“Watch out for Fred,” said the man behind the counter.
“Who’s Fred,” I asked?
“A swan. They’re very territorial,” he offered through a grin.
I had just secured two canoes from the man, a purveyor of small watercraft for hourly rental at the north end of Georgica Pond. My wife, Susan, and I were to take one of the canoes and our son, Jason and his buddy Max, were to take the other. Rachel, Susan’s cousin, and her husband Ron, would pilot a third canoe.
With paddles in hand and a lust for adventure in our hearts we all shoved off from a tiny trickle of an inlet abutting a small parking area adjacent to Route 27. The shallow channel was narrow and heavily shaded with overhanging growth. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the dense greenery making it like something out of a Hollywood screenplay. I thought African Queen or Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was only mid-morning and the steamy temperature promised a hot summer day. Fine, I thought.
“What better place to be than on the water, right darling,” I queried Susan? She didn’t reply, being too busy swatting at the flying insects that seemed to have found her a desirable target.
Our little flotilla slowly emerged from the shade. The channel widened and grew deeper. A slight breeze gave welcomed relief to the heat. I felt the sweat collecting under my shirt. An upper body workout paddling across a small body of water surrounded by some of the most expensive homes in the country intrigued me. Awaiting us about a half mile to our south was a 50-yard stretch of beach and the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. For about the price of a few bags of groceries the great unwashed could insert themselves right into the heart of an enclave of hedge fund titans and famous celebrities. To enter their sanctum, all we had to do was paddle.
“Is that the ‘Fred’ the guy was warning us about,” wondered Jason as we looked up ahead? It was definitely some sort of water foul visible in the distance. Bundled tufts of white feathers afloat on the surface were topped by a long articulating neck. A prominent head with menacing eyes and beak swiveled this way and that. Wings lifted and refolded as though the creature were flexing its muscles.
“It’s just a bird,” I scoffed.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” declared Susan from the stern.
“Just jab your paddle out in his direction,” I said. These were the instructions of the guy who rented us the canoes. He assured us that the swan would back off if we did this.
Rachel and Ron, being the more prudent among us gave the approaching Fred a wide berth and maneuvered well beyond his apparent territory. On the other hand, for me, my bearing straight across the pond wasn’t going to be impeded by a mere waterfowl. I raised my paddle Louisville Slugger style and called out, “go ahead, make my day.”
Fred approached and I could see by his body language that he meant business. I had not realized until that moment just how big a swan could be. His dimensions seemed to expand with the collision course on which I had chosen, I later stupidly realized.
Every creature, no matter its size, has a certain way of showing its intent to stand its ground, or in Fred’s case, its water. His neck arched into an ominous “S” like a cobra before it strikes. His wings were poised as though to take flight. He came at us. I gave him a harmless but firm poke. “Get lost,” I commanded. He backed off and I concluded that the problem was solved. Wrong.
I figured Fred sized me up and found he had met his match, but he seemed to sense a more vulnerable prey. Jason and Max had flanked us on the right and some 20 yards behind. Fred took aim, launched himself into the air and went straight for the occupants of the trailing canoe. They didn’t stand a chance.
A mere bird, I thought? In flight this swan’s wingspan was easily six feet, an intimidating sight hurtling at you honking like a deranged motorist. Jason and Max did what any sensible people would do. They ducked, a little too wildly I regret to say, and instantly capsized.
The human screeches and flailing about were only part of the commotion. Fred was counter attacking from all angles. The boys took refuge under the over turned canoe as we furiously paddled in their direction. Fred retreated as we arrived at the scene. The panicked teens came at us. Before I could calmly explain how two people can board a floating canoe from opposite sides they simultaneously grabbed the gunnels on our starboard hurling Susan and I into the flood. With two over turned canoes in the water, and the turkey on rye I had anticipated picnic style on the beach now a soggy mess, I was not amused.
Maybe Fred had some sense that a distant cousin had been roasted, carved and sandwiched into my lunch. Maybe Fred was just generally pissed off at all the tourists meandering through his mating area disrupting his romantic intentions– a cob with his pen, as the birders call it. Maybe it was a conspiracy. Maybe the swells whose multi-gazillion dollar Hamptons retreats that aspired to an exclusive, unobstructed view of the pond, were a trifle tired of the riff-raff disturbing their quiet with incessant chattering and picture-taking. Maybe over cocktails at some swank soiree they hatched out a plan.
I surmised that the guy in the ascot remarked that they could smuggle a few alligators into Georgica Pond. “Too messy,” replied the matron with the plunging neckline, pearls and third facelift. The balding corporate honcho with the baseball cap said that he knew of this animal trainer with very special talents. “Let’s get ourselves an especially large and aggressive swan,” he chuckled. I figured it was these people gazing out impassively at our distress from the well-appointed comfort of a large white gazebo I noticed in the distance on a manicured lawn sweeping down to the water’s edge. I wasn’t sure if what I saw through all the splashing and howling in my midst were the swells toasting each other clinking upraised glasses.
It took a while, but we finally managed to get the canoes up righted and bailed out. After several unsuccessful and drenching attempts to clamber back aboard, we were able to seize our paddles and continue in thorough humiliation on our forlorn way. Rachel and Ron seemed in cahoots with the other spectators witnessing this admittedly amusing show. They were laughing at us. It only made me all the more mad and determined to exact revenge on one fine-feathered friend I fully expected to engage when we would later make our way back across the pond.
We didn’t linger long on the beach having little edible nourishment to fortify our return trip. The ocean was spectacular. The surf impressively pounded. The sky was blue and a few clouds rolled by. It was a picture postcard view but my thoughts were dark. I imagined a large plucked and gutted bird rotating slowly over an open fire. I took the trailing edge of our party instructing the others to move on ahead and steer clear from Fred’s domain.
Despite Susan’s protests I determined we should move straight through the center of the pond. I couldn’t wait to send Fred into oblivion with a sharp whack from my paddle. It was not to be. He was focused on a small cluster of other swans apparently of the female variety off to the east. I can’t really say that I wanted another encounter with him anyway. Despite my bruised ego I had to confer a begrudging respect for the wildlife that had as much right as we humans to what was in front of me. Fred could busy himself producing other little Freds and we could still enjoy the splendor of Georgica pond.
Somehow though I couldn’t escape the feeling that our encounter with a big angry bird was more than just coincidence. Although the people I saw earlier in the gazebo were no longer there, it looked as though a large tent had been erected further up the lawn and another gathering of the chic and stylish was underway. Music from a live band could be heard wafting across the quiet waters. I imagined the laughter I also heard was partly the result of an account by earlier witnesses prompted by the sight of us out on the pond making our way back with the same three canoes: one red, one blue, and one green. I doffed my soggy hat and feigned a friendly wave in their direction. The gesture was returned. Fred or no Fred, I did get my three-bags-of-groceries worth of adventure for the day and then some.