Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens

Kayaking Coyote Creek with Bryozoan Buddies

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“What’s that balloon-thingy?”

Surprise robbed me of eloquence, and I backpaddled hard to investigate the yellowish bladder-like object clinging to low-hanging branches over Coyote Creek.  “Is it alive?”

My husband squinted as I lifted up a skinny branch to investigate.  “I think it’s just stuff that’s built up over time.”

The thing fell off then, splashed into the water, and resurfaced.  Our daughter, Maia, scooped it up with her ever-present bug net.  “I got it!” she hollered.  “I just can’t lift it.”

Bryozoan and Jonathan

Coyote Creek’s endlessly surprising, just 20 minutes west of Eugene.  We’ve been taking our kayaks there for years, and each time, the journey along tree-lined banks over to Fern Ridge Reservoir yields revelation.  Once, white pelicans sailed overhead.  Another time, we spotted bald eagles.  Great blue herons are forever squawking at the splash of our paddles in the murky water and gliding off right in front of us. It’s a wonderful place to go for a wilderness experience among red-winged blackbirds and tree frogs and osprey and . . . bryozoan colonies?

For that’s what the bladder-like, balloon-thingy was–a colony of moss animals, aquatic invertebrates gathered together and attached to low-hanging branches.  Pectinatella magnifica, the colony we accidentally disturbed on a sunny Sunday in early October, is a round mass of heavy matter resembling white jelly.

Bryozoan Kayak

I know this because I committed a cardinal sin of kayaking–I pulled out my smartphone and posted a picture of the colony on Facebook and tagged my naturalist friends, desperate to know what the thing was before we left the creek.  My artist friend Barbara Gleason swiftly obliged, letting me know that her husband had heard tell of bryozoans on Coyote Creek a while back, and my biologist buddy Jayne Selwa confirmed the species.

“Why do they look like stars?”

My daughter leaned close to the mass she’d wrangled up to the front of the kayak and pointed out the tiny black arms radiating out from each zooid.  (I had to look that one up.)  The “arms” are tentacles lined with cilia that pick up food particles out of the water.

Jon and Maia Kayaking

The only food particles we had were two halves of a banana, one of which had fallen into the bottom of my kayak (but hey, it still tasted fine), and so we packed up and headed for Pizza Research Institute in Eugene’s charismatic Whiteaker Neighborhood.  Over slices and cider, we researched bryozoans and planned to return to Coyote Creek the next weekend to see what surprise the waterway would offer next.

To get to Coyote Creek, head west of Eugene on 126 and turn left on Central Road (across from Perkins Peninsula Park).  Turn left on Cantrell Road and look for a sign on your left and a vehicle pullout at Coyote Creek.  Click here for a map!

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Author: Melissa Hart

I'm the author of Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy in Children (Sasquatch, 2019), as well as the award-winning middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016). I'm contributing editor at The Writer Magazine, and my essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, Hemispheres, Orion, High Country News, and many other publications. Website: www.melissahart.com. Instagram: @BetterwithKidsBooks

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