Sunday, January 27, 2013

An eyrar of swans, a coterie of cormorants

Friday morning I looked outside and saw lots of cormorants floating in the channel. What is that clump of cormorants doing out there? I thought to myself as I got the camera to take a photo. (Yes, you have to look closely to see them; that's just what the scene looked like then. I think there are about 15.) Then I thought, why did I instinctively use the word "clump" to describe that gathering? That led me to hunt through my shelves for An Exaltation of Larks, the delightful book that has names for groupings of birds and animals, to see if there was a noun like "exaltation" for cormorants. I couldn't find my book anywhere.

I searched the web, where I came across Alexander Boldizar's "Bucket of Venary." Venary are words that originally came out of "Olde England" language to indicate collections of birds and animals. Boldizar has been collecting these charming and poetic words. Here are my favorites of the venary terms he's found that describe groupings of birds I've seen from the houseboat:

A nadger of ducks (flying)
A dopping of ducks (diving)
A raft of ducks
A convocation of eagles
A turandot of finches
A nide of geese
A siege of herons
A charm of hummingbirds
A lute of mallards
A richness of martens
A parliament of owls (hoots only)
A ubiquity of sparrows
An eyrar of swans
A pump of wildfowl

Alas, nothing for cormorants. I decided rather than a clump I shall declare them a coterie of cormorants, since they seem to be socializing, and maybe someday that will become their official term of venary.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Well, well, whatever could this be?

                                         Diagram that says "West Side"
                                         Diagram that says "East Side"

Mystery flotsam.

I found this Sunday, at my favorite flotsam discovery locale, which shall remain secret since I always find something interesting there.

It is a two-sided laminated diagram, 11" x 17"

One side says "East Side" It has an empty box in the middle, surrounded by a total of 141 E-BEAMS.
Some of these E-Beams are identified as E-BEAM x 11'-0" and some are 13' and some are 9'. Lengthwise, they are divided into three columns and widthwise into three sections. Each section of beams appears to have two long bars holding them together. There are a number of small orange squares and a note pointing to one of them says "Drill 5/8" Hole a designated locations. Total: 64 EA."

The "West Side" looks pretty much like the "East Side" except that there's no blank box in the middle. This side has a total of 132 beams of the same dimensions. This one has the same drilling instructions but someone has corrected the spelling to "at" with a red marker.

Nobody who's seen it can guess what it is. At first glance, it looks like a structure that is covered with a lot of wooden pallets. Maybe that's what it is -- a pallet-type of platform that would go on a ship and cargo would go on top.

If anyone reading this can solve the mystery, do let me know.

A nutria kind of day

When I saw the third nutria, I got out my camera. I had seen only one before in a year of paddling.

The first one flew mid-air in front of me and startled me. It had leaped from a hole above and to my left in the steep bank. It dove and although I stopped and looked around, I never saw it surface.

The second one swam out of a small inlet and passed in front of me. The third one did the same, and then I got out my camera. This photo below is the only one of these that I took; the others here are from different sources.

Nutria are an introduced species in Oregon, and also known as "river rats." I always think they look more like beavers than rats, and I enjoy seeing their fat furry bodies swimming by.

Along the stretch of river I paddle along the island dike is eroded in many places and there are lots and lots of holes. Some perhaps, are just where rocks washed out, but as I kept on going I looked for holes that might be the size of a nutria burrow.


Downwinders are people who were downwind of atomic blasts conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission and were exposed to airborne radioactive fallout.

We are downwaterers.

The lead story in this morning's Oregonian newspaper features the 11-mile-long river Superfund Site that we are downwater of. It's a heavily industrialized stretch of harbor and Oregon's biggest cleanup project. If you could put an "x marks the spot" on the map above, we would just to the top left. This map did not copy that well, but you get the idea -- the dots represent sites with high levels of contaminants, particularly noting PCBs, Dioxins/Furans, PAHs and DDT.

It says "The harbor's pollution is the product of a century of industrial production, from World War II shipyards and electrical transformer shops that spilled toxic PCBs to chemical plants leaking the pesticide DDT to natural gas production that generated toxic tar" and there are "114 responsible parties," and cleanup could run to more than $1.7 billion. $100 million dollars has already been spent sampling sediments and preparing the Superfund documents.

The gist of today's story is that the EPA says the "Lower Willamette Working Group" made up of the city, some agencies and industry, wrote a plan that "overestimates the payoff from low-cost 'natural' recovery" and underestimates the effectiveness of higher-cost options like dredging -- so EPA plans to rewrite it.

While the City of Portland has some of the best drinking water in the world, coming fresh from the pristine Bull Run watershed, we on the island are drinking well water which we hope is naturally filtered by the soil to be rid of these Superfund toxins.

No wonder moorage folks tell friends who come by for a swim on hot summer days to keep their mouths closed. I look outside and think about the wildlife who live in and eat what's in the water and make this stretch of downwater their home.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Close-knit community

When I was growing up, I had 25 first cousins within five years of my age -- postwar Baby Boomers -- and tons of neighborhood kids living within the range of a few blocks. We all played and birthday-partied together. Our moms had a Wednesday night Card Club and everyone knew each other and was there for each other. One thing I didn't expect moving to the moorage was to find a lot of that same closeness and sense of community, which I really have come to value and appreciate.

Our moorage has 17 houseboats, small enough so that everyone knows each other. We joke that you have to allow 15 extra minutes when you're coming or going because you're likely to end up stopping and talking to one or more people. We look out for each offer, offer advice and lend a helping hand without hesistation.

For New Years Eve this year, one of the neighbors had a fairly impromtu gathering that we were invited to the day before. A lot of us already had plans elsewhere earlier in the evening -- I'd gone to hear the fabulous David Grisman play the mandolin at the Alberta Rose Theater -- but came back to celebrate ringing in the new year with the neighbors.

It's also nice that you can shuffle on over to a neighbor's at a moment's notice or at times when one wouldn't necessarily want to be going and driving anywhere -- like wrapping up in a blanket and watching an eclipse of the moon at 3:00 a.m. Some people gather together to watch episodes of Downton Abbey and rehash the storyline afterwards. I invited people to come over and watch the presidential inauguration at 8:00 a.m. and we had a brunch of fresh-baked goods, tea and coffee.

I love the mysteries we try to collectively solve -- why are mergansers all of a sudden swimming so close to our houseboats, when will the sea lions returns, why are foghorns blaring at some times and not others? Many of us are creative and you can see the examples of our artistic endeavors walking past, making pleasant all the hauling back and forth.

There's a feeling of security of having houses so close-by, and there is something about the quirkiness of living on the water that draws us together. I'd lived on the island 23 years and have lots of friends, but you don't see them every day, in fact, you have to make an effort to get together with a lot of them, so these ecounters feel like a richness of community added to my daily life.

Foghorn nights and days

Listen to the foghorn:
2:32 a.m.
2:33 a.m.
2:34 a.m.
2:35 a.m.
2:36 a.m.
2:37 a.m.
2:38 a.m.
2:39 a.m.
2:40 a.m.
2:41 a.m.
2:42 a.m.
2:43 a.m.
2:44 a.m.
2:45 a.m.
2:46 a.m.
2:47 a.m.
2:48 a.m.
2:49 a.m.
2:50 a.m.
2:51 a.m.
2:52 a.m.
2:53 a.m.
2:54 a.m.
2:55 a.m.
2:56 a.m.
2:57 a.m.
2:38 a.m.
2:59 a.m.
3:00 a.m.
Okay, I quit notating in my journal so I could try and get back to sleep. That was the morning of Sunday, January 20th. We had been in a pea soup fog for days. The weather reports showed fog burning off to sun. That happened in town, but not here on the river. Thursday night when I drove home late I could barely see more than a few feet in front of me on the road, which then gets coated in a thin film of ice.

We often hear foghorns here. I used to hear them from my forest house, haunting in the distance, from the Columbia River. I love the sound. It takes me right back to an overnight ferry ride in fog in 1983, the last leg of a summer trip bicycling through Europe, heading from Denmark back to England for the flight home. The foghorn blew all night and I was in a contented state, from the exciting summer and the anticipation of soon being home.

On Saturday, we heard foghorns as we usually do -- intermittently throughout the day and evening. I couldn't figure out, though, why they were more frequent. The sound seemed to be coming from the mainsteam Willamette River three miles away, but certainly there wasn't that much ship traffic. When I went to bed, there were still a lot of foghorn blasts and I wondered if I would get to sleep. I did, but woke up around 2 a.m. to a non-stop series of that distant blaring. Curious to keep a record and see what I could make of it, I got out my cell phone to show the time in the dark, and a journal and pen to keep track. Every minute, the foghorn blew. Finally I gave up and was able to go back to sleep.

I tried to look up what are the "rules of engagement" for foghorns and couldn't find anything. I will do more research and pursue that. Oh, I think I'll go to "Ask the Librarian" on the county library site.

Sunday morning I put in around 11:00 a.m. for a paddle in the deep fog. It was curious that I didn't hear a single foghorn for the first 1-1/2 hours. I wondered if the fog had lifted that far upriver and that's why, but it was still foggy there. As I turned to head back downriver the sun was starting to peek out. I was thinking that I hadn't seen another boat that whole time, then looked up and saw a boat headed directly toward me. I moved aside, then recognized it was the Coast Guard. A guy came out on the back deck as they pulled close to me. I asked if he was wanting to see if I had an Invasive Species Permit (I did, or of course I wouldn't have asked) but he said they were just checking on me to see if I was okay. Did I have a cell phone with me? (yes, I did) Then he cautioned, "It's low visibility today. It's a good idea to keep close to the shore." By the time I paddled all the way back to my houseboat, the fog was completely burned off and it was brilliantly sunny.

Below: Photo by my neighbor Courtney Frisse of the same view at the very top of this post. It was published in our weekly island enews Newslink in the section, "Why we live here." She's a professional fine art/craft photographer ( and when I asked her if I could post this on my blog, she said yes and added, "I have dozens of  mist photos, but this particular morning was really amazing. Lasted about 2 minutes, then got totally socked in."

January 27
Here's the response from "Ask the Librarian"
Thank you for your question regarding rules for foghorns. The United States Coast Guard has posted their navigation rules online and these may be of interest to you. Here is an excerpt of the information available on their site:

Rule 32 - Definitions
Rule 33 - Equipment for Sound Signals
Rule 34 - Maneuvering and Warning Signals
Rule 35 - Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility
Rule 36 - Signals to Attract Attention
Rule 37 - Distress Signals

It may be that the horns you were hearing were coming from a buoy and not from a ship. To determine this, you may wish to contact the United States Coast Guard directly. Here is the contact information for their Buoy Tenders:
6767 North Basin Avenue
Portland, OR 97217-3992
Tel: (503) 240-9362

Here is an example of the many rules given under Rule 35:

Rule 35 - Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility Return to the top of the page

In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows:
(a) A power-driven vessel making way through the water shall sound at intervals of not more than 2 minutes one prolonged blast.

Walkin' in my YakTrax

It gets treacherously icy here. The moisture in the air from being on the river, combined with below-freezing temperatures, make for a life with a bit more caution. Since most of our water pipes are exposed beneath the houseboats, we have to leave water dripping from the faucet at night -- and if one is forgetful like me, a sign posted at the kitchen sink as a reminder. I'm told that the former owner forgot once and her water pipes froze and burst.

During the day, for the most part, the iciness is gone. But in the mornings and after dark the walkways are coated with a film of ice that makes for difficult walking. Shortly after I moved here in November 2011, there was a cold spell and a neighbor advised me to get YakTrax, which are like snow tire chains for your shoes. By the time I bought them (REI sells them; about $18/pair) there wasn't a problem.

This year, though, it started to get icy in mid-December and my YakTrax have been put to good use since then. I also discovered, since I walk with a cane, that I had to put a woolen sock over it lest it skid on the ice. So below is my rigging. One neighbor walks in felt slippers, another neighbors swears by putting women's nylon stockings over your shoes, and I have a pair of fat wool socks I keep in the car in case I'm ever stuck up in the parking lot without the YakTrax.

We used to have a neighbor who went up to the parking lot every morning and brought back The Oregonian newspaper for three of us from the bins up there where the delivery person leaves them. He moved away in December -- oh, how I miss him! -- and I tend to be the one of three of us now who share the task to trudge up there early morning. I throw a long raincoat over my pjs, a scarf around my neck, a big hat on my head and my YakTrax on my knee-high boots. One of my neighbors keeps telling me I look like a Russian cossack. I get the coffee started before I walk up and never appreciated so much sitting there eating breakfast and reading the newspaper after my brisk YakTrax stroll.