Juno clambered into the canoe, her tail wagging as she sniffed at the bags of gear and snacks. Ever the curious pup, she awkwardly leapt over the boat’s wooden thwarts to inspect the craft from end to end.
This is going well, I thought. Then — splash — Juno jumped overboard, right into the mucky shallows of Carlton Pond.
Deer flies started to swarm. Juno was soaked and stinky. We weren’t off to a great start for my dog’s first canoe ride.
Nevertheless, my husband Derek and I persevered. Using her leash, we reeled Juno, and a few pond weeds, back to the boat launch. We plopped her back in the canoe, and we pushed off shore as quickly as possible.
Located in the town of Troy, Carlton Pond covers more than 400 acres and is conserved within the Carlton Pond Waterfowl Protection Area. It’s really more of a bog with channels of shallow water that twist and turn throughout areas of dense aquatic vegetation.
After a dry spring, the water was fairly low in mid-June.
From the boat launch, we paddled across the floating leaves of watershields, spatterdock and lilies to reach open water. Juno, to our delight, remained in the boat.
We’d come up with a system.
Paddling at the back of the canoe, Derek kept an eye on Juno. Every time she raised a paw onto the gunwales in preparation for jumping, Derek called out “paw!” Paddling at the bow of the boat, I’d turn in my seat and gently push on Juno’s chest, forcing her to sit back down. She seemed to get the message.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a little fun. We did allow her to stretch her neck over the side of the boat to lap at the water and occasionally snag a floating plant — which we then had to take away from her, lest she eat it and upset her stomach. I conducted a quick Google search to find that there aren’t many resources about how different aquatic plants affect dogs. Better to be safe than sorry.
The channel we were following soon split, so we veered right, heading into the area that was marked as “pond” on the map. But it didn’t resemble a pond at all. It looked more like a lazy stream, bordered by marshland.
One of the few waterfowl protection areas east of the Mississippi, Carlton Pond is home to a variety of ducks, including wood ducks, blue- and green-winged teals, black ducks and mallards. While I spied a few of those species tucked back in the vegetation during our afternoon paddle, a few other birds stole the show.
At least two great blue herons graced us with their presence. With a 6-foot wingspan and stilt-like legs, it’s a bird that’s hard to miss.
Then we noticed a bald eagle circling over the wetlands. I wondered if the raptor was hoping to snag a duck or one of the pond’s many warmwater fish.
I’d read that the pond was home to black terns, which are endangered birds in Maine. I’d never seen one before, and I didn’t want to get my hopes up that we’d actually spot one on the canoe trip. Just because a property is home to a rare animal doesn’t mean you’re going to see it.
For example, I once visited Wells Barrens Preserve in southern Maine in hopes I’d spy a black racer snake — which is rare in Maine but has been documented on that property. I had no luck.
Wildlife has a mind of its own.
When I think of terns, I think of the ocean. That’s because the four other tern species that we have in Maine — common, arctic, roseate and least — breed on coastal islands and beaches. Terns are gull-like birds, but fairly small. They’ve got distinctive forked tails and narrow, straight, sharp beaks, making them somewhat easy to identify from afar. So when I spotted a black tern while paddling on Carlton Pond, I knew right away. And boy was I excited.
The bird rose up out of the tall grass and gracefully flew out over the channel, where it dipped down to skim the surface of the water, hunting for insects and small fish. Its head was black and its body a dark gray, with flashes of white on its wings and tail. I knew it had to be the rare bird I was hoping to spot.
My tone of voice must have keyed Derek into my excitement, because he insisted I set down my paddle and take out my camera. He would do the paddling, he said. I could focus on getting my bird photos.
What a great paddling buddy.
I didn’t need to worry about getting photos of the tern. Throughout our trip, we saw several more, perhaps a dozen. One perched on a half-submerged log right in front of us, and it seemed completely at ease. Others appeared less pleased to see our boat. Hovering overhead, they produced shrill calls that I think translated roughly to “stay away from our nests.”
Black terns actually build floating nests in areas of still, shallow water. They make use of dead vegetation to build shallow bowls, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a great online resource for birders. So in our boat, it was important for us to stay out of the thick vegetation and take queques from the birds seriously. In other words, when the terns got rowdy, we paddled in the opposite direction.
During our paddle, we also explored the left branch of the pond, which included a lot of open, deeper water. There we allowed Juno to jump out of the boat and swim around (while on a rope) so she could cool off. Getting her back into the canoe was interesting, but we managed it with a 1-2-3 and me leaning to the opposite side to balance us out.
As we paddled back to the launch, Juno just stretched out on the bottom of the boat and let the gentle movement of the canoe lull her to sleep. I think we’ve got ourselves a canoe dog.