Mayflies, Part I

(July, 2012)

Soon after her birthday, Joyce and I decide to camp at Finley Point. Joyce uses the new reservation system with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to secure a walk-in site for a Monday and Tuesday night. Without advance planning I doubt we would be able to secure this site for a weekend in July. Montana FWP has plans to expand the campground but this project will have to wait for a time when more money becomes available.

On the way out of town we pick up sandwiches from our favorite shop. We spread out the white wrapper in our laps and make a delicious mess as we drive north. We stop, as we must, at the inspection station. I have been through here so many times that I am well known by the staff. We combine the serious business of making sure that my boat will not be importing dangerous plants and mollusks with some gentle teasing (They would like me to remove the road-killed skunk on the highway across from the station, and offer this job twice). It is essential that Montana succeed in stopping the importation of non-native aquatic mollusks like zebra and quagga mussels. I strongly support these efforts, answer all the questions, give the team a clean boat to inspect, and skip through in a few minutes.

The day is hot by 2 p.m. when we pull into the campground. We set up our Hobitat on the gravel pad, pump up air mattresses, and stow food in the bear-proof boxes. By the time the chores are done, we are both ready for a swim. I can barely contain my desire to put my boat in the water; so while Joyce lets a light breeze cool off her wet bathing suit on shore, I slide Bluebird into the water using the new gravel ramp that Fish Wildlife and Parks created near the south boundary of the campground. This is a much friendlier area for paddlers who don’t want to negotiate summer congestion and the noise of engines and jet skis at the other end of the campground.

Thrilled by the freedom of a summer evening, I make a quick circuit around the islands in the Narrows. I scout for places Joyce and I might explore together, revel in the warm air and water temperatures that feel much safer than they are in early June, not to mention April and May. I circle Bull Island clockwise, take the north end of Bull Island on my right and speed back to camp ahead of thunderclouds forming along the western horizon. I roll the boat upside down on the new beach in case it rains and walk toward camp as Joyce begins to cook pork chops from a local farm and onions on her old three-burner Coleman, a gift to her from her parents when she graduated from TCU forty-five years ago. The smell whets our appetites.

During the evening the once-distant storms pass to the north and west; nevertheless, the lake becomes riled and wild. All the color washes out of the ridges of the Salish Mountains beyond the opposite shore. Everything becomes a variation on the theme of gray. As the sun goes down, the wind drops, quieting the lake. The ragged remnants of graphite cumulonimbus suddenly become a full palette of pinks, blues, and oranges. Then the surface of the lake picks up the sky’s colorful stain. Even the stones on the beach reflect the colors that shift from one shade to another over the course of an hour. Eventually the islands and west shore turn into black silhouettes. During this display, Joyce reads in her not-so-comfortable aluminum and canvas chair perched on the edge of a steep drop above the water.

Meanwhile, I watch the largest mayfly spinner fall I have ever seen. Something about the photo period and the temperature of air and water cues the insects. Though not an entomologist I think these mayflies are Gray Drakes (Siphlonurus occidentalis). Millions of them climb into the sunset and then fall toward the water to drop their eggs.  They fill the sky in every direction and clog the spider webs that have been suspended like aerial drift nets between branches of fir trees. The mayflies also call out common nighthawks that swoop through the air and pick them off with their fine beaks. One second the birds cut through the air like flung blades; the next they make sharp cuts and turns to fly into a concentrated cloud of insects, their movements as erratic as jacks bounced across summer concrete. The climax of this hatch becomes a banquet for birds and spiders. Every photograph I take of the sunset catches a blur of insects in the immediate foreground.

If I had focused only on a day paddle, if we had not chosen to camp, we never would have seen these things. Sometimes the best I can do is drive up and back in a day; but spending a night or two we get to enjoy the changes, something as ephemeral as a hatch of insects or a shifting color in the sky. This evening I am conscious of all that we would miss by hurrying home in the squint of headlights. We crawl into our sleeping bags with a sense of anticipation about tomorrow. Let’s see what a new day brings.

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