Pinewoods was fabulous this year. This was our first time going to both Scottish sessions — we're going to be the co-chairs next year, so we had to experience the whole eight days — and by the end of a week of ponds and sunshine and ginger beer on the porch I was lanky and loose and very mellow.
For the first time, I brought a mask and snorkel, and I spent hours snorkeling in Long Pond and Round Pond (and, briefly, Little Long Pond).
Freshwater snorkeling is brilliant — the ponds are filled with fish, from half an inch long to the size of my arm, not to mention dragonfly larvae, frogs, and turtles. My first time snorkeling in Long Pond, I cruised up to investigate a pile of rocks underneath the dock, and got to within a foot or so before I began furiously backpaddling...from an enormous snapping turtle! I measured it using a practice paddle for a kayak as calipers: 31" from nose to tail, which puts its carapace at about 18". They don't get much bigger than that! I alerted the general vicinity, and soon there was a line of butts sticking up along the dock as everyone leaned down over the water to see. I lent my mask to a few of the more adventurous souls, then followed the turtle ("Angus the Bruce," he was dubbed) when he got sick of the attention and swam into deeper water. He returned the next day, and I spent at least an hour communing with him, watching as he stretched up, long-necked, on elephant legs to inhale with an audible hiss (as he's doing in the photo above), or sat among darting fish with his jaws open waiting for a meal. It was sublime.
Snorkeling also serves social functions. For one thing, there are quite a few SCUBA enthusiasts and instructors among the Scottish crowd, and I had a number of fine conversations with Mel and Ellie Briscoe and Terry Harvey about clearing my snorkel and equalizing pressure and hammerhead sharks and so on. For another, I spend a lot of time alone in my day-to-day life, and having people around constantly can be overwhelming. Snorkeling is a way to submerge myself in a different world of muffled sound and placid fish without vanishing socially altogether. I can recharge my batteries and surface refreshed.
Other wildlife encounters from Pinewoods:
• A painted turtle swam right up to my mask, almost bumping into it, before realizing I was a human and paddling furiously away.
• I caught and released a little musk turtle (or "stinkpot"), after which he fled comically from me every time I came near the dock.
• A wild turkey came down to Round Pond to drink while I was the only person in the water. A hush hung over the pond as it dipped its neck once, twice, three times.
• I found a moss-topped phoebe nest on the camp house gutter, with three perfect breath-mint eggs in it. The mother roosted there off and on throughout the week.
• Colonies of freshwater bryozoans clung to the forks of sunken logs, amber and glistening and football-sized, like the first stages of a Blob invasion.
• Standing on the bottom step of the stairs to Round Pond, with my toes hanging over the edge, a nine-inch sunfish jumped out of the water to bite me. The fish are getting bolder.
• I kayaked to the tiny wooded island in Little Long Pond, aka Paradise of Birds, and for the first time got out of the boat and walked around. I saw a juvenile green heron, two cormorants high in a tree like pterodactyls, and what I think were a bunch of basket-like kingbird nests. (Julie MacRae helped me navigate my Peterson iPad app to ID everything.)
• Ellie Briscoe lent me a dive-light so I could try night snorkeling. I didn't see the hoped-for fabulous nocturnal macrofauna, but I noticed that if I held the lamp still the beam filled with a blizzard of darting zooplankton, like moths to a flame. I saw copepods, daphnia, tiny jacknifing worms, investigatory minnows, and one dragonfly larva that took up residence on the lamp and snacked on what came near. So cool!
The snapping turtle became a camp meme, of course, though he didn't show up under the dock after Monday. I did see him again, on Friday afternoon, in the little canal between Long Pond and Little Long Pond. He was ripping into a good-sized fish with his beak and claws — blood and tatters of fish everywhere — which I'm glad I saw at the end of the week.