On the road to the coast, which I drive frequently, there is an expanse of wetland that has always intrigued me. A little creek meanders its way on shoulders of swamp that stretch off to the mountains. For me it’s a mystical landscape because where there is water, there is life – and in a habitat like this, usually lots of it.
Normally, as I zip over the small bridge that spans the creek, I catch a glimpse of a pond in the distance. In the middle is an island just big enough for two towering white pines to compete. Then for about a mile or so more, I fantasize about the little coves, inlets, birds and animals that call that place home. It’s one of those little pockets of nature I cherish. I always tell myself that someday, I’m going to launch a kayak from that bridge and go exploring.
Today was the day, I succumb to the tug of wonder.
I had only two hours, so set my sights on the island. If I paddled with conviction, I estimated I could get there in time for one of my favorite rituals; a catnap in the sun.
From the bridge I made my way inland. As I paddled through the shallows, I could tell that if I had come here in July or August, the place would be wildly different - steamy, green, and buggy. But this unseasonably warm day seemed to have snuck up on the place. The water was still cold and crystal clear as the breezy sky. I could see small-mouth bass chilling in the shadows. The shoreline was a tangle of striped, tan-colored, defeated reeds - still slumped over where they had surrendered to fall the year before. The bottom was a stinky brown, organic mud. It had all the fixins for the flush of spring life.
The creek zigzagged its way along, offering a little protected cove at each turn. At one glassy spot, I stopped to spy on a couple of courting mergansers. That’s when something different caught my eye.
Have you ever seen a kite boarder? Usually a guy, strapped to board, holding a line, attached to a big kite, skimming across the water. A relatively new human invention - or so it only seems, because a different species had already figured it out. In this case, a quarter-sized spider.
I watched as it skipped along the rippled surface. The only things missing were the board and the kite. The silk string streamed out ahead, pulling him at about half a knot - downwind and in my direction.
Maybe this is a good point to explain my relationship of hypocrisy with spiders. As living things, I love them with an enthusiasm rivaled only by my irrational fear of them. Just writing about them makes me nauseas with the jeebies. Please, never try to scare me with a spider. If you do, I’m apparently willing to punch you (after which I will have to apologize profusely) and the spider will probably pay the ultimate price. Please do yourself, me, and the spider favor - let it be.
As he sailed closer and closer, I felt a twinge of panic. Even so I reached for my camera phone, excited to document this never-before-seen spiderly behavior. But before I could snap a shot, the spider got stuck in the doldrums of the cove. With a sense of relief and disappointment, I watched his string deflate, and drift down onto the glassy surface. He was dead in the water about 20 feet away.
A familiar dilemma arose. Do I just consider my self lucky to have witnessed this and go back to the mergansers in love, or do I paddle over to admire him, and fascinate myself. Of course, the tug of wonder won once again.
As I glided closer I readied my camera. Within a few feet I began to see the details of his striped, tan-colored body. This got me thinking about the shoreline of reeds and how many of him must be lurking in there as exquisitely hidden predators. The thought was enough to get my adrenalin and fears pumping. But although I was in a heightened state of fear, the spider seemed calm enough. Especially given the vulnerability of his situation. There he was out in the open, comiting the mortal evolutionary mistake of contrasting with his environment. And with only a layer of surface tension between him and his predators (the bass), he had much more to worry about than I. His stillness calmed me and we called a truce.
Lost in the moment, and concentrating on taking this photo
, I overlooked that my momentum was carrying me right on top of him. At some point I must have invaded his arachnid space, and he my personal, because he jumped. The truce was off.
The effect was catastrophic. All of my suppressed and irrational fears released at a single point in time. When I lost sight of him, my adrenalin exploded. I thrust my hands down on the surface, but the water just pushed aside. My center of gravity rose, my weight pulled me down. This time the it was the tug of gravity that won. Cold water filled the kayak. My hand sank into the mud. I was suddenly face to face with spidey and I FREAKED OUT. I could not get out of there fast enough and splashed around frantically. It must have been a pathetic, hysterical, sight. The mergansers flew away apaulled at the display.
I pulled myself ashore, wet, muddy, embarrassed, and laughing.
I did make it out to the island that day, and the catnap did happen. I lay there drying off in the warm sun with a grin, thinking about writing this story.