Monday, June 29, 2020

Puddle jumper

     Old friends are the best friends. Those whom you've shared so much life with that the memories and the laughs come easily. You finish each others sentences, there's a relaxed comfort, you go way back together. If you're lucky you have several friends like that. Maybe even a few places. I'm thinking of spots you're drawn to again and again. Could be a lake or a river, a trail or simply your own backyard. It's where you've connected with nature, with the world outside yourself. It's where you feel a sense of belonging.
     For me, River Road has always been a place like that. It's mostly dirt and hugs the bank of the Hudson along Washington County's western edge. Our relationship began many years ago, back in my high school days. When some teachers "blah, blah, blah" got to be too much I'ld ask to go to the bathroom, then quickly change into shorts and running shoes before escaping out the school's backdoor. I knew it meant a trip to the Principle's Office when I came back but I didn't care. For a few hours I was free while the rest of the suckers sat at their desks in a lecture-induced stupor.

Riverside Cemetery snuggled between the Hudson and River Road

     North out of town, then across the green bridge where I saw a quiet backroad veering off to the left. Seemed like a good place to hide, just in case they came looking for me. That's how I found paradise. Water on one side, woods on the other, a gravel lane in between. A quaint hamlet, canal locks and a tree shaded cemetery. I could run for miles thru country like this and I did. 
     Even after the ordeal of school was a distant memory I kept running River Road. Biking, birdwatching and canoe launching as well. Getting to know the area's geology, its natural and human history, it architecture and the people who lived there. In short, building a deep, lasting relationship with the place.

River and road at twilight

     Which made me wonder...why hadn't I ever paddled the pond? It's near the southern end of River Road, just a short ways off Rt. 4. Just a little backwater, weedy and narrow but possibly canoe-able. No name that I'm aware of. Little more than an overgrown puddle.
     The pond is part of The Nature Conservancy's Denton Preserve. Most people visit the preserve from a pull-off along Rt. 4. Heading east from the entrance are trails, vernal pools, dramatic shale ridges and the bed of a long defunct trolley line. The rest of the preserve lies to the west between Rt. 4 and the Hudson with River Road giving access for birding and botanizing.

The pond and River Road are on the left in this map of Denton Preserve

     A culvert under the road serves as an umbilical connecting the pond and the river. When river levels are high water flows into the pond, then back out when levels drop. There's room to park a couple of cars, mostly used by people fishing at a small beach on the Hudson. You can use the beach to launch canoes onto the river or, alternately, take your chances on the pond.

This will have to do until a real beach comes along

     For most paddlers the river may be the better option. The pond doesn't exactly shout "Welcome. Happy to see you." Undeterred but with some difficulty I shoved off from some chunks of concrete rip-rap, past a half submerged tire into murky water totally covered in green. The murkiness comes from clay soil while the green turned out to be shore to shore duckweed, a tiny aquatic said to be the smallest of flowering plants.

Ready or not, here I come...

     The pond is only a few feet deep and every stroke festooned my paddle with long strands of milfoil and other submerged vegetation. But despite these shortcomings I soon found myself mesmerized. Here was nature with her hair down, a little disheveled, a little out of control. Definitely not sanitized for my viewing pleasure. Bullfrogs made the air vibrate with their loud croaks. A moss covered rock suddenly sank below the water - not a rock at all but the shell of a big snapper. Dragon flies darted about, water skimmers dimpled the surface, fish jumped and a heron flew overhead. A beaver cruised beside me suddenly slapping the water with his tail and disappearing below. An alligator wouldn't have seemed out of place - the pond has that kind of southern blackwater feel to it. 

Another green world - with yellow iris for accent

     The overwhelming green of everything was broken by patches of yellow iris and the tiny yellow blooms of bladderwort. There were pickerel weeds and bur-reeds along with white lily pad flowers. Red wing blackbirds flitted in and out of cattails. A white-tailed deer watched me from shore. The surrounding upland was lush with big trees and flowering shrubs but there was no getting there. Between open water and dry ground was a no-go zone of muck and impenetrable growth. I just stayed in the deepest water, went as far as I could go and turned around (with some difficulty), satiated by nature and surprised that my old friend River Road had kept this magical place a secret for so long.


     Puddles have their appeal. After enjoying my River Road outing another small pond came to mind. Located alongside Rt. 4 up past Fort Miller this one has a parking lot, picnic tables and mowed lawns...the high rent district of tiny paddle spots. It also has a thick carpet of invasive water chestnut ringing most of its perimeter.. Here, as at the River Road pond, pristine does not apply.

Water chestnut showing air bladders that allow it to float on the surface

     There's an easy put-in just a few feet from parking. Look for thick beds of soft-stem bulrush and the shorter spike rush (both in the sedge family despite their names). In the shallows pretty pink flowers were blooming - possibly a type of aquatic smartweed. Also in flower were blue flag iris, a native plant unlike the yellow iris which is invasive.

     I spent a leisurely hour in a clockwise circle of the shoreline. The bank opposite the parking lot/put-in seems to be the old Champlain Canal's towpath with the slowly filling canal ditch just beyond. Actually, the pond may have been part of the canal system
(maybe a boat basin?) but I'm not sure. Anybody know the history here?

     The Rt. 4 pull-off pond (for lack of a better name) seems to be a popular fishing spot for kids and families but its wildlife and botany may also appeal to nature oriented paddlers. It makes up in convenience for what it lacks in size...a puddle jumpers type of place. 

Google Earth screen shot of Hudson River with Rt.4 to the right.
The pull-off pond is top center while the River Road pond is at
bottom right, just a narrow green strip angling away from the river.


A turtle depositing eggs in soft earth

Whoa down! Where turtles cross Rt. 4 

This big guy was unfazed by me or my boat. Probably not a fan of my blog either.