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.

No Matter How Hard We Try

May 3, 2020

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we cause a death we did not intend. A father called to an emergency checks his rear view mirror, sees nothing, then rolls over his infant son; the car strikes a warbler leaping into flight from a willow thicket; we join a group of mourners during the pandemic and come home coated with tears and virus.

Yesterday was the perfect day for a spring paddle: light winds on the surface, soft swell-waves left over from a storm the day before, temperatures rising to the sixties after morning frost, not a cloud in the sky until late afternoon.

The water level was still seven feet shy of full pool so I carried my boat over the breakwater and out across the beach to reach the edge of the lake. I paddled out to Bull Island, feeling for the rhythm of strokes and breath that become automatic by season’s end. Knowing that May is the nesting season for Canada Geese, I stopped for lunch on an open beach far from hidden nests. Initially the geese flew out and landed on the water but soon returned to their circles of down.

After lunch I paddled north against a light breeze and saw the mountains as never before. Six weeks with very little human activity during the initial stages of the pandemic had cleared the air. I could not only see the high peaks of Glacier Park but all the way to the Whitefish Range, nearly 70 miles away. I crossed open water to Bird Island, chose not to land because I did not want to disturb the geese, then south to the tiny islands that are mostly covered by high water in high summer. I chose a spot to land, no apparent geese in sight. As I looked around I saw a patch of vetch in bloom and decided to look at it more closely. On the way I found a broken bottle neck, the sharp glass a threat to any swimmer. I picked it up and planned to stow it before tossing it in the trash. After taking a photograph of the season’s early wildflower, I took a couple more steps into the desiccated trees at the top of the rock. Suddenly a goose I did not see as much as hear burst from the ground and flew out to the water. It left behind a nest with four big white eggs.

Since I had already disturbed the bird I decided to take the glass back to the boat and return for a photograph of the nest, never having seen a goose nest at this stage. After putting the glass in a dry box, I started back toward the nest and in peripheral vision saw black wings overhead. Curious, I thought. I peered through the dead branches of the tree next to the nest and saw that one of the eggs had been broken and its contents drained. Only a little blood showed in the big white cup. Suddenly I realized that a raven had probably seen me come to the island, sensed an opportunity in my approach, and seized on it the moment I unintentionally disturbed the goose protecting the eggs. Turning my back to take the glass back to the boat I had given the raven just enough time to break the egg and eat a meal. I had helped to kill a goose.

I could console myself by saying, this is the struggle of existence: what the goose loses the raven gains. I could say, there are plenty of geese; one death does not make much of a difference. But having seen the blood on the white shell I continue to feel complicit, an ally of death. These days death needs no help. I do not want to make its work easier. In this case I have no way to make amends for this killing.

After driving home, I put my gear away and think now about how the circles overlap and intersect, the circle of migrating geese, sharp-eyed ravens, and a respectful, cautious paddler. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we open a door and death steps in.

Looking for a Gift

After a very cold October the weather of November felt gentler. The ground re-thawed and I found a better way to settle a couple of stones into the garden. I sprayed copper on my peach tree to control leaf curl. In the middle of November, I spotted a day in the forecast that looked suitable for a paddle. The predicted high was 45, the water temperatures held at 43 degrees and wind was not a significant factor.

Though I wish I were above such desires, I often go paddling in search of a gift from the lake or the process of being in the kayak. Sometimes I find a feather, an unusual pebble, a piece of driftwood, a solution to a problem I work over in the waves of my mind, or a growing sense of competence in my boat. While paddling I stay open to what the gift might be. Often, I encounter something unexpected.

I left town later than normal, around 9:30, to take advantage of the warmest part of the day, and arrived at the boat ramp about two hours later. Knowing that I need to dress for the water not just the air, I put a full dry suit over wool underclothes and stowed three pairs of gloves, my hands being the most vulnerable to cold.

As I pulled away from shore I was startled by a very large buck seasoning under a shed roof nearby. The head lay unceremoniously on the picnic table. As I began to stroke into the lake I did not have a particular goal. I simply wanted to experience the lake at this time of the year and did not want to put myself in a dangerous situation far from shore. Because the conditions allowed, I paddled to nearby Melita Island where I stood in the shallows of a crescent cut into the gravel. I changed from my light gloves to a heavier set with natural curves built into the fingers. This arrangement felt much better, since my hands would be wet all day. I now faced a decision: should I continue into the light breeze, using strength early in the day, or settle for returning to the north-facing shoreline where I could easily retreat to Walstad? The lake seemed to allow for a longer paddle, so I left Melita behind and crossed the strait to Wild Horse Island. I had never circled it this late in the year.

When making a crossing I fight an unconscious desire to paddle harder, feeling some anxiety about exposure. I kept reminding myself to slow down, to find a rhythm I could maintain over the two miles of open water. I reached the south east corner of the island as a construction crew arrived by boat to continue working on a new and beautiful passive-solar home. As I paddled up the east shore I saw how autumn’s winds had knocked down quite a few trees along the shore, or in some cases, around people’s cabins, branch piles telling the story. Along the way I noticed that a dock belonging to some friends was simply missing. Had they decided to replace an aging structure? Had a storm ripped it loose from its footings? I did not know; but remembering October’s weather, I was not surprised.

As I continued along the shoreline I realized I would be able to return to Osprey Cove where I had injured myself on May 29. With the lake 3 feet lower than when it is at full pool, the gradient of the gravel on the beaches is steeper. I pulled in close, lifted my skirt, and stepped out. I slid Bluebird up the gravel and pulled out my lunch for which I was more than ready.

After a steelhead sandwich and most of a bottle of water I began to explore the beach. I was relieved to see that the blood I’d left on the stones was long gone—nature taking care of these things. On the edge of the forest I found what for me was an unusual skeleton. At first it looked like it had belonged to a fish, but what first appeared to be a skull turned out to be a sacrum. This suggested that an eagle had taken a duck, and after feasting high in the tree, had cast down the remains.

Moments later I saw a large aluminum boat approaching the cove from the south. They pulled into the cove, let the big diesel engine idle and drifted. Two men standing at the transom scanned the timbered slopes above the island. Curious, I got back in my boat and paddled alongside. I spoke first and asked if they were aboard a research vessel, knowing that the Flathead Lake Biological Station has a similar boat. The men looked puzzled:

“Research vessel? Not really.”

Silence followed.

Seeing now where they were looking, I tried again, “Looking for eagles?”

“Yeah, there’s a nice one.”

I looked where they pointed their chins and saw the bright head and big body of a female bald eagle in the upper branches of a Ponderosa.

Like them, I held the boat steady and enjoyed the stolid presence of such a magnificent bird, more than capable of picking a merganser, gull or cormorant off the water. I wished them a good afternoon and slipped away.

Throughout the afternoon I kept seeing this unusual boat with its long, open afterdeck and blunt prow. It powered up to Cedar Island where I have often found eagles, across to Elmo, back to the west shore of Wild Horse, and then down toward Polson. I surmised they were out in November simply for the joy of seeing eagles.

I paddled on, noticing changes—how a tiny foothold of a building on a northside lot had now become a cabin; how the island wore a beautiful necklace of woody debris in tan and gray, less visible at high water; how the leaden skies intensify the color of young Douglas fir trees born of fire.

To shorten the distance, I paddled off shore and did not go into Skeeko Bay but headed for the rocky point that marks its western entrance. In the distance I saw something strange, something in the water, something moving. I kept my eye on this spot as I closed the distance: a herd of 6 mule deer had walked out into the lake on the gravel that accumulates in this area. They waded up to their bellies and even their ribs, occasionally dipping their heads for a drink, if not a wash. They, too, were taking advantage of a gentle day. They, too, knew this spot where they could be in the lake not just on its margins. Because these deer are unaccustomed to predators, they let me approach, but they eventually turned and shook themselves off like dogs, something I had never seen before. I tried to get past the gate of the passcode on my phone so I could take a picture of this unusual behavior, but the thick neoprene would not allow me to get inside the phone. I considered pulling off the tight glove, but knowing how hard it would be to put it back on, I chose safety over a photograph and filed the image in my memory.

I settled back into the process of stroking for shore when I heard the deep thrum of the boat that followed me into Osprey Cove. The men kindly circled me at a distance, something weekend boaters never do. I appreciated the wide birth and enjoyed the huge rolling swells from their wake that lifted me several feet in the air and then set me gently back down.

The whole day the sun never showed itself, but in the south, down near the low topography of Big Arm, more light appeared beneath the heaviest clouds. It cast an orange glow on the water and combined with the shadows on the back side of little waves to create what seemed like a genetic code of light and shadow, a glimmering bar code of horizontal orange and gray dashes. I had never seen such light. This was the gift I had not expected.

In the way that climbers reach a summit by permission of the mountain, I had been granted permission by the lake to enjoy its gifts in mid to late November. I had nothing to tuck under a hatch or stow in a dry bag, only the gifts of transience, a big vessel passing at a respectful distance, its engine strangely comforting, light and shadow, the remains of life beneath a towering tree, the memory of deer moving out along a gravel bar far from shore. This was more than enough to carry me through winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections Near Season’s End

Late September is a good time to reflect on this year’s season of paddling. I do not know if my jury summons, final yard chores, and the need to prepare for a brief teaching gig will allow me to get back to the lake for a final paddle. Not knowing if I will be able to return, now seems like a good time to write down my impressions since the paddle blade leaves no evidence of its sweep.

I first made contact with the lake in March. The water was covered with such a hard shell of ice that one could have walked from Dewey Pt. to Cedar Island, perhaps even the four miles to Wild Horse Island. Everyone was saying, “Will this winter ever end?” But by May I was paddling again, dressing for 40-degree water and wind delivering a smack of cold.

As I look back on my fourteenth year on the water I am left with the sense that the my experiences are still with me in the way that a long day on the water leaves a person’s inner ear adjusting to the rhythmic motion of waves.

I see clearly that paddling, like meditation, is not an end in itself. Yes, I love the pleasure of plowing into the wind on a hot summer day, receiving the splash of spray, or paddling on a calm evening, even one under the stars. And yes, I love the exhilaration of a downwind run and enough competence in the boat to let the waves roll me at odd angles without fear. But I am thinking about impressions and memories of a different sort.

Though I mostly paddle alone, I remember a particular day with friends. They wanted to gain more experience in their new Swift boats and enjoy the process of becoming more familiar with the long shores and crossings of Flathead Lake. After a lovely meal in evening light we trusted the next day’s forecast of “variable winds up to ten miles an hour with waves less than a foot.”

 

The next morning we launched from the United Methodist Church Camp, paddled past the pictographs left on a limestone wall, and cruised the shore up to Deep Bay where I could not resist a dive into clear water. After lunch we headed into a freshening wind. I knew we had our work cut out for us. As we paddled in rough but manageable conditions, I would say to them, “We could pull out here and call for a ride” or “We could rest in the lee of that island,” or simply, “How are you doing?” I loved hearing, “This is hard, but let’s keep going.” I loved the process of making good decisions with other people rather than carrying the burden alone, turning my ear to signs of distress or enthusiasm, my own or those of another. Making good decisions with other people feels like a lasting joy. In the end, rounding the last corner we were given the relief of a downwind run.

Looking back I see clearly that not every paddle needs to be an epic adventure. Just as it is possible to stroll along a river trail or wander through an old neighborhood, it is possible to paddle in a desultory way. For example, I remember an afternoon on Lake Alva. The membrane of consciousness registers the skittering of ducklings, the ruffled surface of baitfish trying to escape a predator, the stillness of a heron in the slow water below a beaver dam. After paddling across the lake and into one of its coves I remember sitting still in my kayak and marveling at fireweed growing out of fallen log. A slant of light fell through the forest and raised the flowers into a purple torch. After exploring the outlet of the lake, I returned to my wife’s fancy picnic of smoked salmon, Struan bread, fresh cherries from local trees, and Gorgonzola cheese. Sometimes paddling is less about working toward a destination and more about gaining a greater appreciation for the quietness at hand, the sound of a little girl speaking to her attentive grandfather and listening to him gently respond as he sat sunning himself on the beach.

 

As I look back I also sense how an aspect of paddling has implications for life beyond the water. When making a long crossing from point to point or shore to island and back the progress seems so incremental as to be barely discernible. Yet, with patience things come into focus. If I continue to paddle from where I am, rather than toward where I want to be, I eventually recognize a landmark, a white buoy or a leaning tree. The shape of an island becomes sharper; the memory of red barn on the hillside is confirmed. Such clarity is not given to us in the beginning; it comes to us over time. I count on this impression from a season in the kayak as I work to make sense of what is happening to our country, as I consider the impact of a Swedish teenager on our burning of the world.

Not all impressions are positive. In late August I joined five friends for a paddle down the Flathead River, a way of celebrating all that the Flathead basin carries to the world west of the continental divide. Leaving better campsites to families with children, we slid ashore after paddling five miles the first day. Almost immediately we were assaulted with the sound of ATV traffic, blowing dust and hours of random gunfire. Though I had camped in this spot before, a lot changes in fourteen years. A dusty and rutted road had been pushed into the river from who knows where. Now in the multiplying fire rings I found a failed engine starter, shell casings, an abandoned sponge too wet to burn, lots of plastic and aluminum. The next day at the takeout, dog excrement covered the beach and an empty Coors can, driven by a merciless wind, bounced down the parking lot. I asked myself, should we withdraw from places of violence and violation and search only for places not yet destroyed? Though I feel the temptation to withdraw, I also wonder, should I return to this place with equipment that might allow me to improve on the desecration? Or, do we need to go back to the sources of what cause people to treat the river and the earth in this way? I do not know the answers to my questions, but they stay with me.

As my last tomatoes ripen and bucks begin to chase does across the back yard I am left with another question: can we store beauty? I have seen so much of it this season—ovoids on the water while paddling in a September rain,

the flashing colors of a kestrel landing in the top of a Ponderosa, faces of smiling friends at the end of the day, an Arctic loon that allowed me to slip by while it was fishing before it continued its journey south, and always the variations on blue and green. Can we store such beauty like oats in a glass jar, like frozen plums in a bag that will see us through the winter to come? I’m not sure as each new experience seems to trespass on those that came before. The beauty we see seems to linger but not endure. It may last only as long as a musical note left in the concert hall. Yet, enough of what we experience lasts long enough to leave us with the motivation to return to the water. The lake calls us back because of all that it has given in response to our efforts to slide across its ever-changing face. Memories may lead me to next year.

 

 

 

 

Rest

I have been thinking about the importance of rest. Like most paddlers I take my boat to the water when I can, when I create a gap between responsibilities at home or time with family. This year especially, the weather in these gaps has been unstable, unpredictable and wildly dynamic. I think, for example of an afternoon when I paddled from Canal Bay, near Rollins, Montana out around the south ends of Shelter and Cedar Islands and back. The waves caused me to hesitate before launch and required extreme care when broadside to their wind-driven and rolling energy. After I landed I learned that a sailboat from the Lutheran Church camp had requested permission to anchor in the swimming area of the United Methodist church camp, so tired and fearful was the crew.

I also remember a recent paddle from Finley Point campground to Bird Island. Conditions were unsettled and the waves so chaotic that I only saw one other boat on the water—a powerful inboard towing a tuber and creating endless contradictory waves in addition to those generated by wind across a 20-mile fetch. By the time I reached the island I was so concerned about turning broadside and beginning my drift south that I did not even glance into my favorite cove and did not dare to take a photograph. I could not figure out a way to use my camera and brace against the waves at the same time.

As I coasted south I knew it would be wise to find a place to rest and eat lunch. I remembered a gravel bar on the south end of the island where boats often ground themselves and get out of the fray. I left this spot to a merganser family and found a slip behind an ancient grounded pine tree covered now with a community of mosses and other small plants. I felt a profound sense of relief to be in the lee of the island’s mass and to glide in behind the log.

Paddling, almost always by myself, gives me ample time for reflection. So, contemplating my own need for rest, and the relief that accompanies it, I could not help but think about other people whose need for rest is far more consequential. I thought about all the people along our southern border looking for escape from gangs, border patrol agents, militias, and others who exploit their vulnerability. These people need places to rest, shade under a bush, and the shelter of human kindness.

I feel fortunate that I can enter into difficulty by choice and that I know where to find places to rest. Paddling gives me ample time to fly in my imagination toward those who are forced into flight and who search desperately for a little pool in the lee of events.