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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Third Season

The Best of Times

by Tamia Nelson

It's late morning of an August day, but you'd never know it to look out the window. Low cloud brushes the tops of the taller pines. A steady, gentle rain falls. The Flow is quiet. Only a family of common mergansers disturbs the surface of the water, their wakes colliding with the pattern of expanding rings left by each rain drop.

And it's chilly. Step outside in your shirt sleeves, and you'll soon wish you'd worn a sweater. As mid-day approaches, the temperature's only 59 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn't look like its going to get much higher.

But it's August. It should be 80 degrees in the shade, with thunderheads building up to the west. So what's happening? Simple. A cool air mass is sagging down across northern New York, and a series of mid-level disturbances is spinning along the margin of the cooler air. These cyclonic perturbations—known as "short waves" in the jargon of the weather trade—are not unlike the small whirlpools which form along the edges of eddies in fast rivers.

The result? Rain showers, pleasantly cool temperatures, and intermittent northerly breezes—welcome relief from the recent siege of hot, humid weather. Even the pros in the meteorology offices are moved to comment. One writes of an "October-like day"; another exclaims that "fall is definitely in the air."

And so it is. Notes of red and gold are appearing among the maples and birches on the far shore of the Flow. The surviving merganser chicks are now nearly as big as their parents. They move with an exuberant new confidence as they work the shallows, herding schools of fish into an ever-smaller space before diving to claim a meal.

There are signs in the heavens, too. The days are perceptibly shorter than they were in June, and the sun sets further to the south with every passing week. In little more than a month, it will set due west. At night, in the half-light of false dawn, the stars of Orion's bow can just be seen above the eastern horizon, coming into view for the first time since May.

Summer's drawing to a close in the northern hemisphere. The third season of our year is now at hand.

There are other indications, of course. The local malls are advertising back-to-school sales, and the woman who runs a nearby sporting-goods store tells me that the hunters among her regular customers are beginning to trickle in. Now they're "just looking," but soon they'll be shopping in earnest.

Anglers, too, have reason to look ahead to fall. All summer long, lake trout have swum deep in northern waters, and fishing for them has required techniques and equipment that—to my mind, at least—suggest anti-submarine warfare more than sport. Come October, though, the big trout will be moving into shallow water, where they can be taken near the surface on light fly-fishing or spinning tackle.

For many hunters and anglers, fall is the season. Canoeists and kayakers, however, have been curiously slow to follow the sportsmen's lead. True, whitewater enthusiasts eagerly await the usual bump in stream flows that follows fall rains—and let's hope that those much-needed rains come soon to the drought-plagued mid-Atlantic states—but other paddlers seem to disappear from local waters after Labor Day.

I've never understood this. Perhaps it's simply a matter of habit. Hunters and anglers look forward all year to fall. They make their vacation plans accordingly. I was a hunter and angler for many years, and canoeing and kayaking were always part of my fall outings. Now I no longer hunt or fish, but fall still holds a special place in my heart.

On the other hand, paddlers who've never hunted or fished, and who have children of school age, are more likely to schedule their vacations with an eye on the school holidays, rather than the start of deer season. This makes sense, of course, but there are still plenty of opportunities for fall excursions, even for paddlers with kids in school. Weekends afford excellent chances to explore local waters, and the long Columbus Day weekend (the Thanksgiving Day holiday in Canada) gives families plenty of time to venture further afield.

I'd encourage them to do so. Let's look at some of the rewards awaiting fall paddlers.

The obvious things first. Though jet-skiers and water skiers don't disappear from inland waters after Labor Day, their numbers do decline. By early October, silence returns to even our most crowded and congested waterways. You can now paddle across many formerly-busy lakes without wondering whether you'll be buzzed or wetted-down. You may even be able to hear the gabble of geese as they assemble for their fall migration.

This silence has other dimensions, too. Just as the whine of the jet-skis is temporarily stilled, so too is "the importunate Bizz of the Moskettoe." By September at the latest, the biting flies which plague summer paddlers are gone, save for a few solitary stragglers. I harbor no malice toward mosquitoes, blackflies and punkies, of course; each has its role in the greater scheme of things. But I'd just as soon they didn't dine at my expense. It's a delight to be able to walk about unencumbered by gloves, long sleeves and head net.

And then there's the glorious palette of fall colors. The scarlet of the maples, the red of sumac, the yellow of birches, the copper beeches, and—best of all, to my mind—the shimmering golden-yellow of the tamaracks, those deciduous conifers whose glow is the last thing to brighten the northern forests before the snow returns. Photographers and painters will find subjects everywhere they look, and so will folks who only want to stand and stare.

Wildlife, too, is everywhere to be seen. Chipmunks are gathering nuts and seeds. Bears are gorging in preparation for their long sleep. Beaver are out and about at dawn and dusk, laying in a winter store of poplar. The antlers of deer and moose shine clean and bright. Skeins of ducks and geese wind over the hills, calling on the wind. The fall paddler is reminded at every hand that, as yet, we're not alone. (On a more practical note, it's wise to remember that bears and chipmunks are quick to seize the main chance. Their understanding of property rights may be more elastic than yours. To avoid problems and short rations, be sure to keep a clean camp—and always hang your food bags!)

Peace and quiet. The woods aflame with color. Unparalleled opportunities to observe wildlife and waterfowl. The third season sounds almost like paradise, doesn't it? And so it is—an earthly paradise, at any rate. But don't forget that even Eden had its serpent. There are perils as well as pleasures in store for fall paddlers. You want to be prepared, don't you? Join me next week, then, and we'll look at the other side of the third season.

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

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