Three Tarns

Sitting a low bowl between the peaks of the Langdale Valley is Three Tarns. On the right day the eponymous tarns catch the sunlight and glitter. On the wrong day it’s a place of sudden masking mist, contrary pathways and a confusing map error. I like the place, but I’ve not been there for years. Three Tarns is in the English Lake District, or The Lakes, where there is only one lake, but there are many tarns, quite a few meres and even a water or two. Here in Victoria we have The Lakes – out in Gippsland – where the highland rivers empty into a series of marshes and lagoons. Trapped by driven sand they form a long barrier between the sea and the land. Confusingly, the lakes flow into the sea at Lakes Entrance, which would have been called Lakes Exit if we had kept the lake in mind, rather than the boats that use it.

This mix and match approach to naming waters seems a worldwide phenomenon, with names meaning one thing here and another thing elsewhere. In the North of England – where this tale began – the water that tumbles down the hills from a tarn may be called a beck. There are becks all over the place. Langdale has a great one. Here in Australia – where the tale will soon continue – Becks is a beer of such unique dullness that it has little in common with the bright and interesting fluid that bubbles through the English landscape. In fact, I’ve drunk from becks which taste much better than Becks, and never been drunk on either. Creeks and streams; dams and ponds; the temporary and the old; the large and small. Water, water everywhere, sometimes open, sometimes closed, sometimes for us, so we have a drop to drink and sometimes not for us at all.

There are three waters of some sort near where I live – a lake, a dive and an anonymous patch of water trapped by the solid engineering of a freeway. While the names (or non-names) of the first and third are unsurprising, the second may be unique. ‘Lake’ seems like the default position – but it can still cause confusion. I used to work at a place called ‘Lakeside’ that was not really on the side of a lake at all, but at the southern end of a “mere”. But calling a place ‘Mereend’ seems unlikely. This kind of confusion of names is hardly new, it’s been with me all my life. As a kid I spent hour upon hour fishing – early summer tench, autumn roach, winter pike and year round perch - at a place called Lechmere Water. That’s a bet each way. And to establish the trifecta, we only ever called it Embrough Pond.

Blackburn Lake is the largest of my local waters. It’s a ten minute drive away, less on a Sunday morning, more in peak hour traffic. As far as I am aware it is not fed by a burn, black or otherwise, but it does seem to be a lake. It’s the closest thing I have to a local path; a place I know just about well enough to see if anything changes. It was formed in the 1800’s when Gardiners Creeks was dammed, it helped inflate property values in the area and provided water for a market garden growing blubs. Now it is surrounded by what passes for natural vegetation, give or take a few surviving bulbs.

Its waters are brown and uninviting, stirred by carp and fed by the runoff from roads and pavements. But still it buzzes with life. Blue Skimmers – dragonflies that are blue and skim – are frequent at the water’s edge. I like their rapid movement, their splendid, fierce eyes and their seemingly unchanged shape. Dragonflies have watched for sudden movements over water through the many long ages of the world, a natural selection for waters of any size, shape or form. The Blue Skimmer also shows that it’s possible to name things in ways that make sense.

Despite the presence of the carp in the water fishing is not allowed. However this does not stop people wetting a line, often within easy casting distance of the signs that say “no fishing”. The same goes for feeding the ducks – a probation that is both understandable and small minded. Most of the ducks on the lake are of mixed heritage, owing as much to the farmyard as the wilderness. Such bans make law breakers of us all. A scattering of bricks is visible on the lake floor from Duck Point and the same can be said of Heron Point. This is a place that wears its origins proudly on its rather discoloured sleeve. At Billabong Bridge – a bridge which rather predictably does not cross a billabong – a tree has slumped across the water. The twin stimuli of light and gravity cause the branches to grow upwards, as straight as prison bars, from the trunk of the fallen tree. Rail and herons can sometimes be seen here, but more often than not it’s just the tree with its upright branches. The splendidly and informatively named Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos can be found at this end of the lake in the cool and colder months of year. Surprisingly large for a bird found in the suburbs, they wail and call to each other as they search for food.

A little further on the path splits – one leg taking you to the play ground, where over-protective parents teach their kids to be scared of the outdoors, while the other edges along the side of the lake. A few tempting side paths lead down to the water, and I inevitably wander along them. The water’s edge itself is shallow and bull rushes push through. Fallen branches are occupied by cormorants and sometimes a white-faced heron will stalk on long yellow-green legs. Wherever you stop ducks gather, hoping you will be a rule breaker. The path carries on, past a perfect looking fishing platform which the coots seem to like and anglers are banned from, until it rejoins the path to the car park. Here you turn right, away from Friends Bridge, where you can play Pooh Sticks after heavy rain, and head back to the car.

The Dive is far more attractive than it sounds. ‘Dive’ seems to suggest something rather seedy and run down. I used to have an occasional pint in a pub called The Beehive – but due to its rather unkempt nature we would swap the ‘h’ for a ‘d’ – it seemed appropriate at the time. The Dive looks deep – and undoubtedly is the best candidate for the “it’s bottomless” myth that seems to follow at least one lake in every area. It’s an old quarry, vaguely circular in shape and behind a mesh fence is an old industrial plant that rattles and creaks in the wind. The Dive has an island – that most important of features – topped with a few gum trees. Cormorants sit with outstretched wings and wait for their feathers to dry. On most Sundays people sail (if that’s the word) radio controlled boats around a course marked by floating buoys. In the past this was the local swimming pool – hence its name – and today you can still hear the calls and laughter from the new pool just up the hill. All the activity pushes the birds out from the centre of the water to the weedy edges. Patches of bulrushes and tall plants form green corridors. Fairy Wrens flick across the paths, Thornbills, tiny and brown, follow, and seed heads shake from unseen feeding. On some days the world seems full of birds – on others it’s empty of movement and sound, with all the life sucked down into the depths of the water. The wind may ruffle the surface but that’s all. The Dive is a boom and bust kind of place, feast and famine. Maybe I just don’t know it well enough yet to understand where things go on the days when I can’t find them.

The unnamed wetland is perhaps the least attractive, the most overtly urban, of the three waters. Even in the half light of the morning you can hear the rumble of engines from the freeway. The deep base of trucks, the high insect buzz of motorbikes and the middle ground of car after car after car. The water is edged with a frappe of shattered polystyrene cups and food trays, smashed as they bounce down the stormwater drains into the standing water. It is also the most constrained of the waters – there being very few ways the explore other than to follow the board walk. But for all this, it’s also the place you are most likely to have to yourself. Most people just pass over on the foot bridge, or shoot past on the bike track. The information boards have faded to orange in the hot sun, but they remain free from graffiti. This probably says a great deal about the popularity of the place.

The whole area is dominated by tall reed beds – and even I can notice that there is less open water than in the past. The inevitable succession to dry land is well underway, and sometime soon a decision is going to have to be made about the future. Classic farmyard ducks come to greet me on the boardwalk, and drift off disappointed at the lack of food. They upend to feed properly, curly tails and all. Purple Swamp Hens clatter through the reeds – ripping up the plants and eating the fleshy white bases of the stems. At times you can hear them feeding even when you can’t see them.

I check my watch. It’s time to go. Miles away, at the other end of the world, Three Tarns will still be in darkness. I steal a few minutes more and lean on the wooden rails and wait. I wonder what made the reeds to my left rustle. And with that unanswered question still in mind I walk back to the car.

Bobbing About

The boat bobs, rocks and rolls in the chop. My wife and daughter look a little green, wave splash dampens us. H pulls his hat down over his ears. I wish mine fitted better. We sit at the boundary between air and water, at a state change frontier between two fluids. Gravity pulls and the water pushes back – we float. Despite knowing why it works, floating still seems vaguely unlikely, like some great cosmic mistake. The land recedes with surprising speed, the dull chug thud of the engine belies its power. Old fishing boats sit along the harbour wall, waiting on better times, waiting for the fish to come back, many simply waiting. Newer boats, leisure boats, gather in tight clusters around the chance of fish, around GPS locations bought from local tackle shops, around echoes on the fish finders.

(Summer 1984 – Sherkin Island – Republic of Ireland. We head out when the sun is still just a pale glow behind the row of damp harbour houses. Out past Clear Island, south towards Fastnet Rock, with its lighthouse and its reputation for storms and strong, contrary currents. We seem to have less navigation equipment than a Viking Longboat – at least they had lode stones and years of experience. We seem to have neither. We plot our position by guess work, glimpses of land and the unshakeable confidence of Matt’s son – we don’t really care where we are, we just want a few water temperature readings for a trip planned for the next day, or next week or maybe never. It’s my first experience of sea sickness. I don’t think I’m going to die, but I wish I could. After six hours we get back to shore. The first footfall on solid land is like a religious conversion, a re-birth into a world I want to live in.)

A net is lowered off the back of the boat. Behind its rectangular frame a mesh bag streams in the boat current. As the rope is let out, it sinks to the bottom, where it trawls through the weed. The boat operators call it an ‘eco-grab’ – but it’s still just a net really. For a little while we sit without talking. Even the kids seem to know that we are not in our normal place, and react with unaccustomed silence. The waves continue to splash against the hull of the boat, and the wind clatters through the canvas over the deck. But we don’t talk.

Buckets, bowls and wide plastic trays are spread across the raised deck of the boat. It looks like the preparation for a picnic feast, but one where all the crockery is plastic and second hand. Clean and utilitarian, but second hand. After a short while the net is pulled back to the boat. Its green, drip sparkle contents are moved to the trays and into the buckets. It looks like an exotic salad, dressed with a thin sheen of oil. The weed settles in the tray and is then spread by eager hands. Movement often catches the eye, the wave of a leg, the flip of a fin. I try to take some pictures, but the boat rolls in unpredictable ways and I struggle for balance. This seems to be a time for participation rather than record keeping, so I put the camera away. Crabs rattle through the weed and soon fish are found – sea horses a few inches long, pipe fish like living string and a Pygmy Leather Jacket, more like a festive postage stamp than a fish. Brittlestars and starfish wave long fingered arms. Some would cover the palm of your hand, others would struggle to hide a finger nail. The closer you look the more you find, but the limits of the human eye and a bouncing boat put a cap on things eventually. Our boat’s grand circular tour ends where it starts and the weed and its animal stowaways are returned to the water. They sink from sight as we move off to look for larger things.

(Spring 1991- River Lune - Lake District - UK. Where the river narrows we pull the kayaks to the bank and look at the boils and eddies of the water. Steep bankside edges push out into the middle of the river, cutting down to half its upstream size. I remember it being called ‘The Slot’ but I doubt that it is. On this day I am a guinea pig for a group of kayak instructors, being assessed for their competence and skill. I, on the other hand, was picked for my realistic level of incompetence and well known loathing of kayaks. More than half of me wants to carry my boat around this bit of river, a part of me wants to have a go and the rest is simply uncertain and subject to peer pressure. In the end I push my boat away from the bank and head for the top of the slot. The boat sinks a little into the cappuccino foam of turbulence and I start to paddle, paddle hard. It really is a straight run and a few seconds and half a lifetime later I swing the nose of the boat into a welcoming eddy. People are laughing – apparently I was so intent on staying upright and going forward I was actually not putting the blades of my paddle in the water at all – I was air paddling all the way down. At this point Keith drifts over and says ‘well done’. But then he says ‘at some time you are going to have to fall out of the boat; I need to see if these guys can rescue you!” So even if you win in a kayak you lose!)

Our boat plods on through the water. Here the lay of the land gives a little shelter to the water, the waves decrease, the splashing lessens. A bay dolphin shows a fin and disappears. A gull, held by the invisible string of possible food, hangs over the back of the boat. Another fluid traveller that seems to defy logic. What seems to be a garden hut or pergola takes shape on the horizon. It’s a round structure, with a steep pointed roof. It’s known, with a degree of cultural insensitivity and a good deal of accuracy, as Chinaman’s Hat. The boat arcs towards it and as we come down wind we all wrinkle our noses. Lying side by side, Australasian Fur Seals cover the floor of the Hat. Their diet of sea food seems to be responsible for the olfactory assault, and to make the point crystal clear a large male dumps yesterday’s food gracelessly into the ocean. Most people are breathing through their mouths by this point. The acrid stench seems implausibly strong – especially as we are out of doors! Later in the day, back at the house, as I am hanging up jackets and coats I catch a whiff of the same smell, burnt into the cloth. It’s disturbing to think how much of this we breathed in. As we circle and move upwind people breathe a sigh of relief, until, that is, we move downwind again. Some of the fur seals roll-fall off the platform and dive under the boat. It seems like play. Some lie on their backs and wave flippers. Most just lie on the platform and stink to high heaven.

We leave the seals to their own ends and thud away from the acrid stink. Soon we pull into the calmer waters of the Pope’s Eye – another place named with the insensitivity of the past. It’s a C shaped pile of rocks, built on an existing marine reef. Initially intended to be the site for guns to guard the shipping lanes of the Heads, its purpose was overtaken by better guns mounted on land. The raiders never came to steal Melbourne’s gold and now the rocks are home to a colony of Australian Gannets. Sharp billed and territorial they sit side by side, boundary battles temporarily put to one side, raising their ugly duckling chicks. The adults have fine, bone yellow heads, the colour fading down the neck. Wings, with dark ink dipped tips, taper down to points sharp enough to match their fish spear bills. Overhead the wings flutter snap at the air as they semi hover and position themselves for a landing. The chicks look skyward with seeming optimism, waiting for food, hoping for fish. On land and surface of the sea these birds look slightly awkward, feet too far back, wings too long. But in the fluid of the sky and the flash of the dive they come to life. A fish spear made living through the long ages of selection. Structure and function cut from the chance collision of change and environment. We leave the fishers to their fish; gannets, seals and the casters of lines, hooks and nets.

The boat turns away from the Eye and heads back towards the shore. Back towards Queenscliff, back towards the harbour. We bob in the slight swell of the falling tide. My kids are still quiet but their smiles speak volumes . It’s as much as I need to hear.