Mist crept over the still, cold water of Pushaw Stream, rising slowly to meet the first rays of sunlight. On the morning of Oct. 19, frost clung to the tall grasses edging the quiet waterway. A lone crow cried out, and Gudrun Keszöcze steared her red, battered canoe upstream.
Comfortable in a winter hat, gloves and plenty of warm clothing, Keszöcze is one of many people in Maine who continue paddling throughout the fall, refusing to put up their boats until ice starts to form on the state’s many streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. As the naturalist for Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town, she shares her love of canoeing and nature with others by organizing public programs at the refuge year round, including group paddles that, if possible, continue into November.
From Hirundo’s boat launch on Pushaw Stream, where rental canoes are available for a suggested $10 donation upon request, paddlers can enjoy about 10 miles out quiet-water trails. Keszöcze could probably paddle those waterways in her sleep.
“The beavers are making a new hut there,” Keszöcze said, pointing to the tidy pile of sticks and mud on the streambank to her right.
When Keszöcze began working for Hirundo in 2011, she paddled the same stretch of Pushaw Stream, from Route 43 at the edge of Alton to the dam and fish ladder on Pushaw Lake in Hudson. Along that 2.5-mile paddle, she counted 14 beaver lodges. Today, that number has grown to 17 lodges, and she keeps an eye on each one.
While guiding trips on Pushaw and Dead stream for Hirundo, she shares her knowledge about the area’s healthy beaver population, as well as the many other species attracted to the waterways. Then there are the interesting plants that grow along the shores, the buttonbush that produces fragrant white blossoms in July, and the silver maple trees, their trunks scarred from the winter ice. Each season has something different to offer, Keszöcze said.
This year, the brilliant fall foliage that typically lines Pushaw Stream well into October fell from the trees early, and Keszöcze thinks that may be due to the especially dry weather, paired with a few windy days. Only a handful of trees still held onto their fiery fall leaves on Oct. 19, when Keszöcze paddled upstream to the dam on Pushaw Lake. Scattered along the bank, these maple and oak trees were beacons of orange, yellow and red, surrounded by skeletal neighbors.
“The environment is a little different [in the fall],” Keszöcze said. “You have less birds, of course. The mammals — the beavers are still out, muskrat are still out, all of those kinds of animals are running around, trying to stock up their larder for winter.”
She paused, her wooden canoe paddle resting in her lap.
“Just think in terms of what nature is doing — calming down for winter, conserving energy and getting prepared,” she added. “So your focus changes, and your experience is different.”
And the wilderness, no matter how well acquainted with it you are, tends to have its surprises.
As Keszöcze’s canoe neared the a grass-lined edge of the stream, a startled wood duck emerged from the vegetation and took flight, its wings beating rapidly as he booked it downstream. Two great blue herons also made an appearance, hunting along the stream’s edge. Clearly not all of the state’s migrating birds had flown south just yet.
Then around the bend, another surprise — a creature swimming toward the bank, its sleek dark head bobbing ever so slightly as if moved swiftly through the water. A muskrat, Keszöcze guessed at first, but as her canoe drifted closer to the animal, she realized it was a small beaver. After swimming back and forth in a seemingly random pattern, the beaver dove underwater, only to emerge a minute or so later behind the canoe and slap its tail loudly on the surface — a common method of communication for the species.
Beavers are typically more active at night, Keszöcze said, so she sees them often when she guides full moon paddles. Then there are the stream’s river otters, which often come right up to the boats, seemingly out of curiosity. The otters, along with a number of other mammal species, will sometimes inhabit the stream’s many abandoned beaver lodges.
“One year I came here and I saw something moving there, so I stopped,” Keszöcze said, pointing to a big, old beaver lodge built up around a maple tree on the bank. “I slowly moved in there, and it was a mink sitting at the edge [of the lodge], blinking his eyes in the sun — or her eyes. My boat kept moving closer and closer. I didn’t move. I just let the boat go. And all of the sudden, I heard a lot of little squeaking sounds. So it was a female mink, and it had its babies inside.”
By the time Keszöcze reached the dam on Pushaw Lake on Oct. 19, the frost-lined banks from earlier that morning seemed like a distant memory. The sun beat down steadily from a sky of brilliant blue, warming the air and prompting Keszöcze to remove her hat, gloves and outer jacket.
“If you don’t need them, great,” Keszöcze said about bringing extra clothing for fall paddling. “But if you need them and you don’t have them, that’s a problem.”
Keszöcze also suggests wearing synthetic or wool clothing while paddling because it dries a lot faster than cotton. This is especially important when it’s cold outside, when it’s imperative that you stay warm.
“And if you go out canoeing or kayaking in the winter, when it’s really, really cold, you really want to wear a drysuit,” Keszöcze said. “That’s sort of the minimal requirement.”
As much as Keszöcze loves canoeing, she doesn’t paddle during those conditions. She has plenty of other things to do at the 2,400-acre wildlife sanctuary, which also features 7 miles of hiking trails.
“If it’s too cold, I don’t go [paddling],” she said, simply. “If there’s ice on the stream, I don’t go.”
Keszöcze looked down into the water, which became increasingly shallow near the dam. The oblong shells of freshwater mussels dotted the streambed, disappearing under great green balls of algae.
“Look at that,” Keszöcze said, remarking on the beauty of the algal blooms.
Near the dam, a flock of dark birds gathered in the trees.
“Grackles,” the naturalist said, easily identifying the birds by the astonishing racket they made. They were amassing to fly south before winter, she explained over the noise of the birds’ constant chatter.
There Keszöcze turned her canoe around. It was time to head back. But she’d return, likely several times, before the the stream was sealed with ice.
To learn about Hirundo guided paddles and other programming, as well as their rental boats, visit hirundo.org or call Keszöcze at 207-394-2171.