Friday, November 4, 2011


The vibrant colors of the rainbow were perfectly outlined against the slate gray sky. Trees across the lake looked orange and purple through the vertical leg of the rainbow that ended precisely at our boat landing. It’s so rare to actually get to see the end of a rainbow, and even more rare for it to end precisely in your own yard! Watching the liquid silver surface of the lake as it reflected leaden clouds and skeleton trees, I decided that it had been too long since I’d paddled. 

As I dug out long underwear and put on thick wool socks, I noticed a change in the sound. Looking out I could see thick raindrops falling heavy and straight. After a second they became bigger and white, and bounced when they hit the ground! I paused a moment in my dressing to check the weather radar – the storm was no bigger than Lake Namakagon itself, a tiny green blip on the screen. By the time I had my dry top, spray skirt and life jacket on, the small white chunks of graupel were melting in the grass.

Graupel is one of my favorite early winter phenomena. It must have been cold enough to form snowflakes in the upper atmosphere, and as the flakes fell they encountered supercooled water droplets. Special atmospheric conditions (don’t ask me which ones!) allow the drops to remain liquid even below the normal freezing point of 32 degrees. When the droplets contact the snowflakes, they stick on. This process is known as accretion. Although graupel looks like small hail, it is much softer and more irregularly shaped. The first snows of the year are often graupel, and it looks like millions of tiny snowballs are falling from the sky!

The maple leaves on the path were just wet, and the precipitation dwindled to a light mist as I hauled my kayak down to the shore. I bought it precisely for times like this – when I want to go out on the water NOW, without having to convince someone to help paddle my favorite canoe. Even the cold and wet aren’t a problem with a waterproof top and an insulating life jacket. The spray skirt holds in my heat and keeps out the rain. Do you have a similar scheme for independence? 

I paddled slowly out into the lake, admiring the wispy pink and purple clouds of sunset. Delicate birch twigs and feathery white pine branches reached up to tickle the underbelly of sky. The water surface was still thick with green algae. This late-season algae bloom may be caused by the lake’s “fall turnover.” During the summer, sun-warmed surface waters don’t mix much with the cold, dense bottom water. As the season cools and winds increase, the two layers start to mix again – the “turning over.” Nutrient-rich bottom waters are brought to the surface, stimulating algae to grow in the sunlight. A melon-colored birch leaf floats among the bright green film. Life and death are never-ending cycles.

Across the channel on Burgundy Point I glide into a little boggy bay. The dried leaves of Sparganium (a group of plants commonly called bur-reeds because of their spiky seed heads) stand guard at the entrance, and the ragged leaves of dying water lilies cling to the surface. The bow of my kayak slips in among the wiry stems of alder, leatherleaf, and sweet gale with its tiny cone-like buds all ready for next spring. Just beyond stands a clump of Carex lacustris, or lake sedge. Its long spikes of seeds bend gracefully among half-green leaves. Further in I can see the small spires of black spruce and golden tamaracks.  

With the nose of my kayak stuck in the weeds, my own nose is enjoying immensely the fresh, sweet, damp, cool smells of fall. “It begins/to rain, /it begins/to smell like the bodies/of flowers” (From Rain by Mary Oliver).

Despite the cold, and the wet, and the melancholy of death and dormancy, autumn is a lovely time of year. Although I barely paddled half a mile, I found plenty of treasure at the end of my rainbow. We’ve had lots of rainbows lately, what treasures have you found?

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