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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Accident Under the Mother Tree

Accident Under the Mother Tree

My mother died on May 26, 2007. At least we think that was the day. The nursing home lost track of her during the night. Grateful for her life, and the gift of my own, I try to go paddling each year around the time of her death day. I do this for several of reasons. Her generosity made it possible for me to buy my Current Designs Gulfstream, the kayak I use on Flathead Lake. The end of May is a nearly ideal time to paddle out to Wild Horse Island and explore its interior. Unless the weather has been unusually hot and dry many of the wildflowers are still blooming and I enjoy searching for the island’s wildlife. Paddling in May is also a way of giving thanks for my relatively good health and stamina, qualities my mother never enjoyed.

On May 29, I slipped through the morning’s commuter traffic, headed west on the interstate, and took the slow lane up the Evaro hill. To the east the meadows were full of snowmelt and wild iris. At Ninepipes the ponds were overflowing as the first truly warm days brought snow down off the Missions. To the west a heron stilted after fish in the grassy shallows. At the base of the Polson moraine I looked at the log decks at Hunt’s Timbers, bunks of material ready for sale, and thought about a friend’s request that I make her grave marker from pine purchased at Hunt’s. Near the bridge in Polson several boats of fishermen had lines in the water.  At the Walstad fishing access the parking lot was empty.

Trusting the Graphical Forecast of “variable winds and waves less than a foot,” I pushed the wind around the north side of Melita Island, rounded the southeast corner of Wild Horse and headed up to Osprey Cove, one of many places on the lake where osprey and bald eagles compete with one another for territory and fish. I spotted one of each, breasts to the morning sun. Knowing that the lake is filling toward full pool, I lifted Bluebird onto one of the gravel benches parallel to the beach, peeled off my dry suit, and dug out my lunch sack and water bottle. On a previous trip I had begun exploring the steep draw that empties into the cove. This time I had time to climb it to the top. In the lower elevations Arrowleaf Balsamroot had finished blooming, but Arnica still caught my eye, along with a few spent Shooting stars, Larkspur and Harebells. In the deep shade of the forest a trio of bucks in velvet yanked at Balsamroot leaves.

As I continued to climb I realized that the draw would not end in a valley but in the island’s true summit. At the top I could see south to the islands of The Narrows, the Mission crest in the distance, west to the northern Bitterroot range still under snow.

Looking around for a good lunch spot, I noticed a “mother tree,” a large Ponderosa Pine. Beneath the drip line of the low branches Balsamroot and Harebells grew in a concentrated ring.

I backed in, rested against the trunk and opened my lunch sack. A little thirsty, I drank some of my water and ate half an apple. On these solo trips I often carry a can of sardines and my favorite Dakota bread from Great Harvest Bakery. Using my left hand to secure the tin I pulled the ring. At first the lid would not yield and the top developed a crown. It would take a lot more force now to peel back the lid. So, I set my shoulder to the task and pulled hard. When the lid finally gave way the edge of the tin sliced my left hand between thumb and index finger. Blood pulsed out of the open gash, spotted my clothes, lunch sack, and pine duff at my feet.

I knew I was in trouble and would need to make good decisions. I took time to breathe and think. I poured some of my water into the open wound, knowing that the sardine can was not sterile. Having left my first aid kit in the kayak down below, I had to find an alternative to compress and tape. I looked around for solutions and saw the big Balsamroot leaves. I broke off three, pressed them against the wound and then used a stem to bind everything in place.

Knowing that I still had to paddle roughly seven miles back to Walstad, I decided I’d better eat. So, I used the fingers of my right hand to pull the sardines out of the can, dividing the fish onto the two pieces of bread. I also took time to eat a Cliff bar and to consider my limited options.

Often traveling alone, I have developed a practice of noticing my surroundings when I hike. On the way down from the summit I looked again for the fallen pine whose roots now held a limestone block in the air, the snag with a nesting cavity, the patch of bare ground, a particular erratic boulder, the cliff dividing one side of the draw from the other, the fencing of an old corral. I did not want to end up in the wrong cove or waste energy looking for my boat. Once on the beach I plopped down on the edge of the water, let go of my bloody leaves, did a better job washing the wound and pulled out my first aid kit. Though not trained in making a dressing, I used a sterile gauze pad and two long strips of tape torn free with my teeth. Then it occurred to me that I could use my paddling glove (tucked in the hatch for emergencies), to create more pressure. I worked the tight black glove over the dressing and into place. Now I knew I could paddle.

Before slipping the boat back in the water I drank most of the contents of my spare bottle containing electrolytes called “Skraitch,” a less sweet alternative to drinks commonly used by athletes. I knew I would have difficulty pulling on my dry suit with its latex gaskets and long diagonal zipper, so I stowed the dry suit. I would have to trust the weather and smooth strokes. I did not want to roll in 43-degree water. In calm conditions I reversed my route but chose to paddle between Melita and homes along Labella Lane in case I needed help. As I rounded Melita I skirted a flock of ring-billed gulls clustered together on the gravel bar. After they scattered I noticed an eagle wing feather waiting to be discovered by Boy Scouts who would soon arrive. A slight tail wind carried me back to my starting point.

More slowly this time, I carried all my gear back to the truck and made myself re-load and secure the kayak. Driving back into town I realized that I was having trouble concentrating. Intersections and crosswalks felt like a flood of data. I decided to ask for help. I vaguely remembered a sign pointing to a clinic at the top of the hill south of town. The Ridgecrest Clinic did not accept walk-in patients so they directed me back into town to the clinic near St. Joseph’s Hospital. As I walked back toward my truck someone tapped me on the shoulder. A kind woman said, “I heard you describe your injury. Don’t drive back into town. Walk across the street. Those people will take care of you.” Indeed they did. From the women at the front counter helping me with paper work to the woman who helped me pull off the bloody glove, from the physician who tested tendons to Karen Smith who stitched the severed artery and closed the wound I received the care I needed. The leathery leaves of Balsamroot were a temporary solution at best.

Driving home I turned off the radio so I could concentrate. Along the way I reflected on my day. Many would say I should not make these trips by myself; the risk is too great. But if I am going to paddle to the islands at this time of the year I will probably paddle alone. In the future, if I combine a paddle with a hike, I will stow a fanny pack containing my box of first aid supplies and will not leave the kayak without it. Having watched skilled hands dress a wound, I am going to add a few new supplies to my Pelican box.

I return astonished by how quickly a day can change. A fall on the ice, a snowboard accident, a car crash happens in an instant. I find this humbling. Accidents befall even those who are prepared. In the end I’m glad I stopped for lunch under the mother tree on a day I wanted to honor my own mother. More than flowers grow in a ring beneath its sheltering limbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Already

Already

Surprisingly I am already beginning to think about paddling in the spring. We are ten days short of the winter solstice. Two hours before morning light I feel cold seep through the south wall of the back bedroom. I save chicken skin for magpies; it freezes almost the moment I put it on the cedar plank for their discovery. Even so, I am already thinking about the feel of sliding the boat down my bent thighs and slipping it stern first into the all-receiving water of spring.

It is also true that in this cold, dark time of the year I live somewhere between memory and anticipation.

Something of the past lives inside me, particles of its presence floating around in my brain or limbs. I remember the warm morning three of us stuffed overnight gear into our hatches, shoved off from the warm shallows of Big Arm Bay, and headed for Cedar Island.

I remember another morning when, despite our best effort to time departure and weather, we encountered difficult conditions that required a smart decision. Considering all the possibilities, I decided we should ride rough water to the big island and not oppose the waves and wind. We used the island as a windbreak for much of our northward leg. Fortunately, this decision did not set us up for trouble on the southward return of our trip. And I remember a late September day when I had the lake to myself. I found the energy to go wherever I wanted, to link near shore to distant point, island and strait, open water and sheltering bay. Limits seemed remote; whatever I imagined seemed possible as the boat played a melody over the bass notes of the lake. All these memories float around inside me, bubble up into awareness.

At the same time I imagine paddles to come. Almost five months from being able to fulfill any of the things I imagine, I feel particles of anticipation in motion. I very much want to make another night paddle, to stroke away at sunset and be on the water after jet skis drain dry on their lifts and fast boats have pulled into their slips after covering the length of the lake for the fun of speed. I want to paddle into moonlight or turn my back to the modest lights of Polson and see stars over Glacier’s peaks. I want to feel what there is of my own strength apply itself in the face of the wind. I want to see if I can find that petroglyph hiding under overhanging rock. I want to thread my way through the island chain to see how a friend fared over the winter and if he built another wooden boat. I want to be out when the weather changes, not because I court disaster, but because I love the energy of the weather and how deep blue can change to green and white.

Over the winter I will keep the things I anticipate in my pocket, reach in once in a while to rub the coins of possibility together. I will try to maintain enough tone so the first paddle will not feel like something to fear. I will let imagination grow strong as a deep current carrying me back to this thing I love to do. Despite everything, the lake is still free of invasive mussels and good people are keeping an eye on nitrates. Despite everything the water will accept the prow and the blade. Despite everything the axis will tilt and the light will return.

The Mystery of Timing

The Mystery of Timing

August 29, 2018

From time to time I remind myself that an eagle feather will not fall out of the sky and land beside my tent every morning; that I will not find a polished antler every time I walk up the hill; that not every June will be moist, free of wind, and permit each green thing to flourish; and that not every conversation will wander happily from topic to topic and end in resolution, understanding, and warmth.

And yet, some days the door to disclosure and discovery seems wide open. Yesterday, for example, I joined two friends who had just married for a post-celebration paddle around Wild Horse Island. After forty-six days without measurable precipitation and with smoke in every valley it had finally rained and cleared. A brisk breeze blew out of the southwest, a rarity in late summer. After launch we let the wind and waves rock and roll us toward the south east corner of Wild Horse Island and then gentle us toward Osprey cove on the timbered east side, with only a distant sailboat on a downwind reach in open water before us. As we turned into the cove we saw the final act of aerial competition between a bald eagle and an osprey, the heavy bird driven into a ponderosa, the lighter more agile fish hawk in quick retreat after a final taloned dive. On shore we sat in the marvel of brightly colored stones and enjoyed hunks of cheese, a tuna sandwich, Greek olives and monster cookies, calories not a problem.

As quiet as butterflies, three fulsome bucks came to the water to drink and seemed completely undisturbed by the sound of our voices or scent. It was not easy to reconcile their horny hooves, hardening antlers, and the softness with which they tipped forward and sipped the clear water.

Later, after rounding the north point of the island and we began the southbound leg of our circle, we came upon three enormous Bighorn rams on the steep and rocky shore below the red cliffs. Intent on rooting out some tasty mineral, one ram turned its rear to us while the others faced us squarely, warning us not to take one more stroke toward them. I felt astonished by their mass, the age and size of their curling horns, and hoped they would not crash into the water in an effort to drive me away. Their red eyes and hard stare were unnerving.

Some days we circle our islands and see nothing worth remark. No matter our hopes, or even our openness, the doors seem closed and no feather falls in the night. But other times the curtain between us and discovery, between us and the Other, whether human or wild, seems parted, pulled back within the stage’s curved frame. Yesterday was such a day. If our arrivals had been different by even five minutes we would not have seen what we saw. After hauling out we drove home in a state of wonder, grateful for the good fortune of timing and everything we had been allowed to see.

To Excel or Enjoy

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

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

And I stood outside myself,

Beyond becoming and perishing,

A something wholly other,

As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,

and yet was still.

And I rejoiced in being what I was…

Theodore Roethke “The Rose”

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

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

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

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

This Vastness

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

            Olivia Laing, To the River

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

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

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