Paddling Lessons, II: Learning to Yield

(May, 2008)

When two great forces oppose each other,

The victory will go

To the one that knows how to yield (Tao 69)

A few years ago my brother and I arranged to paddle together on the first anniversary of our mother’s death. She had been a difficult person in our lives, chronically ill and prone to trying to trying to control her sons. By paddling together on this anniversary my brother and I would celebrate our good health and freedom, two riches she never enjoyed. One day in May my brother drove to Montana from Seattle. The next day we drove together up to Flathead Lake. At this time of the year it was not hard to find a campsite at Big Arm State Park, so we erected his old Sierra Designs Starlight close to the beach. We spent the late afternoon and long evening paddling around Cromwell and Wild Horse islands.

During the night the weather changed. From inside the tent we heard wind in the trees and waves breaking on the shore next to us. In the morning we crawled out to find the wild conditions that made for a restless night. As we stood on the shore wind bore through the strait between Wild Horse and Melita Islands, turning the blues and greens into a froth of white. We knew it would not be a good day to paddle in an area receiving the full brunt of the wind. Hoping for calmer conditions elsewhere, we decided to drive up to Westshore Campground.

Conditions at Westshore were much the same. Determined but with trepidation, we launched at the boat ramp and paddled south—downwind and down wave, hoping to reach Cedar Island about four miles away. On the way conditions become even more severe. The wind blew harder and the waves became more ominous. We drew closer to shore in case we got into trouble. By the time we reached the Douglas Islands we knew it was not wise to continue; the further south we went the more difficult the return trip would be. The water opposite the cliffs at Painted Rocks would have been chaotic and dangerous.

In the narrow channel between shore and Mary B Island we turned around. In the lee of the little island we hopped out of our boats, stood in the shallows and rested. We kept our boats from blowing away by holding onto the combing around each cockpit. We took a few minutes to reconcile ourselves to the work ahead of us; returning to Westshore would be exhausting, a hard beat against the wind. Resigned to the inevitable we resumed positions. Choosing safety over further adventure, we headed north against waves that broke over our decks and swept up and around our skirts. Waves swallowed the upwind arm when we reached for a stroke on the starboard side and ate the downwind arm as they rolled under us. Looking north we saw wind gusts rattle the surface of the lake and then flail us. It took our best effort to make any progress. Someone observing our struggle from his deck shouted at us, but neither of us could afford to pause between strokes, turn to the side, or respond. We never knew whether he was shouting encouragement, offering us a chance to come ashore and rest, or whether he was cursing us for being on the lake. Each wave required our complete attention. Photographs were out of the question. Using my ears I kept track of Jeff just off my stern on the port side. We saved words for later but listened to the sound of each boat meeting the train of waves. Hoping that the peninsula above West Shore would break the wind for us, we dropped into the crescent of Goose Bay and circumscribed its perimeter.

When the dock at Westshore finally came into view we felt a great sense of relief. Three miles of this kind of paddling had been enough. We pulled in next to the dock wanting to avoid having our boats smashed on the rocks adjacent to the ramp. But even as we stood on the dock, waves blew through gaps in the planks and shot into the air. A gust of wind caught Jeff’s paddle and nearly blew it off the dock into the bay. He caught it with a toe. Barely able to control the boats when we lifted them into the wind, we secured them to Jeff’s rack and climbed into his Forrester. Inside the shelter of the car we felt the buffeting of the wind and gave thanks to be out of it. In the warmth of the car we noticed maple leaves beginning to unfold. We began to relax.

As hard as the return trip was for us, Jeff and I learned our own limits and the maximum conditions we can face in our boats. We learned that sometimes it is necessary to abandon a goal, no matter how desirable it seems. In the face of forces far greater than our own strength and determination it was prudent to yield and turn back.

After this day, as much as I love to paddle, I can imagine choosing not to paddle. There are days when morning wind whips the willows and causes big pines along the shore to sway. On stormy days light and shadow shift continuously and each leaf or needle or wave crest becomes a chip in the mosaic of light. On such days I must be able to imagine sitting inside, relieved that I am not contending with waves that break over the bow or lift the boat from behind and spiral it down into deepening troughs. There are days for tea in the tent.

 

 

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