This past weekend my August was kicked-off with a wild biking, canoing and camping trip to Marshall Pond, probably 15 miles from home. Rather than using a motor vehicle, my friend Rob towed our full-sized canoe, loaded up with some camera equipment, a boom-like camera jib arm, sleeping bags, and the like, on a bicycle trailer bolted to his seat. I carried our water supply, my gear, an underwater camera, and a few other things a day pack that, once packed, was bulging and full. The point of our voyage was to catch get some great shots in of different animals, interesting things that live in ponds, and of whatever else we could find.
We got a few strange looks on the journey there. Those were surely merited; two young, shirtless guys on bikes carrying several hundred pounds of gear and an 11+ foot, blaze-orange canoe (we named it Moxie) biking down the road is an unusual, if not insane sight. They were all well and good, though; people chuckling, giving us thumbs-ups, cheering. At about mile 10 of our grueling trek, we stopped at a farm stand and explained to the farmers what the hell we were doing with a canoe on our bike.
Finally, after three to four hours of biking, taking short rests for water and granola bars, we reached Marshall Pond. Initially, we were quite unsure of ourselves. There was an island in the center of the pond, no more than 50-60 feet in diameter, that would be our base camp for the weekend when we weren’t in the water filming. Our issue, here, was that we brought everything but the canoe paddles; somehow, those had slipped our mind. We were able to borrow two paddles of sorts from a generous neighbor who had a camp on the lake. Within the course of an hour to an hour and a half, we made two trips out to the island, first to drop off our gear, then to drop off our bicycles so that they wouldn’t be stolen.
Living on an island is an interesting feeling. We had probably eight to ten trees around us, most of them quite old and venerable, as well as masses of blueberry and other bushes. Luckily, for us, there were ripe berries just ready for the picking. In the center of the island was a shale firepit that we used for cooking our dinner of creamed corn, a can of tuna, a cucumber, and triscuts between the two of us. Even though we had already caught and documented a very large garter snake and a painted turtle, it was after dinner that the real action started.
We decided to go canoing at sunset. Marshall Pond is made up of three different pond and bog segments that are connected by passageways. By the time we were nearing the exit of the first, and out of view of our island-home, twilight had almost completely taken effect. There was perfect stillness and silence on the water, sans the sound and wake of our canoe and our gentle strokes. Suddenly, an object flew by my face. Then, for the next ten minutes or so, we were surrounded by little brown bats out for a dinner of insects. Some of them came within only a few feet of our heads, others inches from our paddles or the canoe. Unfortunately, we did not have the bat detector with us, but even so we could hear their social calls later on — a loud, incredibly high pitched screeching vocalization.
Unafraid of bats, we kept on canoing. When we entered the second pond, a horrific call sounded from the bog — that of a great blue heron. Shortly after this, there was an explosion in the water near to us, startling both of us. Rob reassured me that it was just a beaver doing a tail slap to fend us off, but nevertheless the volume and intensity of the sound is frightening. At one point during the night, we were surrounded by three beavers all doing tail slaps. In the morning we discovered that there is a beaver lodge in that area.
The most compelling sounds of the night came around the entrance to the third pond and the woods on the shore next to it. At first, we heard something continuously moving around. We stopped paddling, listened for awhile, and then intermittently used our flashlights to try and spot something. Eventually, we paddled the canoe ashore, but did not get out. The sounds continued. Large sticks and branches were being broken by an unseen creature. Rob and I bet that the only things large enough to make that sound were moose or black bear. He’d of a black bear in that specific area before, but there was no way we were going to get out in the middle of the night, unarmed, and try and “catch” a black bear on film. We could be shredded by an angry mother bear defending her cubs no matter how fast we could run. When nothing came in sight, we decided it was safest to get back in the water and leave that sound for later.
On our way back around the pond, before we got to that location again, we whispered about how it would be awesome to hear some coyotes — how that would basically finish off our night of amazing creature sights (mind you, much of this was filmed!). Only minutes after we said that, coyotes started howling from the mainland — luckily not our island — with their terrible yipping, screaming tones. Rob and I attempted a coyote call back to them somewhat unsuccessfully. Nevertheless, they called again a few minutes later and sent shivers up my spine.
Just after the coyotes called, we were unknowingly back near the beaver lodge again. A tremendous boom and a splash of water, as if a cannon of sorts had been shot at us, erupted less than 20 feet away. We quickly paddled out of beaver territory, adrenaline pumping us forward. When we were near the end of their area, however, we heard some more rustling in the woods that made us stop to try and film whatever was moving around in there. This, perhaps, was the most perplexing sighting of the night.
Every so often, there would be a splash of water as if something was getting in and out of the water. We were dead silent, floating about fifty or so feet away from the shore as to give us a safe distance if it was a predator, and so that it would have less of a chance of being bothered by our noise. There was a lot of twig breaking and rustling — the sound of something big moving through the woods. We turned on the camera and began filming and explaining what was going on. Then, we heard a very deep grunt of sorts, similar to something that a large horse might make. Almost immediately the two of us said “Moose”. Several more grunts followed that and the sound of things moving around. Both of us quickly turned on our lights to try and spot whatever was right there in the bog near us, but because of the density of trees, we couldn’t see anything. The evidence of moose was there, though.
We went back to the island, amazed and excited, made a small fire, logged our day on film, and then went to sleep. Somehow, after just a day, the island felt like a home. There wasn’t much to take cover under in a storm, there wasn’t much to use as fuel for a fire (we burned most of the available fuel in one day), the sharp shale around the island was mostly inhospitable and smothered in slippery algae that would send someone flying forwards, probably only to be slashed up on rocks, and the ground was filled completely with roots. There wasn’t much of anything desirable there, but it was private and in the middle of a pond with no one — most importantly, the outside, fast-paced, technological world — to bother us. There is the special feeling of making it on your own, like in those survival or adventure stories (I read Gary Paulsen non-stop when I was younger) where the hero has everything working against him but manages to make it. We weren’t crashed in the middle of the Pacific, but we didn’t have a whole lot of food with us, not nearly enough water, had only rocks and roots to sleep on, and had to use some sort of survival skills to ration what we did have and make a cook fire.
Being an islander is a unique skill — or way of life — that must take some getting used to. I can imagine nearly a thousand or so years ago Iceland first being settled, and the other islands in that area and around the British Isles. The challenges presented to settlers must have been phenomenal, more than to other pioneers because there was no way home but the open water. While we only had to canoe back to shore in order to start making way for home, it has given me a good deal of respect for islanders across the world and I’m ready to do some island hopping of my own.