To Excel or Enjoy

…Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,

As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,

And I stood outside myself,

Beyond becoming and perishing,

A something wholly other,

As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,

and yet was still.

And I rejoiced in being what I was…

Theodore Roethke “The Rose”

I went for a lovely paddle yesterday, beading a triangle through the islands with a strong paddler new to the lake. I had every reason to feel satisfied at day’s end. I chose a route appropriate for uncertain weather and discovered that my new friend is a more than capable kayaker with abundant experience in Mexico and the northwest. Strangely, however, I came home from yesterday’s paddle asking myself, somewhat cruelly, Is nine miles all you were good for? Why didn’t you incorporate at least one more island or slide through the tunnel into Queen’s Bay before heading to the north end of Bull Island? And can you even count the miles when the wind pushed from behind?

 A less self-critical part of me asks, Must one excel or is it enough to enjoy? Is the measure of excellence found only in a long paddle against the wind, the exposure of a long crossing and pushing one’s body up to the far edge of exhaustion?

Though both my paddling companion and I were capable of a longer paddle, I came home asking myself if I am growing content with less. To excel or enjoy is a false choice, but this day I took more pleasure in simple things than distance and adversity. I enjoyed conversation in the car, the chuckling of water-lapped stones in a wide-mouthed bay, the feel of relatively warmer water on my bare hands, the beautiful ovoid shapes in tones of gray on a cloudy day. I felt the eagle’s satisfaction in returning to its nest fish-in-talon, and the osprey, a superior angler, carrying a larger fish through a lane of air without having to fear a team of aquiline thieves. One part of me demands more and another part of me takes delight in the untouched feather on a beach, the taste of sardines wrapped in a big tortilla, shared Rainier cherries while sitting on a log, and my friend’s pleasure in finding stones in shades of red and green. One part still wants to feel the rise of adolescent ambition while another part sits in stillness and marvels at the effect of rain on a Wood’s rose.

Approaching my seventh decade I dare to hope that I will occasionally feel the drive to go farther faster, though I know the day will come when this kind of energy echoes out of the past. At the very least I hope to retain the capacity to enjoy each simple marvel, but as Roethke says, I also hope to rejoice in being what I was. This acceptance, this true ease will be a different kind of excellence.

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This Vastness

It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control.

            Olivia Laing, To the River

 On June 6, 2018, between a late picnic and dinner, I paddled from Finley Point State Park to Yellow Bay State Park, about ten miles northeast as a kayak tracks. On the way I stopped briefly at Bird Island for a drink of water. When I left the island I suddenly felt the gap between the island behind me and the east shore of Flathead Lake about three miles to my right. Until then the peninsula and the island had been protecting me from this awareness. As I concentrated on smooth, rhythmic strokes, a phrase kept floating through my mind—this vastness. I felt the expanse between kayak and shore, the column of height and depth between lake level and the peaks of the Mission and Swan ranges above me, the distance between where I launched and where I hoped to arrive. In the process I kept picturing my kayak from above. This had happened once before, years ago, when I paddled from Finley to Wild Horse. From a vantage point outside myself the kayak seemed like little more than a pine needle on an infinite sea, a blade of grass afloat on a flood. Ever since this experience I’ve been pondering the mid-paddle mantra that came to me in the course of this trip.

It is sometimes a challenge to be where one is, however far from shore. Faced with vastness one can become anxious. It is easy to feel an internal pressure to shorten the gap and close the distance, while peaceful acceptance of vastness calms the mind. Trying to be where I was, far from shore, it occurred to me that in the West we are often given an opportunity to see ourselves in scale as we move through the vastness around us. The mind flies toward the heights and reaches out across the water or the plains. In the process we come to see ourselves as a tiny body of being surrounded by distances not frequently experienced in the confines of urban environments. Before the depths of sky and all the miles in view we see ourselves in perspective. Especially in a kayak there is little danger of overestimating one’s power and influence in the face of such landscapes. We are little more than a speck, even if a conscious one.

When I finally popped the skirt, extracted my legs, and pivoted over the combing for a soft landing on the rounded stones of shore, I felt grateful for the chance to move through the vastness that remains the context and measure of all human things.

 

Report from the Island, May 18-19

The forecast was not good—wind out of the northeast at 15 miles-per-hour with gusts to 30, rain, and waves 1-2 feet. Water temperature 39 degrees. I was tired of pulling dandelions so I went paddling. In a year of record snowfall and now epic flooding I knew the island would be green. It would be worth the effort to cross from Big Arm to Wild Horse.

 

When I pulled into my campsite conditions were dismal. I waited for a lull before setting up my tent. The only flat ground was next to the fire pit. It was a good thing I don’t make fires.

From time to time I checked my latest weather app until I had a sense of the pulse of the storms. In the diastole I pulled on my neoprene top and dry suit. I slid Bluebird into the gray water and pulled for the island. It felt good to sink into the headwinds. When gusts approached I ducked and made low angle strokes. In the lulls I returned to more efficient high angle strokes. Two hours later I pulled my kayak over some logs and secured it in the arms of driftwood. Arrow leaf balsamroot covered the hillsides. Walking through the clusters felt like wading through leather. In the interstices lupine, harebells, biscuit root and vetch reached for their share of the light. Climbing the first slope I came across patches of death camas, false asphodel and starflower. On the rocky crest I watched a pair of young eagles make intersecting gyres or hold positions in the wind with only the slightest movement of individual feathers. Knowing my interval would not last I waded back down the hill and let the rolling chop push me back to camp.

Joyce’s Yucatan soup, heated in my WhisperLite stove, and tortillas warmed on the lid of the pot never tasted so good. I was in my bag by 9 p.m.

The next morning was gray but not raining. The wind had not had time to build waves so I did it again, this time paddling around the corner of the island and into Skeeko Bay. After signing in at the register and seeing that I was only the second kayak to make it to the island this year, I walked the trail to the saddle with, as Andrew Marvell says, a green thought in a green shade. I continued up the east-west ridge and watched the bronze backs of retreating turkeys. They walk uphill faster than I do. Seeing the birds helped explain the broken feather I had found the day before. Peaking over the ridge I spotted four Bighorn rams lounging in the balsamroot. On a rocky nob where I know to look for bitterroot I found the flowers. This early in the season they were all promise and no bloom.

 

 

 

 

Satisfied that I had again made a deep connection to the island I started back down. On the way I heard a low growling off to my right. As I turned my head I caught a glimpse of a red fox in full plumage leaping between the flowers, unhappy that I had disturbed his proprietary rights to the island. Further down the trail I saw where the fox had excavated a vole, exposing the now-dry root and source of the flowers. Gliding down through the trees it seemed this island belongs to its non-human creatures first of all. They take as much pleasure as we do in all the life brought into the open by rain and light. They have first rights to the air and its breezes, the flowers and their variations.

Back on the beach and while climbing back into my yellow ziplock of a dry suit I noticed a group of paddlers crossing over to the island from Dayton. After they landed I walked over to greet them, a pair of guides with a new paddling business and two clients. They, too, had come to see the island in its green splendor. In Montana after a year of fire, snow and flood, this place felt like our Sistine ceiling, our Louvre, our MOMA. It was ours to visit but not remain.

 

 

Preparing to Meet This Wildness, May 2018


Before each season’s first paddle my eagerness to be on the water plays tug of war with the knowledge that I must prepare for it.

As part of this year’s preparation I decided to make a few small repairs to Bluebird. A couple of long scratches on the bottom of the hull needed attention. Years ago I was paddling between Bird Island and Skidoo Bay early in the season. Without realizing that an underwater spine of rock almost connects Finley Point and the island, I passed over the rocks at speed. I still remember the sound as rocks cut a pair of long lines down the bottom of the boat. Then last season I slipped between a friend’s boat and a log because I wanted to assist her with a stubborn spray skirt. When a big wave smacked her upwind side my boat was driven into a protruding branch that cracked the gel coat just above waterline. To solve these problems I bought a repair kit, read about the process, mixed gel and catalyst and filled the wounds. Using equipment from the woodworking shop I sanded with progressively finer grades of sandpaper before polishing the hull. In preparation for the season I also reviewed what I’ve stowed in my emergency dry bag and in my old Maine Guide bag, planning different layers of clothing for different types of weather. Before Thursday’s paddle I made myself take time to prepare a nutritious and calorie-rich lunch as well as two bottles of water, one with electrolytes.

These preparations to paddle put me in the mind of other forms of preparation. If we prepare before launching a kayak, we also prepare to teach, travel, or plant a garden. We prepare before building a home or designing a chair. We prepare for a job interview, a first date, a wedding, and before giving birth to a child. A move to another state requires extensive preparation as we try to meet the challenges of deep change. We prepare internally to hear someone else’s story, before surgery, or that life transition poorly named retirement. As we prepare for life, some people prepare for death. Our preparations put us in a better position to face potential difficulty. As we attempt to make ourselves ready, we lower the wave height of our anxiety.

On May 3, I drove up to Flathead Lake for the first paddle of the season. At the base of the Ravalli Hill I pulled off at the mandatory watercraft inspection station. In the age of aquatic invasive species, stopping for this inspection is a necessary and important part of preparing to paddle. In the deep shade of early morning the inspector’s smiles rose over me like sunrise. I thanked them for their work in keeping Flathead free of zebra and quagga mussels, as well as other imported creatures that would upset the ecology of the lake.

After the right-turn in Polson I learned that Finley Point State Park was closed for major reconstruction, so I continued north to Yellow Bay State Park where I would find access to the water. Here, under the cottonwoods shedding the sticky sheathes of their catkins, I rubbed talcum powder on the latex of my old-style dry suit so that I could slip the neck collar over my head and escape through the diagonal zipper at the end of the day. I spread various items on the bed of my truck so I would not forget something essential. I arranged protection for two cameras so they would not get wet. Then, after loading my boat I paused at the water’s edge. No matter how thorough I am with my other preparations, this is the one that seems most important. I pause to remember that the lake and its weather are infinitely more powerful than I am, that my slender boat makes its tentative and determined way at the mercy of these forces. I pause to remember some of the people I love. I stop at the threshold to give thanks for water so clean and pure that entering it feels sacramental.

I used to think of preparations as an obstacle between me and what I wanted to do—paddle my boat. All the little preparations, from tying down the boat to packing lunch seemed to stand between me and the goal of getting in the water to make beautiful strokes. More than a decade into the late-season life of a paddler I no longer see it this way. All these little acts and duties make paddling safer and free of agitation. In the process we make ready for meeting this wildness over which we glide.

Wordless Instruction

Wordless Instruction

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I sometimes paddle with friends Jeanne and Glenn. Last fall Glenn asked if I would help him make a Greenland style paddle as a Christmas gift for Jeanne. This long, tapered design has been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years and offers an alternative to modern high-angle paddles in space-age materials. I said yes.

At a local lumberyard that has access to unusual timbers Glenn found a flawless piece of western red cedar. The grain was vertically aligned permitting us to create a reasonably stiff paddle with the least amount of weight. Once we settled on the proper length for the paddle, I jointed and planed the plank to make it straight. We then explored our way to a pleasing taper from the tip of the blade to the handle area. I roughed out the shape on my band saw.

Knowing we had options, I suggested to Glenn he would most enjoy the process of making this paddle if he refined its shape with hand tools rather than power tools. As I demonstrated the effectiveness of my smallest Krenov-style plane and a small brass spokeshave he was convinced. Over the next three weeks we met as often as possible to work on the paddle. When our work periods included the lunch hour, Glenn kindly brought fried chicken and wrapped sandwiches.

Sometimes we worked on opposite ends of the paddle, moving toward each other; other times I turned away to let Glenn’s relationship to the paddle develop on its own. I tried to give him a minimum of instruction so that he would begin to relate to the tools and the material rather than to me. I wanted him to grow more intimate with all the connections between sensitive hands, fragrant wood, and his own neurological pathways as the strokes became familiar and repeatable. To the best of my ability I aimed for what Tao Te Ching calls “wordless instruction.”

Day after day Glenn removed material, looking for a pleasing shape and a proper feel in the hand. Gradually the paddle gained symmetry and the lines began to flow. Eventually we unified all the small facets from the tools’ passage over the wood by hand sanding through a series of abrasives until the paddle was extremely smooth. We also wet the wood with water to raise the grain, and when it was dry, sanded off the fuzz. We rubbed in some tung oil to reveal the wood’s final color and offer modest protection from the water.

But Glenn was not finished. In his mind’s eye he saw a loon and Jeanne’s initials on one of the blades. I encouraged him to draw out what he wanted to see on a piece of scrap paper, then on the wood itself. Meanwhile, I unpacked my wood burning stylus and turned on the pyrograph. After a little practice Glenn mastered the pace of stroking the pen over the surface of the wood while allowing it to recover its heat between strokes. He created a small, beautiful loon and wove the initials into a subtle water pattern beneath the bird.

In the end we held the paddle upright and rested the wood on the top of my toes while my wife took a photo of the proud craftsmen.

Perhaps a few hundred people a year make their own kayaks and paddles. For the most part, though, these tools for crossing water are made of carbon, fiberglass, Kevlar, and roto-molded plastic. Making a paddle from timber felled just across our northern border and using hand tools put us in touch with a non-industrial process, the joy of working together and working by hand. Again, as Tao Te Ching says, there is a rare satisfaction in being able to say, “we did it ourselves.”

Bones

This past summer was a difficult season to paddle in Montana. Beginning in July, smoke from fires in Idaho began to slip over the mountains and fill our valleys. As the jet stream avoided our latitude more fires in the region poured smoke into the Missoula, Mission and Flathead valleys. Almost all of August and September were lost to a choking and hazardous particulate pall. As a result, I did not paddle nearly as much as I normally do; it wasn’t safe or wise. Out of the haze and the odor of burned forest I see a surprising image from this past summer—an image of bones.

On a beach in a little cove on Cedar Island I found a beautiful, long, rib bone as well as a large vertebra. Knowing that no animals of this size live on the island, I suspect that some large ungulate washed down the Flathead River or rode the lake’s currents and washed ashore on this island. All the forces of nature worked on the remains and left these gleaming architectural elements of a once-living being.

Then, on one of my circumnavigations of Wild Horse Island, I spotted a skeleton in the driftwood, the bones and sun-bleached limbs of trees nearly indistinguishable. I paddled ashore, secured Bluebird, and investigated. This was almost certainly the skeleton of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Though the skeleton came to rest below one of the island’s cliffs, I have watched these sure-footed animals enough to know that it is extremely doubtful that an adult Bighorn fell in this location. The fact that the skeleton was headless confirmed my worst suspicions: someone probably poached a big ram and left the body to rot in the afternoon sun.

Maybe it is appropriate that one of my final memories of 2017 focuses on bones, the remnants of death. But at the time I discovered these bones, I felt astonished by their beauty. I ran my fingers along the flutes of the ribs, marveled at their ligature, could not begin to comprehend the complexity of a spinal column. Nothing about these remains was gruesome, except the possibility that someone poached a protected animal.

Bones seem important for another reason. The internal skeleton of an animal supports its whole structure, sets it up for life. These bones were something to admire not avoid. They revealed the essence of the animal. Ever since encountering these bones I have been reflecting on the problem of essence, the deepest, innermost aspect of life and its purpose. But this has been anything but an abstract philosophical project for me. I have been asking about the bones of my own life, not the once-broken radius in my right arm, the nodes in my spinal column that press on the nerves, but the essence of why I am here and what I must do. Trying to peer through the smoke and confusion at the turn of the year I am determined to pay attention to each encounter, to reckon with both the suffering and the glory, the heartbreak and the beauty.

Summer smoke and all its metaphorical expressions in the form of political speech and posturing, tempt us to contract our attention. It seems more than likely that some people may actually be trying to divert our attention. This summer, for the sake of sanity, it seemed important not to see, smell, or listen. But the bones on the beach remind me to keep paying attention, to search out the inwardmost structure of things and how it hangs together or comes apart. Last summer I touched the bones, ran my fingers across their polish and curves. As if speaking to me they said, Behold. Attend. Bear witness. I carry this mandate into the new year.

Deeper Currents

Deeper Currents

As everyone in the Northwest knows, the summer of 2017 was difficult. From the first week of July through the first week of September our forests were on fire and more smoke than we had ever experienced piled up behind a ridge of high pressure. Smoke poured into our valleys, filled our lungs, left ash on every surface, and embers in our yards. For many this was also a summer of anxiety and hasty preparations for evacuation. Some of us returned home to the smell of wet charcoal, black fields of devastation, and worse. In response to the casual question, “How are you?” people often answered “Depressed.”

As a paddler I occasionally inserted a trip on Flathead Lake between the darkest days of smoke, encountered locked gates at state parks, and waited like everyone else for the air to clear and costs to mount.

On September 29, I finally found a bright and fresh day for a solo paddle out to Wild Horse Island and a clockwise trip around its perimeter. It felt healing to exercise in pure air, to be reminded that our world is indeed beautiful after weeks of finding it fouled, polluted and threatened. Late afternoon light backlit every snowberry, spider web, needle and turning leaf in the draw above Osprey Cove. A shift in the wind gave me five fast miles at the end of the day.

During this paddle I thought I might feel elevated by the knowledge that our world we love had finally been returned to us. But after this summer I felt more reflective than jubilant. All the evidence suggests that what happened this summer will happen again.

I have always been skeptical of the human inclination to use nature for our own purposes, reducing it to one more resource that we exploit for our own pleasure. I know, it is good to wash one’s mind in the bath of green and blue water. It is good to test one’s inner strength in the face of variable winds and distance. It restores balance to play on the waves. But time in a kayak, especially by oneself, gives a paddler occasion to ask, “What is all this for? What larger purpose does it serve?”

In my post of May 7, 2017, I proposed that we have a responsibility to attend to and behold the things we encounter. But on this Friday in September the currents took me deeper. After this summer it seems we have an inescapable responsibility to address the forces that are making our world increasingly uninhabitable. It is no accident that our forests are burning and coastal cities are awash in water that overwhelms the land and its inhabitants. We are doing this to ourselves and we must undo what we have done. Or, to shift the metaphor, we must change course because the one we are on leads to ruin, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

It is not for me to say what others should do. We must see this for ourselves. But I am clear that I have a responsibility to understand the impacts of what we are doing to the planet and take action in word and deed to promote choices that lead toward better ways of being in the world. A paddle in bright light makes this clear. It is time to do more than sigh with relief or toss up our hands. We have work to do, changes to make, a course to correct, while there is time.