(June 9, 2014)
I had almost forgotten. Packing for an overnight paddle is a lot of work. Even though I take the simplest approach possible, especially with respect to food, I have to make a list of essential items. I cannot afford to forget anything. I begin to wonder whether such a trip is worth the effort. It would be easy to succumb to inertia. The lawn needs mowing. Weeds grow faster than I can pull them. I haven’t finished all the preparations for my fall course at the university. Several projects wait for my attention in the shop. I can think of dozens of reasons to stay at home. Yet, something calls to me.
I drive north through the light traffic of a Monday afternoon in early June and park at the Walstad access point, deciding to enter the lake via the little bay south of the parking lot and boat ramp. I want this area’s soft ground under my boat when I load it with gear. On the beach protected by a screen of willows I change into my dry suit. The lake is rough and the water is still too cold for a spill. I then reverse the morning’s process of packing the truck by taking everything out and loading it in suitable hatches, saving the day hatch for my camera, keys, cell phone for emergencies, an extra water bottle and a rescue rope.
On the way to the island I ride the back of the green dragon. It is not often that I have a tail wind, but this time wind and waves push the stern port quarter. I make the yaw of the boat less disconcerting by deploying the skeg and enjoy the rush and hiss of waves passing under me. I quickly reach the strait between Wild Horse and Cromwell Islands, advance through the channel, then set my sights on Cedar Island to the northeast. I cover the nine miles in relatively short order, round the island’s south tip and begin to paddle slowly up the east side searching for a place to land. Several spots seem promising but many are barred by fallen logs driven ashore by winter storms. I select one with a gradual slope and good access to the forest.
I haul out, choosing to skid Bluebird over the backs of two large pieces of polished driftwood rather than lift the loaded boat. I unpack everything I stowed and set up camp. I choose not to erect the tent, relatively confident about the weather and wanting to sleep in the open. (I will later regret this decision when carpenter ants come to visit and force me to erect the tent after midnight). In the course of the evening I explore the island and gradually make sense of some of the island’s history. Intact sections of a wire fence remind me that in years past the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used the island’s interior to corral bighorn sheep brought over from Wild Horse. The once grand bungalow on the north end of the island has become an easel for painted graffiti. Where cedar shingles have not been ripped off to start fires people have written their philosophies, proclaimed their love, declaimed themselves, cited scripture, sprayed wild mages. On the south side of the house tall lilacs, a symbol for domestic life, still bloom. In the shady forest interior behind the house the limestone root cellar recently provided shelter for nesting geese. Down covers the floor just inside the entrance, the door ripped from its hinges when the lock would not yield to someone’s curiosity or inclination to steal. In the course of the evening I play hide and seek with a doe that must have swum over from the mainland. On the edge of the meadow I spot a buck in velvet without him spotting me.
Back at camp I watch the effects of sunset to the west on the Mission Mountains and Swan Range to the east. Near dark I let myself down into my own down and begin to let sleep take me like a wave. I am suddenly roused, however, by an advancing sound. I look up just in time to see a bald eagle pass low over me. I do not so much hear the big pumping wings as feel the effect of the airflow. I have never been so close to an eagle as to feel the movement of the air it displaces.
I fall asleep to the image of the eagle passing over me but wake several times to sweep ants away. I don’t sleep well until after I erect the tent. Dawn arrives like a cymbal crash and I wake with a start. Before the atmosphere warms little puffs of clouds pass over the ranges to the east and disappear into the light. I make hot water for tea on my almost fifty-year-old Primus stove, amazed by its simplicity and efficiency; this must be the least technical stove still in use. After granola and raisins I repack my simple camp, re-stow the gear and circle the island counterclockwise. I pass into the cool shadow cast by the island over the strait between Cedar Island and Shelter Island with its incongruous castle. As I pass the imposing structure I think, at least the builder had sense enough to place the breakfast table in the morning light.
Crossing the open water again I set my sights on a small cove on the north side of Wild Horse. I am alone on the lake, stroking my way through distance and time.
I eventually come into the shelter of this shallow arc of land, one of my favorite places on earth. As I pull the boat out of waves’ reach I see that someone before me erected a simple marker by placing a large feather upright in the gravel: a fitting way to honor the bird and the beach.
As I explore this part of the island I am pleased that unusually dry conditions for May and early June have not kept flowers from blooming and lush grass from growing in the swales. I take a moment to study the complex interior of a sago lily,
the intensely pink blooms of bitterroot flowers sprawled improbably over a rocky spine,
and some kind of ceremonial site set in a circle of stones and cones. Curious, I lift the central stone for clues. Only a little mold remains to commemorate a life or whatever led someone to create this modest circle of remembrance. After climbing the first ridge I drop into deep forest and hear a whinny: the wild horses are nearby and have detected my scent. I stand behind a large Ponderosa and wait. I see the lead mare come into the open. When she sees the lush grass she breaks into a gallop and her four companions, including the now-full-grown horse born on the island, race after her. They bend to the grass, switching their tails in what must be a sign of pleasure. I do not cross into the Special Resource Zone, obeying the sign that asks people to leave the area as a sanctuary for island animals until at least July 15. I am content to stand on the boundary watching the horses.
I retrace my steps through the timber, over the ridge, and down to the beach. I tuck myself in and paddle the last miles home.
On the drive back to Missoula I review my decision to make this trip. If I had not left some things unfinished; if I had let inertia or a nagging sense of responsibility stop me in my tracks; if I had pulled back from the thoughtful packing of gear I would have missed the pulse of eagle wings at dusk. On the second morning I would have missed the calliope hummingbird attracted to my bright red paddle jacket, mistaking me for the largest hibiscus on record. I would have missed the architecture of the sago, the scent of spent balsamroot, the ghost of a goose in the broken shell it left behind, and the way morning shadows flowed over the island like a watercolor brush loaded with water and pigment.
Sometimes it is worth the effort to leave home, to take a few essentials on the way to experiences one might be able to imagine but not receive without pulling away from the gravity of responsibility and the drag of routine. It was good to let the islands and the lake pull at me and to respond with my consent.