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Sunrise Morning at Keoka

Photo by Darylann Leonard and Story by Sally Stockwell

I stir with first light, stretch my arms and legs, then open my eyes to the day. I rise slowly, don shorts and tee, and tiptoe down the stairs so as not to wake my sleeping cousins. I head out the door and walk into town, up past the Common, the Congregational Church, and the Wilkins House to the trailhead at Mt. Tire’m. I note the new trail marker carved into a downed log at the start of the trail, and stop to stretch my legs on the log – it’s the perfect height. I walk up the trail, noting the fresh leaves, the blooming Trillium, the new puddles and mushrooms sprouting following last night’s rainstorm.

I listen for my feathered friends along the pathway; they keep me company, divert my attention from the hard work of hiking uphill, and enrich my travels. By the time I get to the top I have heard a Black-and-White Warbler singing its squeaky wheel song from amidst the Spruce trees; a Red-eyed Vireo saying “look at me, up in the tree, here I am” from the maples to the east; a Black-throated Green Warbler saying “zee-zee-zee-zoo-zeet” from the hemlock branches; and a Brown Creeper singing its winding song while climbing up one tree trunk, then flying down to the base of another before climbing up again. At the top of the mountain, Song Sparrows sing from amidst the stubby shrubs and Dark-eyed Juncos trill while flitting among the trees both short and tall.

Over the hill and down the trail towards Grover Road, I hear the flute-like song of the Hermit Thrush; the long-winded song of the Winter Wren; a Scarlet Tanager sounding a bit like a Robin singing from the tops of the Oak trees; and Blue Jays squawking. I watch Chipmunks and Red Squirrels run and chase one another in, on, and through the old stone wall; and out of the corner of my eye, catch a Broad-winged Hawk sailing through the trees in pursuit of a meal. The small vernal pool just below the top of the mountain is nearly dry now, but held dozens of egg masses from both Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders earlier in the spring.

Back on top, I rest on the rocky outcrop, marveling at the landscape below and afar. Keoka Lake, Bear Pond, and Long Lake all stretch out before me, a slight breeze creating ripples on the waters. No boats out just yet. Bear Mountain, Hawk Mountain, and Pleasant Mountain each call me to come visit them soon as well. The cottages around the lakes, Keoka Campground, and Bear Mountain Inn are half-hidden amid the sea of forest, but I know they are there, as are the streams feeding the lakes, and the orchards, fields, and farms tucked in between. All of which help determine the health of the lakes themselves.

I close my eyes, breathe deeply, take in the scents of the forest and the breeze, the sounds all around me, and feel refreshed. I slowly get up and start down the trail, listening all the way, saying good morning to the town regulars who are on their up for their morning climb.

Back at camp, I put on my swimsuit and water shorts, head to the beach, slip me and my PFD into the kayak, and start circumnavigating Keoka Lake. I watch the sun rise from behind the hills to the east and follow its light skitter across the water. I see fish rising, chasing the Midges and Mayflies that are just now hatching. As I paddle out I stir a small family of Ducks from the reeds and find signs of Mink on the rocks off Gage Rice Beach. Later in the day, maybe the Painted turtles will be sunning themselves on the rocks.

I paddle towards Kedar Brook and am surrounded by the sounds of cackling Geese and squawking Red-winged Blackbirds. Up the creek a ways I also hear Common Yellowthroats singing from the dense shrubs alongside the creek, and hear Olive-sided Flycatchers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers singing and drumming from the floodplain forest. I startle a family of Mallards, the young scattering in search of safety. Looks like the Beavers have been busy again, with freshly cut twigs and the remnants of a dam floating in the water, but so have people endlessly trying to outfox the Beavers.

Southwest of the creek I see the large Bald Eagle nest rising above Kokosing, with one eaglet head poking up out of the nest. It is noisy – demanding food from its parents as they return from a foraging foray. One of the adults flies right overhead, with wings stretched out five feet in each direction, flapping to slow down before alighting on the edge of the nest. I watch as it feeds the young a hearty meal of fresh fish. Along the southeast shore I paddle among the rocks and reeds that line the shore, and weave in and out of every small cove, watching for Dragonflies, Water Striders, Spotted Sandpipers, and Minnows. I find a pair of Common Loons feeding in one of the coves, with two small chicks in tow. It’s good to know they nested successfully this year. I keep my distance as they swim cautiously away from me; their long bills, piercing red eyes, and black and white dappled feathers thrill me every time.

As I circle around Sandy Cove and paddle for home, I find a few other early risers out on docks, sipping coffee and enjoying the morning’s sun rays. I see a Mink moving quickly among the rocks right along shore, searching for its next meal, and a Bald Eagle now perched in a tall pine right in front of Camp Eee-Yah-Kee. By the time I return to camp, the Loons have settled into the small shallow cove in the northwest corner of the lake, where they often bring their young as they search for small fish to feed the chicks. I like to think of this area as their nursery – quiet, out of the way, full of good food.

After climbing out of my kayak, I slip off my shorts and pull on my swim cap and goggles and wade into the cool water. I dive in and start my 35-minute freestyle swim along shore, heading out before the boat traffic claims the day. I swim close to shore, dodging rocks and logs hidden beneath the water’s surface, and peer into the lives of Mystery Snails, Minnows, and Small-mouthed Bass that are hiding among the rocks. I also see birchbark, leaves, piles of freshwater clam shells, and beds of aquatic plants on the lake bottom. Occasionally, as I lift my head up out of the water, I see the head of a Painted or Snapping Turtle coming up for air, or a Common Merganser with chicks looking for insects and minnows along shore.

At the far end of my route, I swing out around a couple of floating swim rafts, and return the way I came, the wind having picked up by now, making me work a little harder to get home. Finally, I breast-stroke in through the shallow waters covered with Pondweed, climb out of the water onto the soft damp sand, take off my cap and goggles, marvel at my early morning adventures, and note how lucky I am to be able to explore Keoka from in, on, and over the water all before breakfast.

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