We were approaching mud hens – hundreds of them – bunched in front of our double flatwater racing shell during our twice-a-week father-daughter early morning workout.
It was the third of our four-mile race against the clock, ever seeking faster times – struggling, straining, sprinting all while exhausting long-since spent resources yet even still digging deeper, rowing harder, with some success but mostly not.
Nearly 200 miles now since late June this year, just the two of us, and almost all of those miles at race pace on American Lake.
All but six.
The ‘other six’ are recounted in a particularly excruciating experience in which we finished last in our category.
Groups of American Coots, or mud hens as they are more commonly known, are called covers or rafts. Indeed they were. Covering the water ahead, a raft of a blacker blotch on the black surface, the sheer numbers of them gathered together served almost as if to blockade further progress on our part.
The red blinking lights on the bow should have warned them of our approach but this was their water. They were here first. They owned the space we were wont to enter and they – unperturbed, unmoved, and unmolested (“the American coot is listed as ‘Least Concern’ under the IUCN conservation ratings”) they were not in a hurry – unlike us – to budge.
But then they did.
First a few, then a few more, and then the entire raft lifted – barely – off the water with little effort to become fully airborne since evidently walking on water either served them well enough or a winged takeoff was just too much effort this early in the morning.
Toward the forested shoreline, where Poplars and Oaks were putting on their own show – their leaves of green changing to Autumn reds and yellows – the mud hens flew, or walked, their collective little feet kicking up miniature whitecaps along the otherwise mirror-like surface of the water. With what amounted to the rushing sound of a tiny waterfall, the coots skipped just enough away to allow us passage, the flurry of splashing webbed feet caught for a few seconds on video.
Other than the rhythmic sploosh of our oar blades in the water, the creaking of the oarlocks and the near-silent two gulps of air per one of exhaust for each of the two-hundred strokes per mile (my daughter counted them), the only sounds we heard in the entirety of that early morning unearthly stillness was a raft of coots at semi-takeoff.
In our hurry we almost missed it.
Daughter Christina philosophically observed that what we’d witnessed was what she called “living for the picture and not the prize or prestige or place in which you finish.”
Such a profound life-quote that.
The picture is the prize.