Others are thrilled that summer has arrived. I, on the other hand, am horrified. I have allowed spring to come and go without ever once taking up a kayak paddle. How could this be? What, literally on earth, could have been more important?
So now, with the summer solstice about 24 hours old, I rush to make up for lost time. Kayaks (and canoes) are rentable just moments from Canal Pointe — across from Turning Basin Park, on Alexander Road, slightly west of Route 1. For half a dozen years, Princeton Canoe and Kayak has been enabling watercraft-entry onto the canal at Alexander; and long before that, where I learned the sport, at their still-thriving Griggstown Causeway site. When I belonged to corporate America, they’d liberate us at 3 on summer Fridays and I could be settled into my sturdy green “Otter,” seat-cushioned and life-jacketed, with several hours of watery magic between me and sundown.
I’m opening the place, this brisk June Saturday morning. Even so, there are three in staff ready and eager to coach newcomers in signing waivers and forms; reminding regulars to pick up a seat cushion or two; and to attach personal flotation devices. They lead us to new (mercifully!) light paddles.
I haven’t done this since late October, and still cannot quite believe I have made this sport my own. Nonetheless, as with beginners I have coached, it’s a matter of seconds before the spiffy little craft is afloat on the womblike (former canal barge) turning basin, headed through the birth passage into the storied Delaware and Raritan Canal.
Turning left would wend my way beneath the Dinky Bridge. It’s “a hoot,” literally, to be right under that structure when the speeding bullet zooms toward Princeton Junction from Princeton. Should I continue north, I’d float under Harrison and Washington to the aqueduct and the Mapleton Fishing Bridge, then alongside Lake Carnegie. Where sometimes “our” eagle is the alpha fisherman.
However, I turn south, “upstream,” savvy friends insist. (This makes no sense, unless one is very well versed in subtle currents.) Immediately, my hair is parted by swallows, zipping and sipping above and across the canal. Their breast feathers turn cardinal-red in early light.
The clatter of cars overhead on Alexander Bridge is now behind me. I find myself in another world, another century. Silence is everywhere — my prow’s whisper-whine noisy by contrast. At first, I delight in the caroling of paddle entry, not having heard it since red leaves draped the canal. But I soon switch to reverence: how noiselessly can I make my way in this green tunnel? Not another soul is about, not even on the Towpath.
Overhead are poufy clouds — too small for that big name, “cumulus.” These are not Constable skies, nor even Monet — rather Boudin and Jongkind. These two subtle artists (whose Normandy canvases can be relished in the Art Museum of Princeton University) convinced young Monet to give up his lucrative and memorable caricature for fine art. The world is the richer for their advice. My prow splits Boudin/Jongkind clouds like bright apples bobbing in a blue canyon.
Suddenly, reflections are banished, the canal’s surface pleated like that summer fabric my mother used to prefer, cotton plisse. The water’s color shifts from brass to slate. Wind buffets me, moves the kayak sideways. I have kayaked in wind on Barnegat Bay, on the Wading River, contended with wind and tide on Crosswicks Creek in the Hamilton/Trenton Marsh. But those were headwinds. I’m startled to realize, these side-winds could tip me right over — something I have never known, because whitewater is not my thing. Even though kayakers don’t wear their crafts like aprons any more. The canal’s crinkled surface brings to mind a mariner’s term — “williwaws:” waves creasing an isolated section of water, while all around remains smooth. I also recall “the lee shore,” head for unwrinkled canal, along the east bank. All is calm, if not bright, sheltered by tall dense trees.
Today’s skies are raptor-perfect. But it’s too early for thermals, spiraling air currents born of warming earth that skilled birds use as elevators. One turkey vulture tips and flutters, but his heart isn’t in it. Robins claim low air; a silent mockingbird flashes grey and white as he takes to the treetops. Dusky catbirds marry the shadows.
One of the joys of kayaking is that Alice-in-Wonderland experience of being smaller than the wildflowers. I am dwarfed by bushes adorned with frail magenta roses; by garlic mustard past its prime. I paddle through pink reflections of crown vetch, prettier in water than on land, and both prettier than the name. The sweet-spice of milkweed spins my head around. Airy cabbage-white butterflies dance among its mauve flower clusters as big and round as powder puffs. Something toughly white, viburnum-like, covers a dark shrub. It resembles a well-seasoned camp griddle, adorned with circles and circles of pancake batter.
Kayakers are generally so one with the waters that they do not disturb wildlife. To my left, despite my nearness, a female mallard continues morning ablutions, not a glance in my direction. On my right, five painted turtles gleam to the blinding point, except where new duckweed has glued its chartreuse self to their dark shells. From the largest to the tiniest, not one slips into the sanctuary of the canal. It’s a good day when my presence doesn’t “cost me” one single turtle. This promises to be such a day.
The new paddles are so light that I feel that I could paddle on forever. So I should make it to the Princeton Country Club’s golf bridge before turning. The ideal kayak interval “in my book” is three hours, but not for the season’s first outing. The canal itself, of course, served towns from New Brunswick to Bordentown. I can balance these paddles more easily, maneuvering optics to identify birds; wriggling out of my overblouse because it’s not chilly any more; taking first sips from an uncooperative water bottle. (Hikers’ maxims echo: “A pint an hour under 90 degrees. If you’re thirsty, it’s too late!”)
An almost liquid shadow parts to reveal a sudden shape dead ahead. Dark against dark, it could be a Battle of Britain bomber, a pterodactyl. As my eyes adjust, and the great bird swoops nearer, I am nose to beak with the great blue heron. Unperturbed by this human, it deftly avoids me without the apparent twist of a feather. I’ve never looked into a heron’s eyes straight on. This excursion is now blessed, no matter what happens or does not happen from here on in.
One joy that does not happen is the song of the wood thrush. Henry David Thoreau’s favorite sound in all of nature — and probably my own, as well — those liquid notes were always my reward for paddling into first reaches alongside the Institute Woods. No longer. No matter how early I hike the Towpath to this stretch, nor how late I manage to stay out, (for thrushes prefer half-light), I never hear them where they once reigned supreme. The reason: deer browsing. The forest understory has been so impoverished by these ravening hordes, that we are robbed beyond spring’s ephemeral wildflowers.
Botanists report that our hardwoods are no longer being replenished, because deer devour their seedlings like asparagus. Shrubs have become memory. Birds who feed and nest low in the woods are deprived of haven, as well as essential nutrients, so long as deer hold sway. Ovenbirds, thrushes, quail — they’ve become the dodos of Princeton. Where are the coyotes when we need them!
No one else is out. In all this time, I’ve heard only natural sounds, except for prow and paddle. Not even traffic whirr. An oriole cascade breaks the stillness, tones more golden than its sun-drenched feathers. To my right, a very visible red-bellied woodpecker gives forth muttery percussion — a poetry slam for birds.
I head toward the right bank, to swoop lazily under a drooping canopy of swamp maple. Its narcissistic leaves kiss their own reflections. I’d forgotten how red their leaf stems are in summer. A downed tree seems to block my way, mid-canal. “Slow and easy wins the day,” I hear from who-knows-what past coaching.
A couple in matching wild blue kayaks nips neatly past me, their strokes synchronized, their life jackets and paddles the identical shade of orange. They seem to understand my need for silence.
Here I am at the golfers’ bridge. Too soon. I’m not the least BIT tired — but have no idea what my arms will say tonight, should I carry on. Besides, I deliberately didn’t wear a watch — who KNOWS what time it might be?
A bicycling father zips along the towpath, following his wobbly young son. Just as I’m applauding dad for teaching his child to be in nature, I hear Papa advise the boy to “eat some chips.” Chapters of Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” flip through memory. Louv began his seminal book after a boy told him he preferred being in the house, “because that’s where the electrical outlets are.”
This dad still gets nature points. But when will they learn about fake foods, about preservatives, about trans-fats? Henry David would have them nibble wild apples.
Sometimes I see how fast I can go, other times how noiselessly. I am suddenly rewarded for the latter course, as the great blue heron materializes anew, motionless among pickerel weed to my right, fishing with his eyes. Again, I am at beak level. Again, he acts oblivious to the human. Stalk/stalk — spear! Stalk/stalk — spear! And then he sees me, but miraculously does not take wing. He simply stares, then turns and walks in the direction I am paddling.
I know I’ve stayed out too long when I start to hear the thunk of canoe paddles on metal. Startled, I picture Indians, stunned at us noisy settlers afloat on their rivers. I “see” Indians paddling soundlessly, led by our ineptitudes all the way to ambush.
A couple kayaks toward me, each bearing a rapt child in the prow of a blue two-seater. Another couple canoes along, with their dog on the green prow, wearing a bright orange doggy life jacket. Everyone agrees, there’s never been a more beautiful day on the canal — around 70 degrees, seemingly no humidity.
Not one turtle has jumped in, during all this time — my turtle tally a round dozen. Yes, indeed, a good day. Time on the canal is Endorphin-Central.
Every time I let nature in — which is never ever often enough — I discover new facets of the self. Today? Despite a daunting to-do list, and those stories buzzing in head and fingers, today, just for these hours, I have become a person for whom there is nothing more important than kayaking.
Princeton Canoe and Kayak, Alexander Road at the D&R Canal, 609-452-2403, canoenj.com. Open until September 5, weekdays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; 10 a.m. on weekends. Around $15 for two hours of bliss.