Saturday, October 29

Revisiting the 1000 Islands

Camelot Island
Camping and sea kayaking over a long weekend in the midst of busy classes is no doubt a welcome escape. I took a sea kayaking class last fall break in the 1000 Islands of southeast Ontario, where the St. Lawrence meets Lake Ontario, and enjoyed it so much I decided to train to help teach the course this fall. On our fall break, from October 8-11, I finally got the chance to return and repeat the trip. The 1000 Islands region is beautiful in the fall, a place not surprisingly rampant with small islands of mixed deciduous and coniferous woodland and rugged, rocky outcrops. The trip also coincides with the tail end of the fall warbler migration, and the beginning of some of the bigger, open water birds' passage, so when the weather's nice, it's a great time to be paddling. And the weather couldn't have been better.

1000 Islands region where we paddled, with the east end of
Lake Ontario just visible in the SW corner
After a few evening classes in preceding weeks, we were finally loading up the van and trailer on Friday afternoon, and driving north to spend the night at our put-in, Misty Isles, near Gananoque, ON. The next four days would have temperatures hovering around 60 and blue, cloudless skies. Saturday morning gave the first indication that the forecast might be true, and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday soon proved it. But I don't want to write a day by day trip report, and most people wouldn't want to read that either, so I'll just recall some highlights.

1. The weather. We're coming from Ithaca, let's remember, a place where I recently experienced one of the most beautiful, clear, cool mornings in recent memory, only to watch a single white cloud appear on the horizon, indicating 100% chance of precipitation. The precipitation, needless to say, didn't fail to come in the next hour or so, and it was soon "Ithacating" (most accurately, a combination of precipitation and defecation from the skies of Ithaca) all over what could have, and frankly, should have been a truly gorgeous day. So to see a 4-day streak of forecasted bliss actually come true!? That was heavenly. And of course, weather that makes you giddy to be alive and breathing undoubtedly sets the stage for a weekend full of greatness (like, when you get to sleep outside under the stars every night).

2. Our class of excellent paddlers. Like the weather, this blessing of a condition allowed for its own slew of subsequent highlights. Because the students were so quickly adept at slicing through the St. Lawrence, we had oodles (doesn't that work just...make you feel a little uncomfortable?) of free time that we normally wouldn't have. For example, working with an itinerary based on many prior trips to the same set of islands, we took about two hours to drift half of our last full day's route, while singing and basically napping on the open water, which still got us to our destination around 1:00, with many hours to spare before needing to cook and set up camp in earnest. This allowed for plenty of extra, more advanced paddling practice, like working with rolls, and the unusual opportunity to just explore the islands extensively ("birding").

3. Pacific Loon. According to eBird, the last Pacific Loon to be seen on the eastern half of Lake Ontario was 1991. Now, that's presumably a history full of holes in that region-- there's no way they're that rare on such a body of water-- but, nonetheless, I was excited to see that when I got back. This map summarizes the bird's reported distribution around Lake Ontario, with each purple block representing one or two individuals in this case. I spotted this handsome bird from a ways off, and with binoculars and camera stowed in the hatch, assumed it was a Common. But then it surfaced within 50 feet of our pod of kayaks, and stayed calmly at the surface for a while, allowing good views of its comparatively diminutive bill, and the sharp, vertical separation of its clean gray nape and white throat and face.

This map shows the Pacific Loon's distribution over Lake Ontario, with each purple block, in this case, representing only one or two individuals, from 1991 to 2011.
4. Ruffed Grouse.  We had a lot of time on Gordon Island, our last campsite of the trip.  I used it to bird.  There was a fair amount of activity on this small island, and lots of fallen logs.  Each time I passed one of said logs, a frighteningly frightened grouse (or two) exploded into whirring flight, like I imagine the caterpillar, Heimlich, from A Bugs' Life would fly if he were capable of breaking the sound barrier.  Not as unexpected as the loon by distribution, but far more startling, every time.  The other really cool part about birding several of these contained islands during a small window of fall migration, was seeing how consistent the relative abundances of warbler species was at each locale.  Gordon was actually one of the larger islands, at about 0.4 miles long and less than 0.1 across, and had 73 Yellow-rumped Warbler, 10 Blackpolls, and 5 Pines.  While most Islands were smaller and had somewhat fewer individuals and species, the ratios were similar throughout, which just gave a neat glimpse into exactly what was passing through on that window of dates-- a clean little cross section of migratory space-time!  It seems that if I had as much time on the other islands as I did on Gordon, the data on the other warbler species would be more representative.

Relative Warbler Abundance
5. Eastern Screech-owls.  On Camelot Island, I also had the chance to take a slow loop around the island, and came across a good bunch of birds, including a Northern Parula, some Swainson's Thrushes, several Blue-headed Vireos, and a Pileated Woodpecker (which surprisingly had a presence on all of the small islands we stayed at).  That afternoon, while imitating a screech-owl to check out these massive flocks of mostly yellow-rumped warblers, an owl called back.  So, after finding the tree that it was roosting in, I offered to take some people that evening if they were interested in seeing an owl (which none of them had ever done).  Our entourage left camp after dark and trekked across the island, under the light of a very full moon (and some creepy floating lights flying slowly about a hundred feet above the water...maybe some sort of flying lanterns? No, probably aliens). We finally made it to the spot, and after several minutes of whistling, nothing happened.  We were standing under a low hanging bough of a white pine at a dead end in the trail, about to give up, when something uncharacteristically clumsy came literally crashing through the branches to alight just in front of our waiting eyes, staring at us from barely more than an arm's length.  Someone put a headlamp on it, and it stayed there calmly, and called back.  In awe, we started to realize that there were at least four more owls calling back from all around us, all within fifty feet and coming to check us out.  We backed up the trail to a small clearing and watched as several screech-owls literally came out of the woodwork to see what was going on, and each of them allowed everyone in our group of six or more to get binocular views under the light.  It was really something else, and certainly quite an experience for your first owl.

Gordon Island, after sunset.  A long exposure of waves lapping at the rocks
6. Sunrise Paddle.  On Tuesday morning, we awoke on Gordon Island well before 5:00 and started packing the boats and eating a hasty granola bar breakfast before sliding into the glassy still, moonlit water.  Again thanks to our extremely efficient group, we had a solid chunk of time to just soak in the silence and stillness of this predawn paddle, instead of our normal frantic paddle, trying to get around an island to glimpse the morning colors before the sun peeked out.  But on this cold morning, we just floated through the dark, bows and paddle blades piercing the liquid glass without a sound. And it was perfect.  As we watched the massive moon drop below the trees on the now shrinking Gordon Island, we could turn and see the purple beginnings of the approaching dawn.  

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