Dip Paddle; Pull; Repeat.

9547350874_f5985d855e_qMy paddle felt familiar in my hands, even after 18 months without setting sail in my lovely battered plastic kayak. A twice-postponed trip came about, at last, on a perfect day.

This is an easy to have a boat, really. It’s plastic, it floats even when full of water. No ports or holes in the hull to leak, nothing to rot. Very little gear required.Just get it on and off the car, drag it to the water, shove off and…. ahhh.

There is nothing like that glide, the feel sound and smell of the water all around you.  Such a smooth flowing sensation, and the sound of the dip, pull, swirl, lift, dripping, and repeat again, finding  your rhythm, it’s exquisite, it’s ancient, it’s instinctive.

We all know it’s lovely to look at:

The name comes from Capt. John Smith’s 1608 map, where it is labeled Mataughquamend, an Algonquian compound translated as “where one goes pleasantly.”

My local kayaking river is the lovely The Mattawoman Creek,  a short tributary of the very long Potomac River. Hailed as one  of the most pristine river ecosystems in the state, Mattawoman is prized as a trophy bass nursery. The river also hosts increasingly scarce  anadromous fish like shad, alewife and herring.  Mattawoman’s sweet, wild, water is much appreciated by birds and fish, fisherman and paddlers. I love it because it’s still pure enough to swim in.

Those Magnificent Flying Things

Pandion haliaetusor osprey, with cargo

The bird count wasn’t spectacular, but the bird behavior was great. I watched a gang of male red-wing blackbirds harassing a large white Egret, buzzing the tall bird, who ducked and squualked and lunged at them comically. Later we saw the white bird flying, still trailed by hostile red-wings. Real-life Angry Birds!!

Osprey were on the hunt all up and down the stream. More than once I saw them flying with a nice fish in their claws, back to the brood, or for lunch on a favorite branch. They look like a loaded bomber, carrying their cargo below, but there is no way they’ll let that fish go until they’re ready.

Later, a half dozen swallow fledglings begged fitfully on a low hanging branch as mum and dad ably demonstrated hunting on the wing. I paddled right up to them, and they just eyed me, until I spoke. That always breaks the spell. They flew away with perfect grace.

Nelumbo Lutea, the American Lotus, has the largest bloom of any plant native to the US

Flora in Abundance

The rivers edge is lined with waterplants,: wild rice, cattail, pickeral weed with its lavender spike, spatterdock, the round yellow waterlily and her cousin the American Lotus, which is just beginning its glorious blooming season. These unfurl huge platter-sized leaves that repel water, rolling it into rounded pools like mercury. And the grand blossoms sway on tall stems, each cream petal large enough to drink from. Apparently a thoroughly edible plant, this lotus is found throughout north America

We only saw a few in full bloom, but plenty more ready to burst into bloom in weeks to come. The showy redwings perched on them for lovely effect.

Changes in the Water

Over the 11 years I’ve paddled and swum this river I’ve seen it grow cloudier, more weed choked. That’s the imprint of increased sediment and nutrient load resulting from upstream development. Although a short river (30 miles) it runs through some active DC exurb communities where sand and gravel pits are evolving into subdivisions. Runoff and erosion are inevitable result of this activity, unless mindful steps are taken to prevent it.

It’s still clean enough to swim in, but its not as clear as it was 10 years ago. The water is murky from silt, and Hydrilla weed chokes the shallows, fed by human and farm waste, plus suburban lawn chemicals. The Mattawoman’s productivity as a fish nursery is measurably declining, particularly in the last decade.

You Can Help

Rain capture system

There are steps you can take to help local improve your local watershed health, but it does require some adjustment of behavior.

  1. STOP using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on your lawn. Let there be many grasses, clover, even dandelions in your yard! Consider replacing some or all of your lawn with a better habitat for birds, wildlife, butterflies.
  2. CAPTURE and reuse rainwater for gardening, or at least divert it to disperse into the soil.
  3. REPLACE impermeable surfaces with permeable pavers to allow rain water to filter through the earth instead of running into sewers, which washes waste and toxic residues into the local waterways.
  4. SUPPORT the Mattawoman Watershed Society or your local water quality organization in whatever way you can.
  5. GO OUT & ENJOY the beauty and diversity of the waterways, and share your experiences, especially with children.

3585467548_c358293c7b_mDip. Splash. Rustle of cattails. Flop! a fish jumps. Cry of the osprey. Swish, drip, dip, repeat. Breathe. The kayak can take you into intimate shallow glades, where fish drowse amid the water weeds, where birds don’t notice you watching them as they catch bugs, pick berries, gather nest material. The rusted remains of a gravel dredge now creates a sculpture garden where turtles sunbathe.

Get out there, seriously.

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