Water Stalking

By | June 2, 2013

The headwater wetlands of northern Wisconsin’s Eagle River, especially above the chain of lakes, are teeming with life. Wolves and Bears scout the shorelines, while Beaver, Muskrat and Otter, along with a host of birds, fill the waters. Expanses of marshgrass, wild rice, and cattails blanket the shallows, while yellow and white water lilies dapple the surface of the deeper waters. This morning I am taking my time as I stalk the bayous by canoe, with no intent other than to be one of the residents of my favorite habitat. About two canoe lengths ahead of me, a nose and a pair of eyes skim the surface of the water, with several sedge leaves in tow. In its wake, the assemblage leaves a perfect V to spread across the mirror-smooth water. Back and forth, the nose-and-eyes go, ferrying leaves into a den under the roots of a shoreline birch tree that had fallen into the water. My first urge is to paddle-stalk up to the tree trunk and perch right above the den entrance, where I would become a part of the tree and surreptitiously watch the Muskrat’s comings and goings. Once I felt in sync with her rhythm, I would have my hand dangling over her like a fallen branch, so that one finger would barely brush the fur on her back when she swam by. However, this time I wanted something more intimate. I drifted silently up to the den entrance, positioning my craft so that when she came out, she would be swimming right beside me.

My timing is perfect: just as I position myself, she emerges and swims toward me. I am leaning over the side of the boat, so that I can look directly into her eyes as she approaches. And sure enough, right at the point where I could have shot my hand out and touched her, she glances up. Our eyes meet, and she dives faster than I could ever imagine moving.

Around the next bend, I approach a head mounted atop a long neck arching out of the water, with eyes obviously intent on me. I would make more of a disturbance diverting my course than just allowing myself to drift toward him, so I slowly close the distance between us. I only got a quarter of the way—there was still  three canoe lengths between us—and his jittery movements show it is getting uncomfortable for him. He slips silently under water, and I wait to see where he might reappear.

About a half minute later, he breaks the surface across the river, seven or eight canoe lengths downstream. Seeing that I am still there, he dives again, with his back arching sinuously out of the water, as do Dolphins and Whales.

Knowing Otters as I do, I figure his natural curiosity will not allow him to go very far. And knowing the river as I do, I wonder how the upcoming bend might figure in to our unfolding relationship. I become Otter and envision the scenario: the large floating form drifting slowly downriver toward me feels intimidating. Yet it is not threatening, as it is employing no diversionary or stalking tactics. Still, I need to exercise caution—that thing is much bigger than me. At the same time, I am curious…what is it? Hugging the shoreline, I swim underwater around the bend and come up for air. I’ll wait a little bit to see what is going to happen, and if I don’t pick up any warning signs, I’ll swim back upstream and take another look.

I return to myself and stick my hand down into the tannin-stained water. It disappears from sight right after my elbow goes in. That means I don’t have to worry about casting an alarming underwater shadow. I paddle discreetly, without breaking the water surface, creating ripples, or hitting the side of the boat, and drift slowly up to where I imagine she is going to come up for a breath and orient herself before rounding the bend.

Shortly after I lean over the side of the boat, she surfaces and we look into each other’s eyes. Startling each other, we both jerk back and my boat sends shock waves across the water. The otter executes his classic arched-back dive, but in fast motion.

As I considered with the Muskrat, I could have attempted to count coup when the Otter surfaced.  However again, that was not my intent. I didn’t have it in me to cause him such fright just to prove I could touch him. And pinpointing the exact spot of her emergence would have been a long shot—I would have had to be spot-on in order to touch her in the brief instant her head would be above water. This time, I knew that looking into her eyes would be more fulfilling for me than getting the best of her. It was about relationship: about connecting directly with an animal I had become and reaching into his soul, and he reaching into mine. It is the point of knowing what each other thought and felt that I was after, and he wanted the same. In that instant of eye contact, we achieved it.

From there I paddle about two-thirds of a mile up a clearwater side stream. Coming upon a small, shallow bay, I let myself drift into it, keeping my paddle blade in the water so that I don’t have to break the surface to maneuver. Water animals are very sensitive to underwater vibration and sound, which can be caused by any sudden movement. I have found that I can sometimes get away with quite a lot of disturbance, as long as it fits within the animals’ realm of experience, such as if I sound like a splashing Swan or a Deer wading into the water.

On the other side of the bay opposite me, perhaps three canoe lengths away, floats a medium-sized Beaver. Judging by the floating plants that were obviously just dug up from the sandy bottom, I’d say she is feasting on roots and tubers. When I drift in enough to be directly across from her, she notices me. With a furious slap of her tail, she is underwater and gone. Becoming the Beaver, I realize right away how much I enjoy munching the succulent new growth. I am not ready to leave, so I duck into the cattails behind me and wait until the strange intruder leaves.

Returning to myself, I realize that I only have to stay right where I am and she will probably come back. If she detects no further disturbance—which she will be able to feel rather than needing to see it—she is likely to appear sooner than later.

I get distracted watching first a pair of Great Blue Herons, and then a pair of American Bitterns, landing in the marsh across the stream, all to the serenading ker-cheeee of Red-winged Blackbirds. I grew up with their call, and every time I hear it, I drift back to the wetlands and alfalfa fields of my youth. Again I’m catching butterflies and trying to figure out how to protect Blackbird nests from the farmer’s haymower.

American Bitterns have long been favorites of mine because of the male’s call, which is not remotely similar to that of any other bird I know. My neighbor Ken calls Bitterns plunja birds, because of their ker-plunk sounding call. Imagine a deep, resonant gulp, amplified loud enough to reverberate over an entire 80-acre marsh, and you’ve got the call of a plunja bird. Ker-splash! – I jump with a start and I’m brought back instantly to the now. This time the animal’s shockwaves overpower mine. As with the Otter, I may have been able to count coup on the Beaver had I been present and saw her coming. Yet my hunch is that I would again have chosen not to. This time, even without interacting, my yearning for relationship is fulfilled. I didn’t have to see or touch her to feel the kinship that comes from knowing the same curiosity and hunger. Or from having the same clarity and confidence to make decisions and act upon them. Or from having the same ability to react spontaneously, along with learning from experience and hopefully acting a little more wisely the next time.

As I paddle on, I reflect on what my sharing with Muskrat, Otter, and Beaver means to me. Why am I no longer so intent on literally counting coup? And why was I so drawn to counting coup in the first place? I think it was because I derived the same sort of pleasure from it as outsmarting someone by pulling a prank, a surprise party, and other such shenanigans. These things give me the same sense of satisfaction as outwitting an animal when I am hunting.

I suspect there is something here that is intrinsic to my psyche. After all, for 97% of the time our species has existed, we were hunter-gatherers; and we undoubtedly needed to derive emotional satisfaction from engaging in the hunt, or we would have found it difficult to continue doing so. Imprinted in our DNA, the exhilaration of the stalk now manifests in everything from a good mystery to a practical joke. And in my case, in the chicaneries of counting coup.

After a few more paddle strokes, I sense that there is something more to the feelings of elation and fulfillment that I am riding on. Clearly, any day that I get to share in what it’s like to be another animal is a day I cherish. But why? Perhaps it is because we modern humans look at ourselves as some kind of oddity—we just don’t fit with nature. So whenever I gain empathy with a wildling, I take another step toward breaking down that boundary.

And then there is the knowledge and skills I have gained from the best naturalists in the business, which goes beyond invaluable. All told, I can only say one thing with absolute conviction—it is a good day to be alive.

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