Life at the Lake

a diary of living at a small lowland lake


Early moonrise over Lake Ketchum

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and s-integrator

Seven cormorants on the lake together. One is busy folding the broken umbrella of his wings. This they do regularly. It must have something to do with drying their wings and also keeping warm. Over and over.

These are double-crested cormorants. They can be told from the Brandt cormorants by their bright orange chin pouches. The Brandts have yellow chins and, directly under the lower beak, a patch of light blue. As for crests, the double seems to have a solitary one, the Brandt none, not unless on both sub-species one counts the rough back of the head as one. Immature Brandts are white on breast, but dark on the belly. In flight the double cresteds hold their heads higher. They do too on water, giving them a snooty appearance.

On our lake they tend to cruise in loose formation. The pattern widens out,then reforms more tightly, but often there is a bird or two out of formation, cruising here and there. I'm sure they are all aware of the other cormorants in the flock and what each is doing. Frequently two individuals heading in an opposite direction in the center of the lake will come abreast of the larger component and will join them, reversing the direction of the group. Then two others will split apart.

Right now they are patrolling the center of the lake, which just happens to be deepest. In is probably no accident. I've been waiting to see them dive as a body, but they seem to have no cause and continue their surface activity. A solitary common merganser male is also moving up and down the lake's center. When the cormorants approach, he goes winging down to the far end of the lake, flying low.

There was a second male common merganser here last week, but I don't see him today. I remember how easy it was to identify them at a great distance on Lake Washington in Seattle, when there were common goldeneye males about; the merganser male is decidedly pink in the body, where his head is dark-green, approaching black. But the pinkish-beige tone to his body's whiteness is unique in nature. The goldeneye is brilliant white, and so is the smaller bufflehead. The eagle (to which none of these ducks bears any resemblance) is extremely white, head and tail, when he is mature.

The merganser evidently doesn't like being approached, be it by another duck or by man. Off he goes. Meanwhile the cormorants remain reluctant to go sub-surface. The reason why I watch and wait so intently is because Norma has correctly noted that they dive as a body, bing-bing-bing. Our seven would disappear in individual rings in a matter of seconds. What they do then, underwater, Norma calls seining. The work within a few yards of each other, at the same depth (this is a guess, you realize), headed in the same direction. Seven of them presently on our lake, I pity the fate of any perch, trout, or bass that they encounter.

For long periods they remain out of water, usually choosing to roost on one of the docks of my neighbors that is gradually disintegrating and by degrees submerging. In fact all the ducks prefer the docks that are ride low in the water, for they can hop aboard them and dismount just as easily. John and Tracy's dock this autumn is covered with whitewash.

Why is it that all the fish-eating ducks (the heron, too) shit white?
At this rate, they won't have to paint their dock this summer.

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My dentist is Jack Randall. He is from Nebraska, long ago, and studied at the university there.  He describes himself as a country dentist. To me this is a new breed--though it may be a very old one that I've just come to know. The breed might be classified as threatened or endangered.I like the idea of an accessible, friendly dentist, one who takes the time to chat and gossip familiarly about non-dental matters. People, politics, the Internet.

"You are sort of Dr. Marcus Welby of the mouth," I tell him, with as much of a grin as his hand in my mouth will permit, knowing he is old enough to remember the role of a medical doctor who made house calls (and more), portrayed so well and memorably by the late Robert Young.

Norma has been to see him for the first time, at my urging, because of a painful tooth infection or abscess (are they any different?) not properly addressed by her previous dentist, a man who seems inept, to put it mildly. So she calls Dr. Jack on a Monday morning, late, and he agrees to see her right after lunch, which is two o'clock. That is pretty expeditious service anywhere.

He gives her some special medicine and soon she begins to feel better. Next is my turn to see him a week later for a routine one-surface filling. Seated, bibbed, and tipped back, I thank him for seeing her so promptly. I suspect he doesn't realize she is my wife and I want to underscore the point. If he doesn't know, he handles it well. "Did she like me?" he asks, eagerly. It is a naked question. "Doesn't everybody?" I reply, my usual facetious self.

"Well, no," he admits, with a sudden sad face, "no, they don't."

This surprises me. "I should think they would," I persist. "You're very friendly and you like to chat and tell stories. You put people at their ease. You listen. Doesn't everybody like that?"

He says--sad, plump, moon-faced, completely vulnerable, or so it seems to me, "Not everybody likes a country dentist."
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Here and there along the Skagit river right now there are eagles. Not until today, however, have we seen what might be called a lot of eagles. Where did they all suddenly come from? That is not so important as, What are they here for? It is for the dead dog salmon.

Nights are cold enough for the rotting salmon carcasses to freeze and days just warm enough to thaw them again. The refreezing process prolongs the food supply, I figure, which is another way of saying that it slows the decay to the point where the corpses will last longer.

Each season the great birds come here around early December to stand on river bars and gorge. They will eat so much that they can barely fly and become nearly ground-ridden. When not feeding or flying off to some more comely place--an eagle Nirvana of stinking meat--they perch in trees. A leafless tall alder is ideal.

Old birds, mature eagles, have brilliant white tail feathers and heads. It is a bright color found nowhere in nature, unless it is icy snow caught at a certain angle by the emerging winter sun. I can spot them on distant littered beaches by their unusual shine, knowing few days ago that nothing gleamed so in that location. It has to be an eagle. And if the bright spot moves around some, I am confirmed by the bird's act of feeding.

Younger birds are present, which makes me wonder if they do not stick with their parents long after the first year, after they have achieved wondrous flight. I suspect mature birds mate only with mature birds, and so such a pair is not a breeding pair. They bond for life, unlike many of us. So if we see--and I've just seen them--a bald eagle in close company with one that has no mature signs yet, can we presume it is a family still? From the familiar way the different birds behave I think so. The smaller one is constantly hectoring the one that is marked white, fore and aft. The old guy (or gal) puts up with a lot.

This makes me think of human Sunday outings with the kids in a car.
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There is a new painted sign to be found at the junction of certain side roads along the highway. It reads, "No Outlet." My God, what does this mean? Is there a lake or pond nearby, one that probably is stagnant, if such names can be trusted? No, no; it is merely a new confusing way of saying an old simple thing. "Dead End," we used to call it. Everybody knows what this means. The road ends here, down the road apiece, and hopefully there is a turn around. (If there isn't, there will probably be a lot of wheel tracks on both sidings, as many somebodies tried to make a turn around by zigzagging back and forth on the shoulders.

If "Dead End" won't do for all time, how about "No Exit?" I've always rather liked it, for it has a European flavor and Sartre, I believe, wrote a play with that splendid name. It means additionally there is no hope.

Nobody will ever write a play named "No Outlet," I predict. Unless it is about a frustrated electrician. 
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To live on the lake is to become intimate with its birds, ducks, and geese, or else purposely to resist such a feeling and blunder along according to one's old ways.

In winter the panorama is constantly changing because the ducks are moving along the Pacific Flyway; they stop here on their journey South for varying lengths of time. For example, this morning I counted nineteen mallards near our dock, all congregated, the sexes mixed, feeding in the shallows. The unevenness of the number bothered me. I longed for one more to complete the package. Sure enough, in mid-lake, I spotted a mallard drake steaming to join the others.Additionally there is a small remnant flock of American widgeons.

They did not materialize in the numbers of last year, when often there was more than a hundred in a bunch, all wheeling and lifting off as one, or nearly so, scurrying down to the far end of the lake when disturbed by something or someone such as myself rowing a boat around my new lake. Then they would burst into the air, peppering the water with hail-like duck shit. Lovely.

There are shovelers lingering; all females except for one lone guy, sighted earlier, now gone again. The hens have been here for a couple of months, their peaks constantly plowing the water as the feed on weed and algae. And we have one horned grebe in daily attendance, a lovely bird, with an artfully carved neck. I also spotted (but could not confirm it until this morning) a solitary female ringnecked duck.

I don?t know why they call them ringnecks, when the ring is at the far end of their upper beak, on both the male and female. It is as though they have been sipping milk. Both sexes have a pointed head.It is clear to me, even from a cursory inspection: Daffy Duck in the comics is a ringneck. 
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"We sure could use some rain," I tell the gear fisherman walking out of the Grandy Creek Drift as I approach it. "Lots of rain."

He grins and replies, "Yes, that's right, but it is so beautiful like this." We pass on. It is about two-thirty on a clear day growing increasingly gray.

He's right: it is beautiful, with fresh snow airbrushed on the tops of the hills. Those hills are managed with recent clearcuts that hold the snow and logging roads that whitely crisscross the steep slopes.It is a short pleasant walk through an alder copse to reach the creek and cross it; a couple of weeks ago I couldn't ford it and backed away. Russ Ossenbach was with me and had already crossed, but he is six-feet five and weighs in the neighborhood of two-forty. That is a lot to hold him down in the swift current, and he has long, long legs to match.

I went back to my car and continued on to the Widow's Pool, having urged him to stay and fish, and join me later. The river was rising rapidly and "going out," as we say, and he left to join me half an hour later. He said he barely made the creek crossing, for it had come up even more.

Today the creek is nothing, a mere trickle, and I splashed through it haughtily, my trepidation gone.We are nearly a third of the way through December and in less than two weeks it will be officially winter.

Funny, but winter is when the days get longer, though microscopically at first. The days have been getting shorter since late June. It seems long ago, that warm time.

There are few if any steelhead in the river and none reported being caught. It is often this way, with an early cold snap in December, and a prolonged low-water situation. Historically, if we had several days of hard warm rain and the river rose several feet, when it began to drop again, the river would be full of bright winter steelhead. And wouldn't we all have fun? - - Comments ()
If I drive to the village the most direct way I see a number of farm animals, plus a few exotic species. First come Twetter's cows. He used to have a big dairy farm, but the good denizens of this lake took him to court and charged him with polluting Lake Ketchum with great quantities of cow manure over the years. Worse, in times long past, he used to import chicken manure to enrich his fields and grow more and better grass for his cows. All this fed into our lake after draining through a wetland, bringing its burden of phosphorous and nitrogen. It is still here and the lake is adjudged eutrophic.

Milk cows are worse at polluting than beef cattle. I learned this only recently. Milk cows shit two or two and a half times as much and it takes a lot of well water, or water from a tiny stream, to wash out the barn repeatedly so you and your cows are not inundated. All ends up trickling into the lake; winter rains speed along the process.

Tweeter now raises only calves and beef cattle. He no longer grazes his North pasture, which is closer to the lake and the wetland feeding the lake through the small inlet that goes dry in summer. Nor does he import chicken manure any more. An invalid (he has an artificial leg), he is trying to be a cooperative farmer and good citizen. He has made a number of sacrifices that reduce his already small income. Joanne Berg says, "After all, he was here first." But most of the people of the lake, including its two major long-time officers, paint him as the arch villain. They want to see him stop raising cattle entirely; they want him to pay the Lake Association hundreds of thousands of dollars in reparations. He does not have the money, of course, and even if he were to sell the farm he would not have. Such is the pair's vindictiveness.I do not believe him to be the enemy, but wouldn?t blame him for responding as if he were. Nobody likes to be hauled into court for just trying to make a living. His cows are Holsteins mostly, but it is a mixed herd, Norma points out. (I always yield to her superior country knowledge; she was born hereabouts.)

Continuing down the road apiece, on the slow middle route, we come across a field of oddly striped cows. These are Dutch belted. They are incredible and look to be wearing a saddle, or girdle, or else somebody snuck up on them in the night and painted them in bold stripes. A little farther down the road is a horse farm that could well be found in Kentucky, it is so large and splendiferous. (Never had use for that lovely word before.) Its owner is as rich as Tweeter must be poor. His house is palatial. What a vast difference there is between types of valley farming, horses and cows. These look to be thoroughbreds. They graze imperially. 

A few are wearing overcoats against the onslaught of inclemency. They stroll; they own the spread, their manner says. What luxury, what ease. I envy them.Then, barreling along the Pioneer Highway, my eyes scanning the cloud-streaked horizon, I almost miss what is nearest at hand. A filed holds some dark gray sheep. One has an overcoat on--his own stuff, woven, wool. It is a garment. I wonder why, why the need? Isn't this a coals-to-Newcastle situation? Or did its owners unwisely shear him?

Oh, yes--two more tall guys, white and black, looking down their camel-like noses as through lorgnettes. These are llamas, elegant and strange. I remember seeing in the upper valley of the Stilly other llamas. But the new favorite there is ostriches. Once a woman realtor brought me several mangy, molted feathers as a gift. She knew I tied flies. They were useless for my purposes and not ornamental, either; they made me realize how high-grade were the materials we routinely use.

The ostrich-raisers will sell you eggs, if you will buy them, but they are not cheap. Well, they oughtn't be. One egg will feed many. Each is as big as one of those toy footballs they sell parents so their toddlers will grow up to be NFL stars. I was offered one--either as a gift or to buy, by the same woman. I declined, with thanks.

Later I noticed that many of the ostrich farms had signs offering ostriches for sale. I doubt if there were any buyers. Another "hobby" farm on the blocks. I mean, would you buy an ostrich? Me, I can't stomach so much as the idea of eating one of their eggs. - - Comments ()