Posted on February 12, 2021
Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May
Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time.
We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway.
When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of: Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…
Not super helpful.
We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two.
We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF. “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply.
We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…
Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south.
“Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.
“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,” I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”
With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.
We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm.
Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this.
Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through.
This was not that feeling.
When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.
When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested. But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn.
I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream.
I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me.
What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky.
I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs.
“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said.
“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.”
So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?”
I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.
Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream.
“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!”
Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in.
At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details).
We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.
At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance?
Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”
I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port.
“Like that one,” Bill commented.
“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said.
The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed.
“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting.
“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.”
His face was focused, intent.
Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see.
Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information.
When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this.
I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant.
At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End.
I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line.
We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”
Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.
Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie.
We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas.
Posted on December 29, 2020
At 2:00 am I look up from my book to see Bill sleeping deeply, his sleeping bag gripped tightly around him against the cold. The dim blue light cast by a night vision night light pulls his face out of utter darkness. He’s just a face and a cocoon of maroon puffs of sleeping bag. It’s his turn to keep watch, but these may be the only moments of peace he gets on the Waccamaw. I go back to my book and work to keep my eyes open.
Bill had spotted the Waccamaw River in South Carolina on a satellite map when we were still in the Chesapeake Bay. It looked to be a rare island of wildness in a sea of East Coast humanity. You can’t see wildness very well on nautical charts, which focus on the water depth and landmarks useful to navigation, and hazards like shipwrecks. But a satellite view shows either pale land crisscrossed by lines and little boxes and wires and all the things that humans contrive to make our lives easy; or the deep, unbroken green of forest and unblemished beige of winter wetlands. And in the Waccamaw River, the breadth of the unbroken land was almost too good to be believed. Almost 55,000 acres of this watershed are protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, making for one of the largest continuous wildlife habitats in the southern coastal plain.
We didn’t plan to go to the Waccamaw, having grown quite shy of planning. Any expectation can be dashed. Any plan can be thwarted by the unexpected crab pot, or cold front or mechanical failure or squirrel. But we very much hoped to make it to Waccamaw. We had just traveled through Myrtle Beach where the Intracoastal Waterway is lined with new made mansions and forests about to be felled for new made mansions.
It felt like a weight had been lifted when we entered the land of living trees in the Waccamaw wildlife refuge. Breath became easy and deep. We pulled into a watery tunnel of cypress called Prince Creek just as the sun was setting on December 8.
So this blog is not about the winter solstice as the title might suggest. It is about a different long, dark night.
Clouds had covered the sky all day, casting a cold pall on our journey. But just as we were about to set anchor the sun made a brief appearance, creating the most perfect possible moment, casting the light of a photographer’s dream. As has been the case on this whole journey, (something I did not foresee in my decade of daydreamings), my first mate’s duties took precedence over all else. I took two minutes to have my breath taken away by the beauty of sun on cypress, snapped a couple of pictures, then worked with Bill to set the anchor, and then, for the first time, to set a second anchor.
In the Chesapeake Bay, in almost every case, a boater can rely on a single good anchor, and for the past six years of boating on the Bay, we did. There is very little tidal change or current and there are so many protected anchorages that one gets very spoiled with the ease of anchoring.
We had decided on Prince Creek, a narrow tributary of the Waccamaw River, because we knew a cold front was looming and we wanted to be in a tight place without too much fetch (the distance that allows waves to build with wind). But there’s tight, and there’s tight, and Prince Creek is really tight, only about 200 feet across. That would be fine in calm conditions, but the creek has a fairly strong current that shifts with the tide, which was likely to be exacerbated by the wind—forecast for near gale force. We knew this would be tricky, and so decided to set an anchor off the stern of the boat along with the one off the bow.
We made two attempts to set the stern anchor until it held, or so it seemed, then watched what remained of the sun’s last magnificent rays and went below to make dinner. The wind was starting to toss Maggie May about, so after dinner we decided to start an anchor watch schedule. Not tired, I took the first watch while Bill rested. It was only about an hour into my watch when I checked the chart on the iPad for the 10th time and our boat icon was suddenly perilously close to the shore. I thought it might be a GPS glitch so I went on deck. Stocking feet, no coat, temperatures in the 30s with the gusting wind funneling down the creek.
I walked on deck in the dark and turned on the spotlight, which illuminated the bony arm of a tree reaching so near the starboard side of the stern I could almost have touched it. It was likely 15 feet away. Everything looks closer at night in a gale. Regardless, it was way too close. And on a shore we did not expect to be anywhere near. We had started 100 feet away from this shore and should not have swung this wide unless our stern anchor dragged, and possibly the bow anchor as well.
I ran down and roused sleepy Bill.
“Something’s not right.” Understated as always. “You should come look.”
Once on deck Bill agreed, not good. We tried to shorten the stern anchor line and pull ourselves off the shore, but it was under immense load trying to hold 20,000 lbs of Maggie May against 30 knots of wind ganging up with the current of a heavy tide. I brought the bow anchor line in about 5 feet, just what I could get by tugging at the snubber line (this is a line that attaches to the anchor chain to take the shock off the windlass (the machine that raises and lowers the anchor)).
We were still too close. The boat was nearly beam to the wind, waves and current, suspended by two anchors off a mess of cypress knees, snags and limbs that would gash the hull and tangle the mast. Throughout the past few days we had seen boats wrecked all along our route, including several nearby in the Waccamaw. These visions were ever present as we decided what to do next.
Bill was able to loosen the stern anchor line when the wind rested, and switch it from the port aft cleat to the starboard aft cleat, which had the effect of shifting Maggie May more downstream, more bow to wind and current, and further away from the shore that had us in its grips. Then we deliberated in the icy darkness while the wind howled and waves smacked the boat around. We could let loose the stern anchor all together, with a float attached, and go back and get it once the conditions calmed. This could get us further downstream and mid-channel, but if the main anchor didn’t hold we were in trouble. We could tighten the bow anchor so we were not so close to the shore, but that would increase the likelihood that the bow anchor would drag. We considered several other options that each had their dangers and decided to snug the bow up a bit, just shortening the snubber line, not the anchor chain, and see how we did. That was about 11:30 pm.
Bill said he would stay up as long as he could and keep watch. We set up beds in the main salon—Bill on port, me on starboard. I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully for the most part but I drifted off at some point and woke at 1:30 am to find Bill fighting off sleep.
“I don’t think I can stay awake” he said.
“I’m not sure I can either, but I’ll try.”
I woke surprisingly well and read for a while from a fantasy novel about sailing that my friend Cat had gifted me. The Girl From Everywheretook my mind off the trouble at hand and kept me awake. Around 3:00 the wind began gusting and I checked the digital chart. AlarmAlarmAlarm. Maggie May was now on the opposite side of the creek, almost within the shoal line. Inconceivable. GPS glitch? I ran on deck, shined the spotlight on bony cypress fingers straining to touch the port stern. Disoriented in the dark, I had to walk around the boat shining the light to figure out that we were truly where the GPS had placed us, and in a place we did not want to be, about 5-10 feet from lodging hard aground at the edge of the forest. The stern anchor must have flipped over and was just coasting along the bottom, and the primary anchor must have traveled some too. I woke Bill. More rapid deliberations. We pulled the bow snubber as close in as we could to gain some distance from the shore. Then we put the stern anchor line on a winch and cranked it in with much effort. At this point the anchor was not helping and might be weakening the primary anchor with its wanderings. When we hauled the anchor up on deck, we found a tree stump attached to it.
After the secondary anchor was free, we floated even closer to the shore. Decision time. Stay and hope for the best? (Do not trust to hope it has abandoned these lands). Re-anchor in the center of the creek with a shorter chain scope and hope the primary anchor holds? Leave and head to the mouth of the creek in the dark? Or, turn this movie off and go back to bed?
Finding the center of the creek in the dark proved difficult so Bill declared: I want to go to the mouth.
One thing you have to accept on a boat when you are first mate is that when the captain makes a declaration you accept it, even if you don’t agree.
No moon. No light. Sub-freezing wind chill now at 20-25 knots, I went on the bow and shined the spotlight to starboard, to port, to center, then back to starboard…. When Bill got too close to the forest on either side, I’d say, “Turn to port” or “Turn to starboard”, guiding him for the mile of this narrow winding creek back to the entrance on the Waccamaw. For the first time in this trip we employed the headsets Bill’s family had gifted to us the Christmas before, so we could speak in calm voices and hear each other just fine, though he was in the warm, toasty, probably 40 degree cockpit enclosure and I was on the bow in the 20s. In my haste I had not donned my foul weather gear, just a thin fleece, but I had at least put on shoes. The ride seemed an infinity of time, slow motion through the biting dark. Occasionally the spotlight would fall on a great blue heron roosting on a cypress branch. Heads tucked tight against their feathers, the birds would turn their bodies from the blinding light, too annoyed and cold to even chastise me. (This is quite unusual and speaks to the unpleasant conditions. Herons will always make time to chastise.)
Around 4:00 am we arrived at the mouth, some 50 feet wider than the creek; we anchored toward the middle, set the snubber, and went below into our beds and sleeping bags in the main salon. Neither of us slept until close to 5:00. I set an alarm for 6, slept a bit, woke and checked location, slept a bit, checked location, slept. When the alarm went off, I set it for 7. We got up at that alarm because the sun was beginning to rise. I made hot almond milk and we had some warm granola for breakfast, then tidied the deck and praised the sun, took up anchor and headed out to find a better spot by the light of day.
The wind had calmed somewhat as we headed up nearby Bull Creek, found a wide spot, about 400 feet, and set the bow anchor, before laying down on the hard wooden benches of the cockpit and resting in grateful peace under the warm gaze of the sun.
This was as good a day as any to give thanks, so when we felt rested, we began cooking our belated Thanksgiving Dinner, delayed because we had no propane on actual Thanksgiving. It tasted like the best meal we had ever eaten.
That afternoon we watched the light dim on forest and creek. As the sun went down we heard a strange noise, like a frog or some weird reptile. Finally we looked near the shore and in a tree was an anhinga! Our first truly southern bird. Such a weird call, such a weird bird. Anhinga are like weird cormorants, and cormorants are already weird. Like a snake and a cormorant made a baby. When they swim, sometimes their whole body is beneath the surface, so it appears a snake is swimming vertically through the water. Outrageous.
Bill did the dinner dishes and arranged our real bed in the aft cabin just the way I like it, all to make up for me having to stand on the bow in the biting wind. I was asleep by 7 pm. I had set an alarm on the chartplotter to alert us if we drifted toward shallow water, and though we both woke several times in the night to check our position, we slept blissfully until sunrise.
As the sun ascended, I sat on the frosty deck in my warmest clothes and watched the mist travel across Bull Creek; watched several river otters scramble into the water and swim downstream; watched a young beaver swim through the golden water; watched our anhinga wake from its perch in the southern forest of red leaf and reaching arms draped with Spanish moss, all a safe 150 feet away.
Happy New Year all. I hope your 2021 is filled with peace, rest, and just the right amount of adventure.
If you’d like to support this blog, please check out the donations tab in the sidebar. You can also support me by buying a fine art print through the International League of Conservation Photographers. You can choose from any of thousands of photos and proceeds support the iLCP’s work as well as my own. (Order forms are on the right hand sidebar, or you can email email@example.com )
Posted on November 26, 2020
A bald eagle perched in a long dead conifer has been witness to a spectacular procession of light-on-water these past 12 hours. He and Bill and I. We are all in the upper stretches of the Pungo River, near the point where the Alligator River – Pungo Canal reaches its southern terminus in North Carolina.
This canal was cut through land to create an inland connection between the Pamlico and Albamarle sounds and thereby facilitate safer boat passage along the Eastern Seaboard. It is one of many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway (known as the ICW), which connects New Jersey to Florida through an inland water route.
Yesterday Maggie May transited this canal. Yes, we have officially left our home waters on the Chesapeake Bay, as of November 19. After all that has befallen this boat and crew in the past seven months (not nearly the half of it is told in previous blogs) our departure from Norfolk on the ICW was more momentous than we had imagined it would be. The mechanical, electrical, structural, financial and emotional issues that led us to set aside our original dream of sailing around the world have not really ceased. But we have new goals. To learn Spanish and ukulele, to find clear water where we can see life below. To conquer our fears and learn to be kind to each other, even when we are afraid. And of course, the goal of all goals, to not have to have goals.
Today we find ourselves in the Pungo River watching the tail end of a rainbow alight on our bald eagle neighbor in its snaggy tree. It is coincidentally, Thanksgiving Day, my own favorite holiday. For the food. (Our propane is gone so we will be eating rice today.) For the resilience of this holiday against the ever-expanding consumerist takeover of holidays. (Not counting Black Friday because it comes after.) But mostly I love Thanksgiving for what it it celebrates. Not the part about Europeans coming to conquer and take this land for themselves, for profit, for religious expansionism. I wish that history had gone differently. I can imagine a different present day if those who carved European history into this land had held a different view of themselves and others and the land itself. To love Thanksgiving I accept its disastrous historical beginnings with a heavy heart, and look beyond to the feeling that prompted the first observance. A feeling universal in all creatures in some fashion. Gratitude. An overwhelming feeling of humble appreciation that through hardship and struggle, even at times near unto death, we live …for now …with the eagle in the tree, and our next door neighbors, and best friends and family (be they near or far), and our most beloved of fellow creatures. We can see and listen and be awed by this beautiful world. By rafts of arctic birds resting out the winter on the Chesapeake Bay. By the sight of raindrops pregnant with sunlight falling from the boom. By the sound of loons calling through fog. By the sight of my sleeping bag and pillow fluffed up and laid out with care by Bill on the coldest of nights, and the knowledge that in a little while I will be warm and safe and have some time for blessed rest.
As I write a steady rain begins to fall. I sit in our protected cockpit looking out on the world, listening to the rain tap and patter against the canvas that shelters me. The temperature this morning has risen to the mid-60s, giving a welcome reprieve from near freezing temps much of the past week. The eagle has left its tree in search of a more protected perch. My mind lingers on the sunset of yesterday. Around 4:00pm we had just anchored and I bid Bill to make haste so we could watch the sun go down. I had a feeling about this one. The sky was getting ready to share some secrets. I set out some pillows on deck and we sat for an hour as a parade of light and cloud and watery reflection marched across the horizon and consumed our every emotion and thought. Perched in a tree behind us, the eagle had also watched the scene unfold. We three watched and watched until the darkness was full upon us.
I don’ know how eagles are with the giving of thanks, but Bill and I gave all we had. For this moment and the last, and any future moments we may be privileged to have. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported this journey. My thoughts are with you today and always.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, boat, circumnavigation, conservation, environment, gratitude, icw, intracoastal waterway, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, photography, sailboat, sailing, sunset, sv maggie may, thanksgiving, united states, Writing
Posted on July 2, 2020
Where to start? Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland…all places I wasn’t expecting or hoping to to blog about at the end of June 2020, but that is the way of adventures.
I’m writing from the dining room table of my good friends, the Goods, who have kindly and warmly welcomed Bill and I to stay with them while the Maggie May is, again, being repaired.
After seven years of fixing up an old boat you might expect there would be nothing left to fix, at least for a while. But sometimes you have to fix the thing that a contractor just did a terrible job fixing, so bad that it failed utterly within a few weeks. (This is not the first time this exact thing has happened with the Maggie May.) And sometimes that thing that was fixed and failed is the bottom of the boat, arguably the most important part if you fancy staying dry.
This is a long tale in full, and one that could benefit from a longer format and some emotional distance by the author, but in short, we had the boat hull completely redone over the past few months in Deale, Maryland, spent about three-quarters of a year’s boat-living budget, and within a week of setting out found that Maggie May’s bottom was covered with a half-inch or more of barnacles that could only be removed by power sanding the bottom of the boat and repainting.
This was the failure of the paint we chose, or possibly the marine contractor who applied it. Or both to some extent. Or us for choosing the wrong contractor and/or paint. So far neither business is taking responsibility. So we are left holding a heaping handful of slimy barnacles (no offense barnacles, you are actually slimy in the literal sense), and the loss of another half-year boat budget, several weeks of time, and our crushed hearts.
The added loss of savings may ultimately have the effect of ending our dream of a sailing circumnavigation. That is a hard pill to swallow after dreaming and planning for 15 years. But it’s possible that the global pandemic already ended that dream and we just don’t know it yet.
I didn’t want to write this blog, have been putting it off, hoping we’d be back on the boat already and I could write with optimistic hindsight, with the perspective of someone on the ocean, looking back. (With any luck that will be the next blog.) So much of what I have worked on over the past decade (see the Borderlands Project ) has been sad or at least tinged with grief in some way. I liked the feeling of offering only hope in this blog, a documentation of discovery and joy. But the world is filled with sorrows much deeper than the travails of Maggie May, and resilience and gratitude are good offerings too so I’ll finish on this note…
A day or two after we found out that the hull paint had totally failed, Bill was feeling especially low, and we were talking about our options, when suddenly a Carolina wren started singing. If you know this little bird, you know that it has incredible pipes, certainly some of the strongest per-ounce in the bird world. But this was the loudest I had ever heard a wren sing. It was not because this particular bird was so especially loud, but because it was so extremely near. Bill looked up the companionway stairs and saw the wren perched on our main sheet. About 5 feet away, the bird was belting out the sweetest, most determined song. It brought tears to Bill’s eyes and prompted him to say, “Ok, I get it buddy, message delivered.” Then, about five minutes after that, Bill got a text from our friend Maribeth who was asking how his back was (she had read my previous blog). Bill explained what was happening with the boat and Maribeth replied with a Mary Oliver poem, Just As the Calendar Began to Say Summer, about going to nature to unlearn society’s obsession with success, machines, oil and money.
The poem ends with these lines:
By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember
the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny
in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.
It’s impossible to say what will happen with this adventure. We hope to be back on the boat by next week and will proceed with a new dream of taking the journey as it comes, resting tired spirits and cherishing each moment for what it brings. It is a helpful reminder that the boatyard where Maggie May currently resides is just down the road from Gratitude, Maryland.
So far the past week’s detour has brought many things, including:
Posted on June 16, 2020
Last Tuesday, June 8, 2020 we cast off lines at Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland, and headed out into the Chesapeake Bay for what we hope is a 3-year voyage around the world. Dear friends began arriving around 8 am and we said a few words, read a poem of blessing, and sprinkled some champaign on Maggie May’s bow. The surge of emotion that accompanied all of this, caught me off guard. There are just some times in life when you have worked so hard on something, given everything you possibly have to make a dream become a reality (or stave off some catastrophe), when past, present and future well up together for a moment. All this to say, I barely got my words out, they were choked and garbled with raw relief, joy, apprehension and possibility. I think my friends understood. Here is the poem in full:
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
Several friends sent this poem to me over the past few months, knowing our departure was imminent. It is so perfect in so many ways.
I looked back for a long time at my friends Margaret, Valerie, Dave and Anne waving goodbye from the dock where we spent so much time preparing Maggie May, and at our friends Tom and Emily who had brought their canoe to see us beyond the jetty. I looked back as long as I could, to remember that moment forever, to feel that love and the waves of gratitude for the life we have lived up to now. When I turned finally towards the bay, I turned to the great unknown I have longed for for all these many years, through so much grief, anxiety and inner turmoil. I turned toward fear and wonder and adventure and a life scoured to its barest elements.
The first leg of this voyage will be northerly so we headed the boat up the Bay towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The wind was light, 5-7 knots, but we managed to sail most of the way up to the bridge. I’d never passed under this immense span before. I’m not one to find awe in infrastructure, given all the damage it does ecologically, but passing under the Bay Bridge was something to remember, in part because of its mammoth imposition on the entire viewscape, and also because it was further than I had ever taken Maggie May to the north.
Beyond the bridge we made straight for the Chester River, where we planned to anchor for the night. This river, the longest navigable waterway on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, is home to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where we hoped to spend most of our time for the next days. But the wind was not favorable for an anchorage near the refuge, and the wind decides and we abide, so we headed deeper into the river to a little cove near the Comegys Bight. It was a good thing we did, because the weather grew nasty over the next few days.
Before the storm we had a few trips out in the dinghy to explore the nearby wetlands, beach and forest, finding many surprises, including the largest concentration of brown water snakes I have ever seen. Bill, terrified of snakes, vowed he would never set foot in this water after we made this discovery. We poled the dinghy into a shallow stream through thick wetlands and on the way out I noticed a little snake face staring out at us from the reeds. And then another and another and then, when we reached the mouth of the stream, a snake swam in right front of the dinghy with a fat, pale yellow fish with bewildered eyes, clamped in the snakes satisfied but anxious maw. The fish was easily three times the size of the snake’s head. I didn’t know they hunted for fish, and it was incredible to see this in action.
Bill did not experience the same delight over this discovery as I did.
As we got back to the Maggie May Bill was trying to secure the dinghy (Minnie May) and he wrenched his back painfully. His back had been bothering him for weeks, but I think the terror over the snakes and the jolting movement of the boat pushed him over an edge. And he probably had not been allowing his body to rest over the past weeks leading up to launch. Now his back has said, you will stay put for a while. So we have stayed anchored in this same Chester River spot for many days longer than we would have. Storms rolled over us and rolled on. Weekend boaters tubed in circles around us, their wakes tossing Maggie May about. Sun set and rose, casting its light and darkness upon the world.
I am content, wherever we are. I’ve spent the past 5 days learning how to live this life. I have learned many things, some important and some not so much. Here are 5:
Posted on April 5, 2019
The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.
For the past week a young white-throated sparrow has been camping out in my yard. His song wakes me every morning, very, very early, before the sun has made the slightest hint of light on the eastern horizon. Before I have any intention of getting out of bed. So I just lay there, awake and listening in the darkness.
Bird reference books often translate the white-throated’s song into the phrase Oh sweet Canada, Canada, an apt description of both the phonetics and the tone of these birds. Theirs is a wistful song constructed of minor notes, as if they are always preoccupied by thoughts of some other time and place, some melancholy memory or remembrance of a long lost friend. My visitor sings throughout the day, distracting me from my work as I would rather listen to him than do just about anything else. Though…I’ve gathered he is a young bird because he seems to be practicing…and in need of practice. Sometimes he gets it right, but often he goes off key or loses pitch entirely or devolves into a whistle. He sounds like a gawky teenage boy whose voice is changing; every time he opens his mouth, what comes out may be a boy’s treble, a man’s baritone, or some crackling squawk that lies somewhere in between. His song lacks the grace and assurance of a mature songster, and he appears to be quite alone. I have seen no other white-throateds for a few days. I doubt his pitiful song has chased them off. By now, many of my winter sparrows have begun to migrate north to Canada. Perhaps he is staying behind to practice before he journeys to the breeding grounds and attempts to woo a lady. That would be a good plan. He’s not ready from what I can hear.
Yesterday I noticed the first buds on the walnut tree outside my back window. A few have already dropped into their bright green bloom, like clusters of tiny green grapes; but most are little more than bare twig with the slightest brown nubs just waiting to sprout. Within days the green thoughts percolating within these nubs will burst forth, attracting the attention of hungry squirrels, and very soon after that, my house wrens will return from points south and begin their seasonal governance of the walnut tree where for years they have raised their young. They will scold squirrels, sparrows, and humans alike if we dare to enter their defense perimeter. I once saw a napping squirrel harangued for fifteen minutes by one of these feisty birds, which are the size of a ping-pong ball and about as heavy. If a squirrel was inclined, one punch of its paw in the wren’s face would send the little ping-pong bouncing, bounce-bouncing. But squirrels rarely seem inclined toward violence, and wrens are disarmingly cute. This particular squirrel ambled off and found another branch further from the wren house where he could nap in peace.
Life seems to move so fast in these early weeks of April, everything becomes a battle for who will live the boldest and claim the best space for sun and food and shelter. Who will project the moxy that keeps interlopers away from their homes. Who can adapt to changing climates and conditions and still manage to thrive.
In search of some of this wild life I head out on my bike. On the bridge that spans the Northwest Branch on Rhode Island Avenue, I see a swallow emerge from one of the drains that empties into the river. He flies around for a spell then returns to the hole, apparently having built a nest within. It’s just a small hole, about the circumference of a baseball, about the size of a swallow, in the center of a 30-foot high concrete wall that channels the Northwest Branch toward its confluence with the Northeast Branch. I can imagine that to this little bird it resembles a cave in a high cliff wall, the kind of place his ancestors nested in, though a lot, lot noisier. And here, watching the swallows flying in and out of their concrete cave near the merging point of main branches of the Anacostia, I consider the idea of confluence: two distinct arms, branches, ideas, coming together into one fluid stream. Throughout its modern history the Anacostia has been plagued with issues of injustice and environmental degradation: the felling of ancient forests, extermination of entire species, decimation of the native people, enslavement of Africans, dumping of sewage and garbage in the river, destruction of wetlands, dumping and burning in poor neighborhoods, decades of failure to do right by this river community.
In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights paralleled the struggle for environmental protections. Both efforts sought to right wrongs, to end realities that were degrading to all involved, and both sought to compel the machine that had been ripping the garden to shreds–breaking the foundational bonds of community apart–to abide by the dictates of an increasingly more enlightened collective mind. Both were successful, to some extent, for out of this time came the legal framework that seeks to guide our river community on ethical environmental and social paths–the Clean Water Act and Civil Rights Act. But through the tumultuous 60s these efforts generally followed their own separate trajectories. At the time of Kelvin’s death, the ties between racism, poverty, and environmental degradation remained disconnected in the national consciousness.
Then in September 1982, the confluence of environment and justice struck the nation between the eyes when a poor, largely African American community lay down in the middle of a Warren County, North Carolina, road. The residents of Afton had protested the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their community, but they were ignored. Industry and government made their plans to dump society’s toxic wastes on people they expected would have no recourse against them. As trucks filled with PCB-laden soil rolled into town, the residents, and their allies from the Civil Rights Movement, blocked the opening to the new landfill. For six weeks they protested–marching, laying down, standing up, and sitting down, saying no, no, no we won’t be dumped on. In the end they lost, and toxic waste was unloaded on their rural town.
This wasn’t the first instance of a community resisting an environmental insult. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organized farm workers in the early 1960s to protest exposure to pesticides and other workplace perils in California farm fields. In 1967, African Americans in Houston picketed a city garbage dump where two children had lost their lives. In New York City, 1968, residents of Harlem protested the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.
And of course, Kenilworth residents gathered to block the entrance to Kenilworth dump in 1966. But none of these efforts had garnered nationwide attention as protests for environmental equality. Something different happened after Afton’s failed protest. One of the protesters that joined that effort, Washington D.C. resident Walter E. Fauntroy, a long-time civil rights activist, took a decisive step. Fauntroy was by that time serving as the Congressional representative for the District, and though he had no voting rights, he did have the power to request a study from the Government Accountability Office about the siting of hazardous waste facilities. That study, published in 1983, found that three out of four hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast were located in poor and largely African American communities. More studies followed around the nation, and a trend became apparent–if you were economically disadvantaged and a racial minority, you were significantly more likely to have a waste facility in your back yard. Kenilworth dump was the rule, not the exception. There were thousands of Kelvin’s nationwide living, and sometimes dying, in the waste of an indifferent world.
I stand on the bridge watching swallows make do with their concrete cliff home as traffic on Rhode Island Avenue flies by, and the Northwest Branch rolls ever onward toward its confluence. Near the water surface, another pipe enters into the stream, this one with a stain of grime left where polluted water has trickled out for decades. I notice someone has painted the figure of a peasant, holding his hands under the foul pipe, washing.
And out of nowhere, on an Anacostia breeze, the words of a King return to me:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Category: Anacostia, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: aldo leopold, almanac, Anacostia, arboretum, art, beauty, book, Chesapeake Bay, conservation, environmental, environmental justice, excerpt, history, ilcp, march, nature, photography, pollution, river, river of redemption, spring, the anacostia project, urban, washington dc, wildlife, Writing
Posted on March 26, 2019
The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press. Each chapter of the book is titled according to the custom of many native North American cultures, to name a month for the defining quality of its days. Anacostia Almanac months are defined by two temporal threads–our present days within particular seasons, and the days throughout time that have led to this moment in the watershed.
Fog envelops the upland forest of the U.S. National Arboretum this morning, where a monochromatic quilt of chocolate, café-au-lait, pale beige, and khaki cloth, blankets the woodland floor. Stitched in the shapes of oak, beech, poplar, black gum, and tupelo, they are a memory of November’s final act at the end of last year’s growing season. When the autumn curtain fell, it landed ever so softly here–and here it stayed to gentle the hand of winter; to give warmth to the roots and tiny creatures that slumber through snow and ice in the tired heart of the forest. These leaves are proof positive of things coming up before they fall, of what was and will be again. They blanket a promise the land is hiding under air alive with intrigue, under this watchful fog, November’s guise, a beguiling disguise for a wakeful land.
I crouch low to the ground and lift a corner of the leafy quilt. At first I find…soil. Just sleepy soil. The record of autumns past, of leaves rummaged by little bird feet, sorted and tossed by the busy hands of squirrels, chewed up by ant and worm and an unseen menagerie of insect oddities. These characters, alchemists all, transform the spent and fallen leaves, the discarded solar collectors of the forest, into growing season gold. They transubstantiate sun and leaf, into life!
And upon it I find no insects crawling. Not one. No tiny skink, or ant; millipede or spider. Just soil–rich waiting, portentous, expectant earth. Soil is nothing. It is everything. As John Burroughs wrote: “The soil is marrowy and full of innumerable forests. Standing in these fragrant aisles, I feel the strength of the vegetable kingdom, and am awed by the deep and inscrutable processes of life going on so silently about me.”
It should be enough to find soil, to rejoice that, in fact, the dirt is right here where I last saw it. But today I seek something else, soil in its next form, transformed by sun and seed. There is no visual evidence, no sign on the forest floor of what lies below, this hidden hope, but I know it is there buried in the brittle brown pages of forest history.
I lift another hem of the leafy quilt and there it is, my quarry: a small, determined cylinder, the size of my pinky finger and the color of alive; a nascent, newborn green digit, pointing itself with unbreakable determination toward the sun. This coil of leaf is wound so tightly around itself that the only visible evidence that it is not a solid mass are tiny lines that spiral round the outside of the sprout. The coil protects the tender plantling from the guile of winter’s last grasp, from the inescapable uncertainty above the warm earth; leafy layers harbor heat at the heart of the matter. The coil also creates a rigid structure strong enough to part the soil from which it must emerge. Such effort! Though my eyes cannot detect upward movement, I can almost hear it groaning with the strain. This taut, perfect package pushed its way from root through compressed earth, through topsoil and into humus, adding girth to its green self along the journey. It began as a germ. Using the rich decay of millennia of forest life it grew into a pregnant idea of a plant, a thought for a future life unfurled in the sun as a pretty little frog parasol planted in the forest floor.
I knew you would be there, little green soldier always standing at the front lines of winter’s last stand. You see, war rages in the Anacostia watershed this morning. Noiseless and nearly imperceptible, it is the battle of two epic forces meeting at the boundary of their temporal domains.
Winter has staked an early, decisive claim over this March day, holding an icy hand over the land, bidding tree, insect, and amphibian to sleep…sleeeep. But spring entrenched itself into the soil yesterday and now rises up to meet the dawn calling flower, bird, and fox to wake! Wake! For the moment, neither will give ground and the clash spreads an enveloping fog over the land. I walk upon this misty precipice between restive winter and frenetic spring, imagining I might pinpoint the exact moment when frost surrenders to fecundity.
A week ago we had our first snowstorm of the strangely mild winter, along with bitter gale force winds raging through the watershed. Freezing rain formed icicles dripping like glass from the first rosy buds of redbud trees. The entire river landscape seemed dipped in glimmering liquid crystal.
Transitions in time and thought, great battles between epic forces, do not come easily.
But now the sun lingers longer every day, melting ice from bud and coaxing the first blush of spring onto the fingertips of bare-armed maple trees. In the marshes, red-wing blackbirds and cattails grow bolder: the one flashes ever more fiery shoulder patches and ushers chattering challenges to rivals; while the other begins to push new green spikes through wetland earth. From within the lowland forest at the edge of the river, spring peepers have begun to chorus haltingly, their song charms water snakes, who begin to peek out of their cozy winter holes.
The robins are singing, the redbud has unfrozen, and the osprey has returned to the Anacostia sky. I spied him from my kayak a few days ago and such joy I felt when I recognized his far-off form, to know that against unimaginable odds he has survived his grueling odyssey to South America and back. Anacostia born and bred, his biology dictated that he make a life-or-death gamble on a three-thousand mile journey upon wind and wing. He had to find a safe winter haven, then gamble once again when he took flight for home, that spring would beat him back to the Anacostia. If by chance he had landed here on a city still covered with snow, a river whose fish were locked beneath a sheet of ice, death would have greeted him at the door of his lifelong home. He could not go back to Brazil, weary as he would be. He would have to simply lay down upon the Anacostia earth and melt away. When the osprey arrives home in March, I know there is no going back to winter. As Aldo Leopold said of the Canada goose’s return to Sand County: “His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”
Every year, when the osprey returns and the hours of light and darkness are poised in near perfect equilibrium, winter’s pale chill lingers despite spring’s onrushing radiance. When the forest remains asleep but with eyes aflutter, I come to this forested bluff at the edge of the Anacostia, searching. Ostensibly, I am searching for a particular sign of the coming spring, a very small electric green sign that signals the land has marked the approaching angle of the sun.
But I am also looking for something less tangible, something entirely insubstantial but enormous; a pathway of memory to an elusive portal leading to the Anacostia of old.
Beyond the hem of this forest, the columns of the first U.S. Capitol building rise out of a hilltop meadow, strange and incongruous. The Corinthian columns were originally erected in 1828 on the east portico of the Capital, but as the building grew they became obsolete and were later relocated atop this hill in the Arboretum. A monument can be a reminder of many things. These columns speak of history, of legacy, of the long making of a capital city. Today, in this fog, with the breath of land and river rising to cloak the columns, they also speak of a river landscape long subdued and erased into utter forgetfulness.
Over the past centuries, since before those columns were originally built out of sandstone quarried from Aquia Creek in Virginia, we removed all memory of what a watershed is. We scraped away, paved over, cut down, and carted away our watershed context: dumping dredge on wetlands, putting parking lots over former forests, even covering over the very streams that fed the river–turning gentle babbling waterways into pipes and culverts. We have no memory of what it means to live in a watershed because we can’t see one anymore. Most residents have never considered this absence, because in effect, we have imposed on ourselves an ecological dementia. How do we go forward wisely, when we cannot summon what we left behind? How can we restore the Anacostia watershed if we can’t remember it?
At the Arboretum, I look for a conduit to an ecological synapse that has not been fully severed, hoping to conjure the lush land that sprouted as the Pleistocene chill abated, a land that felt the feet of badgers, bison, and wolves, that met the eyes of the first humans who ever set foot here in the Anacostia watershed. It is nothing more than an intellectual exercise–that watershed is gone forever. But the practice offers something important. Here at this spot in the Arboretum, called the Fern Valley Trail, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has endeavored to recreate a piece of that native Anacostia in the upland woods, the forest floor, the bend of a clear creek rushing down the hillside toward the river. There is no place like it in the Anacostia watershed for the density of land remembrance.
Tourists often come to the Arboretum to view exotic plants from Japan and China: bonsai, cherry trees, Japanese maple, and bamboo. I come to be transported not to a forest a continent away, but rather to my own home, centuries distant and so much further beyond my reach. Here, in this recreated land, it is possible to breathe air that is an echo of an Anacostia unbroken. To find a germ of an idea of what may have been, and thus, a thought, a hope, a prayer for what could be again.
Fern Valley is alive with pulsing synaptic memory of bloodroot, woodland poppy, Dutchman’s breeches, towering sycamore, oak, pine, and maple; of chickadee, kinglet, and owl; assassin bug, butterfly, and beetle.
I keep an eye out every March for the mayapple, a green umbrella beacon guiding the way toward the growing season. I know when I see them pressing upward, that beneath this sea of fallen leaves a whole green and buzzing world is already rising, just below the soil unseen: soon there will be fiddlehead, bloodroot, trillium, spring beauty, trout lily. Long ago these early risers, the first of the spring bloomers were dubbed wake-robins, because it was understood that when they appeared, the long quiet of winter was over, it was time to rise for bird, bee, and butterfly, it was time to wake, robin.
From every slumber there must be an awakening.
Category: Anacostia, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: aldo leopold, almanac, Anacostia, arboretum, beauty, book, Chesapeake Bay, conservation, environmental, excerpt, ilcp, march, photography, pollution, river, river of redemption, spring, the anacostia project, urban, washington dc, wildlife, Writing