On Stillness

Last winter when we discovered that all the campsites were booked six months in advance we availed ourselves of historical connections to one of the church camps on Flathead Lake. For a reasonable price we rented an unused cabin during the middle school band camp. Day and night we listened to middle schoolers practicing their instruments or terrorizing a cabin full of sleepers before dawn. In the heat of the day we heard instructors practicing scales in a way that made this necessary discipline seem truly beautiful. The chapel was set up with arcs of chairs, metal stands, keyboards, trap sets, and a xylophone.

Over the course of two days I took advantage of calm weather to make a couple of shorter paddles. On the first day I wandered around Cedar and Shelter Islands but saw no sign of the modest improvements Fish, Wildlife and Parks has approved for visitors to Cedar. On the second day I made the open-water crossing to Wild Horse Island. For once I was not paddling in rain, wind, or hail. It was like paddling a different lake.

Cedar and Shelter Islands before dawn

As much as I love to paddle Bluebird, I also took time to be with the lake, to sit still and observe. Even the marginal comfort of a wooden bunk beat camping on the ground. The sun woke me, not pain in my hips. Taking time to be still I noticed things I miss when I’m in a hurry to get to the lake.

The margins of the lake are a part of the lake. They, like the water’s surface, are ever-changing, a palette for the shifting colors as one plant succeeds another, where Balsamroot gives way to lupine and then tall grasses, as green gives way to yellow and brown or the purple of asters. In addition to sounding brass we listened to little waves lap the shore. No longer trying to prove that I can cross the lake or paddle its length, I felt content being still on its edges.

At home I almost take for granted the value of stillness. When I am still, the Black-throated and Calliope hummingbirds show up on the deck to sip from potted plants or the red feeder. When still, I am more likely to see the warbler in the willows or notice how early morning shadows make mounds of lavender even more beautiful. When still, the moon’s sudden appearance seems like its own kind of brass instrument. For three mornings the same was true at the lake.

On the second morning I locked myself into the boat for the crossing to Wild Horse Island. Able to take a straight shot across the three-mile expanse in calm conditions, I landed at Eagle Cove, a public access point, shed skirt and pfd and began to walk into the forest. By 9 a.m. the sun was already too high for mostly nocturnal creatures to be active; but the air was filled with the calls of young osprey. Without binoculars I could not be certain, but the long, sharply defined feathers led to the tentative conclusion that I was seeing four young birds. They circled each other as they rode the rising and warming air above the island. When one landed on a rocky outcrop to rest, another approached from behind, dropped its legs like landing gear and swooped over the head of its sibling. This caused the resting bird to take to the air and give chase. My stillness among the trees gave me a vantage point on birds of prey at play.

On the third morning I took a bitter cup of instant coffee onto the cabin’s deck and sat in first light. Moving only to raise the cup I noticed a swallow asleep on a dead branch above a bird house someone had nailed to a tree. The silhouetted bird was little more than a swollen node, a knuckle on a branch, a tiny black shape, motionless. When the sun rose over the Missions and brushed the world with warm tones, including the breast of the bird, it sprung to life. It leaped from the branch and without warm-up began to cut arcs through the air. Seeing me it dropped from elevation in a descending curve and rose in front of me to confirm I was a quiet human.

Swallow a moment before flight with Wild Horse in the distance

When still, a better review of one’s choices becomes possible. When still, quiet things reveal themselves. When still, the edges of life become as interesting as the expanse of open weather and water.

How Do We Do This?

Looking north from the top of Wild Horse Island

I have lived in Montana for nearly 40 years. Even before arriving I tried to learn about my state. The people who invited me here hoped, even expected, that I would learn something about the state’s history; read the books they put in front of me; learn to close gates behind me every time I had permission to traverse private land; come to appreciate the long tenure of Montana’s Native peoples and cultures; and take a few back roads far from the interstate. In heart and soul I became a Montanan.

In the last two or three years living in Montana has become more difficult, and not just because of a pandemic. I can’t get a campsite where I used to drive up, find an empty spot and throw down my pad and bag. It takes thirty minutes to drive north through town where it used to take me fifteen. In some cases a dinner reservation must be made a week in advance. The median home price in Missoula recently hit $534,000. Sometimes there are more out-of-state license plates in parking lots than in-state plates with county numbers. When going fishing I have had to learn to dodge trailers and rafts.

With all this in mind I particularly admired the spirit of Tom Dickson’s Sketchbook essay in the May-June issue of Montana Outdoors (https://issuu.com/montanaoutdoors/docs/momj21). Like me he feels the pinch of change, but he found it in his heart to say, “Howdy, new neighbors.” To be sure, he had some recommendations for people from Utah, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida and California, things like not building a trophy home too close to a river or stream because of the impact of septic systems, or plopping one on a hilltop. But he even went so far as to propose that we give newcomers a welcome basket that contained a few things like a can of bear spray and a copy of the stream access law.

On a Wednesday in late June I pulled into a fishing access point along the shore of Flathead Lake. There were boat trailers and a car from another state. Under its open hatch a couple of women showered in a mist of bug spray. They launched an inflatable tandem kayak just ahead of me and began their own exploration along the shore. Meanwhile, I prepared to paddle out to Wild Horse Island, trying to remember every thing I might need, especially if predicted winds forced me to stay on the island until dusk when the wind usually drops.

Anticipating windy conditions I chose to bring my Werner Camano paddle because the blade gives me a little more bracing power in waves. But almost immediately I felt the absence of my Greenland-style paddle. More than I realized I have grown accustomed to being able to slide my hands up and down the loom for different kinds of strokes. I missed the faster cadence and the way the paddle is gentler on my joints. Adjusting myself to the unexpected, I crossed the strait to the island, made my way north to Skeeko Bay and pulled Bluebird ashore over a mass of floating driftwood. Even though Sélîs Kasanka Q’lispe dam is releasing over 50,000 cubic feet per second, the lake currently sits 5 inches above full pool as rain-swollen rivers pour into the basin.

Once ashore, I found a big log where I could sit, eat a peanut butter sandwich and change clothes for a hike. Even on a Wednesday several pontoon boats had already run up onto the gravel shore and disgorged a pile of passengers while more of these vessels approached from Big Arm and Dayton: I would not have the island to myself.

After loading a fanny pack with water, my first aid kit, and an already-peeled orange, I started up the trail. At the saddle where an old cabin still stands in the wind I turned left and took the Overlook Trail. Along the way I passed several families with young children. A toddler fell in front of me and scraped his left knee. I offered a band aid but his mother assured me that they had what they needed to comfort their crying child. I caught up to a couple heading toward the ridge, and as I passed, greeted them and asked if they were going to see the bitterroots. When they seemed mystified, I explained that bitterroots are the state flower and that they grow in the most inhospitable places like the rocky ridge ahead of us. They seemed interested but were not in good enough condition to continue up the steep trail.

During the day I saw lots of other people, talked with some whose accents I could not place. People asked, “Did you see a horse? A sheep? A bear?” I was tempted to say, “Only a lion,” but out of respect, held my tongue. On my way up to the top of the island I kept wondering, how do we do this? How do we welcome the people who are coming despite the changes they bring to a place we love and want to protect? How do we teach them that an animal is not an object to be counted but a particular expression and member of an incredibly complex community? How do we show them that a black-backed woodpecker is evidence of a combination of fire and insect populations; that a bald-eagle kiting in the wind is not something you see every day; that fire can be a friend to the land; that cheat grass is a problem? As I sat under a ponderosa clinging to its rocky footing I reminded myself of how Shoshone peoples must have felt seeing Lewis and Clark approach.

From the top of the island I looked in all directions, marveled at how the lake looked purple under shadows cast by cumulus clouds and a sunny turquoise where sediments in suspension from upstream rivers colored the water. I found several scrapes where animals had bedded down, but saw no deer or sheep. Near the top of the island I found sago lilies in a shady spot.

Watching gusts of wind race across the surface of the lake, I began to feel anxious about crossing back to the mainland, so I headed down the mountain. Along the way I found an Inuksuk, a reminder to act responsibly as a human being. Back at my kayak I changed clothes again and launched as two more boats sought to come ashore in front of me. They focused only on a place to land, not my vulnerability in a kayak.

Despite headwinds and the gusts that tore at my hat, I made it safely back to shore, though I did have to avoid flying hooks and worms cast from the dock. The changes we face won’t be easy to integrate. Yet, I hope to find a way to be friendly, knowing I, too, was once a newcomer, never quite native to this place I love.

Renewal in June

Renewal in June

Have you visited the storehouses of the snow
or seen the arsenal where hail is stored…?
(Job, 38.22)
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In the southwestern U.S. conditions are drier than at any time in the last 1200 years. If Lake Powell drops another 33 feet, the water level will be too low to power the turbines that send electricity across the region. In Los Angeles people will soon have to choose between saving water to drink or watering their lawns. In my region of the country parts of the state remain in a state of severe drought. But around Flathead Lake it rains intermittently for two days and two nights, raising the water level of Flathead Lake over a foot across its 191 square miles, more than 122,000 acre feet of water.

Unable to reserve my own campsite because competition for these spaces is so keen, I ask a friend to let me set up my tent next to his recreational vehicle in space 11 at Finley Point State Park. He kindly allows me and Big Agnes to create shelter next to the picnic table in exchange for an oatmeal crisp made from cherries grown in the orchards above us and the reading aloud of two Kathleen Jamie poems while he drinks his morning coffee. My friend is in the grip of the latest James Lee Burke novel, so I take Bluebird down to the marina and paddle in the rain.

Wary of lightning and the risk of waving a wet piece of carbon in the air during a storm, I plan a short paddle through The Narrows, threading my way in a figure-eight pattern around the islands. But when clouds to the north look particularly ominous, I make a broad sweep, reverse course, head south along the backside of Bull Island and cross back to the protection of the marina. If it is gray above, it is blue and green below.

Since everything is wet when paddling a kayak, it makes little difference if it rains. So I go out the next day too. This time I head north across Finley Bay, the tip of the peninsula and the chain of rocky shark’s teeth disappearing under rising water. I have paddled in many different conditions but never before in a hail storm. This time a trunk of hail drops down to the lake surface and balls of ice pelt my hat, drysuit, bare hands and deck. Though the particles are little larger than course rock salt, they turn the lake surface into a layer of froth not unlike a beer poured too fast or a latté covered in a milky hat. When dramatic things happen while paddling I wish I had the poise to unzip my pfd pocket, reach for my phone and take photos; but the best I can do is hang on, hunch my shoulders like a hawk on a limb and wait for the storm cell to pass. Until the gray column of falling ice advances to the east I listen to the sounds of hail, each sound different depending on the surface it strikes.
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In time I circle Bird Island and begin to head south, eventually finding that perfect paddling rhythm that makes distances dissolve. Along the way I think of our good fortune. Though climate change models still predict a hot, dry summer and the potential for fire, at the moment we are being given the gift of rain and experiencing the release of more water from the storehouses of snow and hail. On Bird Island and the slopes of the Mission Mountains after the Boulder 2700 fire, mahonia, Rocky Mountain maple, chokecherry, arrowleaf balsamroot and cottonwoods rise from blackened ground. The hidden power in seeds is being set free by rain and light; the birds are having families; we will have water to drink and irrigation for our gardens and fields.
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After the isolation and fatigue associated with a pandemic; during the ravages of war; in the aftermath of gunfire in classrooms and shopping markets; after the danger of insurrection has passed—at least for now—we have rain, an unmerited gift from the sky that renews everything that is tired and worn. For a couple of days I visit the storehouse of life-giving water—whatever form it takes—and return with nothing but gratitude, rich in ways that cannot be counted.

And my friend steps out of his camper and says, “Would you like a cup of coffee?”



On Not Paddling

Heavy equipment at work

Every year I look for an opportunity to paddle in November. Though there is snow in the mountains and frost in the valleys, paddling in November is my way to honor a father who died at this time of the year when cranberry bogs and raspberry thickets near his home blazed against a blue sky. Though he never paddled a sea-kayak, he was never without a boat. A final paddle begins to repay the debt to a man who introduced me to life on the water. This year I kept my eye out for the perfect day—a high temperature around 50 degrees, water conditions almost as warm, waves not raised by the energy of autumn’s first storms. I found that day on November 5. But two days before I was ready to paddle along a shore lined with golden larch trees, I received an email. It contained an invitation to return to the upper watershed of Miller Creek, a tributary of the Bitterroot River, not far from where we live, upstream of water we use every day.

The Clark Fork Coalition had received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to work in two riparian areas along the stream, a stream considered “impaired.” Four years in the planning phase, the two projects, both on private land, had many goals. Heavy equipment operators would stabilize banks so less sediment flowed downstream; new meanders in the stream course needed to be built to slow the current and create holding water for native fish; woody debris in the form of logs needed to be anchored in the banks; willows would be placed in trenches parallel to the stream and finally, cottonwood trees and red-osier dogwood needed to be planted to maintain cool water temperatures, provide habitat for avian migrants and offer a degree of protection for fish under the eye of osprey and kingfishers.

After weighing the options, and knowing there is no guarantee of a good day at this time of the year, I chose to return to the stream, even though I had devoted a day to the project the previous week. We have so few opportunities to translate deep concern for the earth into concrete action, action that makes a difference to a land owner and to wild creatures waiting for improved conditions.  Here was a rare opportunity to practice what our Jewish community calls Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world. Under the direction of two hearty and motivated young women from the Coalition, volunteers from Missoula drove into the frosty Miller Creek canyon, carried picks and shovels and armloads of desire into and across a little stream waiting to be repaired. As we worked we were amazed to see fish take up position in the newly configured stream in less than an hour after pools were excavated and the stream gradient was changed.

Willows and anchors

When Congress seems bogged down in negotiations on social and physical infrastructure bills, while the earth itself seems stuck on a hot plate, an email arrived inviting us to mend a few hundred yards of one watershed. We were given a chance to increase the likelihood that a warming earth will lose fewer of its adapted species and water will flow clean and clear upstream of where we live. Spending a day digging holes in the rockiest of soils, pounding T-stakes, and securing fencing around saplings so deer and elk will not devour them the first night after they are planted, seemed like an even better thing to do than paddle Bluebird one last time this year. Were he alive, I believe my father would understand.

Ready to plant

Thank You

Thank you for the end of September.

Thank you for light among the stones.

Thank you for a clear blue sky and calm water after the smoke and trouble of summer.

Thank you for flocks of geese passing overhead.

Thank you that many smooth strokes lead to miles of exploration.

Thank you for green and blue depths.

Thank you for the lone cormorant and for the loon calling invisibly from the shadows.

Thank you for little swell waves from yesterday’s wind.

Thank you for proof that fire releases nutrients which awaken a succession of plants that will eventually lead to a new forest.

Thank you for the man in silhouette who reads calmly on his dock next to his wet and happy dog.

Thank you for a campground that is quiet after many people have gone home.

Thank you for a faint, waning moon in the west that drifts down like a white feather.

Thank you for how the lake stores summer’s heat and slowly releases it through the fall, a safer season to paddle than spring.

Thank you for time, for life after responsibility, for freedom to go.

Thank you for oatmeal raisin cookies on the counter when I return.

No Escape

August 19, 2021

On Thursday I returned to a portion of the lake I haven’t seen in a while—the west shore between Goose Bay and Cedar Island. I wanted to refresh memories of certain features of the landscape, one beach in particular where I rested during the long paddle between Sommers and Big Arm. I also needed a break from news of the rise in Covid infections, the recently released U.N. report on climate, and the situation in Afghanistan where desperate people are being blocked from entering the airport for evacuation flights, clung with their hands to landing carriages, or huddle now in their homes in fear of a knock on the door. For me Afghanistan is not an abstraction. I vividly remember a conversation with a female Afghan college student after a lecture on poetry in the classroom. She spoke to me about a poem that was honest about death. I am haunted by a phone call I received from another former student. He had been an interpreter for U.S. officers during the war. He called from a place he did not name, desperate for money because he was probably trying to get his parents out of the country. I feel my way into their situation.

Needing a break from these stories and memories I slipped into the water at the Westshore State Park and headed south against a modest head wind, hoping that I would have the benefit of wind from the south on the return paddle. This was the first cool day after the hottest July on record and an August that has left a film of ash on every horizontal surface.

I headed across Goose Bay, remembering that ethnologist Frank Bird Linderman had built a cabin somewhere in the curve of its shelter. I passed Miller Point and looked to my right at the beautiful white bridge that arches over the lake and links a magnificent property to a black tower of rock. I stroked on toward Painted Rocks. Suddenly I heard a loud rhythmic pounding behind me, the rapid thudding of a very heavy helicopter. The sound grew increasingly loud and began to seem threatening, as if I were caught on the tracks and being chased by a locomotive. Turning around 180 degrees is difficult in a sea-kayak, my camera too deeply stowed for a photograph. All I could do was wait for the machine to pass overhead. A moment later an enormous dual rotor, mat-black, helicopter flew overhead only about 100 feet above the surface of the lake. Never having served in the military, I was unprepared for what would follow the dark machine’s passing. A few seconds after seeing the helicopter head south parallel to the coastline, the surface of the water became agitated. Suddenly I was hit by the rotor wash—an intense burst of wind that nearly stripped my broad-brimmed hat away and required a quick brace.

Photo Credit: Terrence Burke

At first, I thought the helicopter might be heading south at nearly 200 miles per hour toward the Thorne Creek fire north of Thompson Falls or perhaps that it would swing east and drop water on the Boulder 2700 fire that started near Finley Point. I paddled on toward Cedar Island in the hope that so much power might be brought to bear in the fight against the flames. Glad to see the island again, I planned to circle it a counterclockwise fashion, stop for lunch in a tiny cove on the east side, and go for a swim, wanting to wash myself clear of this summer. Just before leaving the limestone cliffs and crossing to the island, I heard the helicopter again. It had circled back and now was flying north. It rounded the cliff face and flew right at me, its dual, counter-rotating 60-foot rotors and roaring Lycoming T55 engines about a hundred feet above my head. This time I knew to expect the rotor wash and prepared for its blast before it fell on me.

For the rest of the day I told myself that this helicopter must have been enlisted in the firefighting effort, but things did not add up. Doing a little research after I drove home, I learned that the CH47, commonly called a “Chinook,” has been used to deliver water to fires in California, but all those machines have bright insignia and the nozzle they lower into the water was nowhere in sight. What I thought might be a refueling tube projecting from its nose was actually a big black machine gun that looked more like a cannon. This was a heavy lift helicopter, capable of raising an F-15 off a tarmac or ferrying 38 soldiers and their weapons to the scene of battle. This was not a firefighting machine, this was a war machine.

Reflecting on my encounter, it now occurs to me that not even such machines and all the weight of U.S. ambitions, not even 83 billion dollars nor the cocksure confidence of young men were capable of fending off the influence, planning, coordination, intimidation and extortion of The Taliban. Quite simply, our weapons will not save us. They will not save us from insurgency or from better intelligence. Despite all their power, they will not save us from drought, fire or flood. Like picking up a sledge hammer when we need a paring chisel, we are using the wrong tools for the job. The hubris of empire has fooled us into thinking we can do anything we want. Not so. In Afghanistan dust storms and a shoulder-mounted rocket brought down these machines.

Now the next morning, I am left with the fear I felt as this machine followed me from behind or suddenly appeared in front of me when it rounded the face of the cliff. Yes, I can imagine the hope that so much power might save us, the hope of the powerless; but more than anything I feel the residue of fear as these machines depart, leaving us in the wash of their down-drafting wind.

In the days of drought and fire I fled to the lake, immersed myself in liquid green and blue. But I discovered that none of us can escape the consequences of choices we have made or some of the illusions we try desperately to maintain.

End of Summer?

July 29, 2021

We are still trying to bear up under the heat dome that produced temperatures in the 90s, and occasionally the 100s, and a pall of smoke from fires all around us. One cannot help but wonder if 2021 will be the end of summer as we know it, historically the season of recovery for us who live in northern latitudes, the season of leisure and lounging near the water. We need these three months and it now seems as though our actions across the globe will take them from us. Though I read hungrily in this field, I do not know how we will manage the necessary transition in time.

With company at the house and plans for a dinner deck party for friends visiting from Iowa, I decided to go paddling. Aware of a host’s proper duties, I had abandoned my plans until I saw a radar image showing powerful thunderstorms sliding west to east across the lake early in the morning. Anticipating a slight cooling effect and perhaps cleaner air, I loaded Bluebird mid-morning and packed the truck for a day on the water. When a big truck passed me on a straightaway and rainwater sprayed across the road and into the air, I knew I’d made the right decision. One can stand only so many deck parties.

When I arrived at Finley Point State Park the campground was unusually quiet. I suspect people slept in after enjoying the sound of rain on the roofs of RVs. Knowing I had the whole day, I took my time to prepare for being on the water. It was hot enough that I changed into my bathing suit. Because planning reduces anxiety, I took time to carefully stow truck keys, phone, and emergency contact information. I also planned to have food and water readily available for a long paddle from the state park to Wild Horse Island. Fortunately, conditions were perfect for a paddle of slightly over 20 miles—variable winds, waves less than a foot, water like liquid mercury.

This would be my first long paddle using the Greenland style “Kalleq” paddle. The catch of the blade is noticeably easier on my less-than-perfect left arm. As the miles slid under me I sensed that the design of this paddle allows for hours of strokes without strain. I soon rounded Black Point with all its security cameras, crossed the gap north of Cat and Taylor bays and pulled into the rocky shelter at the tip of Rocky Point where I stood in the shallows for a few minutes to grant hamstrings a reprieve. I got back in the boat and reminded myself to be patient with the four-mile crossing to the Wild Horse.

I aimed for a dense cluster of Ponderosa pines and a dock where friends spend part of their summer. After a long time in the deep blue, I felt glad for the green of the shallows. I took a few minutes to rest on the dock where I have permission to land, ate high-calorie food and pumped water back into my bottle. Heading back always seems easier than venturing forth, though the efforts are probably equivalent. In the mid-afternoon heat I decided to take a small detour to Bull Island where a swim seemed to be calling to me. Feeling charitable, I waved to jet skiers and pontoon boat captains when they waved to me and my quiet craft.

I pulled into the bay on the south side of the island buoyed by a host of memories—the memory of Joyce floating on her back in this bay, a memory of a friend who, taken for his first paddle in a kayak, fell out of my boat as he approached the shore and had to walk the last few yards to shore but seemed unfazed by water temperatures in May.

Wading ashore

I slid Buebird over some drift logs, shed skirt and PFD, stripped my sweat-soaked shirt, and dove into the warm water, warmer than any Flathead water I could remember—about 74 degrees. Though I sometimes keep my glasses on when going for a swim, this time I took them off because I wanted to immerse my head, dissolve the remnants of sunscreen and perspiration. It never felt so good. In fact, after coming ashore I turned around and dove in again.

Restored, I settled back into the boat for the last two miles home. This time I had to be a little more cautious. I was surrounded by pontoon boats and a vessel modified to produce a very large wake which allows people to surf the wave at the stern. Like an owl, I kept rotating my head so as to keep track of approaching waves, not wanting to be caught off guard.

When I finally pulled into the marina I passed a big dead fish floating over the boat ramp. I suspect the fish had died from the water’s high temperature. It seemed a troubling omen of days to come.

Taking the same time to organize gear for the drive home, I avoided the self-imposed pressure that goes with being in a hurry. In good time I slipped through the vale of smoke and traffic in town. When I pulled into the driveway I could not park near the garage, other cars having blocked my way. I carried Bluebird to its cradle and removed the wettest things from the bench seat in the back of the truck. I greeted friends on the deck, went back to the kitchen for a big bowl of chicken salad, and later, a huge helping of ricotta, blueberry and lemon cake with a massive mound of vanilla ice cream. As I returned to the deck the assembled women said, almost in unison, “Now that is more than a dollop.” Dollop must have been the word they used to signal their modest appetites for dessert. I ate the whole thing and soon fell into bed.

April Memories

I stepped away from planting perennials in the rock garden and found someone eager to paddle with me in April. On Flathead Lake in April the air can be warm but the water is close to freezing. Before the mountains begin to release their snow and fine sediment flows down rivers into the lake, the water is clear. The water is deep blue and aquamarine and a kind of yellow in the shallows. On the best day between days that were too windy we paddled out to Wild Horse Island and into the shelter of Skeeko Bay.

During the day I thought about saying:

  • This is where I found a Bighorn ram dead on the rocks
  • This is where I saw a ewe with her lamb among the cliffs
  • This is where I found an iceberg tucked inside the curled hook of a gravel bar
  • This is where eagles used to perch before a wind storm blew down their snag
  • This is where Native people found food in a starving time
  • This is where I have ridden waves back to safety
  • This is where we might find the horses
  • This is where I find flowers
  • This is the rock where friends and I watched a solar eclipse

But I realized it was better to be quiet. These are my memories, coins in my purse. I count them again.

Drifting through the Questions

In early October, good friends invited us to spend a night at their cabin. In the face of uncertainties we did the best we could to work out a protocol for minimizing exposure to the virus, planned meals, and eventually joined them at their place on the east side of the Mission Range. Unsure how to strike the balance, we tried to find a middle way between the safety of isolation and the desire to connect. As we turned into their driveway I realized that I never cease to be moved by that first glimpse of water, the wavy horizontal dabs of blue, yellow and green on the textured surface of the lake.

After peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sharing too few cookies because I ate two of them while driving, we went down to the dock. I helped Joyce get in her boat, watched Glenn work bravely around a knee needing replacement, and Jeanne slip easily into her autumn-colored Swift. We did not feel ambitious. On this paddle we meandered into a shallow bay not far from the cabin and then ventured out into open water. Joyce struggled with a sore shoulder, inflamed perhaps by helping her brother stack firewood for the winter. Seeing Joyce in the distance behind us, Jeanne said she would turn back, join Joyce and spend time with her on the dock. Glenn and I paddled on toward the delta where Herrick Creek flows across a gravelly beach into the lake.

Satisfied with this destination, Glenn and I put our paddles across our decks and let a north wind carry us down the lake. We simply drifted. But as the wind pushed us we talked. Stimulated by a class Glenn was taking, we talked about our own unconscious racism, all the destructive assumptions built into America’s “doctrine of discovery,” where we encountered people of color in Kansas and California as we grew up. Mindful of Breonna Taylor, we asked each other about our own encounters with law enforcement, how even as white men we had experienced the way some officers can flaunt their power to humiliate and control. We shared the sense that If these things could happen to white boys, imagine, we said, what it must be like for people of color. For fifteen minutes or so we drifted through the questions and stories, finding connections between our own lives and the current state of the nation.

After a while, wanting to see our partners again, we picked up our paddles, turned our boats and dug into the wind. In the shade of the opposite shore we saw another paddler in a bright red boat, a striking contrast in relation to larch and Ponderosa. In a deep part of the lake we stroked past fishermen who had caught a nice trout they were beginning to fillet. Still, the effort to make sense of our own histories and that of the nation stayed with us and influenced conversations for the remainder of our time at the lake.

After dinner, despite choppier conditions, I convinced Jeanne and Glenn to join me for a night paddle. I wanted to see a full moon rise over the Swan Range, a pale wall of stone across the valley. Heading west we navigated by looking at Saturn, and heading east toward the cabin, we returned inside a cone of moonlight. Though we might have extended this paddle, we wanted to get back in time for the news, the President in the hospital, questions about our nation and its future ever on our minds.

This fall Joyce and I are taking a class on the poetry of Tony Hoagland. During the second week of class we considered a poem called “Theater Piece.” Here the poet imagines a bunch of well-meaning white people inviting a “black performance artist” into their troupe and a conversation with the playwright who “…won’t give unlimited shoeshines/ to white millionaires with season/ tickets to the Coliseum.” In the awkwardness and difficulty of the conversation and ensuing silence, “tangled in feelings and thoughts from the past,” they all wonder how they are going “to get into the future together.” At the lake with thoughtful friends we, too, are wondering how to get into the future together and what kind of future it will be. We drifted through the questions, shared stories, and lacked answers.

Once Again

September 11, 2020

On May 4, I fell from my bicycle and broke my left arm in three places. At impact I also dislocated the radius and tore up muscles and nerves from elbow to hand. I could not paddle all summer. Like people afraid of contagion, I had to give up things I loved in order to stay safe and to heal.

On September 10, my wife and I took a little driving trip up through what we call “the Seeley Swan,” a long valley with a divide at the top where the waters flow either north or south. After settling into a motel, I drove down to the public beach and launched Bluebird into the clearest water I had seen all year, paddled to the wild west side of the lake and then north against a head wind that allowed me to apply muscles I had tried to maintain during months of recovery. The next day, September 11, after a breakfast of wild mushrooms, eggs, and Cambazola cheese, with fruit and a sourdough roll on the side, we drove down the Swan River and into the Flathead watershed, the Yang to Swan’s Yin.

We pulled into the campground at Finley Point, marked “Full” like every other campground in Montana this summer, as people from our own state and the rest of the nation head outside. We pulled into the day-use parking lot and left one space between us and a battered truck covered with red insignia and a flaccid flag. I unloaded Bluebird and placed the fragile hull on the rough boat ramp, stowed the bag for “what ifs?” adjusted the ferrule for the right degree of feather, and stroked out of the marina and toward Bird Island.

Earlier in the summer I learned that the island had burned. I first thought lightning might have caused the fire, but a friend later told me the fire was probably human-caused. During the long months when nothing in my arm seemed to be improving, I held out hope I would be able to paddle to the island before cold gripped the land. I wanted to see what fire had wrought. As I crossed Finley Bay I could see four paddlers about a mile ahead. They had launched a few minutes earlier and also wanted to see the island. I rarely see other paddlers on the lake, so this seemed like a chance to enjoy being part of a flotilla. Paddling hard, I caught up with them before they reached the tip of the peninsula and learned they were part of a paddling club out of Kalispell. We eventually split off from each other when I proposed to go counter-clockwise to their clockwise circle around the island.

When I reached the southern edge of Bird I saw the first of many signs erected by Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks asking people to stay off the island. Perhaps the department wanted to conduct archaeological studies in soil now exposed by the fire or protect the public from burned trees sure to fall in the next strong wind. Though I wanted to look for the first signs of recovery brought on by this massive release of nutrients, I accepted the restriction. Even without landing I could see that nearly all the undergrowth had been consumed by fire; trunks of larger trees had blackened; some trees had already fallen, root wads now in the air; only a few trees at the waterline seemed unharmed.

When the other paddlers and I next intersected, like electrons moving in opposite directions around a nucleus, we devised a plan to meet on the beach at Bare-belly, a tiny island a few hundred yards south. It was an ideal location to continue our conversations, to eat together at a respectable distance, to hear stories about paddles from the Washington coast to Sitka, Alaska. We identified the origins of our love of paddling, compared hull and paddle designs and shared where we were on the day we learned about jetliners crashing into the World Trade Towers. Gratitude for our lives and our connection to this clean, vast lake permeated every story.

Having left my partner on the beach at the campground, I felt internal pressure to resume my paddle, so I lifted Bluebird off the beach and stroked back to join Joyce for a picnic. She had spread out our red-check tablecloth and the remnants of snacks packed for our drive. As we ate, a tall, handsome man approached and asked where I had paddled and where we were from. Sensing his desire to learn, I answered his questions and then began to listen to his story:

We sold everything we owned, bought a truck and an RV and drove up from California. We are so glad to be out of there. My wife is a professional photographer. She talked to the state and offered to trade photos and drone video of the park in exchange for a reduced rate on our campsite. We’ll stay in Montana through September then head south just ahead of the cold until we get to Tennessee. We’re looking for a red state and a good deal on some land where we can park the RV.

 I resisted the impulse to tell him that even Democrats can be patriotic and we always take our lives with us. It was better to listen and to learn.

 As much as anyone, I know the joys of paddling through variations on blue and green, the peace of the running wave and flowing air, the exhilaration of driving a prow into wind and waves. I wanted to recover from my injury so I could experience these things once again. As much as I enjoy paddling a sea-kayak, I will remember this day for its people, for the stories we want to tell, for the way we humans long to explore what we have not yet seen and do not yet understand, for the way we want to congregate with people who seem to belong to our tribe or separate from people who are different and frightening. Like Bird Island after the fire, it will take a long time for the seeds of a new way to germinate and for us all to recover from things we have wrought.