ELY — We were off on a morning’s exploratory paddle in a couple million acres of wilderness. Three of us. Two canoes. A mellow October morning.
We were just poking around up in the border country north of Ely, where the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness snugs up against another million acres in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. We surely weren’t alone in this labyrinth of lakes and rivers and forest. But it seemed as if we were the only creatures on two legs for miles and miles. We like it that way.
Up ahead, catching the wan October light, we could see ducks rising from the water, now on the wing, swinging the perimeter of the bay. Then, soon, another cluster of ducks.
“Green-winged teal,” one of my partners said. “And mallards.”
We stopped paddling and watched them. At times, they were dark forms against the sky. Then they’d swing again, doubling back, and for several moments the undersides of their wings would flash in the morning light.
We’d lose them against the backdrop of the forest for several seconds. Then they would reappear, always in tight formation, as if their flight had been choreographed.
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Watching those ducks circling, now appearing, now vanishing, gets up inside a person. It gets you in the throat. Or maybe your heart. It’s hard to pinpoint. I think it’s almost a universal reaction to a moment that is equal parts appreciation and astonishment. Maybe even a twinge of envy. What must it be like to move that way through the air?
Beyond our admiration of these wild creatures lay all the unanswered questions: Where have these birds spent their summer? Where are they headed for winter? When will they go?
I have felt this same sense of wonder at a small pond near my home, watching Canada geese alighting on September evenings before migrating. A friend of mine happened to discover that spectacle while I was in the canoe country.
“(The sky was) lit only by the twilight glow from the west,” he wrote to me. “The farther reaches of the surface were peppered with floating black lumps identified by an occasional call. The calls became more numerous and loud. That was when I heard the approaching answer.
“Soon a couple of small flocks floated over the treetops from the north and tumbled out of the sky to a soft swoosh on the water … A medium-sized flock came into view overhead and tumbled sideways and dropped their flaps with a beautiful controlled landing.”
The show was on.
“In a moment,” he wrote, “two large flocks came in from the north again, and raucous calls of greeting echoed from all corners of the basin. By this time it was hard to imagine there was any room on the water for that many to land, but they did.”
His vigil wasn’t over.
“A few small groups came silently from the east and glided into a soft landing without making a call or sound other than feathers pulling at the air to slow down,” he wrote. “I still have a hard time catching my breath, as I did last night, alone as the only human but surrounded by this wonder of life.
“Few things in my life have been as emotionally intense and fulfilling.”
Mysteries on the wings of waterfowl — the gift of another October.