Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Paddling with Survivors

The flat water reflected the scene almost perfectly. 

A giant mirror doubling the panorama of cloudless, bright silver-blue horizon over wide pads of green spartina marsh grass, squat pines, and dark underbrush edging the water.  My kayak appeared to be plying the sky.

I was visiting the far inland extent of a tidal preserve.  The inlet to a greater bay at the other end of this body of brackish water was a good half hour paddle away.  The wide bay on the other side of that inlet was known for little neck clams and at times, thousands of migratory birds, and at one time, oysters.

Sea turtles know it, too, for a youthful feast.  They visit the shallow bay once in their lives, only when they are about five years old, on some juvenile right of passage the details about which biologists are uncertain.

Biologists do know marine turtles of many types (and degrees of perilously-close-to-extinction), including loggerheads, Kemp's ridley, and green swim thousands of miles through the nearby mighty grey-blue mid-Atlantic ocean and into the bay.  They come to gorge themselves on spider crabs and jellyfish.  Then they're off, back to not sure where, but never to return to the big, wide bay.

If one of those turtles made a few wrong turns and ended way up through the narrow inlet and swam up into this back wetlands where I paddled, it would be unbelievable, especially since marine turtles are navigators extraordinaire.

I knew I would not see a sea turtle but I was hoping to see some fish in the shallows or breaching the surface.  Maybe an osprey, a muskrat, a water moccasin, a heron or two, or a few odd jellyfish.  I am always more than willing to be surprised by nature.

The little tidal preserve had somehow been spared development unlike almost all other swatches of land in the area.  On one side, homes glowered on the banks, boxy and inelegant.  I gave them my back and paddled toward the giant mirror of greenery.

As I entered the marsh proper, I scanned the water.  Any wrinkle on the smooth water was something, and I  investigated as stealthy as possible.  It was so calm, I tried to paddle as softly as a whisper.

I attempted a stroke my canoeist friend once taught me that he said some Native Americans mastered as they were often experts in quiet paddling.  Their next meal depended on it.  Basically the oar stays in the water the entire time, and basically, I am not good at it.

I explored every small cut into the marsh until the grasses closed in and the water became shallower and shallower.  The slight smell of sulfur and rich organic matter occasionally wafted by my nose.

The bow of my kayak bumped against the strong peat topped with cord grass as if it was the hairy scalp of the marsh.  The grass was discolored at the base and halfway up the stalks where the water level had reached more than once.  But today the water was low and I had to back the kayak out of some of the small marsh cuts, pushing my paddle along the muddy bottom like a Venetian gondolier. 

Some of these little cuts looped around and some came to dead ends at pools calmer than even the calm main body.

Black mussel shells and pink and blue crab carapaces littered the bottom.  The remnants of some creature's feast.

I floated over clumps of live mussels half buried in the silt sipping the water with their shells open just so, like drowsy eyes.  Snails were abundant along the bottom, scattered about and all about the size of a pinky nail, jet black. 

When the kayak brushed against the grasses, hundreds of tiny white bugs filled the air like confetti.  They came to rest, speckling the boat, the paddle, and me in white dots.  On closer inspection they looked like grasshopper runts especially when they moved.  A little breeze of my hot mammalian breath and they jumped out of sight. 

Near one natural beach of small pebbles and a spot of sand cut into the grass, the surface of the water roiled and small ripples spread out.  Something was going on. 

I thought maybe it was a few larger fish chasing minnows.  I paddled closer, mindfully muffling my excitement, and came upon two creatures doing what the spark of life has fueled all creatures to do forever -- mate.

They were horseshoe crabs, known as living fossils and they are aptly named.  Their shells like some kind of souped-up dinosaur shield that would make a rhino or tortoise envious. 

When you pick up a horseshoe crab, as I did many times as a kid, rows of legs and claws under the shield dance as if to say, "Put me down, I'm 450 million years old!"  One of nature's designs that needed little enhancing, at least not in millions of years.

I remember holding them aloft by their one distinguishing spike in my young fingers.  I felt the stout and ancient tug of life.

The long tail looks like a menacing spike but it is as docile as the whole crab.  It's a rudder as the living fossil travels underwater, and if the crab flips over, the tail flips it back.

Horseshoe crabs are co-stars in a gorgeous story about nature's balance and synchronicity.  Every spring in North America thousands of birds stop over on mid Atlantic beaches, in places people call Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey.

The birds are on their way north after wintering in the warm Caribbean.  Some of the birds like red knots are going very far, all the way to the Arctic to -- you guessed it -- reproduce.

By the time they land in the mid-Atlantic, they're tired and famished.  So what do they eat?  Millions of horseshoe crab eggs, because also in the spring along that same coast, horseshoe crabs mate.  They lay enough protein packed eggs to feed the birds and get them to their nesting destination with enough eggs left over to carry on future generations of the living fossils.  

Enter humans.  People heavily harvest horseshoe crabs.  Seems the chopped up crabs serve as great bait for whelk, and people like to eat whelk.  Scientists are worried about the future of the red knots and the horseshoe crabs.  They say that killing fewer horseshoe crabs each year will help.

The last thing I thought about was bait when I saw the two crabs doing the ancient dance in the tidal preserve. 

It's not much of dance, actually, with one crab, the male, half on top of the female, with all the action happening under their submerged shells.  But I thought it was odd they were mating in August, pretty far from spring.  Plus it was not night, close to sunset sure but not late night, when the crabs often do their thing.

Then I took another look at the carapace of the female.  Not only was it massive, probably the biggest a horseshoe crab can get, but it was also dark and dented and mottled with a few blemishes, and even small barnacles clung to it.  Badges of honor of a long life lived by this living fossil.

Horseshoe crabs can live up to twenty years or more and I think she was pushing that envelope.  The other crab, the male, was smaller and looked younger, its shell spotless and lighter in color.  So this old matron was still at it, this studly female of power, mating with young bucks in this small preserve.

The clever girl has probably been hiding out back here for years, far from the inlet, far from the fishermen, far from her roots in the coastal ocean carrying on like the queen of a small band of survivors.  A mother keeping Mother Nature's prehistoric flame lit.

Maybe she's figured out a new strategy for the survival of her genes.  Maybe this lone crab will be the last crab left one day but will carry on her kind like one of nature's heroes. 

On my paddle out of the tidal marsh, the sun was low enough to blaze the purplish tips of all the surrounding swaths of grass.  I plied the water toward the houses, my car, and all that civilization.

I thought again about the old horseshoe crab, though, and smiled in a solitary little moment of hope.

Image: Creative hammer

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