Dance of the Ebony Jewelwings
Paddling with Darren Bush,
Forest Road 200 is a dusty gravel road that cuts through a section of Superior National Forest. Aside from excellent blueberry picking in season, it’s not all that picturesque except for some nice beaver ponds and some small side cuts that expose crystalline structures in the Precambrian granite. Lichens and moss cover much of the granite, and wintergreen and bearberry are common among the ferns.
One of the numerous creeks FR200 crosses is Hilda Creek. It’s not all that big, and if you drove by you might give it a look-over. You would soon decide to blow it off as un-navigable. The rock garden where it crosses the road might convince you it’s a canoe drag-fest, where you’re out of your canoe as much as you’re in it. You’d be partially correct, but mostly wrong.
Several years ago, my daughter and I first paddled the five miles of Hilda Creek that run between FR200 and the Vermillion River, just upstream of Table Rock Falls. A lot of work, but a lot of fun.
The first fifty feet of Hilda Creek required that we leave an offering to the river spirits: a few pieces of our Royalex canoe. It was a hard offering; it was a new boat. You soon get over these things, the little curlicues of red vinyl left on the high spots of the rocks. If you don’t, you’ll go mad. You can always get another canoe. Besides, you’ll get sick of the color long before you wear it out.Sell it to your neighbor for three hundred bucks.
Once the river widens, you’ll notice the abundant signs of beaver activity. Castor canadensis soon shows you the origin of the phrase “busy as a beaver.” Little sticks of willow and aspen, peeled of their nutritious bark, litter the shore and bleach in the sun, incisor marks clearly visible. “Looks like beaver corn on the cob,” remarks Whitney, herself a corn on the cob expert.
It doesn’t take long to run into the first of several dozen beaver dams. These require a little technique to get up and over, but it’s not difficult. Pick a low spot, paddle hard, throwing the bow as far over the dam as you can. Next, the bow paddler jumps out onto the dam, pulls the bow up a little higher and steadies it. The stern paddler exits on the opposite side. Both pull the boat over by the gunwales and slide it forward over the dam. The stern paddler holds the boat steady for bow paddler, then jumps in, launching the boat with one foot off the dam. The voyage continues. In a perfect world, it takes about a minute. On Hilda Creek, it can take longer. This depends on the texture of the dam and the number of times your foot breaks through the dam, landing you thigh deep in leech-infested water.
Some look at beaver dams as a damnable obstacle to a decent paddle on a nice river. Beavers do not view them as anything but beautiful. I’m starting to side with the beavers. A dam forces the pace of the trip to slow down and see some of the details.
July in the boreal forests is where the action is when it comes to insects of the order Odonata, dragonflies and damselflies. At least a dozen species are mating along Hilda Creek, forming the heart-shaped coupling that is so fitting for a fly named for a damsel. There are at least three species of bluets, blue-bodied damselflies so small, they don’t even bend the grass stems upon which they perch. Meadowhawks and club-tailed dragonflies skim the water’s surface, chasing away rivals.
The damselflies that are most endearing to me are the Ebony Jewelwings, a broad-wing damsel that has an iridescent body, either blue or green or both, with velvet black wings that seem comically over-sized for their bodies. That day on Hilda there were thousands of Jewelwings on the grass overhanging the banks, on the plants growing from the more established beaver dams, and on heavier patches of pickerelweed. Not strong fliers, they like to perch, only flitting around for a few moments. The effect is such that there seems to be a cloud of them over the river.
A decade earlier, I was paddling another stream just off the Lower Wisconsin River. It was a warm, lush and fecund morning, the sort you find in June in Wisconsin. There was no wind, certainly not back in the trees that surrounded the creek I was paddling up in my sea kayak. The sun filtered through the trees, illuminating the glen like a cathedral where the stained glass is the sap green of new maple leaves.
Someone turned a thousand Jewelwings loose in the cathedral that day. They landed on my kayak by the dozens, four lighted on my paddle shaft between my hands and several made themselves comfortable in my hair (this was long enough ago that this was a problem). I sat there for a good hour, soaking up the simple happiness that flew all around me.
At this point, some skeptics will claim that I am anthropomorphizing. Jewelwings don’t feel joy. They’re just insects, right?
Yes, they are insects, but I believe they are at the very least content. Perhaps a neuroscientist would say that a more sophisticated set of neurological structures are necessary for “happiness” to occur. I would argue that the construct of happiness is far too elemental to be reduced to a collection of ganglia firing in the proper order. The end result of such a dialogue is that the neuroscientist goes away thinking I’m nuts, but I’m still happy, and so are the damsels that surrounded my boat that day.
Whitney noticed a damselfly down. Along the edge of a sandbar there was a struggling spreadwing damsel, on his back in an inch of water. I fished him out with my paddle and perched him on my finger. He seemed to be feeling better once he dried out, and I perched him on my knee so he could dry out.
I’m anthropomorphizing again. I know. Sue me.
Whitney named him Edison Sarsaparilla, or Eddie for short. I have no idea why she does this, but I do think it’s charming. The year before she named a dragonfly with a wounded wing Pontuffe, and a spiketail dragonfly christened Guadalupe rode around on her back on Astrid Lake, where she named a couple of small ferns growing in a rock outcropping Henri and Jose.
The funny thing about Whitney’s appellative nature is that we remember places better because of it. When we can’t remember the name of a river or lake, all we do is ask Whitney the lake where she named the loon Gomer and it all comes back.
Anyway, Eddie rode on my knee for a while before keeling over and falling to the bottom of my canoe. Something was clearly not right with Eddie, so we took a closer look and noticed a leg missing and a torn wing. Seems Eddie took a flight on the wrong side of the dragonfly tracks and was knocked out of the sky. The dragon that knocked the damsel out of the sky in a dogfight was probably too preoccupied with protecting turf to make Eddie a meal.
I kept trying to keep Eddie on his five legs, but he finally just lay down in the bottom of the canoe and was still.
Somewhere over the next fifteen beaver dams, Eddie went missing. Either he got better and flew away or else was tossed out by a particularly violent canoe tilt.
The creek gradually opened up into grassland as we approached the Vermillion River. The boat was full of spiders and bits of twig that we had picked up as we groped underneath fallen trees doing the paddlers River Limbo.
Damselflies diminished as the wind picked up, but the dragonflies were still performing their aerobatics without regard to the weather
At the mouth of Hilda, we paddled hard to reach the leeward shore and get out of the wind. We surfed halfway back across the lake to the takeout and pulled the boat out onto the shore, tired but exhilarated by the journey.
Later that night we talked about what we had seen that day, and I was glad to hear that despite the two deer, the osprey and bald eagles, the pair of evening grosbeaks, the frogs and whirligig beetles, the damselflies were the highlight of our day.
While the natural world is full of beauty, it isn’t often I find myself surrounded with living jewels. The beautiful ebony Jewelwing is common in the U.S. Few people know that beauty is probably as near as the closest stream or wetland.