Preparing to Meet This Wildness, May 2018


Before each season’s first paddle my eagerness to be on the water plays tug of war with the knowledge that I must prepare for it.

As part of this year’s preparation I decided to make a few small repairs to Bluebird. A couple of long scratches on the bottom of the hull needed attention. Years ago I was paddling between Bird Island and Skidoo Bay early in the season. Without realizing that an underwater spine of rock almost connects Finley Point and the island, I passed over the rocks at speed. I still remember the sound as rocks cut a pair of long lines down the bottom of the boat. Then last season I slipped between a friend’s boat and a log because I wanted to assist her with a stubborn spray skirt. When a big wave smacked her upwind side my boat was driven into a protruding branch that cracked the gel coat just above waterline. To solve these problems I bought a repair kit, read about the process, mixed gel and catalyst and filled the wounds. Using equipment from the woodworking shop I sanded with progressively finer grades of sandpaper before polishing the hull. In preparation for the season I also reviewed what I’ve stowed in my emergency dry bag and in my old Maine Guide bag, planning different layers of clothing for different types of weather. Before Thursday’s paddle I made myself take time to prepare a nutritious and calorie-rich lunch as well as two bottles of water, one with electrolytes.

These preparations to paddle put me in the mind of other forms of preparation. If we prepare before launching a kayak, we also prepare to teach, travel, or plant a garden. We prepare before building a home or designing a chair. We prepare for a job interview, a first date, a wedding, and before giving birth to a child. A move to another state requires extensive preparation as we try to meet the challenges of deep change. We prepare internally to hear someone else’s story, before surgery, or that life transition poorly named retirement. As we prepare for life, some people prepare for death. Our preparations put us in a better position to face potential difficulty. As we attempt to make ourselves ready, we lower the wave height of our anxiety.

On May 3, I drove up to Flathead Lake for the first paddle of the season. At the base of the Ravalli Hill I pulled off at the mandatory watercraft inspection station. In the age of aquatic invasive species, stopping for this inspection is a necessary and important part of preparing to paddle. In the deep shade of early morning the inspector’s smiles rose over me like sunrise. I thanked them for their work in keeping Flathead free of zebra and quagga mussels, as well as other imported creatures that would upset the ecology of the lake.

After the right-turn in Polson I learned that Finley Point State Park was closed for major reconstruction, so I continued north to Yellow Bay State Park where I would find access to the water. Here, under the cottonwoods shedding the sticky sheathes of their catkins, I rubbed talcum powder on the latex of my old-style dry suit so that I could slip the neck collar over my head and escape through the diagonal zipper at the end of the day. I spread various items on the bed of my truck so I would not forget something essential. I arranged protection for two cameras so they would not get wet. Then, after loading my boat I paused at the water’s edge. No matter how thorough I am with my other preparations, this is the one that seems most important. I pause to remember that the lake and its weather are infinitely more powerful than I am, that my slender boat makes its tentative and determined way at the mercy of these forces. I pause to remember some of the people I love. I stop at the threshold to give thanks for water so clean and pure that entering it feels sacramental.

I used to think of preparations as an obstacle between me and what I wanted to do—paddle my boat. All the little preparations, from tying down the boat to packing lunch seemed to stand between me and the goal of getting in the water to make beautiful strokes. More than a decade into the late-season life of a paddler I no longer see it this way. All these little acts and duties make paddling safer and free of agitation. In the process we make ready for meeting this wildness over which we glide.

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Wordless Instruction

Wordless Instruction

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I sometimes paddle with friends Jeanne and Glenn. Last fall Glenn asked if I would help him make a Greenland style paddle as a Christmas gift for Jeanne. This long, tapered design has been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years and offers an alternative to modern high-angle paddles in space-age materials. I said yes.

At a local lumberyard that has access to unusual timbers Glenn found a flawless piece of western red cedar. The grain was vertically aligned permitting us to create a reasonably stiff paddle with the least amount of weight. Once we settled on the proper length for the paddle, I jointed and planed the plank to make it straight. We then explored our way to a pleasing taper from the tip of the blade to the handle area. I roughed out the shape on my band saw.

Knowing we had options, I suggested to Glenn he would most enjoy the process of making this paddle if he refined its shape with hand tools rather than power tools. As I demonstrated the effectiveness of my smallest Krenov-style plane and a small brass spokeshave he was convinced. Over the next three weeks we met as often as possible to work on the paddle. When our work periods included the lunch hour, Glenn kindly brought fried chicken and wrapped sandwiches.

Sometimes we worked on opposite ends of the paddle, moving toward each other; other times I turned away to let Glenn’s relationship to the paddle develop on its own. I tried to give him a minimum of instruction so that he would begin to relate to the tools and the material rather than to me. I wanted him to grow more intimate with all the connections between sensitive hands, fragrant wood, and his own neurological pathways as the strokes became familiar and repeatable. To the best of my ability I aimed for what Tao Te Ching calls “wordless instruction.”

Day after day Glenn removed material, looking for a pleasing shape and a proper feel in the hand. Gradually the paddle gained symmetry and the lines began to flow. Eventually we unified all the small facets from the tools’ passage over the wood by hand sanding through a series of abrasives until the paddle was extremely smooth. We also wet the wood with water to raise the grain, and when it was dry, sanded off the fuzz. We rubbed in some tung oil to reveal the wood’s final color and offer modest protection from the water.

But Glenn was not finished. In his mind’s eye he saw a loon and Jeanne’s initials on one of the blades. I encouraged him to draw out what he wanted to see on a piece of scrap paper, then on the wood itself. Meanwhile, I unpacked my wood burning stylus and turned on the pyrograph. After a little practice Glenn mastered the pace of stroking the pen over the surface of the wood while allowing it to recover its heat between strokes. He created a small, beautiful loon and wove the initials into a subtle water pattern beneath the bird.

In the end we held the paddle upright and rested the wood on the top of my toes while my wife took a photo of the proud craftsmen.

Perhaps a few hundred people a year make their own kayaks and paddles. For the most part, though, these tools for crossing water are made of carbon, fiberglass, Kevlar, and roto-molded plastic. Making a paddle from timber felled just across our northern border and using hand tools put us in touch with a non-industrial process, the joy of working together and working by hand. Again, as Tao Te Ching says, there is a rare satisfaction in being able to say, “we did it ourselves.”

Bones

This past summer was a difficult season to paddle in Montana. Beginning in July, smoke from fires in Idaho began to slip over the mountains and fill our valleys. As the jet stream avoided our latitude more fires in the region poured smoke into the Missoula, Mission and Flathead valleys. Almost all of August and September were lost to a choking and hazardous particulate pall. As a result, I did not paddle nearly as much as I normally do; it wasn’t safe or wise. Out of the haze and the odor of burned forest I see a surprising image from this past summer—an image of bones.

On a beach in a little cove on Cedar Island I found a beautiful, long, rib bone as well as a large vertebra. Knowing that no animals of this size live on the island, I suspect that some large ungulate washed down the Flathead River or rode the lake’s currents and washed ashore on this island. All the forces of nature worked on the remains and left these gleaming architectural elements of a once-living being.

Then, on one of my circumnavigations of Wild Horse Island, I spotted a skeleton in the driftwood, the bones and sun-bleached limbs of trees nearly indistinguishable. I paddled ashore, secured Bluebird, and investigated. This was almost certainly the skeleton of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Though the skeleton came to rest below one of the island’s cliffs, I have watched these sure-footed animals enough to know that it is extremely doubtful that an adult Bighorn fell in this location. The fact that the skeleton was headless confirmed my worst suspicions: someone probably poached a big ram and left the body to rot in the afternoon sun.

Maybe it is appropriate that one of my final memories of 2017 focuses on bones, the remnants of death. But at the time I discovered these bones, I felt astonished by their beauty. I ran my fingers along the flutes of the ribs, marveled at their ligature, could not begin to comprehend the complexity of a spinal column. Nothing about these remains was gruesome, except the possibility that someone poached a protected animal.

Bones seem important for another reason. The internal skeleton of an animal supports its whole structure, sets it up for life. These bones were something to admire not avoid. They revealed the essence of the animal. Ever since encountering these bones I have been reflecting on the problem of essence, the deepest, innermost aspect of life and its purpose. But this has been anything but an abstract philosophical project for me. I have been asking about the bones of my own life, not the once-broken radius in my right arm, the nodes in my spinal column that press on the nerves, but the essence of why I am here and what I must do. Trying to peer through the smoke and confusion at the turn of the year I am determined to pay attention to each encounter, to reckon with both the suffering and the glory, the heartbreak and the beauty.

Summer smoke and all its metaphorical expressions in the form of political speech and posturing, tempt us to contract our attention. It seems more than likely that some people may actually be trying to divert our attention. This summer, for the sake of sanity, it seemed important not to see, smell, or listen. But the bones on the beach remind me to keep paying attention, to search out the inwardmost structure of things and how it hangs together or comes apart. Last summer I touched the bones, ran my fingers across their polish and curves. As if speaking to me they said, Behold. Attend. Bear witness. I carry this mandate into the new year.

Deeper Currents

Deeper Currents

As everyone in the Northwest knows, the summer of 2017 was difficult. From the first week of July through the first week of September our forests were on fire and more smoke than we had ever experienced piled up behind a ridge of high pressure. Smoke poured into our valleys, filled our lungs, left ash on every surface, and embers in our yards. For many this was also a summer of anxiety and hasty preparations for evacuation. Some of us returned home to the smell of wet charcoal, black fields of devastation, and worse. In response to the casual question, “How are you?” people often answered “Depressed.”

As a paddler I occasionally inserted a trip on Flathead Lake between the darkest days of smoke, encountered locked gates at state parks, and waited like everyone else for the air to clear and costs to mount.

On September 29, I finally found a bright and fresh day for a solo paddle out to Wild Horse Island and a clockwise trip around its perimeter. It felt healing to exercise in pure air, to be reminded that our world is indeed beautiful after weeks of finding it fouled, polluted and threatened. Late afternoon light backlit every snowberry, spider web, needle and turning leaf in the draw above Osprey Cove. A shift in the wind gave me five fast miles at the end of the day.

During this paddle I thought I might feel elevated by the knowledge that our world we love had finally been returned to us. But after this summer I felt more reflective than jubilant. All the evidence suggests that what happened this summer will happen again.

I have always been skeptical of the human inclination to use nature for our own purposes, reducing it to one more resource that we exploit for our own pleasure. I know, it is good to wash one’s mind in the bath of green and blue water. It is good to test one’s inner strength in the face of variable winds and distance. It restores balance to play on the waves. But time in a kayak, especially by oneself, gives a paddler occasion to ask, “What is all this for? What larger purpose does it serve?”

In my post of May 7, 2017, I proposed that we have a responsibility to attend to and behold the things we encounter. But on this Friday in September the currents took me deeper. After this summer it seems we have an inescapable responsibility to address the forces that are making our world increasingly uninhabitable. It is no accident that our forests are burning and coastal cities are awash in water that overwhelms the land and its inhabitants. We are doing this to ourselves and we must undo what we have done. Or, to shift the metaphor, we must change course because the one we are on leads to ruin, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

It is not for me to say what others should do. We must see this for ourselves. But I am clear that I have a responsibility to understand the impacts of what we are doing to the planet and take action in word and deed to promote choices that lead toward better ways of being in the world. A paddle in bright light makes this clear. It is time to do more than sigh with relief or toss up our hands. We have work to do, changes to make, a course to correct, while there is time.

 

Discoveries

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

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

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

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

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

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

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

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

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

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

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

Nighthawk Mountain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waves Lift

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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