Life at the Lake

a diary of living at a small lowland lake


Early moonrise over Lake Ketchum

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Around the West, and perhaps around the nation, Audubon members perform a Christmas Day bird count. I am not presently a member, but the urge to join them, at least on my lake--through a window, at least--is too great to resist. So here goes--as the fog providently briefly parts:

Five male common mergansers and a solitary female, she looking and perhaps feeling slight out of place; a large (say, two dozen) mixed flock of mallards, all puddled together in the center of the lake and collectively sleeping in a pod, head bowed; four female northern shovelers, all swimming with their large, spatulate beaks under water, gathering in some continuous ingestion of minute vegetable matter;lone piedbilled grebe near my shore, about half the time underwater, fishing.

I must presume that about half a dozen double-tufted cormorants are also around, though not now visually accounted for. They appear to be in winter residence, like the mergansers, no doubt because of the spinyray population, which both species of birds will largely decimate. But this will make room for next year's crop of these fish. The survivors will spawn in spring and replenish the stock.

Fog again obscures everything. But that's okay. My son and his wife will soon arrive for lunch and an exchange of gifts. Right now I can see my dock but nothing else. The homes across the lake are obscured by a light gray veil.

Above this I know an invisible sun is burning. - - Comments ()
The Skagit Flats are aptly named. They resemble a cookie sheet and go on for roughly twenty miles, the fields in winter varying shades of rich gold, green, gray, umber. Along the edges of some vast acreage lie what appear to be clumps of old snow. Some is alarmingly white, some dirty looking. It is not snow. You are looking at trumpeter swans, with a few tundra swans fixed in inconspicuously. How do you tell them apart? Or do you? And of course there are vast areas occupied by snow geese, which are even denser. Whole fields turn brilliant white.

Who can tell the difference between a trumpeter and a tundra? And does it really matter, if you're not a swan yourself, in full breeding plumage? Otherwise the distinction is moot. (Or it is "mute," if you happen to be a swan of that name, and not inclined to betray your true identity with so much as a honk, whistle, or toot.

Whatever, the differences are small, indiscernible from a distance, and these large birds are reluctant to let you get up close to survey them. They insist that you keep far away and use powerful binoculars or a spotting scope. If you don't, there is a blast from the assorted brasses, and off go the swans in a whirl of white that apes a snowstorm. A whole cloud of them will move to the far field and you are ever farther away from your goal of species identification. So don't alarm them by crowding too close.

They can be told apart by small signs. Trumpeters (Cygnus buccinator) dominate and announce their arrival with a noisy blast?B-flat, perhaps. They come in winging low, like aircraft homing to their carrier but of course many more in number, all at once, to their stubbled landing field. Wings drooping they settle low and often drop with a splat to the muddy ground. They are birds of a flock, with flock joining flock sociably throughout the day. I wonder why it is--on a given afternoon--they will frequent one harvested cornfield and ignore another? The waste-corn quotient in each must be about the same, or is one field already picked over, the other ripe for post-harvest? The likes of me can't tell.

Swans are often mud-splattered, giving them a soiled look; also the immature birds are beige or gray. Only the mature ones are clean and snowy.

One can presume, until proved otherwise, that all of a flock gathered in a wintry field are trumpeters, not Cygnus columbianus, the tundras. To make certain look for a more rounded skull and a yellow spot in front of the eye (though not all tundras have the spot). Tundras also have a goose-like head, with more facial slope toward the bill. The black on the bill of tundras is less conspicuous and does not reach the eye or seem to touch it. The Bewick's swan is a sub-species of tundra and has a big yellow spot between the beak and eye. There is a sub-species of trumpeter as well; it is the whooper, the Eurasian version, no doubt an ancient geographic mutation (as with widgeons), and a large yellow of a portion of the distinct black nose patch on the trumpeter. Also the whooper's sound is different, hence the name. Its sound is a bugle note, the National Geographic field guide tells me; in fact, it is a double note. Honk-honk.

The trumpeter's forehead and beak remind me of the canvasback duck, and if you have seen the duck, but not the swan, you will know what I mean at once. The slope is a steady forty-five degrees, and is quite handsome and distinct. Tundras, my text informs me, whoop and yodel; the trumpeter simply sounds his brassy note or a pair of them.

The tundras used to be called whistling swans. I regret the name change and feel that something ancient and fine has been lost, lost again. Both species became greatly reduced in number and were approaching endangered status, but have responded well to protective regulations. The Golden Guide to birds describes the tundra's call as "a muffled, musical whistle" and says its honking resembles that of the Canada goose. Golden disagrees with the National Geographic (birders always quarrel) over the trumpeter's sound. "A sonorous single honk or double honk,": says the National Geographic, while Golden describes it as "a low note, followed by about 3 on a higher pitch."

Listen, and make up your own mind. - - Comments ()
Since movies are important to me and I see so many of them, I thought I'd try to learn more about the complex industry that makes them. My fishing friend, Dick Sylbert, who has been production designer on so many fine films, suggested when he was here over Thanksgiving that I read Sidney Lumet?s book, Making Movies (Knopf, 1955). So Norma put in an interlibrary reserve on the book and soon it arrived. It is as good as Dick said it would be. I'm not surprised to see him mentioned on page 54.

A movie must immediately create a convincing and interesting world, with characters of some complexity and appeal. If it does, I become instantly rooted in the action and will watch, enthralled, till the end.

If it doesn't do this well, I may continue to watch but guardedly, giving the movie makers a little more time in which to capture me. I am a good audience, fairly easily seduced, time after time, but a sophisticated one. I love movies, but if the makers play loose with me, and are not careful about details and what is called continuity, soon it will be goodbye from me. There are so many movies in this world--the accumulation of decades and many nations--that there is no problem quickly finding another that is better from every critical standpoint.

Lumet mentions early in the book "Twelve Angry Men," which has recently been remade. It is about a jury deliberation after the judge has sequestered them (all men, all white, and this is unquestioningly how it was) in a pretty much cut-and-dried murder trial. At first vote there is only one holdout to a guilty verdict, and it happens to be the handsome, persuasive Henry Fonda, now dead. All or nearly all the actors are either dead or incredibly old. Fonda is the doubter, who asks to be persuaded that things are different from how the other eleven feel and believe them to be. But the opposite takes place. Instead of them persuading him to change his vote, one by one they go over to his side. They become doubters, too. This is the movie.

Eventually it is eleven to one, in the other direction. All but one now want acquittal. Finally the remaining juror--overplayed but consistently so by Lee J. Cobb--breaks down, sobbing, and confesses his bias, based on having an ungrateful son himself, and changes his vote. Now they are all for acquittal and can go home. The movie ends on an emotionally (but not intellectually) satisfying note and the audience feels purged. Now we can all go home happy and relieved from the theater in which we saw it, casting each other smiles of commiseration.

Only nobody goes to theaters anymore to see movies. Instead we stay home, build up the fire, make our own popcorn, and the movie comes to us. Movies arrive in a ceaseless stream, with both chaff and seed. It is important to be able to tell them apart early, or a lot of time will be wasted. Nobody has to sit through a bad movie in his own home. It is not as though you bought an expensive ticket. Another movie is waiting--live or nearly so or on video tape. Just punch in the numbers of the channel and it is ours. The charge for it is usually by the month for unlimited, round-the-clock use of the channel. And then there is pay-per-view. Channels of it.

It is not surprising, given the circumstances, that many available movies are less than great. They are less than good, as well. Many are simply awful. This is what happens in a democracy of taste. Movies today are being made carelessly for an omnivorous market. America needs its nightly movies fix.

Alas, so do I.
- - Comments ()
How near is a movie theater? Norma and I were talking about this at lunch. Neither of us knew. "Mt. Vernon?" she responded. I doubted audibly whether there was one there that operated on a daily basis. (Often lingering small town theaters open just on weekends, with matinees aimed at school kids.) I guessed that Burlington might have a multiplex. Marysville? I knew the Everett Mall had one, but it was so far off. A good thirty miles.

The point was, in years we've never gone to a movie theater, not since a library benefit where they showed Dickens's "Little Dorritt." But here is the clincher: we watch a movie nearly every night.It comes to us via TV. This is how most of America receives its meal of movies, and I suspect it is daily, as with us. Even President Bush owns up to watching one regularly in the White House. He can't very well go out to a theater to watch one, even if he wanted to, for fear of being Lincolnated.) But he enjoys watching one at home--first run, before they reach the theater--with perhaps a homey fire in the grate, in his royal house slippers. And so do I.

We have a dish, down by the lake. Not the smallest, it is nonetheless of discrete size, about four feet in diameter and perched on its mast beneath a tall hemlock. When it snows heavily, the hemlock boughs dip low with their load of heavy white stuff and the signal from the satellite can't fight its way to the receiver. We get absolutely no picture, no daily movie, nothing, until I don boots and go outside, wading my way through the drifts until I am able to dislodge the snow with a broom. Lo, a picture again. If not a hometown (read Seattle, Seattle still) sporting event, it will ever be a movie.

We subscribe at the moment to two packages of premium channels. One is Star/(Sundance/IFC, which includes a few other vintage channels such as Encore, and the other package is three channels of Showtime. We subscribed to Showtime for a month precisely to get several movies we badly wanted to see--Hamlet (Brannaugh's) and the old Nosterafu (Klaus Kinsky's), which Norma greatly desired. We will probably drop Showtime (don't tell them, it's a surprise) at the end of December. But it is impressing us with some good movies we hadn't known about. Each comes as a bonus for the fixed price. Of course we are fools for movies.

A month of Showtime costs $11. For this you get three channels running 24 hours per day. The number of available movies is not quite infinite but is impressive. It is more than any person could watch without burning out his eyes and his mind. God save him if he should try.

Much of what is on the screen is garbage. But--as with life in general--in among the garbage is some gems. The discriminating modern person will discriminate what he serves his eyes. He prefers a life of choices. They must be his. - - Comments ()
We gave our next door neighbors on both sides inexpensive poinsettias because they are cheerful tokens of the season, Christmas. We bought two extras, one for the widow who lets me fish across from her home on the Skagit and one for the Hans Berg family, who lives across the lake from us. We finally delivered it to them last weekend.

It is a dark time for them. Hans is clearly dying. It takes time. Will he last till Christmas? The first of the new year? Their house was earlier strung with Christmas lights, as usual, and they burned brightly for a few days straight, but now have been left off for many days. When we brought the plant by, he was in bed. Joanne came to the door in response to my light rap on the glass pane. She was carrying a new grandchild, probably the one that was christened a week or so ago.

The message is, life goes on, regardless. In the midst of Hans's slow dying, a child is born, a grandchild, not the first, and the child is nourished, blessed, and grows. How wonderful. There is constant attrition, but heir in constant renewal. All the same, the sight of the nearly dark house, day after day, is sad. I miss its tall morning column of woodsmoke that Hans used to build and light, along with the evening spangle of lights. It is a dark time for all of us, but especially for him and his.

I think of him and his plight often these days--myself an acquaintance, not quite a friend.
- - Comments ()
Attrition is necessary part of life and inescapable. Continuing on our morning walk, we came across a U-Haul moving van parked at the bottom of the steep curving drive at Dana Base's lakefront house. Only recently has a For Sale sign sprouted there. We caught him at the start of the moving out process. Naturally curious I dragged Norma by the hand to the bottom of his drive.We saw only people we didn?t know carrying large items out of the house and into the deep recesses of the van. I asked one about the whereabouts of Dana and Dana immediately appeared in the door, as if in response. He looked harried and rushed.

He explained that he had a new job with the state Fish and Wildlife. He was getting out of habitat work and into game management, his specialty. The new job is in Pend Oreille. I asked if this was in Idaho. No, he said, it was the name of a tiny county here in Washington state, in the extreme northeast corner. He will be concerned with moose, elk, and deer populations. Also with game birds, which are his favorites.

We had worked together ten years ago on a program called Timber/Fish/Wildlife, correctly ordered in terms of its priorities to participants. He had taken a beating from the timber companies and the state Department of Natural Resources, which had used the program as a guise in which to keep clearcutting. I dropped out when the hard work I did proved unfruitful. As it was his livelihood, he had to continue.

I said something about the rigors and frustrations of the job.
"There are no words to describe how I felt about it," he said bitterly. "Nobody can understand."

I said, don?t forget, I was there, too. Of all people I would understand. And Curt Kraemer, the fish biologist and friend. But apparently Dana felt as though he was all alone. Well, words come more easily to me, and I can find them; also I understood.

A look up in the mangy, denuded hills and mountains above the Sauk and Skagit rivers provide constant, never-healing, grim reminders. In case any one should be tempted to try to forget. 
- - Comments ()
This morning on a rainy wind-tossed lake two heads bobbed near the center. They belonged to the first of the returning otters. Last year there were five or six-one died, apparently of natural causes. Otters will travel over land--generally at night--to reach a new body of water. December 16, this year, for the record.

People around the lake are of two schools of thought about otters. Anton, my neighbor and fellow fisher, plus some others, see otters as the enemy, for they diminish the fish population (though generally this is scrap fish). And they leave a filthy mess on people's docks--the residue of their fishy meal. But many of the lake's denizens enjoy watching them and their antics, seeing them as an essential part of the lake-s ecosystem.

I tend to side with them. Why is it then that I tense up at the sight of them each time? I guess I must be of a mixed mind. But I find that they have contributed to my strongest memories of the lake.

Walking around the lake yesterday, I quickly pushed Norma aside as we came to a vale. I thought she was going to step on top of a small injured bird. It appeared helpless, fluttering wanly along the littered asphalt in the lee of a wind storm. I believed the bird unable to fly, or to fly for more than a few feet, for it kept fluttering off about this far as I kept boldly approaching it. I found I could come within a scant yard of it. That's pretty close.

Suddenly I saw a number of such birds, all hopping around among the dreck. They behaved the same way. Each held its position until nearly trod upon; none fluttered off very far. There must have been a dozen.

About the size of a large egg, they were prettily marked with a brilliant red/orange strip on the crown, then with a band that was nearly black, and last by a white stripe or chevron at the eye. Otherwise the bird was buff, with a reddish tinge. They were feeding on seeds from the windblown cedars and firs.We identified them promptly upon returning home and consulting two good bird books. Ruby-crested kinglets. We had never seen them before. Another birder's first.

Such small things have inordinate importance. The books said the birds were insect eaters who frequent evergreens. Today they were eating seeds from the same trees. Not many insects present in cold December. - - Comments ()