Mayflies, Part II: Asking Too Much

(July 2012)

After our night in camp we wake to calm conditions. For several years I have been telling Joyce about a particular bay on Bull Island owned by the University of Montana. I have been told that my faculty status gives me permission to land there. Though she has never done an open-water crossing and prefers to stay close to shore, Joyce seems willing to give this paddle a try. We launch from the beach. I help her get settled in her boat and set a very slow pace that seems manageable to her. We do not have to contend with waves or wind, so the crossing goes easily, even if slowly. We pull into the bay where a sailboat has anchored. A woman on deck moves through a series of yoga poses while a man dives overboard with mask and snorkel. Joyce and I swim from shore. Conditions are utterly calm, the water like mercury. Better able to float than I, Joyce lies back, face to the sky, and lets herself be supported by, “this all-surrounding grace,” as Denise Levertov called it in her poem “Avowal.” We feel thoroughly refreshed.

Joyce seems so comfortable in these conditions that I suggest we paddle up along the west shore of the island. She agrees after securing from me that this will not be a long paddle. We paddle northward through countless shades of blue and green, colors made even deeper by morning’s shadows cast by the island. At the tip of the island I see Bird Island in the distance. I say to Joyce, “We’ll never be closer to Bird Island. I’ve always wanted you to see the bay on its north shore. What do you say? Do you think you can paddle that far?” She asks me to estimate the distance. I tell her, “About three miles.” Wanting to please, and setting aside her own concerns, she agrees. To make life easier for her we trade paddles. My Werner graphite is the better paddle. We leave Bull Island behind and strike off for the little blue shape to the northeast. After about a half hour Joyce has the sense that we are not making any progress: “The island seems not to be getting any closer. How long do you think this will take? Are you sure we are making progress?” I make all the assurances I can, but realize that I have made a mistake in inviting her to make this crossing after having already crossed to Bull Island. I now take it for granted that when paddling far from shore it is harder to have a sense of one’s progress. Because this is Joyce’s first time to have this experience, she grows somewhat anxious, needs all the encouragement I can give her. We have committed ourselves to something that is hard to undo. When I am in this situation by myself, I remind myself to ignore the destination when progress seems so incremental, or I pick up the pace, consuming the distance like yesterday’s sandwich. Today, this technique will not work. I slow the pace, point out clumps of pollen, bumblebees, flying ants, a white feather that passes by our boats, dozens of intermediate signs that prove we are making progress. I try to explain that looking at the goal could discourage her. This crossing is all about one stroke and then the next. We have to contain the desire to arrive.

Even if Joyce is not an athlete she has considerable upper body strength and more than enough stamina. I stay beside her, talk more than normal, think up other topics. Eventually the island comes into sharper focus. I can identify the big blocks of stone that armor the west-facing shore and mark the entrance to the bay. When we round the corner we discover that the bay already contains two powerboats and a tour’s pontoon boat. I decide to enter first and pick a spot to land that is on the far right, close to the rocks. We slip into this narrow spot without disturbing all the other people who have come to the shelter of the cove. I assist Joyce with her landing. She is very glad to stop. I can tell that she is tired. As I scan the crowd, I feel disappointed that so many other people are here. Today this is not “my” bay. On a day as beautiful as this I should have known other people would be here.

We secure our boats and retreat to the black blocks of rock on the point. I know not to rush Joyce who is now concerned about the paddle from Bird Island back to Finley Point. We take time to eat our simple lunches, drink water, split a big cookie and an apple. I strip down to my bathing suit and dive from the rocks, swimming back around into the bay where it is easier to climb out. Joyce wades in the shallows near our boats.

We take a few minutes on the beach and visit with some of the people gathered there. Nine or ten belong to the pontoon boat. They are on a tour of some sort and have never been to a place like this. A handful of boys throw stones, something they seem born to do. We try to be polite but do not linger. We slip out of the bay and head south. I keep up a distracting story as we move from the island to the tip of Finley Point and then down the peninsula back to camp. Joyce has had enough. While I am quick to acknowledge my mistake in asking her to go this far, about nine miles, she generously tells me, “It’s partly my fault. After all, I said ‘Yes’ to your invitation. We should have come back to camp after our swim on Bull Island.”

After we return to camp we give each other a little distance. We need some time and space to allow the tension to settle and have everything come to rest. As the dinner hour approaches I sense that this is not the evening to fix another camp dinner. We leave everything in place and drive north to a restaurant. As the heat of the day begins to dissipate we sit in the shade at an outdoor table, drink a beer, eat a meal that someone else fixed. Satisfied and at peace, we head back to camp, spend a little time looking at the quiet lake, then head for bed. Trying to do too much I almost ruined the day.

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Camping requires us to load and unload a lot of gear. Nevertheless, it gives us an opportunity to spend more time on and beside the lake. We can linger as the light changes, experience the range of the day’s temperatures, sleep to the sound of lapping water. It is worth the effort. I have one regret: I asked too much of Joyce and almost ruined her pleasure in shorter paddles. I should have known from my own experience that a long paddle across open water is like looking at a line that presents itself only as a point. Sometimes there is more pleasure in simply moving slowly along the line, noticing shoreline trees and stones, the ever-changing prospect of weaving in and out of contiguous bays. Long, open-water crossings are not for everyone.

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