My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Suburban swamping, or, Let me be your swamp snake

Too much, too soon, that would be the way to sum up todays weather. Yesterday when I kayaked Muskegon Lake, I wore two light layers under a spring/fall jacket, and was comfy all day. Today, the temperature and humidity have soared, it is in the low 80’s and muggy. I was sweating wearing nothing but a T-shirt.

Where did I go, well, since the rivers are high, and we had a gale blowing out of the south bringing in the heat, I didn’t want to try any open water in that wind. There’s a swamp that I drive past on most nights for work, and it is on the edge of the metropolitan area, near Cascade. It is a large swamp, I would guess about 20 to 30 acres, maybe more. It is hardly a wilderness setting, to the south is an industrial park, to the west is a large shopping center/commercial development. To the north is 28th Street, or M 11, one of the busiest streets in the area. And to the east is the expressway, I 96. So why did I go there? Like I said, I drive by it often for work, and there are always ducks, geese, swans, herons, etc. there as long as it isn’t frozen over. In fact, this year the geese started nesting there before the water was ice-free. With gas near $4 a gallon, I prefer to do something outdoors fairly close to home on at least one day on a weekend.

I also did something to my right leg Monday night at work, trying to get one of the heavy laundry carts I have to manhandle moving. It is getting much better, but I was limping a lot earlier in the week, I didn’t know for sure if I was going to be able to go the entire two miles a day I walk on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I gutted it out. But, I didn’t want to push it by hiking, so the swamp seemed like a good idea.

I was there last fall, but the water was too low to float my kayak, so I walked around as much of it as I could, and there is an incredible amount of wildlife making it their home. The idea of kayaking the swamp also goes right along with my hiking in some of the suburban parks near where I live as well, for a couple of reasons. One is the price of gas, and the other is that I think it is both interesting and a great thing that wildlife populations are expanding to the point where it is no longer rare to see animals that you had to travel far to see just a couple of decades ago.

I got a late start today, I was up early enough, but I spent all morning fighting the companion photo blog for this blog. I thought I had that all set up and looking and working the way I wanted it, but when I got home from kayaking yesterday, none of the pictures loaded on the home page, not a good thing. I fixed that last night, but I still had some captions to the pictures that weren’t loading correctly on some of the pages, so I thought I would fix them. I finished two pages, the third drove me nuts, I never did get it to display correctly, so I trashed it and will have to start over. More on that later.

When I did get to the swamp, I was happy to see there was enough water this time, so I unloaded the kayak while listening to dozens of geese in the reeds and rushes honking away at me. I could see some of them, on nests, I have no idea how many geese are nesting there, it has to be at least 50 pairs, they are everywhere. I was wondering if I would be attacked, but that didn’t happen. I set off from the northeast corner, which meant I was paddling into the brunt of the wind. It wasn’t that bad, except for the fact that I had to keep paddling, or at least hold my paddle. The wind was so strong that every time I set my paddle down to try to take a picture, the wind tried to blow the paddle away, and I didn’t want to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. I was also paddling through narrow little channels of deeper water between the reeds and rushes growing out of the swamp, along with stumps and logs to navigate around.

The wind was a problem, but a minor one compared to the geese, apparently they are the early warning system for the other waterfowl. Every time I would be closing in on a duck or a heron, the geese would take flight, circling and honking at me. I should say the male geese, because most of the females stayed on the nest until I got very close, and I tried not to get too close to them if I could see them. As soon as the ganders took off, any and all nearby ducks and herons would as well.

I didn’t get pictures, but it was cool watching herons flying to their nesting sites with their beaks full of material to be used for their nests. There has to be at least half a dozen pair of heron nesting there. It surprised me in that they are nesting in the bushes that grow, or grew, in the water. I am not sure if the bushes are still living, it’s too early yet. The herons are building their nests less than 4 feet above the water, I thought they nested only in taller trees, wrong.

Another cool thing were the swallows, both barn and tree swallows, lots of them. The ones I saw today are the first of the year, and I love swallows. I also saw my first dragonflies of the year as well, spring is coming!

I worked my way all the way around the edge of the swamp until I got to the southwest corner, and out of the wind. There isn’t enough water straight through the center, I had to stay on the edge. When I did get to the corner, I pulled into a small cove there and took a break, not because I needed one, but to let things calm down. I was hoping for a wood duck, and I saw them, as the geese warned them about me, and they took flight, of course. I sat there in the cove for quite a while, soaking up the sunshine, listening to the birds singing, and watching the waterfowl out in the main body of the swamp.

I thought that after a break, and if I just drifted with the wind, that maybe I could get closer to some of the waterfowl, but it didn’t work out that way. I did one drift across, and there were hundreds of ducks of many species, I think I saw a small flock of blue winged teals, but it was hard to tell as they rocketed away. There were huge flocks of both bufflehead and coots, along with the ever-present, ever honking geese, and a pair of swans as well. I gave the swans a wide berth, I’ve had dealings with them during nesting season before, and don’t want to get attacked by one while I’m in a kayak.

 I did manage to snap the picture of a heron, not great, but pretty good. I took some others as well, nothing special though, no reason to use up my limited space displaying them

Great Blue Heron


 I paddled back up to the cove, took another, longer break, then repeated the same drift again, but the geese were always on alert. So I went all the way around to where I had parked and called it a day, good thing too, I was getting burned to a crisp by the sun and didn’t know it. On my way back to my vehicle, I had a tree swallow that I swear was going to try to land on my hat, or he was attacking me and I didn’t know it, but there wasn’t a nesting spot for it in that area so I don’t know why he wold have attacked. He was less than two feet from my face, I wish I could have gotten the camera out and snapped a pic, but it happened too quickly for that.

According to my GPS unit, I managed to cover almost 3 miles in that swamp, but only half of it was paddling. Whenever I was headed to the north, I never had to paddle because the wind was so strong, all I had to do was steer, which also slowed my drift down. I don’t know how strong the winds were, but I could tell by looking at the bank that I was moving along at a very good clip when the wind was driving me, faster than a fast walk. All in all, a very good day, despite not getting any great pics, but that brings me to another point that has hit me this weekend.

Since I started the photo blog, I have been trying for the perfect outdoor/nature shots, and I was beginning to judge how good a day was by my pictures, not the day itself. There’s a couple of reasons for that, one, I had several really good photographic days lumped together towards the end of winter. I was on a roll and wanted to keep it going. The other reason is that I am trying to sell my pictures through my photo blog. I started trying to sell them somewhat reluctantly, I know nature pictures aren’t big sellers, unless you’re Ansel Adams.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing Ansel Adams, I am a great admirer of his work, but there isn’t that much special about it. His claim to fame is that he lugged a large format camera and gear to places no one else had the fortitude to do that before, and he screwed a #25 Wratten filter to the front of his lens and shot from where no one else had before. It helped in that he came from a wealthy family that could subsidize his extended trips, and promote his work as he was getting established. Coming from a wealthy family he was also able to hobnob with the “right” people to make a name for himself.

For the rest of us who aspire to be great nature photographers, it is a lot tougher. About the only place to sell nature photography is through stock photo companies. They keep your pictures on file, and if a client of the stock company sees one they like, the photographer may make a few cents on each photo used. You can’t make a living at it. Most of the time you can’t even make enough money that way to cover your expenses.

If you make a name for yourself, you may get hired as a staff photographer for a magazine, but there are about a million people vying for any openings that may occur, so the chances of landing one is pretty slim. Most staff photographers work differently than I do anyway. They are given an assignment, and most of the time the assignment involves setting up some where in a blind, excuse me, they aren’t called blinds anymore, they are now known as hides. Hunters use blinds, and no nature photographer wants to have anything to do with hunting, even the terminology. Anyway, they set up in hides and wait for the subject they are assigned to shoot shows up. I would go stark raving bonkers sitting in a hide waiting for something to happen. Not my style, my style is to catch nature as it happens, and sometimes that means the light isn’t perfect, or I may not have a perfectly clear view of the subject.

If you think I sound bitter about the situation, I’m not, it the way it is. Most of us who take nature photos do so because we love it, not because we plan to make a living at it. Then I heard about Fotomoto from a friend’s son. Fotomoto is a different web-based way for photographers to sell their pictures. They are really a printing and shipping service as much as anything. You display your photos on your web page, add a couple of lines of code from Fotomoto to your website, and if some one wants to purchase a photo, Fotomoto does the printing and shipping to the customer. There is no upfront costs from Fotomoto, they take a percentage from any sales they process. With much urging from friends and family, I took the plunge and set up my website to display, and to try to sell my pictures.

So, what does any of this have to do with paddling a swamp in Cascade? It is this, while I was sitting back in the little cove taking breaks, I had time to think. I was sitting back in the cove on a glorious early spring day, listening to the and watching birds singing, watching Great Blue Herons building their nests, with swallows flitting about over the water, there were waterfowl all around the area, and yet I was judging the day to be a failure since I hadn’t taken any really great pictures. If I wasn’t trying to sell my pictures, I would have been as happy as a clam, it was a great day!

I was hesitant about making the attempt to sell my pictures in the first place, I was afraid that what had happened would happen. This isn’t the first time I have tried to earn money doing something I love. Spud and I made a couple of attempts, one was guiding. Epic fail. I took one client out for a day of steelheading, and he was an absolute jerk. He couldn’t cast, couldn’t wade, and wouldn’t take advise, yet he had no trouble dressing me down at the end of the day when he hadn’t caught any fish. I had him on fish, it was his own incompetence as a fisherman that was the reason he didn’t catch any, but you couldn’t tell him that.

Spud and I also started building our own spinners for use for steelhead and salmon, and they worked great, as well as any store-bought brands. But ours weren’t fancy and didn’t come in attractive packaging, and the biggest surprise was that we were selling them too cheap. The store-bought brands were going for about two bucks, and we could make a profit selling ours for fifty cents. But, guys would hear what we were charging and think that ours couldn’t possibly work since we were selling so cheaply.

I had looked into selling my photographs before, and had dabbled in selling some of the things I made while woodworking, and I had come to the conclusion that the quickest way to ruin something that you love doing is to try to make a living doing it.

So maybe that swamp was the perfect place to go, not only did it give me time to think, but the location of it helped me put things in perspective. There I was, in a small oasis of nature, surrounded by the worst type of hustle and bustle development we humans build so that we’ll have something to complain about. If there is one thing we humans like to do it’s complain, as evidenced by the fact that I am complaining about complaining, the irony of it all! But, as hundreds of people and their vehicles sped all around me in their hurry to get nowhere, I was having about as perfect of a day as one can have. Yet the push to take nothing but great pictures was on the verge of letting me ruin it for myself.

So I have come to some conclusions, I’ll continue my website and trying to sell my photos. I have done sillier things with my money than keeping an unprofitable website up and running. However, I am not going to let it run my life as I was close to letting happen. I will tweak the pages that don’t display correctly, and I will replace the page I had to trash, with about 1/3 of the pictures on it. Uploading and trying to palm off good but not great pictures does nothing except cause more work for myself. I know great pictures will come, they always have, usually when I least expect them to happen. That’s why I always carry a camera when I am outdoors, you can’t predict when greatness will happen. I will no longer push only for greatness though, as it gets in the way of enjoying anything less than greatness, and I would rather not go there.

And no, I didn’t see any snakes, but I’ll bet that swamp is full of them when the weather is warmer.


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