I set off in my kayak last night, just as the sky bled orange and pink in the distance. The hot, muggy day had given way to a cool, and comfortable, night air, an early harbinger of fall. At first, I paddled west, because in that direction, the sky is wide open; here the span of water is 50 yards across, and the space affords the best light; for even though it is lined with high trees on both banks, the expanse of open sky is broad, and the last remains of the day’s light, can best be garnered. I also knew, that if I headed into the brook (where conversely, the breadth of water was much more narrow, and where the trees: aspen, birch, willow, beech and oak, seemed to hang in close, as though embracing the banks) it would already be semi-dark. But I knew, too, that it was here that I would most likely chance upon wildlife; the hope, of course, being that I would be unseen, and I would find them going about the business of living, unaware, and at ease. Because it is smaller, the brook is more intimate; wildlife, once found, can be observed up-close; and most of the time one can count on their presence, because they are attracted to this haven, where they can get away from the traffic on the creek, and the noise of the powerboats that traverse the waterway, though these were few now, as dusk fell.
I rounded the first corner of the brook, and an inner dialogue was ensuing: I was reminding myself, none too gently, to be quiet; the diatribe went something like this: “Even when you’ve convinced yourself that you are utterly alone, that is when you must be the most on guard, for isn’t it always then that you get careless, and cough, or bump your paddle against the boat? Then suddenly (of course) there is an abrupt rustle of wings, or a loud thump, followed by a splash, and you realize, you’ve blundered in; yet again, you have played the part of the proverbial bull in a china shop, frightening off some precious opportunity! So be quiet!”
Just as I said these final words to myself, I froze, for there, not ten feet away, stood the great blue heron, surrounded in an ephemeral mist, which rose from the water about him. His long, nimble neck was scrunched down into his shoulders, rounded, and hunched, leaving him to resemble a vulture; but his graceful beak quickly saved him from this indignity, refined, and elegant, as it was. His eyes appeared to be closed, and he stood motionless, save for a slight turn of the head in my direction. But the movement seemed casual, utterly unalarmed. I instantly held my breath and stayed stock-still. Unfortunately, however, though I had control over my body, I had no control over the boat, and it continued to drift lazily on the gentle current. If I’d used the paddle to stop the boat, I’d certainly frighten him away; but if I didn’t move, I could see that I was headed straight for a stand of cattails, and I knew there would be a loud rustling when the kayak made contact with them; I had no choice but to hand my fate over, and hope for the best. Amazingly, the noise made by the landing was minimal, and at first, he stood nonplussed, even when, as the momentum of the collision caused the boat to then glide backwards, and I started to move toward him once more; yet still, he did not move! It was just prior to the boat moving backward, that I’d heard the gentle splashing of a wood duck having his nightly bath, in the shadows, another ten feet beyond the heron; and it was the duck that startled, and flew away; once he was gone, the heron followed, as well.
It reminded me of what had happened the day before: I’d been sitting in a scrap of shade, trying to escape the heat, quietly contemplating the surroundings, when I heard a movement in the corn field that borders that section of the brook. I looked up to see a young fawn, still resplendent with white spots, step out onto the shore. Momentarily, its mother followed. While the fawn had not seemed to notice me (though I was in plain sight, just 10 feet from where he stood) the mother instantly locked her gaze on me, clearly trying to determine what this strange object was before her. She splayed her front legs, dropping down lower so that she could see below a low-hanging branch, which was obstructing her view. I closed my eyes, knowing that if she saw them, she would surely run; my hand lay across my face, and I peeked through my fingers with one eye, so that I could watch this beautiful creature. Unintentionally, one finger twitched, and in an instant, she retreated from whence she had come, her young quickly following. They leaped like gazelles through the corn, their white tails flagging behind them.
I felt sad that I’d disturbed them, forcing them to leave without their drink. The next evening, too, I felt regret that I’d robbed these other creatures of their peace and solitude. It was a troubling conundrum: those brief insights into their mysterious and mystifying world were what I hungered for, and sought out, each day. But I did not like to think of myself as just another nuisance to be endured on this too-busy waterway. Though I suffered these mild pangs of guilt, I knew that the pull toward them was too strong for me to resist, and that I would be back, tomorrow.