Foot and Paddle: A Moonlight Paddle

12 mins read
Early evening, at the beginning of the excursion. (All photos by Doug Dunlap)
Doug Dunlap.

At an early hour of evening, on a night that would bring the rise of a full moon, six paddlers in kayaks and a canoe, slide their watercraft into the still waters of a remote Franklin County north-lying pond, and begin to make their way southward. The setting sun drops below a west-lying ridge topped by rock maple, and occasional high white pine, casting the launch shore into shadow. Beyond, to the south and east, well across the purple-black waters of the pond, lingering rays of the sun brighten the far shore and yonder hills, with a light of soft gold.

A doe steps out of a stand of cedar on the far shore, into this light, drinks, looks up and out, resumes drinking. She pays no noticeable attention to us – perhaps because we are in shadow, or perhaps because she knows well the distance from us to her to be a safe distance. We ship our paddles, watch the doe, say little. Although there are no other people on the pond to hear our conversation, which travels quickly and with clarity over open water, we speak in hushed tones anyway. The scene, the setting, is dramatic in its stillness, and the emerging play of the light. I am impelled to silence. The others surely experience the same.

As the doe slips back into the woods, we resume our paddling. There is actually no destination. Our gathering is to witness the moonrise. We tacitly agree to head towards the farthest shore, the most distant point from our launch, as though seeking all the more remoteness, as we position ourselves for the appearance of that full moon.

Dip and pull, dip and pull. My wife and I share a canoe. We synchronize our paddle placement, pulling back at the same instant. It is an efficient technique for paddling long distances on multi-day canoe trips, lest an out of synch rhythm, rock the canoe and require correction. On a short paddle such as this one, under a mile, such efficiencies are not really needed, but there is a certain gracefulness to the rhythm, and we pursue it.

The now-set sun puts on a light show in the eastern sky. Above the now dark, silhouetted ridge, a ragged streak of high clouds turns red, orange, lavender. The wispy railing edge of one errant cloud gains a gold trim. Quite the sight.

Floating Watch

On the water, our boats spread out, though well within sight of each other. I scan the pond and its shores for signs of wildlife. A bald eagle has been known to perch in a white pine above a shallow cove. Is it there this evening?

A loud whisper: “Heron – at nine o’clock by the cattails.” I shift my attention in that direction. The blue-purple heron stands at the water’s edge, attention to lily pads and hyacinth by its feet, where frogs are prone to gather.

No evidence of the eagles, but a pair of loons show themselves in silhouette 50 yards off in open water, bobbing, diving. Their distinctive heads and pointed beaks are in silhouette, too, as the entire pond has slipped into darkness. High above us, dramatic peaks of peaks of the North Country catch the last of the sunlight on their very summits, until these, too grow dark.

On we paddle to the center of the pond, ship our paddles, bob soundlessly save for a whisper or two, scan the darkening southeastern sky. Silence, stillness. I dip my hand into the water – cool, brisk! I am on watch for the first star of the night.

“There!” a good loud whisper announces the sighting. The first star! But it is not a star at all, but rather, Jupiter, bright in the light of the sun that has long since left us, and now sets far to the northwest – Vermont perhaps? The Adirondacks? Against the darkness, one starry light. Quite the sight.


The moon rises not long afterwards. First, as an arc of bold yellow, drawing a collective murmur among our flotilla. Next, in short order, the moon emerges as fully round, astonishingly bright, in utter contrast to all else in view – our dark kayaks and canoe on dark waters, the dark Northern Forest, looming dark high peaks. The full moon!

We watch, simply watch, in silence, for the longest time. The moon climbs higher and higher in the night sky, casting us now, and the surrounding water, in a fresh new half-light. I have witnessed many a rise of a full moon. To witness moonrise from the middle of a northern pond, not an artificial light anywhere in sight, the only light that from the moon and the stars, is stunning.

One of the other paddlers breaks the reverie, discovering that the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major, and the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor, now show themselves. The outer rim of the cup on the Big Dipper points to the North Star, and now we modest navigators are fully oriented. Conversation becomes animated, as our party identifies other constellations – Draco, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Bootes, Virgo, among them.

Turning Towards Home

The night becomes cool, paddles reach into the water, our boats head for the launch shore, and home. A great bird, an elongated dark form against the dark sky, wings its way over the water from right to left, just ahead of our lead boat. The heron! It has left its thin-depth position to seek a higher, protected, location for the night. It alights on the limb of a water’s edge pine, folds its lanky wings in slow motion, perches. This has been the evening for silhouettes, heron included. The last wild creature I see this night is that heron, well outlined on the pine, settled for the night.

We paddle briskly now over the water, my wife in the bow on watch for rocks, prepared to execute a quick bow rudder maneuver for an on-a-dime change of direction should the need arise. She is quite the expert at that, from canoeing the waters of Minnesota, Manitoba, and Ontario, as a teenager, and we have put that skill to use on whitewater runs over many years. Without incident, our party reaches the home shore, loads our watercraft, lingers for a longer look at that moon and the star-filled night sky, until finally, and for me, a bit reluctantly, we each turn finally toward home.

Not far from where you, the reader, are located, there is a pond or lake that offers to you a similar experience to mine. The water I describe here has particular requirements for access, and therefore I do not identify it. No matter! In Franklin County there dozens of waters await, easily accessed, with public boat launches. Determine the night of the full moon. Plan an outing. Or, head out on any night when the sky is clear enough for a view of the stars. We live in one of the finest so-called “Dark Sky” regions of the USA, with minimal light pollution and air pollution.

Night Sky Paddling Tips

I paddle at night only on waters familiar to me by day. Maine ponds and lakes hold many a rock, and sunken, or not-so-sunken, log. All watercraft must have a Type I, II, or III Personal Flotation Device (PFD) for each person aboard. Children age 10 and younger must wear the PFD.

Common sense dictates that on northern waters at night every person should wear the PFD, adults included. Rescue of a person who tumbles into the water at dark will be difficult indeed. A PFD supports a person who may tire quickly in the cold water, providing a margin of extra time for rescue. What is more, wearing a PFD may help a prospective rescuer. Persons without a PFD who enters cold water to help another person, is at risk for succumbing to the cold themselves.

A headlamp, and a whistle attached to the PFD, are two other essentials. Maine Boating Law requires that kayaks and canoes carry a white light readily available for displayed when needed. Flashlights are impractical (Ever try rowing or paddling with a flashlight in one hand?). Headlamps are ideal, as they leave hands free. A whistle enables a person in distress to signal others, essential if a person lands in the water at dark – or if the person is a solo paddler, anytime of day. Of course, to be of any use, both the headlamp and the whistle should be carried in the PFD pocket, or otherwise within immediate reach.

On waters where powerboats may be present, I carry a boat horn. That, and my headlamp, will signal my presence to approaching boats.

You need not paddle far. A vantage point of only a hundred feet from the shore may provide the dramatic view of the night sky that you seek.

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