By: Nik Bergill
“It looks like a goose flying backwards!” the young girl in my raft exclaimed. On another clear day in Western North Carolina, I couldn’t help but laugh. Almost two months into my season as a raft guide on the French Broad River, I had grown accustomed to seeing the local Great Blue Herons. Through Beginners Rapid, in the Maze, or far downriver in the Windy Flats, herons could be found in their reliable spots along the river banks. Seemingly always calm, even when interrupted by a party of noisy yellow rafts, the herons would take off slowly and effortlessly. This individual was no different as it flew downriver from us. With long, stick-like legs paired to its fully body and long neck, I suppose a Great Blue Heron mid-flight might, in fact, look like “a goose flying backwards.” I think about that trip every time I see a Great Blue Heron now, and I feel thankful that I was able to help facilitate that experience for my young guest, to provide her with her first ever opportunity so see the rare inverted goose in its natural habitat.
As a raft guide and kayaking instructor, it has been a privilege to introduce others to rivers and river ecosystems. On various trips across the country, my students and guests have seen herons, bald eagles in flight, and bachelor herds of bighorn sheep butting heads, practicing for the fall rut. These sightings almost always create quiet amongst the group. Chatter pauses as everyone shares a moment to simply observe. Though river trips are an inherent intrusion into the landscape, I take solace knowing that many leave a day of rafting or kayak instruction with a newfound appreciation for the river and a greater desire to protect it. I’d like to think my young trip participant can still recognize the iconic profile of a Great Blue Heron and that seeing one take off in person perhaps has given her a greater appreciation for the species and its home.
I am missing rivers dearly now, as the snow melts here in New England and I shelter in place isn the new normal of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am missing the first moment, after pushing off from shore, when the current begins to pull your craft downstream, I am missing soggy river sandwiches with my best friends, and I am missing the quiet between the rapids when your only obligations are to paddle and keep an eye out for birds overhead. I suppose a small consolation to this pandemic is that the eagles and the herons do not miss us. While I shelter in place, their days will go unchanged. Should this pandemic carry on through late spring and early summer, birds in New England, bighorn in Southern Utah, and fish in the Southeast might all enjoy a respite from loud rafts and intrusive kayakers. Of course, I hope I will be spotting them all from my boat again soon along with the birdwatchers, anglers, and researchers nationwide. Whenever I can return to the rivers I love, I will come back grateful to be back and with renewed desire to protect the river ecosystems I am missing so dearly now.