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Stalking Egrets and Kayaking Canals

By Alan M. Murray,
Uncharted Staff

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A Great Egret holds a small fish along the Delaware Canal at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

I have always wanted to try kayaking. As an experienced canoeist, I often cross paths with kayakers while exploring wetlands, marshes and lakes, each time secretly wishing I could trade my clunkier canoe for their much swifter, more maneuverable kayak. Almost every time I go canoeing, I think, “I should rent a kayak next time,” but I just never got around to it – until now.

Last weekend I found a kayaking activity at Delaware Canal State Park in Yardley, Pa., just one hour from my home near Philadelphia. The activity, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), provides brief instruction for beginners and takes them on a guided trip along the Delaware Canal. For a $10 donation, the department provides kayaks, life vests and paddles. It’s a great opportunity to try out a kayak and at the same time explore a place full of wildlife and beautiful scenery.

The park follows the canal, a manmade navigation channel constructed in the 1800s that parallels the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side. This gives the park an odd shape as it is about 60 miles long, but only 10 feet wide in some places.

Most of our group had never kayaked. Sarah Berg, an environmental education specialist with the department, teaches us how to get in and out of our kayaks without tipping them and shows us how to use the double-bladed paddle.

Uncharted's President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

Alan Murray, Uncharted’s President and co-founder kayaks on the Delaware Canal in Yardley, Pa. (© 2013 Alan M. Murray/Uncharted)

A few minutes later we’re floating down the canal, weaving in and out of aquatic plant life, trees and narrow streams. A Great Blue Heron, camouflaged in the upper branches of a tree, peers quietly down as we pass. Another stands behind some brush nearby. Further down the canal, a fox patiently waits in a statue-like stance for us to pass.

Two miles later we’re back where we started. While loading kayaks onto the trailer, someone turns around to see a Great Egret walking along the shore. I grab my camera and hurriedly switch to my longest lens, a 300mm. I tiptoe toward it thinking I’ll probably be lucky if I get even one shot off before it flies away.

I slowly raise my camera, focus, and snap the first photo. To my surprise, it doesn’t even seem to notice me and continues walking toward me along the shore, intently focused on catching its next meal. I keep shooting.

The egret is now less than ten feet away. I’m starting to feel cramped and wondering if I chose the wrong lens since I keep having to walk backwards to fit the bird in the frame.

It stretches its long neck down just above the water and pauses. I hold my breath and wait. In one swift motion, it snatches a small fish and in an instant gobbles it up. It ruffles its feathers in satisfaction and fearlessly continues walking towards me as I walk backwards taking photos and trying not to trip over myself. One would wonder who is afraid of whom.

Ironically, it was a small leashed dog out for an evening walk – you know, the kind with the annoying squeaky bark – that finally scared it away.  The owner apologized for scaring the bird, but I’d already gotten some great shots.

For me, Delaware Canal State Park is not some far off place. I made the drive in an hour and the kayak trip in just under two with plenty of time to spare for dinner. While I love venturing to distant remote locations, it’s nice to know that with a little exploration we can find cool things to see and experience in our own backyards.

Alan Murray is Uncharted’s President and one of its co-founders. He likes snowshoes and scuba diving, and despite making fun of small dogs in this post, he likes them too. If you would like to learn more about Uncharted, sign up and we’ll notify you when our new online club for explorers is ready and keep you posted on our latest adventures, workshops and other cool products. If you would like Alan to apologize to your small dog, feel free to comment below.