in my direction, disregarding my presence as irrelevant, apparently. I’ve been tricked before at first glance, confusing a swimming muskrat with a beaver, but the shiny flat tail skims the surface and I know my wait is over. I watch, careful not to call attention to myself.
Very quickly I am transformed from runner to naturalist to voyeur as my sleek host has a rendezvous, planned or otherwise, with a love interest. The two meet face to face, then swirl around, on top of, behind, and side by side each other, cooing softly in an unmistakable language of procreation and survival. Their encounter, by human standards (most, anyway), is brief and afterwards with no drama the two swim in opposite directions – one to the lodge to submerge and not resurface within my eyesight and the other back the way he came. I think of him as the male and perhaps I am stereotyping or anthropomorphizing or both. As I hold out hope for one more sighting of her entering the lodge or something equally cool, I hear her paramour’s authoritative slap on the water upstream before he, too, vanishes below.
I am grateful for this gift.
March 2016 – Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
A few amphibians have ventured to brave the spring thaw in the Preserve – turtles repopulate their favorite sun-absorbing spots, one-two-three or more per log. It must take hours of solar worship to get warmth back into those winter-hard cells. I have very little human company on the trail today and I am hopeful to startle up critters with my scent and footfall masked by the bluster of the wind. I am not disappointed; muskrats and water fowl revel in this late afternoon hour. As I enter a marshy area newly replenished with shallow water I hear what sounded like the chatter of dozens of ducks. As my eyes search the reeds for signs of feather or fur or skin, I come up blank, just wind rustling the reeds. Closer consideration and I begin to liken the sound to a motorized boat, forbidden within the boundaries of the preserve. The well-concealed creatures are undisturbed by the crack and snap of my footsteps creeping closer in my vain search for an eyeball or a protesting belly flop. I carry on with my run, noting there seems to be several distinct communities of these noise-makers that stretch over this relatively small corner of the Preserve and then are simply no more. At home, Google identifies the sound as the mating call of the Northern Leopard Frog, a familiar face to me in the Preserve, if this particular voice was until now unheard.
February 2016 – Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
I find myself on a solitary run this morning as the crisp mid-winter sunlight breaks over the milky floe of the Mohawk River. The preserve, in other seasons a cornucopia of color and wildlife, is quite still, a conservative palate of dormant browns and grays and whites. From that frozen landscape a Pileated Woodpecker pounding a skeletal tree for his breakfast catches my eye, just as the sunlight backlights his red crest so that it glows like a jewel. In moments such as these, one’s run is insignificant and it is necessary to pause with gratitude for a transient and precious gift.
January 2016 – Vischer Ferry Preserve, Clifton Park, NY
What lies hidden in the brush…I startle up three white tail deer out of brush and snags on my run this morning. At first I catch a glimpse of their dun colored coats and then, clearly disgruntled that out of 600 acres I have to disturb their little haven, just the flying flags of white as they bounce to presumed safety far from me, the only human there that morning.
April 2015 – Mohawk River Valley, Halfmoon, NY
Thousands of grackles cling like ornaments to the still-bare trees lining the Mohawk River at dusk this evening, a tidal wave of sound and feathers echoing on the partially frozen water…an enchanting diversion for a chilly post-workday run.
June 2013 – Cheesequake State Park, Matawan, NJ
The brief but grand chorus of the Cicada Love Fest 2013 is fading into a swan song, the next generation presumably secure deep in the earth for its optimistic 17 year slumber. I wonder what the park will look like then…