I stopped my canoe and looked down into the water at a plastic kite from India. Odd. Printed on the kite was a smiling and dancing Indian couple, timeless in their joy—a scene straight from a Bollywood movie. Odd-er. Then I looked up to see that there were kites in the trees, on the banks, and in the water all around me. Not odd. Bad.
The handsome kite couple was still smiling as I pulled them out of the muddy water and then went on to pile kite after kite, including Spiderman and Buzz Lightyear, on top of them. (Apparently Buzz Lightyear, the kite, doesn’t fly well either). There were kites with hearts on them, kites with writing in another language, paper kites that fell apart… It was soggy work, but in a short time I had a six-inch mound of wet kites and thousands of yards of pink string on the floor of my canoe.
This is not really what I had planned for my morning. I was thinking of a fresh-air-followed-by-tea-and-toast kind of morning.
At sunrise, when I pushed my canoe into Lake Osborne, it was still cold and the lake was glassy smooth. Usually when it’s this cold the birds are sluggish and easy to photograph, so my plan was to get out early, get a few images, and get home for breakfast— take it easy. I got some images all right, but they weren’t the ones I expected, and I didn’t get home until lunchtime.
The first bird I tried to photograph, a Great White Heron, had some odd pink stains on its snowy feathers. At first I thought it was blood. Then I noticed the web of pink kite string lacing what is known as Bird Island— not good at all. This, I thought, is a small-scale environmental disaster, and I get to be the first responder. Great.
It was a head-on collision between good intentions and bad planning, and the wreckage was everywhere.
It seems that the day before, January 14th, was the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti, a celebration of the end of winter, and local Hindus had gathered in John Prince Park to fly kites, as is their tradition. (I know this because I did a little research when I got home. Thank you Wikipedia).This explained the Indian kites. Unfortunately for the local birds, turtles, alligators, and fish, the kites were in the lake. The birds were noticeably unhappy—pissed, even.
I wasn’t happy either. After all, I didn’t want to come back next time and photograph the bodies of birds that died from entanglement. That’s no fun.
What else could I do? I began hauling in string and soggy kites. The pink string stained my hands and the kites bled their colors into the water pooling in my canoe. I bled too, after trying to pull string from a tree and slashing my index finger in the process. I was bleeding on my jeans, trying to document what I saw without bleeding too much on my camera, and was failing to keep a cool head about it all. The sky above me was clear, but my mood was growing cloudier by the minute.
I wasn’t prepared. It was a big mess—overwhelming—and I wished I had brought a knife or some gloves. At one point I became tangled in the string myself.Graceful… The wind was picking up and was pushing me around. String was everywhere, and I almost swamped my canoe trying to free myself. Gaaaaah! While I struggled I imagined what the birds might go through if this stuff was left there.
Hey, before you go fly a kite, just be willing to jump in the lake after it.
Now, I respect cultural and religious rituals of all kinds, and so I’m not criticizing the Hindus that flew the kites. That’s not it at all. Rather, I’m criticizing their shortsightedness while flying them. This article would read only slightly different if it were a story about a birthday party, or a quinceañera, bar mitzvah, or baptism (although a baptism in that lake would be cra-zy. I’ve seen the gators that live there). If we were talking about balloons instead of kites, the negative effect would be the same. Letting those balloons go looks pretty, but doing that endangers wildlife that is already stressed enough by its crowded suburban life, and it leaves a mess for someone else to clean up.
Like I said—it was overwhelming. At one point I had to give in and quit. I was hungry, and irritated, and a little bloody, and I knew that the job was too big for me alone. I paddled home, deciding to come back and finish what I started. Or at least try.
The next day I had to go to work—I couldn’t paddle back over there—but I was able to talk to Craig Murphy, Director of Park Operations, and describe to him what I saw. He understood immediately the seriousness of the situation and said he could help with a clean-up crew. While Director Murphy surveyed the mess, he also rescued a Great Blue Heron that had already become entangled. I’m grateful for his help, and hopefully the birds will be happier when I paddle over there again.
To me, the irony in all of this is that the kite was originally created to mimic bird flight. Kites are born from reverence and wonder. They’re the embodiment of our jealousy of birds and their aerial talents. All this was lost on the celebrating flyers that abandoned Spiderman and the happy dancing couple as soon as their celebration was over.
We all do things that create negative results. Sometimes we can’t avoid it. Often times we can. Making better decisions while we’re outdoors is a little like looking both ways before you cross the street. You don’t want to get hit any more than someone wants to be the one who hits you. So, think twice, and try to minimize your mark on the world. This isn’t easy, and honestly, I’m no better at it than anyone else, but I do know that the last thing I want to see in the lake is something I left there the weekend before.
January 20th, 2012