Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A day on Moose Mountain Creek

The kids are both at camps, so Garth and I took the day off too, and went canoeing. The land north of Highway 13 between Kisbey and Forget looks very different from between the banks of Moose Mountain Creek. Sorry, no pictures - we were already on the highway before we thought of the camera - but I'll try to give you a sense of what we saw.

We started at the low level crossing (a ford paved with concrete) about a mile and a quarter north of the highway, and paddled upstream so that the return trip would be easier. Going against the current wasn't hard at all, though; we found out later that wind was more of a factor, but fortunately upstream was more or less the same as upwind today.

The first thing we noticed was the ducks, dozens of them, making a great ruckus flapping along on the water ahead of the canoe. Some were ducklings, quite unable to fly, but paddling almost on top of the water at an impressive speed. They hung in small groups (families, I suppose), moving off ahead of us in explosive lunges whenever we got close. We were worried about harassing them, and we found that we could usually get past them by keeping close to one bank and coming up on them fast, so that they rushed off into the cattails by the far bank. Some of the adults did a lot of flapping along on the water too, and we wondered how much of it was faking just to decoy us away from the ducklings. But some seemed to have real difficulty getting airborne, so I suspect there was some moulting going on as well. I checked into the timing of moulting, and found this article (pdf) which indicates that several species could be flightless around late July or early August, depending on whether they are male or female, successful nesters or not, etc. Looks like we chose just about the worst possible time to be on the creek. Sorry, ducks.

A great blue heron made several short flights up the channel ahead of us. One time it perched on a small willow just outside the channel so we saw it silhouetted in profile against the sky. Garth was impressed with its size and the speed it made as it circled back downstream to find some peace behind us.

I was puzzled by a trio of heron-like birds that took off too soon for us to get a good look. I saw them flying at a distance several times, and they flew with heads tucked back like herons, but without the long trailing legs. They were also sort of shorter and heavier looking, with pale plumage, maybe a pale grey?

Some small swimming birds that looked like sandpipers must have been Wilson's phalaropes. At one point a group of black terns circled noisily above us. Only one of the three was in breeding plumage (black underneath, except for the tail), and this one was particularly noisy, flying straight at us several times.

About a mile above our start point, we passed under a transmission line. I'd never taken a good look at one before. The wooden tower was right on the creek bank, stabilized with culverts around the two posts and a mound of fill up around those. It looked a bit like this diagram except that the three phase wires were single wires, and both posts of the tower had a wire up top instead of the single neutral shown. The really amazing thing was the crackling buzz from the wires. According to SaskPower's "Fundamentals of Electricity," those are uninsulated wires carrying voltages several hundred to several thousand times higher than household. Yikes!

When we pulled up on the bank for lunch, climbing just that couple of feet higher gave us a view of the countryside. Pasture in all directions, with no roads visible anywhere, just a couple of fences, some power lines, a com tower, and some clay piles suggesting a dugout. Other than that, grass, willows, distant hills, sky, and some quiet cattle. Garth suggested I look the other way while he walked off a bit, but then immediately he called me to come and look, he'd found a frog. A big one. "What colour?" I asked, and sure enough, it was green: a leopard frog. I hadn't seen one since that bizarre time at Old-Man-On-His-Back some years ago, at the first Botany Blitz, when somebody found a tiny leopard frog high on a near-desert ridge with no water visible in any direction. Anyway, it was pleasing to see one, since I have heard that they have declined sharply in western Canada in recent decades.

Garth was getting bored, but I wanted to see if the creek looked any different once we got into the PFRA pasture (Tecumseh). The trouble was, I didn't know exactly where we were, or where the boundary was, or even whether I would recognize it when we got there. But Garth agreed to press on for a while. I spotted a line of something across the creek ahead - a mostly submerged fence? An old beaver dam? No, once we got up to it, it looked more like a new beaver dam, just sticks with no mud applied yet. The water flowed through it nicely but as for the canoe, we had to go to shore, climb out, and drag it over.

We noticed some of the ducklings diving instead of hiding in the cattails, and when I watched closely, I got to see a couple of them swimming underwater, directly under the boat. Here and there we saw schools of minnows, too, or maybe they were fish fry. The creek is important breeding habitat for fish that come up from the Alameda Reservoir. We saw them this spring at the concrete crossing south of town, struggling to climb the steep side of the concrete against the current, always being driven back. I'm not sure at what time they succeed in getting over that crossing, maybe when the water is higher, or maybe they go through in the culverts when it's lower.

About two miles from our starting point, the creek doubled back sharply so we were going southeast instead of northwest. Then it got quite loopy. We passed a fenceline (grateful that it ended on the banks instead of stretching across), then moments later saw the same fence again, just touching the shore on a bend. I guess we were in Pheasant Rump reserve land at that point. A few more meanders and we found a fence with those big, solid, regularly spaced posts that say "PFRA." Again, it left the channel clear, so we continued happily upstream.

Did the creek look different? Well, yes, but not sharply so, and I'm not sure the change was associated with the change in land tenure and management. The channel was certainly narrower, and the vegetation was different, with a lot more floating bur-reed in the channel, less pondweed, and visible grassy banks instead of mostly cattails and bulrushes bordering the channel. But the change was gradual, and if I had to say where it started, I'd say at that sharp bend where we first got into the meanders. That was well before we reached the PFRA fenceline.

We did notice several places where the bank was completely bare and trampled by cattle. Whether these spots were more common outside the PFRA pasture than in - well, maybe, but I wasn't counting, and we didn't get far into the PFRA. We came to another beaver dam, this time a complete one, with water gushing over a low spot. We went to the quiet side and dragged the canoe over, paddled a bit farther, and there was the steel bridge. If you've crossed the pasture to get to the oil battery in those hills south of the Gap, you've been over that bridge. We couldn't get under it though, because the water got too shallow there, and it was getting on in the afternoon, so we turned back.

Running downstream was faster and easier, but we tested the drift on a sheltered meander and decided it was mostly due to the wind. The ducks were quieter too. Maybe most of them had died of fright when we first passed? I don't think so. I think they learned the drill and just dived to avoid us. We saw some tiny ducklings dive and then come back up just so that their heads were above water, waiting till we were almost upon them before they dived again.

On the way upstream, we had noticed some plants that looked like undersized cattails. Passing them again on the way downstream, I realized that they weren't cattails at all. Checking my books this evening, I decided they must be giant bur-reed. So, some parts of the creek had mostly grassy banks, some had mostly cattails (occasionally with bulrushes), and some had giant bur-reed. Certain birds seemed to keep to certain areas, too. The terns had a particular area (north of the transmission line, I think), and I especially noticed that red-winged blackbirds were more abundant downstream where it was more marshy with lots of bulrushes.

Suddenly we came into muddy water. Cattle must have forded the creek at that spot while we were upstream.

A while later I heard a strange trampling noise, almost ignored it, but then thought it too peculiar and looked back. There was a horse on the bank, staring after us.

Back at the launch point, I saw another leopard frog. Someday I'd like to hear one. They say the sound is like rubbing your thumb on a balloon. It's actually quite easy to learn the few frog calls that you hear in Saskatchewan, and then you can monitor frogs and contribute your observations to FrogWatch.

I also got a close look at some plants I've been noticing from the highway for several years, in the marshy areas near the creek. You might have seen them: they are fairly tall, with umbrellas of tiny white flowers, looking vaguely like dill (a relative). I was hoping they weren't water hemlock, but in fact they were. It's poisonous, especially the roots; apparently a single bulb can kill a cow.

Overall, I estimate we paddled about seven miles (three and a half each way). It took us six hours, including the stop for lunch. I'll be stiff tomorrow.


Unknown said...

The bird you saw that resembled a crane were most likely pelicans. There are thousands of them to the east of you near Deloraine Manitoba.

arcolaura said...

Hi Doug, thanks for the thought. I would have recognized pelicans, though. I have more recently decided the birds we saw were probably black-crowned night herons.