Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Day 27: Rookery

On the wide South Saskatchewan, when the current and wind were slow I would often save distance by cutting across from one side of the river to the other through its meanders, under the understanding that the shortest line between two points is the straighter one. Thus as the river turns this way and that I run straight lines between the inside curves. And so far, I used this technique on Lake Diefenbaker, which reaches two miles wide.

By the time I set out in the morning, the wind was already sweeping down the plain, opposed to my direction of travel. My experience with the Saskatchewan wind is if it's going in the morning, it will be going all day, so I had some decisions to make. I was already packed and on the water, so returning to my old campsite seemed a waste. So the question came down to whether to stay on the windward side of the lake, where the waves are roughestand try to pin you against the shore, or cross over to leeward, where the waves haven't had the opportunity to build up yet.
But this was a challenge! I looked straight into the wind and knew I could beat it. Once on the other shore I would be more protected and closer to the insides of the curves ahead.

Now a lake crossing is one of the most dangerous things you can do in a canoe. If the wind picks up while you're in the middle of the water, the waves could easily swamp or capsize your boat, and then you better hope the water isn't so cold that you can't swim back to shore.

I steadily chopped my ottertail paddle through the waves at they went past, and watched the shore behind me very slowly recede. There were times when I wasn't making any visual progress, and so I checked my GPS to make sure that, yes, I was proceeding at one or two miles per hour in the positive direction. Aiming for that point there I should make it in an hour. Forty five minutes. Twenty. It was difficult and I used all the strength I had -- if any waves I've seen were a meter high, these were. As I bobbed up and down like a rubber ducky in a bathtub, a couple of motorboats stopped by to make sure I was okay.

Okay? I was having a great time!

The next crossing was accidental. I was used to the small cable ferries that cross the smaller sections of river. So when I saw the ferry that crossed here, I was very careful to avoid it. Too careful, I guess. The waves got larger and larger but I didn't seem to be getting any closer to the ferry. I finally saw it unload, and many cars came out of the beast, when I expected only one. So it's that kind of ferry.

Suddenly I realized that, getting the scale of the boat all out of whack has meant that I'm back in the middle of the lake. It's another long, slow paddle back to shore, and something popped in my shoulder just as I reached it. I would have to stop for the day at the next available site.
Fortunately, the beach is all sandy in this area giving several options to choose from. At the first beach I relieved my hunger and bladder, both complaining during the second crossing. But this beach seemed to close to the ferry for much privacy. There must be better places ahead.

So, slowly scooting forward, I came around the corner to see a large island. It looked to me like one of those mathematical models, a cylinder sticking out of the water, with the top chopped off at an angle to show the cross-section is an ellipse.

Islands are always interesting, and I decided to visit this one even if it meant limping onan injured shoulder. As I got closer, I noticed the dark silouettes of many birds above the island. Closer still, pelicans at the base! I was overjoyed. Soon I noticed a flock of seagulls here as well.
And then the shadows on the crown of the island began to move. They were cormorants. These are the shadows of birds, pure black and silent in flight. As I came around to see the ellipse of the island, I noticed it was covered in bird shadows, some sitting up high on nests built of twigs.

I had encountered a few isolated cormorants before, and no doubt many passed me, invisible to my eye, but this was like finding the cormorant homeworld. Cormorants and pelicans choose islands which are too far away from shore to be reached by mammalian predators. Cormorants themselves have acidic excrement, which leaves their islands barren, and otherworldly. This has actually been a cause of some concern. It seems that climate change is allowing cormorants to expand their sphere of influence, and as they do their excrement is stripping more and more islands of their vegetation, making them all resemble this miniature Yellowtone.

So what can conservationists do? There is talk of culling cormorants to preserve isolated, forested islands in their current state. But that seems like an unnatural solution to the problem. One thing seems likely, and one reason I am glad I don't have to make this decision, is that whatever choice is made now will be the object of scorn in fifty years time. We stopped forest fires for a time, but then learned many trees need a cycle of fire to reproduce. We cut down trees that harbored a certain parasite, and then learned the relationship was far more symbiotic than we had imagined.

I had already disturbed the peace of the rookery enough, and clearly couldn't sleep there. But I could sleep at the beach across from it, to the raucus sounds of these flocks of strange birds.

Day 27 ended: 50*56.078N, 106*53.630W

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