The Sportsman’s World — Adventures in the Marsh

By Leon Archer

Sweet thing and I have started packing for our long drive back home, but we won’t be leaving for a few more days.

It will seem strange when we leave and don’t have our grandson, Beckett, keeping us busy anymore. He just had his first birthday, but boy can he give his grampa a run for the money.

Yesterday I had him out in the back yard. It was about 70 degrees and the sun was shining, and it was way too nice to stay inside. Beckett hasn’t quite gotten used to grass, but he still likes being outside, mostly on the patio.

I had been doing some work in the flower garden and had laid my little hand spade down before Beckett joined me. He is very inquisitive, so he was investigating all the nooks and crannies around the patio while I lounged for a few minutes on the big swing.

I figured he couldn’t get into too much trouble on the patio, but the next thing I knew he had the spade in his mouth. By the time I caught up with him, he was spitting and gagging a little, but the spade seemed to be OK.

Apparently good black dirt isn’t immediately fatal as Beckett seems pretty lively today. My mother always used to say, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” Beckett’s off to a good start.

I’ve been keeping track of what the fishing has been like back in New York state, and I am ready to be back there.

The bullheads are biting and perch have been showing up. The smelt haven’t started running in the Niagara River yet, probably because the water is still too cold.

It shouldn’t be long though, because the guys fishing on the lake where the river empties out onto the Niagara Bar have noticed smelt in the trout stomachs.

This is the time of year when my father would announce that he was going to pick a bunch of cowslips for dinner. I couldn’t stand cowslips (more properly known as marsh marigolds) but my father actually looked forward to them.

If you read about them, you will find out they are poisonous, but when prepared properly, they are edible. I use the word “edible” advisably and in its broadest sense. Anyone who watches the TV show Bizarre Foods will understand.

The thing I liked about cowslips wasn’t eating them, it was going after them. They grew in the marsh, and the only time to pick them, according to my father, was in the early spring when the new leaves were about the size of a half dollar and they hadn’t blossomed out with their bright yellow flowers.

Dad would say to me, “Get your hip boots, we are going after cowslips.” I didn’t complain; I hopped to it, and was ready to head out before he was.

We would walk up East Main Street, past Charlie Beldock’s barn, and in no time we were in the marsh that bordered his farm.

Once we were in the marsh, I was in a wonderland and I had precious little time for actually picking cowslips. We both carried a large paper grocery bag to put the round leaves in; dad’s was always full when we left the marsh, and mine was, shall we say, easy to carry.

It was an adventure to walk in the marsh, and there was so much to see, so picking marsh marigolds was not my top priority.

This particular marsh was home to many muskrats and their houses were sources of great interest to me. Sometimes I would catch site of a muskrat sitting on a feeding mound, munching away on a cat tail root or see one swimming along the surface before plunging into an underwater run.

There were areas of water – of course – and I watched for the big, dark purplish, yellow spotted spring salamanders that gathered to breed in them. They were easy to catch, but I just looked them over and put them back.

Overhead the male snipe and woodcock were swooping down towards the marsh and then climbing back up almost out of sight before diving again over and over, and over again.

The quavering sound of the wind on their wings and the diving display was all for the attention of demure females watching from the ground. The woodcock also vocalized as they dove.

I once had a woodcock that had been displaying high above me, come plunging down to land on a small hummock about 10 feet away from me. I can still see his huge brown eyes inspecting me, before he decided I wasn’t a threat.

Then I caught a slight movement about three feet from where he had come to rest. The first thing I saw was another set of huge brown eyes, and then the brown body of the hen took shape. She had been perfectly camouflaged against the brown background of the hummock.

We had silently watched the show together, and I’m pretty sure she was just as appreciative as I had been.

I usually picked a bouquet of pussy willows for my mother before we left the marsh. They would grace the table in our home for a few days.

Several kinds of frogs abounded in the marsh. Most of them I could find if they were singing, but I never could locate peepers that I heard – very frustrating.

I’ve never lost my appreciation for the marsh. The sights and sounds enthrall me as much today as they did when I picked cowslips with my father.

Oh, by the way. Marsh Marigolds are edible when prepared properly. They must be boiled at least twice, three times is better, emptying out the water each time and putting them into fresh to boil.

This apparently leaches out whatever the toxin is and makes them less acrid and bitter.

My mother always sautéed the greens with some bacon or salt pork after their last boiling. Over the years, I got so I could eat them, but now I only think about it.

On the other hand, I bet they would make great beans and greens. I might have to hit the marsh again to find out – maybe.

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