Sunday 4 August 2013

The Duck

This post is an important chapter in a new book I am writing about my experiences while paddling 100 lakes on Vancouver Island. I am open to constructive feedback, particularly about whether it held your attention and where it needs editing. Thanks.
Edited: 10 August 2013

November 10th 2007

Spider Lake November 2007

At night I look up at the stars populating a darkness that seems mineral in its stillness, stars as sharp as the cold glint of light off a cave wall.  Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny. I get my gear together, go to bed early, and in the morning I head out the door for the Alberni Valley, the sun still making its way over the horizon. I want a new lake to paddle today, but I'm dogged by a weariness and need for calmness. I don't want any jolts, no unexpected mishaps. I head to a little piece of water that looks interesting on Google Earth called Trail Pond.

Tracker Parked Near Port Alberni
As I pass through Port Alberni I position the map book on the passenger seat and turn off my CD so I can concentrate on finding my way. On the way out of town a large white pickup truck comes up behind me and tailgates me across the Somass River Bridge. Usually when I cross this bridge I like to slow down and look at the green swirling water of Somass River but today I look at my speedometer instead. In my rear-view mirror I see the driver's face. He is a young man hunched forward over the steering wheel and large forearms protrude from the rolled up sleeves of a red checked flannel shirt. The brim of an orange cap shields his eyes from the morning light. A hunter's hat. I speed up a bit through the winding turns, past the Tsunami warning sign as the highway curves sharply up towards Sproat Lake. I try to read signs as I go by each side road, remembering them so that when I look at the map, I will have reference points. The truck grill fills my rear-view mirror now, nothing but chrome and white paint. I turn at the next street to let him go by, but I see that he has turned off on the same street, so I pull into a gravel parking lot beside a group mail box. He swerves around me and glares at me as he speeds past. I sit and watch him disappear, and take a deep breath.

My heart does one of its familiar and common irregular beats, a skipping trill, followed by a lurch to a stop, and then a large lumpy restart. I breathe again, feeling the trill rise and fall. This thready pulse, a reminder of the anxiety ever present just out of thought, creates a funny acid reflux feel, like joints popping free with an uncomfortable clunk, always setting my mind to wondering, "Is today the day I die from a sudden cardiac event?"

Back on the highway I find the right turn off, Great Central Lake Road, and follow it looking for Branch 73. I stop at a gravel road which might be it and check my map. At the side of the road, surrounded by mock orange bushes I notice a stop sign that has been twisted around and around, the aluminum pole corkscrewing into the gravel. There are deep tread marks in a sand and gravel bank a few meters behind the sign, log butts with orange paint on them protrude from the top of the bank, clumps of dry moss have tumbled down from below them and are breaking apart among dry stones at the bottom. The whole rustic intersection has the feel of a clearcut, lots of broken ground, dead foliage, dusty bushes. The back of the sign is spray painted green with the word "GO". The paint has run at the bottom of the "G" and the "O".

I leave the broken asphalt of Great Central Lake Road and drive along Branch 73, through the recently logged section, under power lines, past a road that I judge to be the Turtle Lake access road. A pile of rubbish stands out just inside the forest. I'm starting to anticipate my destination, feeling that light-headed sensation like being on an Easter egg hunt. My eyes scan the bushes and gaps in the trees on the right side of the road, I see some open areas, a little bit of watery bog, and then on a gentle curve of the road, Trail Pond, an inviting openness in the forest.

Trail Pond
I pull over, turn off the engine, and get out to have a look. Clouds move across the sun and I watch shadows run along the water's surface and the treed shore line on the far side. The sunlight glances off wavelets near the middle of the pond, a brief sparkle, then the breeze reaches me, and I feel the coolness of autumn and smell the volatile oils of bog plants, smell algae, smell the acidic freshness of sphagnum moss. The water is only steps from the edge of the road. I feel a pleasing sensation of fulfilled hope. I swallow down the last sensations of heart irregularity. The place seems to be emitting a warm wave of some sort.

Trail Pond Peat Mats
The elements of this spot vibrate in an unexpected harmony; the way the peat mats lie with uneven rounded boarders, the way the young trees and bracken ferns slope down to the road from the stand of trees behind me, the way the gravel shoulder of the road folds over into the bushes, the way the ancient and stunted pines dot the old muskeg.

A small flock of ducks lifts out of the marshy area on the left as I step out onto the little scrap of shore. I watch them fly together across the water and then duck by duck they slide to a stop in the shade on the far side of the lake. I begin to whistle as I examine the put in; there is a weathered and rotting log sunken in the earth which will allow me to enter the canoe without fouling my boots and boat with marsh mud. I take down my canoe, put it in the water, load my gear into it, lock the vehicle, and step into the boat.

I have to push out through a narrow gap in the peat mats and wince at the screeching of dead willow or Sweet Gale branches against the hull; but then I glide into open water. I turn left and follow the edge of the peat mat, allowing my eyes to skip along the drop at the edge of the muskeg where the tea-coloured water exaggerates the sudden drop. I glide beside the mat, close enough to touch it, and examine the dense combination of mosses, a clump of Crow Berry, and at each place where the mat juts out a little further into the pond, Sweet Gale and Labrador Tea bushes that hang out over the water.

Labrador Tea

The tips of the Labrador Tea branches hold up green leathery leaves curled at the edges, and the leaves further down are red. I look at each Shore Pine as I go by, some short and bushy, some thin and withered, some reduced to scaly twigs on a twisted trunk.  Further back are black barked fir and hemlock snags with holes made by wood peckers. Tiny Bog Cranberry laces along below the Labrador Tea, its diamond leaves glint in the sun. Translucent empty exoskeletons of dragonfly nymphs cling to reed stalks that grow from deeper down the edges of the mat. There are hemlock seedlings and grasses behind the Sweet Gale and Labrador Tea, and as I draw towards the end of the peat mat the woody weave of the mat gives way to the sword-like leaves of rushes kinked over at the top.

The breeze drops and my canoe slides noiselessly with the slightest paddle stroke, the paddle making a small water sound. A suckling baby breaking from a breast. The sound at the end of a long kiss.

I angle out from some logs that protrude from the eastern shore, and drift into shallows. Above me tall fir and hemlock stand along a slope that rises from the shore. The lowest branches of these old trees are gone, the higher branches curving down in graceful arches, needled tufts at each end. Long strands of beard and hair lichen hang down in grey and golden laces.  A dozen dead snags stand along the water's edge with rough bark deeply pitted or falling away. The contrast with the living trees is generational, successional; a different sort of system to gage time with.

I take out my camera and start clicking, the colors of autumn seem to rust each image at the edges, my eye feels warm at the view finder. As I move away from the bay, the Sweet Gale and Labrador Tea become denser again, and larger. They are now like billowing golden mounds of speckled complexity, my eye only able to take in the larger forms, a sense that this shoreline is under born by rock or soil.  Here now is some kind of willow, the foliage, even in autumn decline, obscures the mossy bank beneath. I make my way along these woolly edges towards a small point on the south side of the pond where a great blue heron leaps into the air, squawking its primordial call.

With the heron and the dragon fly nymphs I wonder if the water supports fish and put up my rod and cast for awhile. The water is cold and deep but I draw in the fly again and again without the shadowy form of a following fish. I stow my rod away. Perhaps this is more of a bog than a marsh, the pond life limited to those that do not require oxygen-rich water.

On the west side of the pond I examine a patch of sweet gale that extends from the wooded shore out into deeper water, finally separating into clumps of dead and denuded branches poking out of the water towards the sky. I cannot help but think of rib cages. I remember on one map that it looked like there may be passage here to a smaller pond beyond, but the squeal of the branches on the shiny canoe's gelcoat is too much for me and I turn around and paddle back to open water.

In the distance I hear a shot gun discharge and then another. I imagine men crouching in duck blinds while I blunder my way into their scope range, scaring away supper. The gun shots are miles away though, no-one seems to be sharing Trial Pond with me.

As I head back towards the put-in there is a sudden splashy whistling sound as the ducks I saw earlier take flight again from a hidden bay in the peat mat. They cross the pond towards the far side near the patch of bull rushes. I stop paddling to watch them glide low and land.

Something rises up in me then, a feeling of thankfulness, or some movement of the infinite, the hinging open of gratitude on loss, and suddenly I feel a great wash of peace flecked with sadness and joy in equal parts. I immediately see the place. I had been looking closely, but had not really seen it. I had been studying parts, but not the whole. It feels familiar now, an old haunt. The desire to belong here, to idle here, to fit in, to acclimate rises like symphony. The wind is gone, the day is calm, the water where the ducks had been resolves away in ripples to a reflection of sky.

I feel the anxiety in me disengage completely, like a stick shift snapping out of gear, snapping into neutral. I feel my eyebrows come down with a soft release, all the muscles of my face relax; I feel my scrotum loosen, my shoulders go slack. I stretch out my legs. This is contentment, the forgetting of clocks, the absent transition from going to arriving. I am here, I am alone, I have found that quality my father and I both treasured. I watch the white puffy clouds drift over the valley and shafts of sun appear and disappear between them. When it shines on me I feel my back and head warm up.

I look around to for something to photograph that will capture this sensation and see a duck angling out from the little bay where the other ducks had been. I lift my binoculars and focus on the little bird. It is white and black and I scan through my memory - bufflehead?

Image Courtesy of UK Safari
 No, look at those eyes, that yellow ring, must be a Golden Eye. I take up my paddle and angle the boat towards him, surprised to be getting so close. Now I can see him clearly without the glasses, paddling hard, his head snapping around, his erratic course. It is like I really scare him. Why doesn't he fly away? I am now several yards away.  He opens his wings, flaps them enough to skip ahead, but he doesn't take off. It is like he is drawing me away from a nest, faking a broken wing, but this isn't nesting season.

Then I realize he is not faking. This is hunting season.  This little terrified bird really has a broken wing. A shotgun pellet is lodged near a bone, maybe has broken the bone, maybe the wound is infected. I stop paddling and let the creature gain the distance he is desperate for.

According to a Ducks Unlimited study there are on average 4 million ducks per year that are crippled and never retrieved by hunters. Watching the little body paddle frantically away from me in faltering angles this way and that, but always consistently away, I feel the resolution of some previously unseen contradictions.

The further away the duck gets from me, the closer I feel to it. The distance across the lake shrinks the closer the little wounded Golden Eye gets to the other side. I can feel a soft-hearted sympathy well up, as if from the bottom of the lake, up through the water, up through the canoe, up through me to lift the hairs on my neck. I cast the sympathy out across the lake and it pulls me with it unbidden; I seem to become in that moment an apology. I become a pathetic "sorry" which echoes back from the trees like a gunshot. I am a sorry of anger, of self-reproach, a sorry of guilt, a sorry made of shame and sobriety. A sorry that starts with a jolt and ends in a sigh. I am with this creature, I feel the wound. It is a wound we share, the wound of being here in this set of rules. Like this little duck I too want to hide, to steal away, and disappear into the underbrush. I want to be safe. But I know safety is more of an ideal than a state. In the real world safety is a sliding scale we optimize with tools. I trail my paddle and allow the boat to bump off the peaty shore.

As I sit there in my canoe, in the unbidden feeling of concern for this small animal, my gaze shifts to the bright red leaves of a blueberry bush. They are shriveling now, the growing season receding like a Camus Lilly into it's bulb. On the water in front of the blueberry an unknown lake weed reveals the skeletons inside it's leaves; the recent frost having halted its photosynthesis by bursting all its cells.

The gossamer fragile structures bob in the wake of my canoe as I pass over it. I turn the boat and take a picture of it and then start paddling towards the put in.

As I turn into the shallows by the put in, threading my way between the sticks protruding from the water, I look up at the road and see a woman peddle by on a bike, then a man, the sound of popping gravel under their tires. I hear the fellow say, "honey, keep your eye's peeled for photo ops." She is peddling on ahead and says something I don't hear and he turns to look at me. I smile and wave. He doesn't wave back, but instead stands on his peddles to catch up to her.

Then I notice that I am surrounded by bright red dragon flies.

They are all coupled and I look down and see that dozens of them are depositing eggs around the base of bunches of pond rushers and reeds. I hold out my hand and two of them light on it.

Their touch is light and papery; the back of the female's depositor pulses like I have seen wasps pulse. The dragonfly has no stinger though; its large eyes and curved mouthparts a perpetual smile. I attempt to photograph them on my hand, and as they fly away I watch them touch the water to lay more eggs.

I listen to the high rattling clatter of their wings, notice that each wing has one tiny section which is red while all the others are clear, a bit of stained glass flare on these copulating mosquito hawks. They light on my hat, the gunwales, my paddle. I am in the centre of a fragile living moment, the beauty of these creatures layered into an experience similar to a first snow, or the day the leaf buds open in May.

On the drive home I cannot stop thinking of that little wounded Golden Eye.

I like the taste of duck, the warm buttery richness of roasted skin, the complex wild flavour of duck flesh somehow similar to the flavour of certain mushrooms. I think about hunting, about the cost of shotgun shells, the electrifying sight along a double barrel, the sweep of the curve as you follow the flight line. I think about the kick of the gun, the smell of gun powder. The flicker of memory of fireworks and Halloween. I think about retrieving downed ducks, about the smell of a wet dog, the chagrin of missed shots. Hunting unfolds inside a curious frame of skill and knowledge, a hunter's senses for weather, camouflage, and the skittish nature of prey. I remember the weight of a shotgun resting over my forearm, the satisfying click after putting in shells. I remember the tingle of a numb finger on a trigger, sniffing through a cold nose and smelling snow in the air. I think about the beauty of feathers lying in harmony, the limpness of a newly killed body, about cleaning and cooking; the end product. I think about our house cat crunching contentedly on the small body of a humming bird. The absent look in his eyes, fully immersed in the pleasure of chewing. I think about the pain of a broken wing, wonder if the little duck has even a chance of healing or if its death will be drawn out in a painful line, with the period coming after starvation and hypothermia. I think of all the animals all over the island that die of starvation -- insects and elk, copepods and cougars.

The reality of death, in all its forms mounts up to challenge my conception of nature, or my lack of an adequate conception. This, as one agnostic I know puts it, is God's rap sheet. Creation groans under the weight of all those deaths, most of them painful, many with a long miserable decline throbbed full of desperate anxiety.  So many creatures exist by eating other creatures.

Flight, fight, or freeze. Animals are intimately acquainted with these reflexive impulses residing in the most protected part of the brain, deep inside the skull. It is the core of our being - a startle reflex wrapped around appetite.

Avoiding being eaten only slightly higher in priority than eating, fear marginally more motivating than hunger. I can imagine easily the rapidly beating heart of that little Goldeneye as it paddled frantically away, looking for a safe spot, looking for cover. My own anxiety a familiar echo of the little duck's anxiety. Escape is the prey's most practiced routine. Fly away, run away, get away.

A deep thrill without pleasure, an absorbing surprise full of gasping. Something in that little duck summarizes the universe. The rise of mind from mindlessness process, the unfolding of eyeballs glistening with understanding. Eyes that can see the problem in the fabric of awareness itself. Somehow, in the small success of one trait over another, in the interplay of approach and withdrawal, there is a prudence to pain. And we cannot fault the hunter for responding to such an ancient urge.

Yet after seeing the wounded, the writhing panic of a creature entrapped, one or two or three steps removed, there is a certain repulsion at the predator's satisfaction.  The languid yawn of the killer after a good meal. We clean our teeth and wonder absently if there is moral colour to our action. A former girlfriend's glare at my father's jokes about vegetarians, the death knells of carrots.

I think of that researcher's notion of a piling up of consciousness nerve by nerve. Consciousness in degrees rather than in kind. The sense I have of cleanly perceiving a moment of neuronal interpenetration. The moment the solution to a puzzle is seen. The quick assembly that follows.

I think about Brian Swimme's idea of life as the search for free energy. As I think about it I remember the bill of mallards, the way they sift rapidly through water plants, constantly searching for something to consume.  Organisms as the way complexity is propagated. All of life a coiling of complexity around the extravagance of solar discharge. That little duck is a reflection of the harshness of complexity folding ever into itself. Organisms need energy and once they have energy they become energy to other organisms. What can we call this that is not a cliché? I look without answers at this often repeated question arising from the seams of existence.

To look at the hemline, the cuffs, the taper of life is to see ghosts of death, the ephemeral quandaries of a universe composed of sentience and sharp teeth. Thinking of these underlying rules, it occurs to me that down below the level of cells the Golden Eye and I share genes. A lot of genes. Our divergent evolution has taken us in different directions, but like our common heritage of successful genetic material, fear is old in both of us. We share it like we share the pond, the water plants, the air. Fear is inherited from our common ancestors, the reptile, the fish, the pre-fish. Even protozoa move away from danger and towards energy. Those are the poles of our existence and we waver like an electric arch between them.

As I drive home along the dark highway, I begin to realize, for the first time in my life, just how normal I am. How did I not know that this anxiety, this shying away, was curled up in my very cells and in the cells of every other living creature? Brother duck, the brother I eat, many of his genes my genes, this kin of mine, has shown me myself, the whole cosmos reflected in this fragile flute of blood and broken bone.

Coming out of Cathedral Grove, Cameron Lake reflects back stars as I drive beside it. The lights of my vehicle occasionally shooting out over its dark surface with the twists and turns of the highway erasing the star field and revealing the surface of the water. I blink wide at a dark realization: fear has an advantage. My special gift, the gift of the universe, of the randomness of circumstance, brought out this response more strongly in me than in others. My special context has magnified a value, the value of avoiding death. And now, the wave of it seems less ominous, less shameful. To fear is to be alive, to be part of the exchange of a pattern of complexity. Without it, the complexity rolls over you, drawing you in to the great recycler of fang, intestine, and rectum.

There is a sensation you get on a dark winding road at night, the feeling that you could just not turn and hurtle off into the darkness, into death. It is a temptation of sorts, the temptation to end, to put an end to suffering, to quell the fire-starter once and for all in a cold lake. But tonight I keep turning the wheel, feeling my body sway back and forth around the curves. I don't want to go over a cliff tonight. It is good to be alive tonight, knowing something deep about existence. Was that the reason I was driven to this activity? Did something compel me to buy a canoe and travel to remote lakes just for this moment, this satori on Trail Pond? Or was it a random encounter, a common pattern that my mind chose to make sense out of? Either way, I have it now.

I had gone out to be enlightened in nature but found myself enlightened about my own nature. In my own nature is the tightly wound code of all my ancestors who have survived by cowering, running, or lashing out. I am not a failure, but in fact the last in a line of survivors. I stop at the gas station in Whisky Creek and while I stand pumping gas into my vehicle, a cool wind points out the places on my body that are wet, cold spots standing out against the undifferentiated field of the rest of my body. I think about the free energy, sunlight striking algae or plants millions of years ago, contributing to a sludge that over time became petroleum. I pump captured sunlight into my vehicle.  Brian Swimme is right, life is a search for energy, but I'm not sure how free it ever is.


  1. The subject, the beauty and the depth of the writing in this piece reminds me of something I recently read by Richard Wagamese. "The time we spend in communion with the earth is the time that we are truly spiritual. It enhances, empowers and frees us. Looking back, I see that as true."

  2. Thanks VIC, I look forward to reading Wagamese, another great Canadian writer I was not familiar with. Richard

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  6. i really enjoyed your article Richard!!!

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