Between Stars and Swans

(September 27, 2013)

I see another opening for a paddle. At the university I am between Galileo and Descartes and can catch my breath. The grass is too wet to mow after record-setting rains earlier in the week. I go to bed early Thursday night, planning to paddle on Friday, but feel so excited about what will almost certainly be my last paddle of the season that I wake in the middle of the night. I know that I won’t sleep unless I move, so I go outside for a view of the sky. The season’s first hard frost covers every surface with a bright glaze. Overhead, big stars and a couple of planets surround a half moon as if drawing close to their mother. With this image in my mind I return to bed for a little more sleep.

In the morning I glance outside to see my kayak and truck covered with the same hard frost. The day is supposed to be as clear as the night, but I have my doubts. I tell Joyce goodbye and promise to take my cell phone as I head out the door. Heading north I see that days of rain after a frighteningly dry summer have brought raptors down to the fence lines and wires. Rough-legged and red-tail hawks scan the fields from Arlee to St. Ignatius. Up high the first snow has fallen on The Missions. The log decks at Hunts suggest they may be able to saw all winter. Atop the Polson moraine I see a lake that looks like gray fleece. I pass through town and pull into the lot at Walstad. I want to paddle around Wild Horse in a clockwise direction, visiting the places in the daylight that I explored during the night this past July.

As I begin to paddle to the island I notice something I have never seen before: the horizon in every direction looks as if hundreds of geese are taking off from the surface of the water; it is as if flashing wings span the horizon. I see no birds, so I am puzzled about the cause of this apparent disturbance on the surface. Looking carefully at the horizon it appears to me as though the relatively warmer temperature of the lake in relation to still-cool morning air creates the illusion. When a distant boat passes across the horizon it seems to ride on airfoils, in the air, not the water. I like the effect.

When I make the crossing to the island I usually draw near to the shore and enjoy the psychological relief that comes with seeing the bottom again. In this case I keep myself off shore and take a direct line to the flagpole snag that marks the entrance to Skeeko Bay. I pass one eagle along shore and then a second on the nearly branchless tree. I pass the big bay on my right and meet the shoreline near the island’s Primitive Area, then find my way to the beach where I rested during the darkest hours of the night. I haul out here and go for what Pooh called “an explore.” I pause over dry flowers standing stiff above the duff, find an antler shed, nearly invisible in the matted grass, a deer skull at the base of a stump, several feathers shed in the molt of August, a large ziplock baggie that I carry back as trash. The island is silent; the only sounds made by trucks gearing up the grade on the highway across the strait. After wandering I return to my boat, nestle in the gravels, and eat my lunch.

As I resume my paddle I seriously consider continuing north to Cedar Island. The crossing would add six total miles to the paddle, but I feel uncertain about the weather. Choosing caution over adventure, I continue around the island. When I reach the northernmost rocks I realize that I have made a good decision. Without having realized it until now, I have been paddling in a false calm. The island has protected me from winds blowing hard now out of the southeast. I cinch my hat to face the gusts and begin to work. By the time I reach the southeast corner of the island I realize that I need to make another decision. I had planned to follow the southern coastline of the island, traveling east to west, then cross back to Walstad. Today this would leave me with a final crossing in broadside winds and waves. I abandon this plan and head straight for the north shore of Rocky Point. I prefer a stiff headwind to taking wind and waves at oblique angles. This, too, proves to be a good decision. While the wind blows consistently from one direction the waves are utterly chaotic and disorganized. I lower the angle of my paddle, so as to keep the blades a little closer to the surface, and take the wind in the teeth.

I eventually come into the relative lee created by the shoulders and ridges of the north-facing topography. As I head west I pass Camp Marshall, an extraordinary home with a jet helicopter in the front yard, a few people hammering things down before winter or tucking their boats away. Ahead of me the water looks like abraded carbon, Melita Island black as coal. I eventually arrive at the public dock, give two boys casting lures a wide berth, and swing into the quiet little bay just beyond the access site. After putting my gear and boat away I use the high back of the bench near the dock as a windbreak and eat a huge honey crisp apple.


On the way home I see even more clearly that I made good decisions today. Snow squalls veil the canyons between peaks in The Missions and rain begins to fall west of the highway near The National Bison Range. To slow the pace I take the long way around to Ravalli and increase the chance of seeing more birds. I stop several times to take photographs through the truck‘s open window. I feel drawn to all the colors of autumn grasslands, reflections in the water of Ninepipes, and rain falling near Moiese.  Up ahead I see two trumpeter swans with 80-inch wingspans flying from right to left. They pass through the telephone wires, cross the road, and continue south. I check my rear view mirror to see if I can stop again. Seeing headlights, I drive on, capturing the birds in memory rather than pixels. This has been a good way to end the paddling season. I see why I woke in the middle of the night.



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