Waterline As Watermark

(April 4, 2014)

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For the past couple of years I have wanted to extend my paddling season, to venture out earlier and take advantage of the quiet beauty of autumn. As I think about my plans for tomorrow, the first paddle of the season, I confess to feeling a little anxious. Flathead Lake is not kind; it is its own self. I have an appropriate fear of cold water and wind blowing across its surface. I wonder if the competence I felt at the end of last season will come back to me when I tuck myself in the boat. I wonder if my physical conditioning during the winter will be equal to the demands of paddling in rough water or equip me to paddle the longer distances that curiosity requires. I also worry about the sudden changes in conditions that often occur in springtime, especially a blast of wind that pours down through the canyons between peaks and descends onto the lake. I only have my own strength, my own wits, attention to sky and water to help me avoid trouble. I have no engine whose throttle I can throw to get me back to shore and safety. At the same time I feel excited about exploring more carefully a portion of the lake I have usually passed on my way to some other destination. I wonder what Shelter Bay, protected from north winds, will be like in early April, and if I can cover seventeen miles in a round trip to a spot on the map and in my mind.

I have made careful preparations for this paddle. Over the winter I purchased my first dry suit, an extra layer of protection from the cold and wind. I have given more careful thought to the food I should take with me. Perhaps most important, I can draw on eight years of experience. This will help me turn back when conditions warrant, or not launch in haste. I know bays where I can seek shelter, have a better sense of what to look for in the sky that spells danger. I have a feel for that middle passage between foolishness and paralyzing fear; I have already reckoned with far superior powers.

Driving north the next morning I feel eager to see the lake again, especially after this winter with its hard, late storms and cold temperatures. This early in the year I doubt there will be another paddler on the lake.

In the early spring the lake is about ten feet lower than when it stands at full-summer pool. Regulated at Kerr Dam, Flathead Lake needs to be drawn down in winter to accommodate a massive influx of water from the Swan range and Glacier National Park. The best way to avoid the silt at the north end of the lake or on the east shore is to launch at Walstad on the south shore. I pull into the fishing access site and discover that the lake level is below the far end of the long, concrete boat ramp. It makes sense to back down the ramp rather than carry all my gear from the parking lot. On the cobbles I find a couple of slabs of stranded Ponderosa bark, place them on the concrete and then unload my boat, spanning the bark so as to protect the hull from an abrasive surface.

Looking out toward Wild Horse and Melita Islands I see a glassy surface. After a few minutes of paddling I encounter thin slips of ice in the channel between islands that tell me the lake was calm last night. I part them with the prow. They remind me of the glaze of sugar on the top of crème brulée. On the east shore of Cromwell Island I see a block of shelf ice that in the morning sun looks like a pack of pelicans.

Grateful for the benefits of time in the gym, I enter the open water between the northeast corner of Wild Horse and the west shore. With only a slight headwind I feel secure making this crossing. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to start paddling I forgot to “burp” the dry suit. It now puts pressure on my chest and lungs, making it more difficult to breathe. The neck gasket is still too tight and I am losing circulation in my hands from a combination of the wrist gaskets and having pulled the Velcro straps too tight. I adjust the gloves and fantasize about trimming off more of the neck gasket. I am not comfortable but must proceed. There is no place to stop.

Eventually, I am able to identify the Methodist Church camp on a point to the north. A large willow, beginning to turn orange, gives me a spot to aim for in Shelter Bay. I feel relieved when I finally enter the bay. I have covered about 8.5 miles without a break. I am eager to get out of the boat and unzip the dry suit. After landing, I pull out my lunch—cheese sandwich, apple, two cookies and a full bottle of gator aid. I find a nice spot under a fir tree well above a long ramp of exposed gravel.

After lunch I wander around the beach. I find a broken section of steel fence post. The shaft is buried in the gravel; the sharp end and fins stick up. A piece of steel like this would make a mess of a swimmer’s foot or a diver’s scalp. So I work it loose from the gravel and heave it up into the forest. Along the waterline I find things I have never paused long enough to notice—plastic wadding from shotgun shells, a blue strand of fishing line, a plastic lipstick tube, a girl’s naked doll, feathers from geese and gulls, a branch collar from a tree surrounding a yellow stone, a line of pine needles, maple samaras, catkins, the vertebra of a large mammal, highly polished roots that seem like a full spinal column, and birch bark that help define the water line. These lateral collections strike me as the year’s watermark, not pressed into paper, but resting on stone. Waterlines tell stories.

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Before getting back in the boat, I am careful to “burp” the dry suit this time. I immediately encounter headwinds. I feel strong enough to bear down and paddle against the resistance but know I will need to pause on Wild Horse Island before making the last open-water crossing. On the point marking the entrance to Skeeko Bay I haul out. Small waves breaking on the beach make the exit tricky. I lift Bluebird into a pool of water just inside a gravel berm. Stranded ice contributes melt water to the little pool. I take a few moments to lie back against the slope of pea-sized gravel and rest. The sun has warmed the stones enough to create a very comfortable place for me to rest. I drink almost all of my remaining water and eat the second half of my apple. I have about three miles to go, all against the wind.

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Leaving the beach is even trickier than landing. Not thinking things through, I put the boat into the water parallel to the shore. A wave spills into the cockpit. I have to haul the boat out again, pump and then sponge the spill. The second time I wade out a few feet to get past the little breakers, swing a leg over the boat, straddle it, sit, and insert my legs, a process made slightly more difficult in the bulk of the dry suit. I resume paddling, make relatively swift progress along the island beginning to turn green and then face the open crossing. Fortunately, the wave height has not increased, though the wind still works against me. I am eager to step into the shallows below the end of the boat ramp.

On the drive home my optic nerve registers the imprint of trumpeter swans in a vernal pool and the emerald wash of grass beginning to spread across the fields. This has been a good, if exhausting first paddle of the year. The lake and I are back in touch.

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