Every year I try to paddle to Wild Horse Island in May. I do this to honor my mother who died this month sixteen years ago. Some people have ideal mothers. My brother and I were not so fortunate, thanks to a surgery when she was in her 20s. Medical mistakes set her up for a life of pain, chronic illnesses and multiple addictions in response to physical and mental suffering. Despite these difficulties, and partly in reaction to them, I remain the recipient of so many things. In truth my mother gave me everything I needed—a wariness of intoxicants, desire for a conscious life, my love of language, and attentiveness to the world within and around me.
Because she gave me the gift of life I am able to paddle to the island, hike its ridges, explore its valleys, appreciate its wildflowers.
Almost certainly she would have noticed and called attention to the way Balsamroot turn toward the morning light,
the composition of stone and flower, hard and soft,
an owl feather still wet with dew,
a once-living tree suspended above the current of its journey and the storms that threw it there upon the stone.
Trained by her at the window of sunrise, I notice the way cumulus clouds form the central reflection in ovoids, see the kestrel, on its perch in a pine tree, step in a full circle as it surveys the world.
Given a perfect day for paddling and a chance at life, I am nothing but grateful. In response I offer her the the whole island’s bouquet.
This week I hope to go fishing with my friend Robin. I like fishing with him because we don’t talk very much about fish; we talk about even more important things. One afternoon, for example, I remember rolling up his driveway after a day on the river and hearing him say something like, “Consciousness is the great mystery…” Maybe on Thursday we’ll return to this topic. Paddling a kayak also points toward the same mystery.
While trying to wait patiently for weather to turn incrementally warmer, I decided to repair my kayak. In the course of 16 years on the water, Bluebird’s sensitive gel coat acquired a number of scratches and dings. At the upturned end of the stern there was a spidery crack from shipping and handling, there from the beginning, a few long scratches when I did not see a sub-surface spine of sharp rock, a more serious wound received when a wave slammed Bluebird sideways into a log. To make the repairs I went to school on YouTube, bought supplies I needed from a company in Spokane, endured a little trial and error and began to make repairs before buffing the body of the boat with a series of compounds.
In the course of this project I came to appreciate how the gel coat seems as sensitive as skin and how the boat itself is actually an instrument of perception. It feels the world through which it moves as much as skin detects changes in temperature, the slightest breeze, a tender touch, puncture or scrape. In the water the kayak feels the tap of a piece of driftwood, the cutting action of a jagged rock, the friction of gravel or sand, push or slap of wave, the buffeting of headwinds, the pressure of a tail wind. As the skin perceives the outer world, so the kayak perceives the influences and effects of the the aquatic environment. This awareness motivated me to care for my boat, to try to make it last as long as possible. A boat is a story and I want to keep it alive.
To go one step farther, as I sanded the curves to get a better bond or used progressing abrasives to level the gel coat’s creamy surface, it occurred to me that the kayak actually extends my conscious awareness into the water and weather, into the liquid body of the lake, its shorelines and depths. In short, the boat is a tactile instrument that allows me to feel more than I am capable of perceiving with my mind alone. If the tip of the shovel feels the contours of the stone in the hole where one hopes to plant a tree, so the kayak extends awareness into the topography of the lake and the vagaries of weather.
If I had any doubts about this insight I would only need to recall what it feels like to paddle at night. In the absence of light the eyes are almost useless. As never before one is forced to use the body of the boat to feel the waves, the direction of their approach, their energy and strength. At night one feels—through the skin of the kayak—what is happening in the world. To the paddler’s body the kayak transmits every signal sent by water and wind.
Alert to these things, I sense how a kayak is not just a means of transport or a way to have fun on a lake but a tool that increases one’s awareness as it extends itself into the world. It is the tactile equivalent of binoculars used to focus on a vireo reaching for the last berry in a mountain ash, or a telescope turned toward a star. No wonder it seems worthy of attention and repair. Through its sensitive hull I want to keep in touch with the watery world.
Near the end of March it is still snowing, not in the fitful fashion of a spring squall but continuously, earnestly, as it usually snows in December. Once again the driveway is covered in snow and the back slope wears an armor of ice. We have been locked inside this winter for five solid months. Yet, the expansion of the light after the equinox has an effect on me in the same way that it normally affects the apple tree outside the south window. In a normal year, whatever that is, the buds would be swelling by now in response to the light if not the weather. Despite the weather, something in me is also awakening. Despite the snow and unseasonable cold, I am beginning to imagine paddling my kayak, negotiating wind and waves in a glassy vessel, exploring islands and coves, immersing myself in color, dissolving into the life of the lake.
This weather that keeps me indoors also leads me to reach toward my shelf of favorite books where I find The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, a slim, white paperback that stands in the company of hardbound Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane. The book tells the story of Shepherd’s first sight of the Cairngorn plateau in Scotland when she was a child and how it awakened a desire to explore its heights and depths. She recounts encounters with wild weather and hardy human beings. She traverses slopes, climbs peaks, notes birds, animals and insects, crosses streams confined by granite walls, traces their courses from uppermost springs to the valleys of the Spey, Avon or Dee.
First published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press, the book was written in the years during and soon after WWII. After Shepherd received a discouraging response to the manuscript she tucked it in a drawer where it sat untended for almost thirty years. Meanwhile she continued to climb and explore her living mountain, but also the mountain that had impressed itself on her mind and heart. In a disturbed and uncertain world the Cairngorns were her “secret place of ease.” Then as an old woman she began “tidying out my possessions,” as she says. Rereading the manuscript, she found it still valid and felt renewed energy to see it published. We are so much the richer for the second wind of this writer and her belief in what she had written.
In some ways the book resembles a kitchen pantry nearly bursting with sensory detail. As Shepherd opens the door on this pantry, she describes the taste, touch, smell, sights and sounds of the mountain in all seasons of the year, both night and day. With her description of the taste of a berry, the texture of a plant or stone, what it feels like to walk barefoot over heather, the sound of an owl landing on a tent pole or a storm crashing into the walls, canyons and corries, she practically places us inside the mountain. Then in the final chapter, acting as our mountain guide, she takes us beyond all the details of weather, the colors of leaves and feathers, the varieties of animals, the intricacies of trails and routes, human pleasures and fatalities. She leads us up and out, or down and in, until we break into the open to consider the deepest things of all, the mystery of what it means to be alive, to be aware of one’s own being in the company of Being itself. It is as if the fog and mist of sensory detail suddenly clear and in her company we see an open sky above the summit. Rereading the final chapter of The Living Mountain I realize that what Nan Shepherd says of her beloved range might easily be said of Flathead Lake. One only needs to change a few words from her closing paragraphs to experience the lake that, like her mountain, is its own living being. If she had lived in Montana instead of Scotland, when she crested the last moraine heading into Polson she might have written:
…So my journey into an experience began. It was a journey always for fun, with no motive beyond that I wanted it. But at first I was seeking only sensuous gratification—the sensation of height, the sensation of movement, the sensation of speed, the sensation of distance, the sensation of effort, the sensation of ease: a kind of lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, certainly the pride of life. I was not interested in the lake for itself, but for its effect upon me, as (a cat) caresses not the man but herself against the man’s pant leg. But as I grew older, and less self-sufficient, I began to discover the lake in itself. Everything became good to me, (its long shoreline, its islands, its rocky hillsides and forests, its shades of color, its crevice-held flowers, its birds). This process has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that the experience enlarges (the ramps and slabs of stone, deep, dark depths, turquoise shallows, great banks of gravel, deer and sheep drawn to the margins). The thing to be known grows with the knowing. I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain (lake). The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the (lake’s) life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour or two I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes a human like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the (lake).
I do not know when this storm will end, when the ground will thaw, when the water temperature will rise enough to make paddling seem safe. But as the light changes, whatever atmospheric rivers flow our way, I imagine what it will be like to be on and in the living lake. Like Shepherd the hiker and climber, walking herself “transparent” to every living thing in her world, I hope to paddle myself transparent, clear of fears and concerns, empty of self, open to every resonating thing in a still-living world. As Shepherd’s knowledge of the mountains evolved, so, too, has my motivation and knowledge of the lake evolved. I will return to the lake not for myself but to experience the lake being itself.
I sometimes ask myself, Why do I do this? Why drive 160 miles round trip to get wet, windblown or sunburned? Why burn about six gallons of gasoline at a time when we are warming the planet faster than it can absorb the carbon dioxide we produce? Why deal with the aggression on the highway of the big-truck crowd? Why do this when so many things demand attention at home, especially in October when we are trying to finish outdoor chores before winter slams the door on light and comfort?
Midway through my paddle out to and around Wild Horse Island I realized a couple of possible answers to my questions. On September 15, I tested positive for the Omicron variant of the Covid 19 virus. My case was relatively mild compared to others whose coughs linger for weeks, who lose taste and smell, who suffer lasting fatigue, or even die. Paddling against a north wind reminded me that I have recovered, that my body has restored itself to health. In the two-hour beat against the wind, without distraction and in the company only of my thoughts, I remembered something else. On a recent visit to see my youngest son and his family I told Kyle that getting older does not necessarily mean things get easier. He looked at me squarely as we hugged one last time at the airport and said, “Stay strong, Dad.” I think he was telling me, “Dad, I need you in the world. Stay active. Don’t leave too soon.” Perhaps I drove north and paddled north for these reasons—to celebrate the recovery of health and as part of the process of staying strong for those who need me in the world.
In my circumnavigation of the island I looked to Osprey Cove as a refuge where I hoped to rest and eat lunch, but the landing did not feel safe; waves had pushed the gravel into a steep and sliding slope. I backed out of the cove and headed south where I hoped to find a more protected place to land. I found such a spot at the East Shore access to the island. I got out of Bluebird without spilling and wedged the boat between two drift logs. Thanks to my beloved I enjoyed a massive and spicy Beach Boy sandwich from Tagliare and Smyrna figs. After lunch I wandered the shoreline, climbed into the dry grasses and yarrow. Along the way I discovered a Big Horn sheep skeleton, bleached and barren. I took time, too, to marvel at the clear water of October, all the sediments and pollen settled out. At this point in the season the water seemed like a pure distillation. Once back in my boat I continued south, avoiding the ramps of stone along the shore because the reflected energy of waves created rougher conditions a few yards off shore. When I saw sheep resting in the shade of a pine tree, however, I could not resist approaching for a photo. I rarely see these animals in the open. This was their time to build reserves before winter makes life more difficult.
At the south end of the island I turned west and enjoyed several miles of assisted paddling as wind and waves nudged me from behind. In the face of things I felt I should do, I left home, but returned feeling as though my body had been washed clean as October gravel near shore. The lake offered an image to the imagination. This is something to celebrate.
Last winter when we discovered that all the campsites were booked six months in advance we availed ourselves of historical connections to one of the church camps on Flathead Lake. For a reasonable price we rented an unused cabin during the middle school band camp. Day and night we listened to middle schoolers practicing their instruments or terrorizing a cabin full of sleepers before dawn. In the heat of the day we heard instructors practicing scales in a way that made this necessary discipline seem truly beautiful. The chapel was set up with arcs of chairs, metal stands, keyboards, trap sets, and a xylophone.
Over the course of two days I took advantage of calm weather to make a couple of shorter paddles. On the first day I wandered around Cedar and Shelter Islands but saw no sign of the modest improvements Fish, Wildlife and Parks has approved for visitors to Cedar. On the second day I made the open-water crossing to Wild Horse Island. For once I was not paddling in rain, wind, or hail. It was like paddling a different lake.
As much as I love to paddle Bluebird, I also took time to be with the lake, to sit still and observe. Even the marginal comfort of a wooden bunk beat camping on the ground. The sun woke me, not pain in my hips. Taking time to be still I noticed things I miss when I’m in a hurry to get to the lake.
The margins of the lake are a part of the lake. They, like the water’s surface, are ever-changing, a palette for the shifting colors as one plant succeeds another, where Balsamroot gives way to lupine and then tall grasses, as green gives way to yellow and brown or the purple of asters. In addition to sounding brass we listened to little waves lap the shore. No longer trying to prove that I can cross the lake or paddle its length, I felt content being still on its edges.
At home I almost take for granted the value of stillness. When I am still, the Black-throated and Calliope hummingbirds show up on the deck to sip from potted plants or the red feeder. When still, I am more likely to see the warbler in the willows or notice how early morning shadows make mounds of lavender even more beautiful. When still, the moon’s sudden appearance seems like its own kind of brass instrument. For three mornings the same was true at the lake.
On the second morning I locked myself into the boat for the crossing to Wild Horse Island. Able to take a straight shot across the three-mile expanse in calm conditions, I landed at Eagle Cove, a public access point, shed skirt and pfd and began to walk into the forest. By 9 a.m. the sun was already too high for mostly nocturnal creatures to be active; but the air was filled with the calls of young osprey. Without binoculars I could not be certain, but the long, sharply defined feathers led to the tentative conclusion that I was seeing four young birds. They circled each other as they rode the rising and warming air above the island. When one landed on a rocky outcrop to rest, another approached from behind, dropped its legs like landing gear and swooped over the head of its sibling. This caused the resting bird to take to the air and give chase. My stillness among the trees gave me a vantage point on birds of prey at play.
On the third morning I took a bitter cup of instant coffee onto the cabin’s deck and sat in first light. Moving only to raise the cup I noticed a swallow asleep on a dead branch above a bird house someone had nailed to a tree. The silhouetted bird was little more than a swollen node, a knuckle on a branch, a tiny black shape, motionless. When the sun rose over the Missions and brushed the world with warm tones, including the breast of the bird, it sprung to life. It leaped from the branch and without warm-up began to cut arcs through the air. Seeing me it dropped from elevation in a descending curve and rose in front of me to confirm I was a quiet human.
When still, a better review of one’s choices becomes possible. When still, quiet things reveal themselves. When still, the edges of life become as interesting as the expanse of open weather and water.
I have lived in Montana for nearly 40 years. Even before arriving I tried to learn about my state. The people who invited me here hoped, even expected, that I would learn something about the state’s history; read the books they put in front of me; learn to close gates behind me every time I had permission to traverse private land; come to appreciate the long tenure of Montana’s Native peoples and cultures; and take a few back roads far from the interstate. In heart and soul I became a Montanan.
In the last two or three years living in Montana has become more difficult, and not just because of a pandemic. I can’t get a campsite where I used to drive up, find an empty spot and throw down my pad and bag. It takes thirty minutes to drive north through town where it used to take me fifteen. In some cases a dinner reservation must be made a week in advance. The median home price in Missoula recently hit $534,000. Sometimes there are more out-of-state license plates in parking lots than in-state plates with county numbers. When going fishing I have had to learn to dodge trailers and rafts.
With all this in mind I particularly admired the spirit of Tom Dickson’s Sketchbook essay in the May-June issue of Montana Outdoors (https://issuu.com/montanaoutdoors/docs/momj21). Like me he feels the pinch of change, but he found it in his heart to say, “Howdy, new neighbors.” To be sure, he had some recommendations for people from Utah, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida and California, things like not building a trophy home too close to a river or stream because of the impact of septic systems, or plopping one on a hilltop. But he even went so far as to propose that we give newcomers a welcome basket that contained a few things like a can of bear spray and a copy of the stream access law.
On a Wednesday in late June I pulled into a fishing access point along the shore of Flathead Lake. There were boat trailers and a car from another state. Under its open hatch a couple of women showered in a mist of bug spray. They launched an inflatable tandem kayak just ahead of me and began their own exploration along the shore. Meanwhile, I prepared to paddle out to Wild Horse Island, trying to remember every thing I might need, especially if predicted winds forced me to stay on the island until dusk when the wind usually drops.
Anticipating windy conditions I chose to bring my Werner Camano paddle because the blade gives me a little more bracing power in waves. But almost immediately I felt the absence of my Greenland-style paddle. More than I realized I have grown accustomed to being able to slide my hands up and down the loom for different kinds of strokes. I missed the faster cadence and the way the paddle is gentler on my joints. Adjusting myself to the unexpected, I crossed the strait to the island, made my way north to Skeeko Bay and pulled Bluebird ashore over a mass of floating driftwood. Even though Sélîs Kasanka Q’lispe dam is releasing over 50,000 cubic feet per second, the lake currently sits 5 inches above full pool as rain-swollen rivers pour into the basin.
Once ashore, I found a big log where I could sit, eat a peanut butter sandwich and change clothes for a hike. Even on a Wednesday several pontoon boats had already run up onto the gravel shore and disgorged a pile of passengers while more of these vessels approached from Big Arm and Dayton: I would not have the island to myself.
After loading a fanny pack with water, my first aid kit, and an already-peeled orange, I started up the trail. At the saddle where an old cabin still stands in the wind I turned left and took the Overlook Trail. Along the way I passed several families with young children. A toddler fell in front of me and scraped his left knee. I offered a band aid but his mother assured me that they had what they needed to comfort their crying child. I caught up to a couple heading toward the ridge, and as I passed, greeted them and asked if they were going to see the bitterroots. When they seemed mystified, I explained that bitterroots are the state flower and that they grow in the most inhospitable places like the rocky ridge ahead of us. They seemed interested but were not in good enough condition to continue up the steep trail.
During the day I saw lots of other people, talked with some whose accents I could not place. People asked, “Did you see a horse? A sheep? A bear?” I was tempted to say, “Only a lion,” but out of respect, held my tongue. On my way up to the top of the island I kept wondering, how do we do this? How do we welcome the people who are coming despite the changes they bring to a place we love and want to protect? How do we teach them that an animal is not an object to be counted but a particular expression and member of an incredibly complex community? How do we show them that a black-backed woodpecker is evidence of a combination of fire and insect populations; that a bald-eagle kiting in the wind is not something you see every day; that fire can be a friend to the land; that cheat grass is a problem? As I sat under a ponderosa clinging to its rocky footing I reminded myself of how Shoshone peoples must have felt seeing Lewis and Clark approach.
From the top of the island I looked in all directions, marveled at how the lake looked purple under shadows cast by cumulus clouds and a sunny turquoise where sediments in suspension from upstream rivers colored the water. I found several scrapes where animals had bedded down, but saw no deer or sheep. Near the top of the island I found sago lilies in a shady spot.
Watching gusts of wind race across the surface of the lake, I began to feel anxious about crossing back to the mainland, so I headed down the mountain. Along the way I found an Inuksuk, a reminder to act responsibly as a human being. Back at my kayak I changed clothes again and launched as two more boats sought to come ashore in front of me. They focused only on a place to land, not my vulnerability in a kayak.
Despite headwinds and the gusts that tore at my hat, I made it safely back to shore, though I did have to avoid flying hooks and worms cast from the dock. The changes we face won’t be easy to integrate. Yet, I hope to find a way to be friendly, knowing I, too, was once a newcomer, never quite native to this place I love.
Have you visited the storehouses of the snow or seen the arsenal where hail is stored…? (Job, 38.22)
In the southwestern U.S. conditions are drier than at any time in the last 1200 years. If Lake Powell drops another 33 feet, the water level will be too low to power the turbines that send electricity across the region. In Los Angeles people will soon have to choose between saving water to drink or watering their lawns. In my region of the country parts of the state remain in a state of severe drought. But around Flathead Lake it rains intermittently for two days and two nights, raising the water level of Flathead Lake over a foot across its 191 square miles, more than 122,000 acre feet of water.
Unable to reserve my own campsite because competition for these spaces is so keen, I ask a friend to let me set up my tent next to his recreational vehicle in space 11 at Finley Point State Park. He kindly allows me and Big Agnes to create shelter next to the picnic table in exchange for an oatmeal crisp made from cherries grown in the orchards above us and the reading aloud of two Kathleen Jamie poems while he drinks his morning coffee. My friend is in the grip of the latest James Lee Burke novel, so I take Bluebird down to the marina and paddle in the rain.
Wary of lightning and the risk of waving a wet piece of carbon in the air during a storm, I plan a short paddle through The Narrows, threading my way in a figure-eight pattern around the islands. But when clouds to the north look particularly ominous, I make a broad sweep, reverse course, head south along the backside of Bull Island and cross back to the protection of the marina. If it is gray above, it is blue and green below.
Since everything is wet when paddling a kayak, it makes little difference if it rains. So I go out the next day too. This time I head north across Finley Bay, the tip of the peninsula and the chain of rocky shark’s teeth disappearing under rising water. I have paddled in many different conditions but never before in a hail storm. This time a trunk of hail drops down to the lake surface and balls of ice pelt my hat, drysuit, bare hands and deck. Though the particles are little larger than course rock salt, they turn the lake surface into a layer of froth not unlike a beer poured too fast or a latté covered in a milky hat. When dramatic things happen while paddling I wish I had the poise to unzip my pfd pocket, reach for my phone and take photos; but the best I can do is hang on, hunch my shoulders like a hawk on a limb and wait for the storm cell to pass. Until the gray column of falling ice advances to the east I listen to the sounds of hail, each sound different depending on the surface it strikes.
In time I circle Bird Island and begin to head south, eventually finding that perfect paddling rhythm that makes distances dissolve. Along the way I think of our good fortune. Though climate change models still predict a hot, dry summer and the potential for fire, at the moment we are being given the gift of rain and experiencing the release of more water from the storehouses of snow and hail. On Bird Island and the slopes of the Mission Mountains after the Boulder 2700 fire, mahonia, Rocky Mountain maple, chokecherry, arrowleaf balsamroot and cottonwoods rise from blackened ground. The hidden power in seeds is being set free by rain and light; the birds are having families; we will have water to drink and irrigation for our gardens and fields.
After the isolation and fatigue associated with a pandemic; during the ravages of war; in the aftermath of gunfire in classrooms and shopping markets; after the danger of insurrection has passed—at least for now—we have rain, an unmerited gift from the sky that renews everything that is tired and worn. For a couple of days I visit the storehouse of life-giving water—whatever form it takes—and return with nothing but gratitude, rich in ways that cannot be counted.
And my friend steps out of his camper and says, “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Every year I look for an opportunity to paddle in November. Though there is snow in the mountains and frost in the valleys, paddling in November is my way to honor a father who died at this time of the year when cranberry bogs and raspberry thickets near his home blazed against a blue sky. Though he never paddled a sea-kayak, he was never without a boat. A final paddle begins to repay the debt to a man who introduced me to life on the water. This year I kept my eye out for the perfect day—a high temperature around 50 degrees, water conditions almost as warm, waves not raised by the energy of autumn’s first storms. I found that day on November 5. But two days before I was ready to paddle along a shore lined with golden larch trees, I received an email. It contained an invitation to return to the upper watershed of Miller Creek, a tributary of the Bitterroot River, not far from where we live, upstream of water we use every day.
The Clark Fork Coalition had received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency and Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality to work in two riparian areas along the stream, a stream considered “impaired.” Four years in the planning phase, the two projects, both on private land, had many goals. Heavy equipment operators would stabilize banks so less sediment flowed downstream; new meanders in the stream course needed to be built to slow the current and create holding water for native fish; woody debris in the form of logs needed to be anchored in the banks; willows would be placed in trenches parallel to the stream and finally, cottonwood trees and red-osier dogwood needed to be planted to maintain cool water temperatures, provide habitat for avian migrants and offer a degree of protection for fish under the eye of osprey and kingfishers.
After weighing the options, and knowing there is no guarantee of a good day at this time of the year, I chose to return to the stream, even though I had devoted a day to the project the previous week. We have so few opportunities to translate deep concern for the earth into concrete action, action that makes a difference to a land owner and to wild creatures waiting for improved conditions. Here was a rare opportunity to practice what our Jewish community calls Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world. Under the direction of two hearty and motivated young women from the Coalition, volunteers from Missoula drove into the frosty Miller Creek canyon, carried picks and shovels and armloads of desire into and across a little stream waiting to be repaired. As we worked we were amazed to see fish take up position in the newly configured stream in less than an hour after pools were excavated and the stream gradient was changed.
When Congress seems bogged down in negotiations on social and physical infrastructure bills, while the earth itself seems stuck on a hot plate, an email arrived inviting us to mend a few hundred yards of one watershed. We were given a chance to increase the likelihood that a warming earth will lose fewer of its adapted species and water will flow clean and clear upstream of where we live. Spending a day digging holes in the rockiest of soils, pounding T-stakes, and securing fencing around saplings so deer and elk will not devour them the first night after they are planted, seemed like an even better thing to do than paddle Bluebird one last time this year. Were he alive, I believe my father would understand.
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.
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.