The geese are on their nests now, hunkered down. On a cold dawn frost etches their backs like a shroud. Come snowfalls, snow settles; an inch, more.
When I paddle the kayak too near they lower themselves best they can, trying to merge with mud and dirt and battered reed as if they wish to become part of the earth itself.
The feathers on their back, brown and gray and dull, blend color to the dirt and mud but the white patch on their cheek stands proud. Mostly that is what I see first; then the brown back that on this day was fringed with frost.
Times that I see them I turn wide, give the nest and the bird a wide berth. Other times I flat out do not see them and when I draw too near the bird is off the nest, loud and flashy and my eye follows the bird and does not seek the nest.
With the bird off the nest on a cool morning I up the tempo of the paddle, push hard and leave the nest. A nest without the goose to guard it is vulnerable to predators. Eggs uncovered can chill. I back off quick as I can and hope the bird returns and settles back down and tries again to blend with earth.
There was chill on a morning this week and across the marsh I could hear the sound of goose call and see birds in flight, dark shadows against the clear morning sky. The sun was rising and the forecast called for a warm afternoon. There was a faint whisp of woodsmoke. Then the scent of skunk—not the heavy, overpowering cloud of skunk smell, just a hint of it, thin and vague and not at all unpleasant. Then gone.
I paddled north then east, rounded a spit of marsh, north again. To the west cattails and marsh grass caught the early sun, glowed golden as if filled with life and vitality, not simply dead grass weary of life. In the shallow water just off the marsh grass were nine swans, pure white with the noble serenity that they carry as if a cloak.
They were watching me and I turned the kayak hard and away from them and hoped they would not take flight. There was a moment when everything tightened up with the tension of it all, like a spring compressed. I did not want to scare the birds to wing; they were wound tight ready for flight. All that was important at the moment seemed still.
I paddled straight away, pulled hard against the dark water. Then I let the kayak drift and turned back and the swans had relaxed and I knew they would not fly.
I skirted the north edge where the water was shallow over mud. Something moved; otter. Two of them. I slowed, raised the camera.
I do not know what they were feeding on. I never could get a good look and when I got home and enlarged the photos I still could not tell. They moved closer. They are as near a perfect water animal as was ever created, sleek and smooth and silky in their hunting. They moved toward me then stopped, regarded me with suspicion. Then they dove and I never saw them again.
I found a single swan that knew I was there but did not move away. It sounded its low kerhonking call and when it did I could see its breath in the air and I wished the camera could capture that but knew it probably would not. I ran the kayak into too—shallow water, could not move closer and so backed out and only when I did that did the swan swim off.
I heard the three-call trill of yellowlegs and saw a pair of them fast and sleek and graceful. I saw osprey and eagle and heron and wood duck.
And I thought to myself, this is what you have when you leave the house. This is what you have on a Wisconsin morning. This is what the hunter has and the fisherman has and the camper and the bird watcher and the person who just stands next to the shore and opens their eyes and their ears and their heart to the wonder of it all. This is what we have. This is our world.
Of course we too often take it all for granted. We burden ourselves with worry and weight ourselves with concerns. We can skulk into mid-April fretting of taxes to pay and bring murky clouds to our minds and very being. And when we do we forget the wonder of spring mornings and time on water and the simple joy of clear air to breathe deep.
We can take it all for granted, all that we have. We certainly can.
The evening prior Sally missed a phone call; checked the number; said, “Robert? I haven’t talked to him in who knows how long. I wonder why he called”. Called him back. Talked for an hour.
Told me of the conversation, of Robert out west, dying of AIDS, in a hospital from which he may never leave. Told of the fatigue in his voice. Told of the pain he felt. Told me, Sally did, “Know what he wants to do if he’s alive this summer? Said all he wants was to come back to Wisconsin to camp one more time”.
And that was on my mind on the morning when the chill brought frost the backs of geese on their nests. That was on my mind when I paddled in the company of swan and osprey and eagle. Thought to myself, this is what why we camp and part of why we hunt and fish, and just spend time outside. This, this is our comfort, days as this. This is our strength. This is our light on dark days.
And this, all of this, we must never take for granted.