In spring the day may begin clear as a button-down pinpoint fresh off the iron. In the morning geese call to one another overhead as first light ignites their wingtips. But as the day warms the engine of the sun seems to lift moisture out of the lake and into the air. It reaches for little wisps, gathers them, kneads this moisture into clouds, packs them tighter until they begin to have weight, until they begin to tumble and rumble. Then the wind blows or it rains, and the waves on the water begin to build. And after all this energy is spent and night comes on, the heaviness in the sky breaks up and blows away. Pearly clouds pick up sunset’s fire like opals as the sun touches the horizon. If the last of the gray clouds in the foreground move off and dissipate in a lighter atmosphere, we see a light blue line at the horizon, a line sometimes tinged with green. In springtime a paddler needs to look for intervals, the openings between storms and windy conditions. This interval might come soon after sunrise or in the space between sunset and starlight. We especially need these openings when far from shore.
In mid-May we experience record-breaking heat for this date, the kind of heat that already makes us think about fire season. I head for the lake. Trying to get the maximum number of paddles per drive, I set up camp around 4 p.m. The weather seems dependable so I don’t bother with the rain fly. Around 5 p.m. I begin to paddle toward Matterhorn Point. The whole surface of the lake is like my blue silk shirt—smooth with a few soft wrinkles. I experience none of the noise and chafe of rough conditions, nor the anxiety that goes with having to respond to the odd, large wave.
When I get to the point I see Wild Horse Island about three miles away. Even though it is dinnertime and I had planned to turn back, the water is completely calm and irresistible. Many times I have looked from this point to the island and felt that the intervening space seems almost impassable, but not this evening. As I ponder the decision to turn back or go on, it feels as though the lake is offering me a series of open gates. Almost any paddle feels possible. I am amazed that no one else is on the lake experiencing these conditions. Seizing the opportunity, and knowing it is rare, I enter the opening. Dinner can wait. I leave the point behind and cover the intervening distance quickly, the sun still high in the sky. I feel almost no resistance to anything I might like to try.
I find a place to land between cabin sites, no one in sight, and lift my boat above the water line. I slip my water bottle out of its special spot next to the right side of my seat, rummage through emergency gear for an energy bar and dried apricots. I hike up a steep slope and find a downed tree where I can sit and marvel at calm water in May. The island is lush, the Palouse prairie grasses long and drooping. Everything smells of balsamroot and warm sap. Like the plants at my feet I soak up water and light, look south to the mountains still mantled in snow. The lake registers no more than a whisper.
Having paddled farther than I planned, I finish up my snack, drink all but a sip of my water that I will save for later, descend the slope and slip Bluebird back in the water. I am alone on the lake in the most perfect conditions I have ever seen. If I had the strength, this would be an ideal evening to add a circumnavigation of the island to this long crossing. Though nearly intoxicated by the conditions, I have enough experience to resist the temptation. I know how fatigue can fall on a paddler like a sudden weight. So, in a state of joy I paddle the 8 miles back to camp and arrive just after sunset. I carry Bluebird up to my campsite and think now I can eat. I get the cooler out of the truck. Simple but rich fair again— leftover Columbia River steelhead on multi-grain bread, fresh fruit, more water, and two big cookies. It is all I can do not to eat the cookies first. In light that seems reluctant to leave the sky I sit for a while on the concrete breakwater and savor both my food and this paddle, valuing the memories as much as the food. I have seen geese on all the islands, a mated pair of eagles in a snag on the south shore of the island due east of Bull Island. They sat on a huge nest made of driftwood from the beach. I wonder when the downy nestlings will begin to peer over the lip of the tangle that protects them.
After almost all the light has been swallowed by darkness I settle into my sleeping bag. A final image appears in my imagination. As if from the vantage point of a small airplane, I see a lone paddler on a still lake. A long faint trail dissipates behind his boat. The lake is a sea of blue, purple, and pink. Venus blazes away just above the horizon to the west. The evening ends with gratitude for this image. I drop myself into it and fall sleep.