People occasionally ask me to introduce them to paddling on Flathead Lake. They want the benefit of my experience before they venture out on their own. At a chili feed for a local nonprofit my friend C.W. bid several times during the silent auction on a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. When the opportunity went to someone else, I turned to him and said, “Would you like to go with me some time for free?” His eyes brightened. He said, “Sure.” Two years later, after his retirement and several other major events in our lives, we finally found an opportunity to make good on our plan.
Before C.W. arrives I check the graphical forecast and a satellite image (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/flatheadlake/. A big yellow comma full of rain hangs over the lake but will pass to the east later in the day. After C.W. pulls into the driveway we load his extra clothes, lunch, and camera gear into my truck and take off. On the way up the valley we see clouds clinging to The Missions. Elsewhere, the ceiling is flat and gray. When we crest the Polson moraine we see a calm lake, sections of black water that are perfectly breathless. It has stopped raining. When we pull into the Walstad access, with the thought of crossing to Wildhorse, I say, “I have never seen it so calm here in mid-June. We’ll have a great day.”
As we pull away from the dock we stay close together until I can see that C.W. is comfortable in the boat. When I see him pull the skirt while we are in mid-channel and reach into his lap where he stowed his camera, I know he will be fine. He takes photographs throughout the day, evidence perhaps of his habits as a journalist. He had been a reporter for Rocky Mountain News before coming to the University of Montana where he had a distinguished career as a professor in the School of Journalism. As I keep watching, I realize that he is as much an artist as a reporter recording a story.
When we reach the island C.W. feels drawn to the margins where trees have fallen into the lake and left long ghostly bodies angling down toward darkness. Later, when I see his photographs, I discover that he was also drawn to the abstract forms on shore, tree branches sticking out of the trunk of a tree in parallel curves that reminded him of ribs, gnarled root balls that revealed a tree’s contortions around impermeable stone. As a photographer he recognizes the moment when an angle of sunlight allows him to see objects underwater but near shore, blocks of stone dusted with spring sediment or gravels scrubbed by shore waves. He keeps seeing and recording the interface between things: the line between shadow and light, the comparatively hard or sharp forms of things on shore—dead tree branch, or leaf edge, and the soft forms of pebbles beneath the surface. Using his telephoto, he finds a trio of adult geese introducing eighteen goslings to what must have been their first open-water paddle. We pass them going opposite directions far from shore. When we slip beneath an eagle on its overhanging perch he frames it from below. When we are on the island and find a band of rams, he selects a trio of particularly big boys out of the whole group, their massively thick horns protruding above the island’s long and, for now, still-green grass.
Later in the day, after we climb to a rocky promontory with a ledge full of bitterroots, the blooms tightly folded under gray skies, we search for the island’s horses. By not hurrying, and consulting my memories of where I had seen them in the past, we spot the foal, now a full-grown horse, startling red and white among black mares. Again, with an artist’s eye, C.W. looks for the patterns in their arrangement with each other. When we find the skeleton of the horse that died this past winter he asks me to hold a femur that I extracted from the grasses beginning to conceal it. He takes a photo of me holding the massive bone. Afterwards I think of Georgia O’Keefe painting found objects in New Mexico. Keeping an eye on the muted sun I suggest that we head back down to the bay. Because the water is still calm I suggest that we put a bend in the route of our return and circle Melita Island before heading back to the dock.
Kayaking on Flathead Lake is about crossing from mainland to island, the beautiful rhythm of strokes, countless adjustments to wind and waves–all the things that bring me a sense of exhilaration. But on this paddle I learned that paddling the lake is also about seeing in new ways, taking time to see patterns I usually ignore or fail to recognize, seeing the interaction between water and shore, object and reflection, even the beauty in death. This morning I pulled out of the driveway hoping to introduce a friend to a new subject. I returned as a student learning to see in a new way. By trying to view the world through my friend’s eyes every time he raised his camera, I learned that I had been passing by some of the marvels of form, color, and relationship as I sped from point to point. On this day the teacher became a student. I learned another reason to paddle with other people. As I helped my friend load gear back into his car he said, “Thanks, this opens up a whole new world.” I felt the same way.