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.

 

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Discoveries

In late August four of us left town for the lake. We wanted to escape the smoke in Missoula’s valley that made the simple act of breathing a health risk. Three of us wanted to go for a longer paddle. My wife preferred to read in camp and listen to lapping waves.

Joyce sometimes asks encouragingly, “Would you like to take a trip and paddle somewhere on the coast of British Columbia?” I know this is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world but I appreciate having access to the largest and cleanest body of fresh water in the western U.S. and feel as though I still have so much to learn, even after more than ten seasons of paddling Flathead Lake. I am content to keep exploring close to home because experience tells me, if I keep myself open and do not let my ability to perceive grow dull, I will make discoveries.

This trip confirmed that belief. Over the course of our two days we discovered how to have  fun while helping each other get ready to launch,

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

previously unseen panels of rock art and how prone they are to exfoliation and loss,

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

the beauty of black and blue ring waves during a hot morning but especially after sunset,

where eagles tend to roost and why it is extremely important not to set up a sleeping bag under those trees (I’m not providing a photograph of my mistake).

We also discovered a memorial to a young man. People who loved him wedged a painted tribute between opposing pieces of rock. Later, my friend Jeanne spotted a remnant from his tool collection. Walking between her tent site and the beach she saw an anomalous piece of rusted steel pushed level with the surface of dry moss and stone. Curious, she withdrew it from the ground and showed it to me. I explained that the object was a hollow chisel, a tool used to chop mortises so two pieces of wood can be joined with a tenon. Using gold-colored ink, someone painted messages of love and the man’s birth and death dates. Seeing this tribute, we speculated he might have been a woodworker. After we admired the tool and its subtle placement, we put it back exactly as we found it.

Passing through the gap between islands or crossing between island and mainland we also made discoveries about each other, learned things we did not know. We braided an invisible cord between and among us of understanding, memory and anticipation. For the rest of our lives we may tow each other along, connected by the stories we tell and create.

Though I am far-removed from childhood, the lake keeps teaching me to maintain the mind of a child, seeing the world as if for the first time, paying attention to it as if it might be the last.

Nighthawk Mountain

 

All the posts in this blog focus in one way or another on sea kayaking. This post, however, has nothing to do with my boat. Strangely, though it seems to belong in Ospreypaddler. After writing this piece I realized that I approach a river, a mountain, and a bird in much the same way as I approach a paddle on Flathead Lake. With each encounter I have the sense that there is something to learn as I slide my boat into the water. In much the same way there is always something to learn from a river, a bird, and a burned over mountain.

I step out of the unlit propane darkness of the Magruder cabin into pale morning light. In this steep, rough country it will be a couple of hours before sunlight lands in the meadow. From the bottom of the valley where the Selway River flows through granite cliffs and burned timber toward the Lochsa River, I look at the terrain above me. I hear it calling. Instead of fishing with my friends I decide to try to hike to the top of one of countless high knobs above the river. I am happy to leave the cutthroats in the river undisturbed. Instead, I need to test myself, need to see if lungs and heart are working as they should. Before this trip I had not been feeling well. I’d lost energy, felt listless, unmotivated. Was this the result of two weeks of days in the nineties and air choked with smoke from surrounding fires or something more serious? This hike, I tell myself, will help answer the question.

I cross the wooden bridge over the river, taking a moment to look down into the deep green pool below. Just past the bridge the “Kim Saddle” trail leads up through charred timber, thimbleberry, mountain maple, and fireweed. For the first few hundred yards the trail swings back and forth across a vernal stream sliding through a downward fold in the topography. Eventually the trail crosses the trickle for the last time and begins to switch left and right across the slope of the high place I want to reach. I pause now and then to listen to my lungs and heart, waiting for the engine to wind down. In time I crest a saddle and can see the upper reaches of the valley of the Selway and on toward slopes devastated by fire. Even from a distance I can see initial stages of recovery. The sun turns bare spires into pointed pencils of light.

I leave the trail here and turn left toward the rocky crest I saw from the valley about 800 feet below. I see a cairn that someone built on the highest knob and fit a couple more pieces of granite into the structure. I turn back to the rock pile that hangs above the valley and take a few more steps. Suddenly I see a mottled bird leave a rock and make a slow fluttering flight down toward the valley to the south, its tail spread open but almost folded under its body, making slow flight possible. Because of the bird’s coloring and almost silent flight I first think I have startled an owl from a daytime nap. Pleased to have had such a close encounter with a wild bird I proceed toward my goal where a big fir log, black from fire, teeters on the final rock.

To my surprise the bird circles back and flutters toward me. It is so close I can see its open mouth, long pointed wings and the distinctive white wing bar of a common nighthawk. At dusk I have seen them flying over the meadow down below. Each evening I have watched them dart, dip, and make their stutter flaps as they accelerate toward insects in the air. Up here, alone with the bird, I cannot tell what it is trying to communicate with its long silent wings and approach. In this extremely remote location is it unafraid and curious about a human being, or is it trying, without the unambiguous weapons of goshawk and eagle, to warn me away from its nest, a mere scrape in the gravel on the top of a mountain? I do not know the language of nighthawks but try to imitate its low clucks. It continues to make untraceable loops in the air, each time coming within a few feet of the hand I extend in greeting, arm and wing bearing a striking and evolutionary resemblance. I would give anything if it would land on my hand, but know this is unlikely. From time to time it pauses on a branch hanging over the void. Its long, pointed wingtips droop below its two-ounce body. If I do not see it land I cannot distinguish the bird from the flaky gray bark of the tree limb.

The bird comes to me several more times after I turn from the final rock. I flatter myself with the thought that it likes my company in this extreme, lonely spot in the wilderness; but being more realistic, I think it is trying in its gentle and harmless way to warn me to leave its mountain hideout. Concluding that I should no longer be a disturbance, I bid the bird farewell with a few soft whistles, turn my back and descend the mountain.

I know now that heat and smoke have sapped my energy and motivation, but these energies return when I decide to apply my legs to an ascent. I am all right after all. But more importantly, I have found the daytime resting place of a bird that otherwise ignores me as it plies the night, scooping its prey in the net of an orange and open mouth. I speed down the mountain, grateful we set aside places where two strangers from different worlds meet in the wilderness, try to understand each other’s language and movements, the human respectful of the needs and territory of the wild one it has unwittingly approached. We have met each other and caused no harm.

Waves Lift

 

 

 

 

 

On the summer solstice my wife and I camped at the lake, finding one of the few sites open for tents next to parking lot full of trailers and RVs. Our “overnight” allowed me to make a long afternoon paddle the first day and a morning paddle on the second day to some of my favorite islands and bays. Both days windy conditions kept other boats off the lake, but I ventured out anyway, my desire to paddle stronger than my fear.

Both days I faced strong headwinds, quartering winds, and less often, a downwind ride, paddle held aloft like a pair of sails, all conditions that made it difficult to relax. One particularly strong gust of wind stripped the paddle from my hands. I immediately plunged my hands into the cold water to arrest my forward movement. Then, I hand-paddled backwards to intercept the drifting paddle before continuing my entrance into a new bay I wanted to visit. After losing and regaining my paddle I decided to pull a leash from my vest. Never before had I felt the need for this precaution.

Naturally, windy conditions produce waves, waves that vary depending on lots of factors—the length of the fetch, the deflecting effect of islands, the influence of shoals, the temporary flattening effect of gusts, and so on. Some waves on Flathead Lake are powerful or turbulent enough to overturn a kayak. On both days around the solstice, however, I experienced something I have wanted to describe. When I am in the trough between waves the approaching wave seems like it will swamp the boat or overturn me. While these waves sometimes broke over the boat and sent spray into my face, to my amazement I know that waves also lift. Because boats are buoyant waves slide under and suddenly elevate the trusting paddler.

I have never been able to photograph this phenomenon while paddling. Windy conditions demand my whole attention. Nevertheless, I have come to trust this process and believe it has implications for other aspects of our lives. The forces that potentially threaten us—an unexpected set of demands, a danger or fearful encounter, all these things also have power to lift us. Experience tells me, if we keep breathing (our own form of buoyancy), the energy of waves rolls under us. The waves have power to lift us above the troughs, the trough of fear, tension, or lack of perspective. Nevertheless, I have found it necessary to let this happen. We cannot stop the advancing wave, but we can allow it to roll under us and lift us above the turbulence.

 

Beholder and Beheld

May 5, 2017

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting…(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”)

The other day a friend and I drove up the highway along the Bitterroot River on the way to a little spring fishing. We spoke about a question that Jedediah Purdy asked in a recent lecture at the university: “What are people for?” This is an old question, older that Wendell Berry’s book of essays on the subject and at least as old as the opinions of people who wrote early catechisms.

My first paddle of the season points toward an answer to this question.

It was very difficult to leave town. So many things clawed for my attention—concerns about one of my sons, a former student who wanted to tell me about her Senior Project, arrangements with a contractor who will rebuild our falling-down deck, the dandelions, oh, the dandelions. And then I hit the going-to-school and work traffic early on Friday morning; and then the tour bus got a flat tire across from the light adjacent Costco. I thought I’d never get out of town.

But I persisted. The weather predictions offered an acceptable level of risk for a solo paddler in cool conditions. If I got off the water before 4 p.m., I might miss the lightning and the sudden gusts accompanying a cold front. After seven months away from the lake it felt good to step into 40-degree water, to drop into the boat, kick off and glide over the concrete boat ramp and into deep blue.

Trusting the cloudy and calm conditions, I paddled across the strait to Wild Horse Island, humbly remembering what the first few thousand strokes of the season feel like. I paddled up the west shore of the island and noticed what I thought was a single Bighorn sheep on a ledge below the highest red crag. I said to myself, You might be able to hike to the top for a closer look.

 I pulled into Skeeko Bay, the only boat in the bay, and hauled Bluebird above the rising level of the lake. I vented my dry suit to help me cool off and started up the trail, pausing to take photographs of big Ponderosa Pines whose cambium layers had been harvested by first peoples visiting the island. I had promised these photos to an archaeologist friend. A winter with ample moisture and now spring rains made the island soft and lush. I found shooting stars all across the forest floor while everything else seemed about to bloom—arrow-leaf balsamroot, some variety of mustard, death camas, lilies, and all the other flowers whose names I seem to forget from one season to the next.

I made my own switchbacks up the steep slope toward the red crag, trying to imagine where the Bighorn might be on the other side of the peak. When I was two strides short of the crest, she suddenly bolted, alarmed either by the vibrations of my soft footsteps through the ground or perhaps my scent. I could only get a glimpse of her back as she fled from me. I took the last two steps more slowly and began to scan the slopes and gullies below me. In only a few seconds she had descended a couple of hundred yards down the steep slope toward the lake. Now, though, I saw a newborn lamb velcroed to her side. The ewe had chosen an incredibly remote and almost inaccessible ledge to give birth to and then protect her lamb. Alarmed, she had retreated to another ledge beyond the range of my basic camera. I simply stood and watched. Besides, as I later discovered, a smudge of sunscreen on the lens compromised all my pictures: I would have to remember what I saw. A couple of wads of shed hair were the only sign of the sheep’s presence on the ledge.

Content with having found the sheep that I first spied from the water, I turned back toward the bay. Simultaneously, an eagle and a pair of geese crossed over the island’s saddle but from opposite directions, the geese just under the eagle. At my feet lay countless mosses and flowers still waiting for that perfect combination of light and warmth to unfold.

As the only person on a 2,100-acre island at least one answer to the old question seemed clear. I felt a duty to behold, to behold each creature in its struggle for existence, and to behold all the living systems that support the living while recycling the dead. We are here to notice the fire scar and the blooming flower, the shotgun shell case and a downy feather on the beach.

Continuing to trust the conditions, I returned to my boat and resumed my paddle. At first I thought I would only paddle to the northern-most tip of the island; but when it seemed I would be allowed more, I continued around the island, down the east side and through the gap past Melita Island. In Osprey cove I found a mature bald eagle in a snag, the brilliant white head and tail giving it away on a cloudy day. Watching the bird, and hoping not to startle it into flight, I realized that we are also the beheld, the rest of creation beholding us to see how we do on the land and water we share.

Gratitude and Anticipation

The verge of the New Year seems like a good time to both look back and look ahead. As I consult memories of the season past I am grateful for every opportunity I was given to paddle in 2016, whether threading the islands of Flathead Lake, making open-water crossings, paddling solo or as part of a pair. I feel thankful for my Cedar Island overnight, the dramatic storm I witnessed in September and the long, placid reach from Angel Point to Bigfork that followed the storm. But in reflection I am most grateful for something that had little to do with actual paddling.

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On one occasion, described in my post “A Quandary,” a friend and I paddled on the more-protected waters of Lindbergh Lake while a thunder and lightning storm blasted away at the peaks of the Mission Range to the west. Safe below, we were merely soaked in rain. Then, in mid-August my friend Glenn and I paddled among the islands of The Narrows on Flathead Lake during a brief rainstorm. On this occasion we took refuge, appropriately, in Safety Bay. In our shelter from the storm and waves we lay our paddles across our laps and simply listened to rain patter our decks and mark the gray-green water all around us with millions of little crowns. On both of these occasions our kayaks carried us into intimate contact with the return of natural rhythms—a little rain in midsummer, something we no longer take for granted. At a time when we could have turned back or scuttled our trips altogether, we moved into the storm’s darkness and the potential for getting wet. For our modest efforts we were rewarded with exposure to the life-giving gift of rain, its power to recharge aquifers and streams, as well as renew the forest.

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I occasionally need a chance to test myself by means of a long, hard paddle, or simply paddle to somewhere private where I can dive off a rock; but looking back on the year now gone, I am most thankful for rain that assured me that Nature’s rhythms are not irrevocably broken or thrown so badly into disorder that we fear for our lives. The sound of rain and all that it restores climbs now to the top of my list of gratitudes. Believing, at least for now, that I can trust these rhythms, I begin to look forward to the next season. In fact, I go to sleep at night imagining my favorite paddle, the strength and patience to complete it, trusting I may have the chance.

The Gap

Two years in a row we have been fortunate to rent a place near Angel Point on the west shore of Flathead Lake. Staying in a single location for a few days, we can enjoy sunrise over The Missions and sunset in the forest, a waxing or waning moon, and the changing moods of the lake without having to sleep on the ground. Even before we made these arrangements I held an idea in a back pocket: for a few years I have wanted to paddle the gap between Angel Point and the village of Bigfork in the northeast corner of the lake.

When we arrived at the cabin we walked out on the deck to enjoy the view from elevation. In the distance we saw a dark storm system approaching from the north. It descended on the lake with a vengeance. Suddenly shore-side flags stretched taut as military sheets, trains of whitecaps and spray covered the lake, and within ten minutes six-foot waves began to crash onto the rocks and pour across the surface of docks. I did not have time to dig my camera out of luggage in the truck. We stood in awe of what the lake can become. Fortunately, my wife caught the aftermath with her iPad.

The Aftermath

The Aftermath and the Gap

Over the next few days we watched the energy from this autumn storm gradually dissipate and conditions improve. By timing my paddles to coincide with shifting wind directions, I was able to paddle to Somers in the north and Deep Bay in the south. On Thursday I finally saw my opportunity to paddle the gap, the six miles between the point and the far shore. I studied distant peaks above the Jewel Basin until I created a confident triangle between a single mountain, Bigfork, and my starting point. I packed a little food and two water bottles and lifted the boat off the dock and into the water.

The gap is more a mental challenge than a physical one. At first glance the gap seems impossible to cross, but I have paddled more than 12 miles in a single day on many occasions, and am well aware this trip is nothing compared to crossings made by Jon Turk and those who have circumnavigated Ireland or New Zealand. The challenge of the gap comes in the form of questions:

  • What if I am three miles from land and a storm arises like the one that we witnessed on Sunday?
  • What if a big pontoon boat passes too close and casts a wave that rolls the kayak?
  • What if an inattentive or inebriated speedboat driver does not see the flashes of light from my paddle?

I worked to control the noise of these questions by concentrating on other things—my alignment in relation to the far shore, evidence of intermediate progress in the form of a yellow cottonwood leaf that had drifted down the river, a cluster of pine needles, or feathers from ring-billed gulls slipping by. I concentrated on smooth, efficient strokes, ones in which I applied force at precisely the right moment after the blade entered the water. I focused on posture. I pondered ways to enjoy the gap, taking pleasure in the sun on one cheek and wind on the other, a visit from what I think were long-legged kittiwakes that hovered above me, and then out of curiosity, settled beside me before flying away. Distant fishing boats drifted past the curvature of the earth or disappeared into shore-side shade. Though I choose another way, I managed to enjoy the sounds of well-tuned engines and a small plane overhead. In a sense paddling the gap is a meditation on calling the mind back from its fears to the qualities of the present moment.

In good time I passed the river delta that extends about a mile and one half into the lake, saw details sharpen, and came ashore opposite a humble cabin made of recycled materials. The owners had created a large heart shape by piling round stones into a pattern that left the center full of water—a beating heart. I ate a snack, drank water and used my cell phone to reassure an anxious spouse. After creating another triangle between my eyes, a spot somewhere just north of Angel Point and a distant hill I settled into my return, committing myself to shorten the long hypotenuse.

The Landing

The Landing

Crossing the gap again I reflected on other gaps in our lives—the gap between loneliness and friendship, the gap between illness and recovery, the gap between a fossil fuel economy and one built on renewable forms of energy. I let my imagination consider the terrible gap between addiction and sobriety, indebtedness and solvency, conflict and reconciliation, complaint before the court and a long-awaited just decree. In truth we live in the gaps, somewhere between setting off in relative uncertainty and the suddenness of arrival. Entering a gap seems vastly different than paddling near shore. For a long time we see no evidence of progress. We have no passing cliff or boathouse or tree by which to measure our advance; we have only the distance to measure, miles in the gap that seem not to close. Paddling offers practice for the larger process and never seems like an end in itself. For the other gaps in my life I gain strength at binding the mind to the present, controlling anxiety, learning to enjoy something as seemingly small as a leaf floating on the surface or a bubble rising from the sediments below.

When I finally reached my original starting point I lifted my boat out of the water, pulled it up my thighs, then lifted it onto my right shoulder. I carried it up the steep steps leading to the driveway and set it in the cradle atop my wooden rack. I cinched down the straps realizing that it would be a long time before I paddled again. Other autumn commitments and then winter will stand between me and my boat. I felt sad knowing I had completed the last paddle of the year. Another gap has appeared. It seems difficult to cross the distance, but I remind myself I have had practice living in the gaps.