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

Consider, for a moment, the lesser scaup. (The greater scaup doesn't seem to be in evidence on the lake, so he needs no consideration.) The scaup dives with a wondrous economy of motion. I see it over and over, and never fail to marvel at how neatly he does it. Or she, as the case may be; she is brown, with a telltale creamy circle at the base of her beak, while he is light gray (nearly white--a brilliant gray) and black, the zebra of diving ducks. Ah, but when they dive, that is the important part.

Both scaups dive as though wired together, or, rather, are powered by some servo-system in which there is but a moment's delay. First one, then the other. Down they go. But it is the economy of the dive that continues to impress me. They simply . . . invert. There is hardly a splash.

The term "duck dive" is hardly up to the task of acute description. Suddenly the duck is gone, head-first, erased from the surface of the lake, only a tiny inadequate splash to mark where he had been, a nano-second ago. Gone.

If you try to find the duck before his or her dive on the surface, scanning quickly with binoculars, you will often miss him. He will have disappeared in that tiny interval of searching. And he will remain under the surface a long time. You will widen your search zone as time goes by because the duck is capable of traveling a sizable distance that is directly related to the time he is under water. There he is, or she--100 meters away. Trouble is, you don't know which direction the duck may have gone. So you will have to visibly search out from the center 100 meters in four direction. This forms a very large circle.

And what does the scaup do while under water? Look for food. And what kind of food is this? Well, small fish, but there aren't all that many at this time of the year. Then, what?

I have to guess. I'd say snails. In my first couple of years at the lake I used to kill a rainbow trout or two for somebody's dinner. When I picked up the trout in order to slip a knife in its vent and open it up, I was surprised by the firm gravelly feel of its body. Now opened up, the gut was tightly packed with the same substance that made the live trout feel hard and firm. The first couple of times I slit open the gut and let its contents spill out on the old newspapers on which I used to clean fish. Then I knew and didn't have to repeat the action.

Dozens of hard black tiny snails. The trout feed primarily on these and not on the larvae or adult forms of insects. Evidently some species of the diving ducks--primarily fish eaters--do the same. Or so I am led to think because of their similar frequent surface behavior. - - Comments ()
The male wood duck is greatly overdressed for most occasions, especially for making visits to our feeder, which has been specially primed for him and his mate with exotic nuts and seeds. It is as though the artist who created him (not her; never her) got carried away with all his paints and brushes, and couldn't leave well enough alone. He kept adding a dab here, a spot there, until he had created a grotesque.

I think the drake must be embarrassed by the richness of his coloration and wishes he looked different--more like his mate. (This is the pathetic fallacy carried to an absurd point, I know.) Drab is the word for her. He envies her, while she envies him. It is the kind of domestic arrangement in which neither is happy. Yet they manage to get along devotedly, from day to day. Soon she will be "with egg." My wife tells me she may lay one a day for up to two weeks. It is not necessary for her to mate separately for each egg.

It is a sexual time of the year. All the birds are paired up. (Those who aren't by now are like it's midnight at a high school dance: "too bad, Charlie, you've missed out again.")

I saw a pair of great blue herons mate about a year ago, while out in my boat, fishing. It was an awesome scene--he took her in the air and carried her to the ground, four great wings flailing like a pair of pterodactyls locked in deadly combat. A moment later it was all over. They walked around the marshland as though nothing had happened. The usual birdy boredom prevailed.

I wondered if they were experiencing the same post-coital sadness that humans are said to suffer? 
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"Man Thinking," is the essay by Emerson that got me thinking. Also, the old phrase, "Books are for the Scholar's idle moments," which must be from "The American Scholar," last read when I was about 19 and a sophomore in college. But it's got me thinking.

It must have some relevance, or else my Prof., Joe Harrison, made it stick in my mind, all these years.

What's on my writer's mind these days is birds, namely ducks. Now, in the vast scheme of things, birds are not very important, and ducks perhaps least of all the birds. Yet I continue to be fascinated by them. Why ducks? I mean, why do ducks even exist? What do they contribute to the ecosystem, or--better yet--the sad human condition? Not a damn thing.

What goes Quack-Quack is irrelevant. We are at war, for Christ's sake, or anybody else's. Yet ducks continue to obsess me. Perhaps it is because I see so many of them, and the same ones from day to day that I am beginning to believe (here it goes: the guy is plainly nuts) to believe we are friends.

Once, decades ago, while walking a former dog around Seattle's Magnuson Park, I observed a slender young man on an expensive bicycle. He was stopped and observing the lake (Washington) through a pair of even more expensive binoculars--Leicas. I knew they were Leicas because I was deep into street photography, and the Leica camera was what I had settled on. The camera was magnificent and expensive.

I sidled up to the guy and no doubt asked a dumb question or two about what he was doing, as is my wont. Without taking his eyes from the lake, he began to answer me. He named some ducks, species I had never heard of before, or if I had had paid no attention.

All those dots floating out on the lake like so many specks in my vision when I rubbed my eyes too hard were ducks, but not only ducks (I knew that) but different kinds of ducks, and they could at such a range be distinguished one from another with binoculars and, as he soon began to point out to me, one gender from another.

I stood fascinated.

Now he finally faced me, letting his eyes leave his beloved ducks.
"Here," he said, "take a look." He handed over his optics. And he explained the original way the binoculars focused.

I looked. How brilliant were the lenses. And those specks on the lake loomed large, even though the binocs were not of high power. But they were sharp, and that is what matters. Also, the colors, though faint, were distinct, the contrast brilliant.

He began to name the ducks--the species. He could see where I was looking and had already made his identifications in those precise spots, for species tend to clump together. My head buzzed with names and new information.

True, there were mallards, but there were also scaups, goldeneyes, buffleheads, and, near shore, some mallard-looking disproportionate ducks he said were Northern shovelers.

I did not know enough to disbelieve him. Often knowledge and the possessor of knowledge is self-evident. In this case I knew enough to listen and listen hard.

Soon he peddled on his way, leaving me mentally blinking in his wake. A new world was opening up and I was anxious to get to it. I bought The Golden Book of Birds--not the best but a good one and relatively cheap. (In time I ended up with half a dozen.) And I bought some inexpensive binoculars, not knowing better, but--hey--I was a beginner. My cheapness, in time, taught me not to be so cheap. You can't see through bad binocs. I mean, you can't see well enough to identify birds, which was what I was after. But I am a quick study, a swift learner.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with learning something new. It is a kind of Emersonian thing, I guess. One by one I learned my duck species; the lake helped some with its large array. Songbirds I was slower to learn to identify, and it is my wife who knows them well. She has put out several feeders, and in season various birds come to be fed, the lazy bastards. And this gives me a close-up chance to study and identify them.

But my first love continues to be water birds.

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The male goldeneye is a beautiful bird, thick-bodied, brilliant white where he is white, and black where he ought to be black. On his conical-shaped head (large black) is a big white spot, just below his eye and off to the side. Unmistakable. And along his wing, where the wing joins the body, there is an attractive black and white barred pattern. You can only see it when he furls and unfurls his wings, preparatory to taking flight.

Speaking of which he does with a piercing roar. Hence his nickname, Whistler. It is loud enough to startle the most calmly nerved person on the water, for the water his where Mr. Whistler is most apt to be encountered and comprises his home turf.
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Consider for a moment the common golden eye. She arrived on the lake, oh, early in the year. February, I'd say. A pretty though drab duck, she paddled around in all her lonesomeness, diving neatly every so often in her search for food, namely, fish. Never did I see her with one, but then a single small perch might last her for days.

Only toward the end of March did the male common golden eye show up. (There may be more than a solitary pair, but I've never seen more than one of each gender at a time on the lake, leading me to the hasty conclusion that we have but one breeding pair.)

He, the solitary male, cruised around the lake, feeding in much the same way as his female counterpart, but they remained at sufficient distance from each other that I could not think of them as a pair--though I knew better. He too duck-dived for small bass or perch, or perhaps even less than speedy holdover rainbow trout, but never show me evidence that he could and did catch one.

Now, about a week ago, they found each other, or refound each other, as the case may well be, for I'm nearly certain that they are perennially mated. Why then this effort to appear otherwise? I think it must be part of the mating game. Being oblivious to one's only available "Other" must be characteristic. But now they've found each other and paddle around the shallows in proximity and even relating (to quote from my favorite pundit of yore, Elaine May). They are obviously a "Pair."

Where is their nest? Beats me. And why, each year, when the breeding season is fully upon us, and other ducks all show off in tandem their brood, or broods, do I never see them with ducklings? Nor do I see, for that matter, the lesser scaups with brood.

There must be something inherent in the species that makes them not show off their offspring. It is only the surface-feeding ducks that seem to do this--why I do not know. Surely they reproduce--otherwise there would be no purpose, no reason, for them going through these pairing preliminaries, as they do each spring.

Meanwhile, the blackbirds are happily nesting in the tulles and cattails, making occasional sorties up to our feeder and trilling beautifully in the morning, before we are awake, adding to the sweet cacophony produced by the symphony of frogs.
. . . and a whoopee cushion to each of you, this first day of April. - - Comments ()
Catkins adrift on the lake. They look like tiny dead snakes or worms. What they are is a product of the Western red alder. Not so many such trees around the lake, there are just enough of them to produce a certain amount of litter. On the land they will quickly become part of the duff; on water, they will grow sodden and sink, to become part of the organic accumulation on the lake bottom, which is comprised of dead leaves and decomposing pond weed from last year.

Down where I sometimes fish for bass the lake is very shallow. The large lily pad leaves are pale, easily seen, and lie on the bottom in a few inches of water. They resemble palm fronds and look out of place.
Meanwhile the alders are unfurling tiny green leaves. You have to look hard, at this point in their development, to see them at all. And of course there are many tasseled catkins still clinging to the alder limbs that remain to the eye not quite bare.
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Before we came to the lake to live, we tried country living for, oh, five solid months. We moved into our place on the river, got a telephone installed, linked up with the Internet, brought up an old computer with my favorite word-processing program (WordPerfect then, Word now), my active files, brought in a satellite dish, and hooked up to Primestar.

The question was, could we function in the country as well, or nearly as well, as in the city? I had to find out. With a few exceptions we found out that we could.

The exceptions first. Well, there was laundry. We either had to run into town, Arlington, to use a laundromat, or else travel back to Seattle to use the washer and dryer at home. Invariably we chose the latter. And there was our mail to collect, though we had a mail delivery to our mailbox up on the hill on the long road leading back to the Whitman Road. Our mail there was only cursory. The bulk was directed at the city. This was proof that our river interlude was idyllic, temporary.It worked out well, better than I expected. We learned that one Seattle daily newspaper had a rural route that passed by our mailbox and as soon as we started a subscription to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the carrier installed a pretty orange tube, stenciled with the paper's logo, to ensure the paper's dry delivery. It resided on the same pressure-treated post that we had installed to hold our large rural mailbox. The post also held our street address numerals on a small signboard, courtesy the Oso fire department, a volunteer outfit three miles down the road. They didn't want to have to hunt for us, once it was reported to them that we were burning down.

Groceries were a long ways off, but they often are, and we discovered that once you were in your car and headed for the nearest good supermarket (not the Oso General Store, certainly) you might as well ride the accelerator a bit longer, for it makes only a small difference in gas and time--in the long run, two minor elements. And we bought large, each time to the mart, in order to lengthen the time before we had to head back for some necessity.

I was surprised, then, how much my life (especially my morning routines) resembled the one in the city. Of course our domicile was quaintly rustic, which is a nice way of referring to the tight shambles of an old mobile home. The view out the windows was one of green lace, as spring came on and the willows and vine maples budded and came into leaf bloom. Much the same thing was happening in town. The flora was slightly retarded in the country and different, though we had fresh maples blooming both places. In the city, birches, in the country, copious alders.

The morning coffee tasted the same, the paper to be read identical, though I often saved it at both places till later, going to my writing first, or procrastinating this task by going into Internet mail and visiting my favorite Web pages. If a good movie was scheduled for some peculiar time of day, I'd try to plan ahead and tape it on the VCR, as I did in the city, or, much like the city still, I'd forget and kick myself for not remembering in time and miss the whole thing. Then I'd settle down into one of my long writing stints and not come up for air until summoned to lunch.

Oh, yes: when the fish started to run in the river, I'd drive three miles after morning coffee and fish whatever favorite run of mine near Oso was unoccupied or, at the least, uncrowded. For it was summer soon, and it would be too hot to fish in the middle of the day, and I had better seize the cooler hours of late morning or perish later. I could write during the worst part of the day, for we had an airconditioner, and in my writing cubbyhole, where we didn't have cool, piped air, there was a circulating fan. It went back and forth, prescribing a 180-degree arc, making a little tic at the outer edge of its reality.

Norma would garden--heavy work, oft repeated--or else read, if it was rainy. When the day got really hot, we would don swimming suits and water sandals, and we (only I, really) would dash down the slope and into the stony shallows. The water was always shockingly cold, cold enough to wilt resolve (and lust), and I'd usually splash myself some and we would settle down on some mainstream boulders, our feet in the streaming current, and turn our faces to the sun--which was in the same direction as came the invariable upstream breeze, always cooling.

The remainder of the day was much as it had been in the city, replete with noises from children, dogs, airplanes, trucks and cars, and too often rock-and-roll radios. If the temperature and my work schedule permitted it, and sometimes even it they didn't, there was an evening fish-through of a pet pool, starting at about six o'clock. This happens to be the hottest time of the day, but who cares if he is miserable and streaming sweat, if there are fish in the river? Soon it will cool down with the coming of darkness.

This is why we ere here and not in the city. And if a woman liked to garden, it could be done on a more extensive scale, for we now had an acre and a half. The original rhododendrons had touched limb to ground in many places and rooted. They were ready for transplanting. A few soon grew into dozens many of them huge.

We learned that nothing essential was missing from upgraded country life. Only a few extras were, and these were more important to her than to me. A variety of stores, especially specialty stores, were lacking in a wide circle. I'd never noticed these before or now missed them. I found that practically everything I ever needed--clothes, fishing tackle, books--could be obtained over a one-eight-hundred number and a Visa card, and the good folks from UPS, whom we all knew here by face, if not yet by name, would happily deliver it in three working days.

What fun to wait for the chocolate truck to arrive and to see the new rod in the delivery man's hand, its aluminum tube unmistakable from any visual distance!

All these cheerful successful experiences paved the way for extended country living, namely the lake. As things turned out, we landed up at Lake Ketchum. It is complete for me in nearly every way. Why do I say ?nearly? Because Norma would nudge me to add that the nearest large shopping mall is fourteen miles away. In the car, one soon gets not to notice the time and distance. Which Einstein tells us are much the same thing. - - Comments ()