Susitna Writer’s Voice–Jessa’s First Canoe Trip, by Robin Song



Jessa the banty hen had been part of my family for almost four months, and was doing splendidly with the dogs and my other birds, so I decided she was ready for her first canoe trip. She’d already been to Hatcher Pass twice with me and my two dogs-”Lyra” and “Darby”- and on several short hikes in the Talkeetna area. She had bonded nicely with us and I thought it was time to see how she’d do in a canoe, which requires a substantial amount of trust. You don’t want a hen panicking while out in a canoe with two dogs.

I chose a sunny day in August, and headed for a local lake which I knew would be quiet. In all my years going there, I had only encountered people four times. Sure enough, we had the place to ourselves. The family of Pacific Loons were out on the lake-mom, dad, and their single offspring of the summer. As soon as we arrived at the shore, dad separated from his family and swam towards us, keeping a watchful eye on us while mom took their offspring to the opposite side of the lake from us. The youngster was still in its baby down, unable to dive or fly, so the parents were extra-protective of it.

The dogs had been canoeing several times and knew to climb in and settled down, Lyra in the front, Darby in the center. I tucked Jessa inside my shirt until I had pushed off from shore and was ready, then I drew her out and placed her on my right knee. The wind had come up a bit and was pushing against the canoe, so I had to keep paddling strongly to keep us headed across to the north shore. Jessa looked around, at first, and I kept an eye on her. This was the crucial time; if she was going to panic, I needed to be ready to put her back inside my shirt. But she didn’t. She moved around on my thigh a little, looking the situation over. Being a smart little banty, she knew it wouldn’t be wise to bail over the side into the water, so she soon settled down, even though my reaching over her with the paddle was a bit disconcerting. I paddled as gently as I could, though the wind seemed to want to keep pushing the canoe everywhere but the direction I wanted to go.

The loon approached the canoe, calling occasionally, but didn’t seem overly alarmed since I was heading straight across the lake and not towards his family. He turned away as I drew towards the shore, and I concentrated on where to put in so the dogs could jump out of the canoe without tipping it too much. I didn’t want to scare Jessa in any way, this being her first experience. I found a spot that looked  good and paddled the canoe hard to get it as far into the brush along the shore as possible. The dogs jumped out, and when Jessa saw her buddies leaving, she walked along the rim of the canoe then hopped down onto the lichens just off the bow. I exited carefully, pulling the canoe farther up onto the shore and tying it off to a small spruce. I gathered Jessa and carried her through the forest to a point of land overlooking two more lakes.

Once there, I set her down so she could scratch amongst the leaves and lichens while I looked for the Common Loons out on the northwest lake. I soon found the pair-no chicks with them this year. The dogs romped and chased each other while I found some crowberries and offered some to Jessa. Being a picky eater, I was surprised when she daintily took one and ate it. Two berries were her limit, however. She then returned to finding small pink worms under the mat of fallen leaves from last year on the forest floor. And chasing skeeters. She’s very good at chasing, catching and eating skeeters(!)

After about half an hour, it was time to head back. At the canoe, I discovered that the wind had died completely and the water was like smooth glass. The dogs loaded and I pushed the canoe into the water and climbed in, placing Jessa on my knee. This time I was able to paddle just a little, letting the canoe drift across the water while I watched the loons. I put Jessa on the board which goes across the center of the canoe, and she set about preening. The loon must have seen her clearly, this time, for he immediately came straight for the canoe, turning his head from side to side, studying Jessa. She would stop and look at him now and then, but she was clearly unimpressed. The loon approached to within about forty feet, then turned parallel to the canoe. He watched us for awhile, then turned around, calling softly to his family across the lake, as if telling them about Jessa. He swam slowly parallel to us again for a few more minutes, then headed on back to his family, curiosity satisfied, I think.

The rest of the lake crossing was quiet, Darby dozing with her chin on the wooden crossbar, Lyra sitting in the bow, Jessa once again on my knee, watching a lone gull soaring overhead. Back at the shore, the dogs jumped out, chasing each other once again, stretching limbs and warming their blood after being dormant in the canoe. Jessa was back scratching for a snack in the lichens while I hauled the canoe to its appointed place and tipped it over to store it next to its companion.

As I carried Jessa back along the shore to connect up with the trail through the forest and on back to the car, the loons called from far out on the lake, as though bidding us farewell. In all, it had been a wonderful outing, and couldn’t have gone better for Jessa. Now I can say she’s got her “canoe wings”, so to speak, and I look forward to many more outings with her-Jessa, “the canoeing hen”.

Su Writer’s Voice, KTNA
Jessa’s First Canoe Trip
Robin Song



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