If you are like most birders, you probably have some very special patch of habitat that you would love to investigate but just can't get to. Maybe it's a forested island in a river or lake where you are sure migrating warblers swarm in the spring. Maybe it's a salt marsh pond, buffered by heat waves and miles of muck, where shorebirds mass at high tide. You know, know that discoveries abound in that tantalizing patch--life birds, state or provincial records, maybe even continental firsts. Just over there.
"If only there was a way to get there," you think. If only there was a way to ferry you and your ambitions to the place that has always been out of reach.
I urged my VW Camper down Moore's Beach road and stopped when the wheels hit sand. I climbed out, stepped to the rear, and was immediately met by wet, windy spray. The surface of Delaware Bay was dimpled with whitecaps and it roiled beneath the blast of westerly winds--not exactly the conditions I would have chosen to test the merits of a small, unfamiliar boat.
"Heck," I concluded, "It's less than half a mile to the mouth of the creek and I'll only have to fight a crosswind until I get past the breakers.
"Besides," I added, "I'll be hugging the shore all the way...." The appending phrase, "in case the boat swamps," was an unspoken afterthought.
Without more hesitation I cracked the hatch on the van, grabbed a line, pulled, and extracted a sleek, sassy, twelve foot sliver of fiberglass that dropped four feet and hit the cobble with a thud.
"Huh," I mused, as I one-handed the craft down to the beach. "Rugged little critter." Mind you, I'm no Arnold Schwarzenegger. But at 28 pounds, the Poke BoatŪ isn't exactly a Herculean load, either. Five minutes later I was bobbing along like a scoter and slipping through troughs like a teflon-coated otter--en route to that tantalizing mud flat that has always been just out of reach.
I've seen ads for the Poke BoatŪ (available from Phoenix Poke BoatsŪ, Inc., 207 North Broadway, P.O. Box 100, Berea, Kentucky 40403; 800/354-0190) for years but always dismissed them. Maybe it was the name of this canoe/kayak hybrid that put me off--a name that conjured images of a rudderless row--boat less deft than a log. Maybe it was the price. Eight hundred dollars on a naturalist's salary is a lot to shell out for a poky boat. Heck, if it is a "poke" that strokes you, there are aluminum punts for less than half the price of a Poke BoatŪ.
What made me change my mind about the boat? Why, the place out of reach, of course!
It took several minutes before I felt comfortable with the rhythm of a double-bladed kayak paddle--not that I couldn't have opted to use a one-bladed canoe paddle instead. The lightweight, two-piece aluminum paddle converts to both forms and the boat is designed to be propelled with either.
It took less time to gain confidence in the stability of the Poke BoatŪ. With its flat hull, 32-inch beam, and super-low center of gravity the Poke BoatŪ offers more stability than a comparably sized canoe.
I was forced to turn once again into a crosswind to access the mouth of the creek. The waves turned ornery. The boat got slapped around a bit and shipped some water but the flared lip of the cockpit gunnel deflected the worst of it (and the slightly elevated seat kept my rear out of the puddle).
The waves lost their punch as soon as I crossed the sandbar that guards the mouth of the creek--and the Poke BoatŪ got to show off another of its stellar attributes. With a 250-pound load, the Poke boasts a shallow 3-inch draft--shallow enough to get over the creek's boat-defeating bar without a portage or a scrape.
Safety risks and operational rudiments behind me, I finally had time to appreciate the boat's construction. Each Poke BoatŪ is hand-crafted from aircraft-quality, resin-saturated, fiberglass cloth. This formula offers both material flexibility and structural strength. High-impact areas such as the bow, the stern, and the place where 450 pounds of passenger might plant his or her feet--are reinforced.
Maneuverable? The boat skips though shallows like a scud and turns so nimbly that the action seemed like an afterthought. Despite its maneuverability, the boat's ability to track--i.e., its capacity to travel in a straight line--is impressive and linked to the boat's deeply V'd bow and stern, slight keel, and a design that places the widest point of the boat aft of the center line.
Poke BoatsŪ offer plenty of room fore and aft for gear (or optional removable air bags that will keep the boat afloat in the event of a mishap). Options also include stabilizing foot braces to anchor a body and ease the strain of paddling and a choice of colors: natural, red, and, best for birding, cryptic olive-drab.
The creek got narrower, the banks got broader. I turned a corner, and suddenly the marsh gave way to a mud flat that vibrated with feeding shorebirds--the mud flat that for five years had lain beyond the reach of everything but my dreams. Thousands of dowitchers, Dunlins, yellowlegs, and a silverbacked swarm of Black-bellied Plovers stopped their feeding and stared, open-billed, at the birder who succeeded in going where no birder had gone before. They did not fly. They did not seem troubled by the intrusion--something I have often noted about birds and boats. Birds seem far less threatened by birders in boats than birders on foot.
And when the channel drew down to a trickle so feeble that even a Poke BoatŪ could not proceed, I found myself eyeball to eyeball with shorebirds so close that they made binoculars superfluous. So I let the glasses fall and brought my camera to bear and savored the massed flocks fanning out all around me. The only birder around. In the place that had always been out of reach. But no longer.
Article originally appeared in Birding, December 1994
P.O. Box 100
Berea, KY 40403
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