Sunday, June 10, 2012

You otter try this!

On a beautiful summer day, Anna and I took our kayaks to Bruceton Mills, just off I-68 in Preston County, to try out Big Sandy Creek above the old stone mill dam. An early settler, John M. Hoffman, named Bruceton Mills after his stepfather, George Bruce, who claimed to be a direct descendent of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

As we paddled upstream from the put-in at the dam, past the few buildings in this small town, one of the last glimpses before the forest was an old white church on top of the hill behind the town. Soon all we saw was green forest crowding both the banks, along with a beautiful blue sky, with a few billowy white clouds, and golden sunlight glinting off the water.

Besides the big trees, there were heavy laurel thickets. I had always thought it would be easy to hike through a laurel thicket, because after all, they are just something akin rhododendron bushes. That was until I tried it years ago—it is surprising how strong and unrelenting mountain laurel can be!

As we paddled up, a sapphire-blue dragonfly hitched a ride on the bow of my kayak. Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and often have vivid colors. Within the water, we could see fish, both large and small. Sometimes it seemed that whole schools of minnows would jump out of the water at the same time (reminding me of the flying fish we have observed while on cruise ships). Anna was lucky enough to see a fish about a foot-long jump way out of the water, but all I got to see was the circular waves from where it landed back in with a splash.

We also watched a belted kingfisher fly from one bank to another, always staying in a tree ahead of us as we paddled north. Then, we saw him dive head first into the water, and come up with a fish in his mouth. He flew to an old dead tree limb and eventually worked the fish around to go down his throat.

Watching the kingfisher catch a fish was pretty interesting, and would ordinarily have made my day. However, this was no ordinary day! As we continued paddling upstream, I noticed a commotion in the water near the right bank. We stopped paddling and just coasted quietly, as we had stumbled upon what I assume to be four young river otters playing in the creek. They were so busy with their own mischievous horseplay that they didn’t notice us at first. I happened to be on the same side of the creek as they were, and I was able to glide quite close before they saw me. I got a good look at their flattish faces, their dark eyes, and the light colored hair around their mouth and whiskers. Best of all, the water was clear enough for me to see them as they swam underwater to get past me. I have always enjoyed watching otters at the French Creek Game Farm and other zoos, but getting to see the real thing in the wild was an experience I’ll never forget!

We pressed northward, passing the occasional rope swing showing signs of summer swimming holes. We crossed under an old iron bridge at a summer cabin and camping area. It turns out this was only about the halfway point for us. Even though the old mill dam back at the starting point is only about 10-15 feet tall, it creates a surprisingly long pool of water for flatwater kayaking.

Soon we were away from any signs of civilization again, with only the sound of birds in the forest. Except for once when we heard what sounded like a tree falling in the forest. Since we were there to hear it, it qualified as making noise (as in the old metaphysical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around…”).

Just as we had forced the kingfisher to flee upstream ahead of us (until he caught his fish), we also noticed a large, long-necked waterbird (a heron?) flying ahead of us whenever we would round a bend. It was more elusive than the kingfisher and it never let us get close to it. But we did get close to a deer that had come down to the creek for a drink of water before noticing us gliding along (she quickly retreated with a loud snort).

Eventually we reached some riffles in the water showing that the pool had ended. We could have got out and pulled the kayaks up into the next pool to see what came next, but we decided to save that for another day. Instead, we turned around and retraced our route back downstream to the old mill dam (but unfortunately the otters were apparently hiding this time).

We will definitely return in the future, because this was a great place for flatwater kayaking. It is easy to get to, being less than a mile from the interstate, yet still gives a sense of wilderness. Best of all, we can bring friends who don’t have kayaks here to join us, because there is a small business called “Padlz” ( that rents kayaks and canoes here. It all made for a glorious day in wild, wonderful, West Virginia!

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