A sunset kayak trip on a nearly still stretch of river downstream from New York City. A perfect setting to conclude the last weekend of August and the "unofficial" last weekend of summer before Labor Day. I started to paddle at high tide, about two hours before sunset.
The weather has returned to a warm, humid, tropical weather pattern after several days of cool, dry days last week. The landscape was covered in a blanket of haze and the hills of the Navesink Highlands to the north were cloaked in low clouds. It would be a sultry late-summer sunset.
I heard a large splash behind me, and turned to see a juvenile Osprey as it emerged from the water grasping a nice sized fluke in its talons. With what seemed to be an intense effort, the fish hawk flew about a bit confused where to go at first, squeaking loudly and hovering over a patch of the river, then finally deciding to land on a nearby branch to eat dinner in private. The bird is learning the skills needed to stay alive.
There is a sense of sadness, another summer season is about to fade away. I can easily say goodbye to swarms of biting flies, high humidity, and hellish heat waves. More difficult to send-off will be life without Ospreys, Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Oystercatchers, and Blue-claw Crabs. Gone will be the long warm friendly days of summer on a playful boardwalk or on a comfy stretch of sandy beach. All summer long there were always a variety of birds calling or flying, and a diversity of sea life to see when people were fishing or seining.
As August nears the end, the signs of fall are undeniably everywhere. Goldenrods and asters are in bloom and the leaves of Tupelo trees and Red Maples are starting to turn red. In the sky, Red-winged Blackbirds, swallows, Ospreys, and Monarch Butterflies are starting to migrate. In the water, Striped Bass, Fluke, snapper blues and other fish by great numbers are slowly migrating seaward. They all get the message - daylight is decreasing. They need to move southward. The sun is losing elevation with much of the sun's rays continuing to travel toward the equator and away from the Northern Hemisphere.
I ponder this while drifting in my kayak along the Navesink River, named for the local Lenape Indian group (called the Navesinks) who once lived here along the river's banks and in the present-day northern Jersey Shore region before European settlers arrived in the mid-1600s. Not much is really well-known about how these coastal Lenape people lived, expect from local archeological reports over the last several decades. They provide a limited view to suggest, in part, the Navesink people lived year-round near the coast and enjoyed a varied diet which included oysters, clams, mussels, fish, berries, beans, corn, deer and bear meat.
Huge gaps exist in how the Navesink people lived their daily life, from travelling to trading, farming to fishing. Sorrowfully, most Navesinks were wiped out in less than 30 years after European settlement before an account was made of their way of life by an interested European person, in the vein of Captain John Smith who wrote about his experiences with Eastern Shore Indians in the Chesapeake Bay region during his two-and-a-half years in present-day Virginia. Instead, for the Navesinks and many other coastal Lenape people, a non-stop series of "white-man" diseases including smallpox and measles, or warfare with early European settlers over land rights decimated the population. A dreadfully sad upheaval for a group of proud people that spent a very long time along the Jersey Shore in peace.
Before European settlement, late summer must have been a happy, festive time for coastal Lenape people including the Navesinks. A sense of change in the air brought cooler weather and a bountiful harvest of fish, crabs, and clams. Seeds of corns, squash, and beans planted in May would also have ripened into abundance. Fresh out of the garden or local waters, a person could have tasted the charm of summer in a bite.
I can imagine that those ancient fishing people took advantage of the beauty and calmness of sunset to paddle out to fish or catch a crabs on this slow-moving tidal river in a wooden canoe or on a raft. It must have been an enjoyable experience for the Navesink people. Their boats loaded with fish and shellfish, some record sizes. The river that bears their name was an important resource for fishing, crabbing, canoeing, swimming, and transportation, as it still is today.
Being on the water, whether in a canoe or kayak, is a very relaxing and rewarding activity. It's another way to enjoy the beauty of this estuary. Sunset is perhaps the most beautiful time to be on the Navesink River. Being in a kayak provides the best seat in the house to experience a setting sun.
I watched as countless herons and egrets around the river returned to their roosting sites on the tops of trees for their nightly slumber. There were even a few Green Herons and juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons methodically foraging the shallows with stealth and precision. Schools of small Killifish were the target and it did not take long for the herons to have success in catching them, one at a time in their long, pointed beak.
There were a fair number of Blue-claw Crabs too swimming in the river, all about market size. Small fish got in the act as well by putting on a show as they occasionally jumped or leaped out of the water here and there, one at a time, to quickly escape the hungry mouth of a larger fish, perhaps a Striped Bass or Bluefish. A great time to be on the river.
Of course, the Navesink River is not a perfect stretch of water. One of the river's biggest problems is the lack of public access. There are often barriers to river access, such as private landownership or inadequate or restricted public parking. Along the approximately 8 mile long river, there are only about a handful of sites to legally launch a kayak. Some sites are free with restricted parking while other free sites have very limited parking spaces available. At other sites there is a charge to launch a kayak in a marina or at a municipal boat ramp, usually $5 or $10 per kayak. There are no public waterfront walkways, at least of any great length, and no recreational corridor of public space along the riverfront. A majority of the properties along the riverfront are almost exclusively in private hands. More work is certainly needed to upgrade shoreline access opportunities along the Navesink River so more people can enjoy the water for free.
But kayaking the Navesink River is worth the effort. It's always an enjoyable experience to be on the water. While low clouds covered the actual sunset for me, the pinkish light of the waning sun reflected on the water was just gorgeous. The water was so still I could see my face reflected. Not much boat traffic at this hour made it feel like I had the river to myself.
Upon my return to dock, the sun had set and it was nightfall. The sounds and sights of night were active. Little Brown Bats were flying to forage on flying insects, crickets were chirping, a few katydids were making their familiar sounds in nearby trees, and, off in the distance, there was even a Screech Owl starting to call. It was a wonderful way to conclude August.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com