Women of the Dragonflies

The minute we launched our kayaks, I knew we were in for a treat, for beside bur-reed and water-logged branches and even upon our boats, the Autumn Dragonflies danced, theirs a frantic last-minute mating routine.

Single males watched as couples prepared for the grand event and every once in a while they’d try to interfere, though that usually ended within seconds.

Once they gave up, they were willing to land and hang out with me for a few moments. If you know me, you know I was thrilled–especially given that every time I see a dragonfly of late, I’m sure it’s the last of the season. And then . . .

I heard a loud buzz over my head and upon my friend Pam’s vest, a Lake Darner landed. I told her not to move as I took in its glory. That being said, only moments before perhaps this same dragonfly tried to nab a canoodling pair positioned right below my paddle. For the moment, they survived, and he took a break.

His break over, onward we paddled into the wind and current. But really, it wasn’t a tough journey and around every bend we were wowed as we paused, drifted, and got lost in the scenery. The colors have reached their beyond peak rendition, but still, we were surrounded by beauty.

It showed itself in layers,

reflections,

and a combination of the two.

We paused beside tree stumps and gasped at their intricate structures as we remembered summer sightings of painted turtles.

As one might expect, the littlest things begged our focus, such as the spider only Pam spied through her lens.

While she looked down, I looked beyond to a far stump and Heron Rookery in the distance. And in the midst of my search–a Lake Darner Dragonfly flew in on patrol. Do you see it in the upper right-hand corner?

Our next wonder moment occurred when we realized a certain insect posed upon a drowned branch.

Our spot: a Wooly Bear caterpillar. Having grown up in Canada, Pam didn’t know about the Wooly Bear’s reputation as a predictor of winter weather. According to local lore and backed up by The Farmer’s Almanac, this is how it works: “The Woolly Bear caterpillar has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. The wider the rusty brown sections (or the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.”

The curious thing: this is the first I’ve seen with a wider rusty brown section; all others have had wider black sections. Hmmm. Methinks that by April we’ll know which W. Bear was correct.

But here’s another question: there was water on either side of the downed limb. How in the world did the caterpillar get there? We’ve watched Hickory Tussock Caterpillars squirm their way across the water all summer, so we know they can “swim.” Did W. Bear come from the shore? A bird’s mouth? Or fall from a branch above? We’ll never know, but considering the possibilities opened our minds.

Beyond W. Bear, we found ourselves looking at a familiar view we’ve always enjoyed from the land behind us: a look north toward a Heron Rookery.

High up in the trees sit condominiums that we’ve seen filled with birds. One, two, three, four, even five birds. Large birds. Yes, the nests are large, but how in the world do they survive wild winds and how in the world do the birds co-exist upon them before fledging?

We spent a lot of time looking up, but an equal amount of time looking down, where Equisetum fluviatile, or Water Horsetail grew prolifically. The thing about it was that it had all been browsed as if a field mowed. We suspected the diners were Canada Geese that we knew had inhabited this place for months.

At last we reached a point where paddling further north presented some issues and the sun was lowering in the sky. So, we turned around and paddled south as far as we could go, with the sun blinding much of the sights. But . . . beside another stump we did stop. And were honored with the lines it presented from a complicated spider web intermixed with the tree’s lines.

Wthin sight of the Route 93 bridge, we again turned around to return to our launch site. The temperature had dipped and as we rounded the final bends, we found ourselves in full shade rather than sun. And a discussion of seasonal lighting entered our conversation.

Things are in flux in these parts. But for one more day, we were the women of the dragonflies.

Seeking Red Mondate

When I invited my guy to join me in a wetland today to mark out a trail, I truly expected him to hem and haw about going. And then when we got there, I thought he’d want to rush through the process and be done with it.

But perhaps it was the setting that slowed him down. I know that it always slows me down.

It’s a place where over and over again I’m surprised to discover that others have come before. Last year, it was bear prints that stopped me in my tracks. Today, bobcat. The print is upside down in the photo, but do you see the pad, C-shaped ridge and four toes heading toward you? Notice that the two front toes are a bit asymmetrical. Ah mud. It’s as good as snow. Though I can’t wait to go tracking in snow.

Another reason that this place slows me down is all that it has to offer. The Winterberries were a major part of our stumbling movement, but still they made me smile even though I had to untwist each foot as I tried to step over, around, and through their woody stems.

Among the mix in the shrub layer was Maleberry, its woody fruits of last year displaying shades of brown, while the newer fruits were tinged green.

And then there was the Nannyberry with its oval shaped fruits so blue upon red stems, and . . .

Withe-rod just a wee bit different shape that always makes me question my identification.

Rhodora also showed off its woody structure of last year embraced by this year’s softer fruiting form.

But what we really sought were little gems of red hiding among sedges in a different herbaceous layer.

I totally didn’t expect my guy to develop cranberry greed quite the way he has a penchant for blueberries, but he did. And he also rejoiced in eating the tart berries right off the stem. Even he commented that the little balls of red were like the blue-gold he usually sought during the summer.

Seriously, it got to the point where I gave up picking, and cranberries are much more my thing than blueberries. And I began to focus on other shades of red, like those that the Pitcher Plants loved to display.

The pattern on the Pitcher leaves always makes me think of the Tree of Life. But . . . equally astonishing are the hairs that coat each pitcher. If you rub your fingers down into the urn-like leaf, you can feel the hairs and gain a better understanding of them creating a landing strip for insects. The true test, however, comes when you dare to escape this carnivorous plant. Can you climb out of the leaf? The way out is sticky and rough and by tracing a finger upward, its suddenly obvious why insects can’t find their way out.

Equally unique, the flower structure that remains, waiting to share its 300+ seeds to the future. For now, it reminds me of a windmill on the turn.

My guy wasn’t as taken with the Pitcher Plant as I was. And he certainly didn’t care about the fact that a Funnel Weaver spider had recently taken up home among the plants urn-like leaves. But me . . . I was totally wowed. Why did a spider that likes to wait in its funnel tunnel until something landed on the net it had created, use a carnivorous plant as its home base? Did it have an agreement with the plant? I’ll bring you food if you don’t see me as food? And was that dark V-shape on the web a leg of one devoured?

With no spider in sight, I knew I’d have to let my questions go, but still . . . it was a mosaic web worth appreciating.

The Pitcher Plant grew on the edge . . . of an Arrowhead wetland . . .

growing beside a Sphagnum Moss peat bog.

And as I walked among it all, I felt the bog quake below my feet.

The pom-pom mosses were responsible for the environment in which we travelled . . . and for its inhabitants.

And because of the Sphagnum the cranberries grew. Abundantly.

Our movement continued as my guy wanted to find as many little red balls of tart glory as ever. And in the midst, the natural community came to focus on Devil’s Beggarstick.

Notice the spines along the seed’s structure.

The beggars chose to stick indeed. Volunteers. They hoped we’d move them on to another place, but we chose to pull each one off . . . Not an easy task.

At last it was time for us to take our leave. And so we found our way out as we’d come in, but felt like crowned royalty for all the finds we’d made, so many of them featuring a shade of red.

In the end, a look back was a look forward. We sought red and so should you—head to your favorite cranberry bog as soon as possible for the fruits await your foraging efforts. And wherever you go, don’t share the location with others. It’s much more fun to have a secret spot as you seek red.

Paddling into Autumn

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve driven past the Kezar Outlet put-in on Harbor Road in Fryeburg and noticed others either embarking or debarking from a canoe or kayak trip and always desired to do the same. Occasionally, I’d stop and take photos, and once I co-led a trip from the Lower Bay of Kezar Lake to the dam, but until August I’d not gone any further. And then our friend, Pam Katz, invited my guy and me to join her for a journey from the dam to Charles River, on to Charles Pond, and part way up Cold Brook.

The put-in can be a bit tricky with rocks and stirring water flowing from the dam, but somehow the three of us managed not to tip as we kerplunked into our kayaks. That day inspired all of the subsequent trips for really we were scouting out a route for the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend paddle co-sponsored by the Greater Lovell Land Trust and Upper Saco Valley Land Trust.

On that first journey and two that followed, we were wowed by the floral displays including, Cardinal Flowers,

Pickerel Weed,

Sessile-fruited Arrowhead and . . .

Common Arrowhead,

Ground-nut, and . . .

Turtlehead. Today, only a few asters showed off their composite form.

We’d paddled along, my guy, of course, always in the lead so he was the first to reach the old beaver dam. Pam was surprised by it because the water had been higher when she’d last followed this route. But it was obvious from the fact that there were no new sticks and the water wasn’t at dam level on the far side that there was no current beaver activity. My guy, feeling chivalrous, hopped out of his boat and shuffled us around on the wet grassy area to the far right of the dam.

Upon the sticks and branches Emerald Jewelwings flew, males such as this one with the white dot on its forewing waiting for a second before attempting to dance with a mate.

Once all three of us were on the other side, the water was a wee bit deeper and it seemed we’d entered Brigadoon.

And then the community changed again and Swamp Maples allowed glimpses of the mountains beyond.

Before one of the final turns in the Charles River, we reached an abandoned beaver lodge.

And then Charles Pond opened before us.

We crossed the pond to Cold River, found a great lunch spot and reflected upon our sightings, which included a few ducks, an eagle, and a heron.

My second visit was with Trisha Beringer, Outreach and Office Manager for Upper Saco Valley Land Trust. It was an opportunity for me to show Trisha the route and for us to create our plan for the GMOW event. And to bask in the sun much the way the Painted Turtles did.

She was as wowed as I was by the journey and excited to share it with others.

Our turn around point was Charles Pond, but we paused for a few moments to take in the view.

And on the way back, as I contemplated sliding over the dam because the water was a bit higher due to some rain, three otters surprised me as they played below. Only one is visible with its head above water, but the others had just dunked under. Once they realized we were there, they took off. Our portage wasn’t a portage at all for rather than go over the dam, we did the dam shuffle, maneuvering our boats around it with a full-body back and forth motion.

Finally, it was time for the GMOW event, and the night before we decided to let those who had signed up know that we needed to postpone it from last Saturday to Sunday because of the weather. As it turned out, it was the right choice to make and Sunday dawned bright and beautiful with dew drops to top off the gathering.

Just beyond the Harbor Road bridge we passed under, a maple astounded us with the first official glimpse of the season to come and many of us paid it homage with photographs and words of awe.

At the beaver dam, the water was lower than on the previous visits, but thankfully two paddlers hopped out and helped everyone get out of boats and shift them around to the other side.

Continuing upstream, the Swamp Maples that offer the first glimpses of the mountains, showed that they too were trying on their new coats for the next season.

The group took in the view while crossing to Cold River and continuing on until we couldn’t travel easily any more. As always, the return trip was quicker and we finished up in three hours, grateful for an opportunity to explore the water that connects the GLLT’s fen property on Kezar Outlet with USVLT’s Stearns Property on Cold River and make new friends. It was a spectacular day and we were pleased that we’d made the choice to postpone.

One who had to back out of the GMOW trip at the last minute, asked if we’d offer it again, thinking we’d gone ahead with our Saturday plan. She really wanted to check out the course because though she’s lived locally forever, she’d never been below the dam on Harbor Road. And so this morning, I met Storyteller and GLLT member, Jo Radner. As we moseyed along, we began to notice bank tunnel after bank tunnel for so low was the water. In a muddy section, we found prints with a tail impression thrown into the mix and deciphered them as beaver.

It made perfect sense when we noticed a sight not spotted on the previous trips: beaver works on a maple. Given that, we began to wonder what the dam might look like.

Despite the fact that we found more and more evidence of recent beaver works, the dam certainly was bigger, but not because it had been added to by the rodents. Rather, the water level was much, much lower than I’d seen on any previous visit.

It seemed the beavers were active, but we couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t added to the dam. That meant that they were probably not at the lodge either, but we still had more water to travel through before reaching that point.

The trip around the dam was more challenging than upon any other visit, and we were both sure we’d end up in the water, but somehow we did it with more grace than we realized we possessed.

And then the spot that I’d called Brigadoon on the first visit showed off a much more colorful display.

Closer to the pond, the curtain hiding the mountains also had undergone a transformation.

Just beyond, we reached the lodge that is longer than tall and always reminds me of a New England farmhouse: big house, little house, back house, barn. Jo’s canoe helped characterize the length of the lodge.

We too, lunched on Cold River as has become the habit, and then turned around.

It was on the way back that the Painted Turtles, basking in the sun in order to thermoregulate, began to show themselves. As usual, they took on a Yoga-like pose with back feet extended to collect additional heat.

Like Jo, I want to come back to this world as an otter because they love to play in summer and winter, but a Painted Turtle might be my next choice if I ever feel the need to let winter pass by while I nestle into the mud.

Speaking of otters, we found stone pile after stone pile above the water, each a copy of the next. They line both sides of the river. In high water, they’re not visible, but with today’s low height, they were quite obvious. Upon this one we found a beaver chew stick that wasn’t there a week ago.

All are almost pyramid shaped, in a rounded sense, and constructed of varying sizes from gravel to stone potatoes. Not only did we find beaver chews upon a few, but fresh water mussel shells and the ever present acorns that are currently raining in such a fashion that one feels like the sky is falling.

The mussel shells would have indicated that the otters had been dining. And so we began to develop a story about otters piling the stones on purpose to confuse us. Beavers also took advantage of the piles so they became part of our interpretation.

I’ve asked several people about these formations and have a few theories of my own, but would love to hear your take on this. I suspect a few fishermen may have the answer about the stone piles.

Four hours after we started, today’s journey ended. I suspect it will be a while before I return, for so low is the water, but . . . you might twist my arm.

Thanks to Pam, and Trisha, and Jo: today I got to paddle into autumn in a most amazing place.

Mondate with Pam and Charles

Don’t tell her husband who wasn’t able to join us today, but Pam fell fast and hard for another guy. His name is Charles.

It was supposed to be just the three of us kayaking when we launched this morning, Pam, my guy, and me.

But it soon became apparent that this other guy was trying to woe her with bouquets of wildflowers, including Cardinals so red,

Turtleheads so white,

Arrowheads with broad leaves,

and those whose leaves overtopped the flowers.

But I think Pam was most wowed when he presented her with Ground-nut, its maroonish flower with a pair of upper petals forming a hood or keel, a pair of lower lateral wings, and a lower keel that curled upward.

And then Charles made a point of inviting his friends to meet Pam, though we wondered if the Painted Turtle always grimaced or if perhaps he was jealous of all the attention bestowed upon her.

The male Emerald Jewelwing Dragonfly was much friendlier and happy to say hello in its lighthearted manner.

And the Dragonhunter Dragonfly made frequent visits to get . . .

to know . . .

Pam better. We’re grateful he didn’t decide to gobble her up.

But perhaps Pam’s favorite moment was when Charles presented not just a Pickerel Weed in flower, but also a Clearwing Hummingbird Moth pollinating it.

Oh, he wasn’t one to make things super easy, that Charles.

But he’d asked my guy to help us portage around the dam, and so we never had to get out of our kayaks. Chivalry at its best.

Continuing our paddle, we began to think of Charles’ estate as Brigadoon for such were the colors each time we rounded a bend.

Around a final corner, Charles revealed his mansion with promises of many happy days to come.

It was so large that we knew it was an example of a big house, little house, back house, barn, which made sense given that Charles’ family had long lived in the area.

On one of the walls inside, he’d painted a scene that reflected the outdoors, including the mountains in the background.

From the backdoor it was a straight shot and suddenly we emerged onto his pond. The man was wealthy, but we told Pam that if she was going to fall for him, she had to do some serious thinking for her guy Bob is really the one who holds the strings to her heart.

In the end, though she thanked him for sharing his place with us today, Pam did inform Charles that they could remain friends, but not get any closer than that. And she added that the next time they meet, Bob will be with her.

My guy and I were thankful that she introduced us to the kind man as the three of us explored his property: Charles River and Charles Pond in Fryeburg, Maine. But we’re equally grateful that their relationship will remain merely aquatic.

Honoring My Guy

Maybe it was because I intended to read “Emergence,” a poem I wrote in honor of dragonflies at a local poetry reading, or maybe it was just because, but for the first time this summer, a Slaty Blue Skimmer landed on my shirt as I stood waiting for others to arrive at a trailhead on Tuesday. I placed my pointer finger in front of the insect and it slowly climbed aboard.

That’s not so unusual, but what struck me was that I was able to walk to my truck and grab my camera, use my left hand to take a photo as he remained on my right hand, and show him off to my friends–for at least fifteen minutes.

Of course, then I was hooked and so after returning to camp and taking a dip, I felt a familiar tickling on my toes as I sat on a lounge chair. The minute I moved, my friend moved, but only as far as the dock ladder. And so, I ran inside, grabbed my camera, and sure enough . . . he was either still there or had returned from a brief flight during my absence. Dragonflies do that–return over an over again to favorite perches in their territories.

I figured I might as well try again, but this time smartened up and used my left pointer, the easier to manage the camera with my right hand.

Ever so gently, he climbed onto it. Notice how you can see him using all three pairs of legs, well on one side anyway? They offered me a lesson.

For you see, I became aware that once he was settled on me or a leaf or twig, he pulled first one and then the other front leg up, rather like the draw-back position in karate, where you make a fist and pull your arm into your body. (I only know this because years ago our youngest took karate lessons until he was just shy of a black belt.)

What Slaty Blue (SBD) taught me was that he could stand on two pairs of legs and pull the front pair up, only using it when necessary to climb upon something or capture a meal.

My dragonfly and I . . . we spent a lot of time together. Even if he needed to fly off and twirl about in the air with a rival, or catch a delectable snack, he kept returning to my finger.

And if not my finger, then the top of a dock post. Those eyes–so brown. That face–so black.

And then there were the wings. Translucent and delicate with thin black veins. By spending so much time with SBD, I also noticed that a bit of the slaty blue coloration radiated from his body outward, as if that was his basal wing patch.

If you look at a Calico Pennant dragonfly, you’ll really understand the basal wing patch, that section of stained glass on the wing closest to its body.

I loved noticing that bit of coloration, but it’s the mechanics of it all that always astonishes me. How can an insect with such a chunky body fly with such thin wings?

The other thing about the wings is that they helped me with identification. Oh, not to say that this was a Slaty Blue for his coloring gave that away. But which SBD was I holding? My friend had a tatter on both hind wings. The one on the left was about a vein cell wide and the one on the right looked like a small chunk had been taken out of it. What happened? Prey or a run in with a plant or twig? I’ll never know, but I will know by those injuries that he was the one that liked to land on me.

Another, who was actually a rival, and perhaps a sibling, or at least a cousin, had a tattered forewing that looked a wee bit worse.

And then there was one I spied while kayaking yesterday and he had a pine needle stuck through his abdomen. What? But there it was and each time he moved, I could easily locate him.

On the same kayak adventure, an SBD landed upon a Pickerel Weed and as I watched . . .

he arched his back in a pose that reminded me of two things: 1. a move I’d learned yesterday morning during a Yoga in the Woods walk offered by Deb Nelson of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, and 2. His mating position. Was he in practice?

Would he find a she? She is so different. Her wings astound me the most.

My experience has been that there are more hes than shes so the guys better make their moves.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m in love with all dragonflies, but the male SBD is one of my favorites because his eyes remind me of my guy’s. And today, August 4, we are celebrating our 29th anniversary. So this post is in honor of my guy (even though he never reads these because he feels like he’s already lived them). May our journey together continued to be wonder-filled.

Emergence


Oh dragonfly, oh dragonfly
In your infancy, you laboriously 
climbed upon a slender stem.
Ever
so
slowly
seams split.
Soft and squishy, you spilled forth into this sunlit world.
Perched upon your former self, wispy strings recalled aquatic breaths. 
Moments slipped
into an hour. 
Your body of velvet pulsed as blood pumped into cloudy wings.
Standing guard watching you, I noted preparations for first flight. 
Eyes bulging
you chose
a spot
of viewpoint vantage.
Colors changing, 
you gained 
the markings
 of generations past.
Wings drying 
you offered
a reflection 
of stained glass.
Beyond understanding
you flew 
a dance
of darting restlessness.

Odonata, Odonata,
You have known 
both worlds. 
First playing 
beneath the surface.
Then in a manner 
so brave,
climbing skyward
to ride summer’s breeze
on gossamer wings.
Forever in awe 
of your transformation
from aquatic nymph 
to winged adult, 
I can only imagine
the wonder of
 emergence.

Spying Like an Eagle

Working in tandem, we paddled against the wind and despite its force gave thanks for the relief from the heat offered. Our intention was to explore the islands of Moose Pond, a place where the two of us can get lost in time.

It was movement above that caught our attention as we watched a large bird fly into a tree. And so we paddled even harder in hopes of getting a better look. About midway up a White Pine, an immature Bald Eagle sat upon a branch . . . and panted, feeling the heat like we did. Since birds can’t sweat, this was its way of dissipating the sweltering weather.

We watched the bird until it finally flew off and headed south.

Then we continued our journey north.

My guy jumped ship to wander an island or two and I stayed aboard to see what I might find, like the Spatterdock petals hiding within the petal-like sepals.

There were Buttonbush flowers with their funky orb shapes and spiky protrusions.

And I was delighted to see a Rose Pogonia, its fringed beard hiding among the grasses and reeds.

The damselflies wrote love notes on almost every stem, but this gathering I found most comical–as the guys each attempted to be her suitor. In the end the top Bluet gracefully acquiesced.

And then there was the Variable Darner Damsel to wonder about as she posed upon a Pickerel Weed of matching color. Were her wings so shiny because she’d just emerged? And though its difficult to see the left-hand wing, they appeared to be spread–perhaps another indication of her recent adventure from aquatic nymph to sky dancer.

Our discoveries were many, but I’ve shared just a few from this afternoon as my guy and I . . . we spied like an eagle.