Paddling Lessons, Part III: Under Fire

Paddling Lessons, Part III: Under Fire

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In June of 2009 my wife and I had an opportunity to spend a week at Flathead Lake. A friend had rented a cabin near Big Arm but needed to travel elsewhere for one of her four weeks. She offered us a chance to sublet the little cabin. On Tuesday of our week at the lake the weather seemed to be building toward afternoon thunderstorms. Despite the uncertain weather I launched my kayak with the intent of exploring the north-facing shore between Big Arm and Black Point. In the process I learned another lesson.

In my logbook I find the following account:

After breakfast I slide the boat off the lawn and head east along the shoreline. I take my time and explore each of the bays—where the Episcopal Church’s Camp Marshall will soon become a hub of playful activity, White Swan Bay, Indian Cove, the narrow slots of Whiskey Cove and Brindstone Harbor, then back out to Cat Bay. Along the way I pass a couple of boys daring each other to jump or dive off a dock into the still-cold water. They are as happy in the growing light and warmth as I am. At Black Point I turn around and begin the return journey. In the distance I see two thunderclouds beginning to build above Cromwell Island to the west. I recognize the potential danger of being caught out in the open. Clearly, I must race to safety before these clouds tower over me and electrify the lake.

I start back downwind and down wave. I ride the energy being drawn into the rising towers of the approaching storms. Ahead of me the two mushroom clouds begin to pour water and lightning down their thick grey stems, one onto Cromwell to the northwest, the other into the warm shallows of Big Arm Bay. Under the crash of thunder and the accompanying flash I feel terribly exposed. I am like a little black wick before an approaching flame. Too invested in my current direction to turn back, and knowing no one along the shore where I might ask for temporary shelter, I paddle on and hope to reach Melita Island before the lightning reaches me. As the fireworks continue further west, powerboats scatter like schools of fish. I sprint up the back of a wave until it catches my boat and launches it down the face, speeding me toward what I hope will be the shelter of trees and a little lee. I ride the storm’s energy toward its source.

When I start around the north side of the island a downdraft from one of the clouds drops out of the sky. All at once the wind reverses direction, blows the tops off the waves, and soaks me in spray. I laugh out loud and instantly see that I can’t go this way around the island. Forced to circle back I cling to the shore on my right. I reach Driftwood Point where flotsam and ducks pile up on in calmer water. I peek around the corner to see if I can paddle the last mile home. I want to get out of the red eye of the weather so I sprint to close the distance between the island and the shore, make a left turn into the area beside the dock, slide the boat out of the water, dash across the lawn, take the steps two at a time, and duck breathless under the porch.

From the safety of the deck and its overhanging roof I watch the storms continue to advance toward The Missions. The light changes. It casts a yellow-green hue on the ridges between peaks, throws a full rainbow over the lower lake to the south and produces orange, backlit clouds that appear to have been tumbled. It occurs to me that even when we are not on the water we live our lives caught between the rainbow and the lime-colored light, between the lightning and the dock, between fire and water. On this paddle I took a chance, placed myself in and under all the energy that poured out of the sky. I might have paid a high price; next time I will be more cautious. On this day I was too far out on the end of a long branch.

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