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Come along on a canoe trip through a flooded forest in a Vermont bird sanctuary

The Mississquoi often looks more like a Louisiana bayou than a New England river.  Spring snowmelt floods the forest.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
The Mississquoi often looks more like a Louisiana bayou than a New England river. Spring snowmelt floods the forest.

We set off at first light, gliding with the current down the Missisquoi River
and almost at once we're in a different world.

Road sounds and other markers of modern life drop away, replaced by bird song and the steady rhythm of our paddles.

"I love being here, it's a little bit more magical on the river," says Catherine Seidenberg, my guide and paddling partner. "To see the world in a way that we just wouldn't normally, I guess that's what it is."

Catherine's a Vermont native, an experienced outdoorswoman and naturalist. Sitting in the stern of her canoe, she moves us with small skillful touches of her paddle through islands of grass and ostrich ferns.

Catherine Seidenberg, a Vermont native, guides her canoe along the Missisquoi River as NPR's Brian Mann records bird sounds in the bow.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Catherine Seidenberg, a Vermont native, guides her canoe along the Missisquoi River as NPR's Brian Mann records bird sounds in the bow.

Across the U.S., the spring bird migration is underway. Species including warbling vireo, American woodcock and black terns travel hundreds and thousands of miles north to breeding and nesting grounds in the north.

The 6,729-acre Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, at the edge of Lake Champlain, was created in 1943 to help shelter the birds as they make their journey.

As the river flows into the big lake, it unravels into wetlands, bogs and veins of narrow water.

Grass islands and winding branches of the river form where the Missisquoi flows into Lake Champlain.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Grass islands and winding branches of the river form where the Missisquoi flows into Lake Champlain.
A great blue heron hunts at the edge of Vermont's Missisquoi River.
Catherine Seidenberg / Photo used with permission
/
Photo used with permission
A great blue heron hunts at the edge of Vermont's Missisquoi River.

The canoe takes us through graceful arcs of the river where great blue herons stalk their prey. A kingfisher dips through the air along the bank.

Redwing blackbirds move in the grass, trilling their song, landing so close they could perch on the end of our paddles.

As the sun climbs, its light cuts through new spring leaves on the trees and through ostrich ferns, sending a kind of stained-glass window glow over the river.

The water is high this time of year, and the forest is flooded. Catherine guides the canoe into a shadowy maze of maple and oak. It looks more like a bayou in Louisiana than a New England river.

This part of the trip is extraordinary. We're no longer looking at the wildness: we're in it. Under the tree canopy, the spring warmth fades.

You can feel the cold of the snowmelt river as birds move overhead. A big woodpecker sounds and a flight of geese honks on its journey.

Traveling by canoe into the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge
Catherine Seidenberg / Photo used with permission
/
Photo used with permission
Traveling by canoe into the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge

"It's a rare opportunity to be in a totally wild place like this," Catherine says. "You have to brave the water and cold and wind."

She takes us through the forest to the edge of the big lake, where there's more wind, more chop in the water. The canoe feels small and vulnerable, so we turn back into the shelter of the marsh.

I ask Catherine why she comes to places like this. "I guess the quiet and the solitude," she says. "It's open and peaceful and mostly it's wild."

She steers us back into the warmth of the spring sun and we just float for a while, drifting and listening to bird song.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Where the Missisquoi River flows into Lake Champlain, flooded forests offer sanctuary to migrating spring birds.
Catherine Seidenberg / Photo used with permission
/
Photo used with permission
Where the Missisquoi River flows into Lake Champlain, flooded forests offer sanctuary to migrating spring birds.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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