On August 16-17, a friend and I made one of my favorite mid-summer paddles. We put in at the Walstad Fishing Access point near Big Arm and paddled north against waves and wind past Wildhorse Island and then on to Cedar Island.
Before setting up camp we decided to walk around the island. I showed my friend the remnants of a craftsman style home and the cold cellar where geese now build nests, the meadow, untended orchard and derelict corral, the cistern now filled with garbage instead of cool, clear water. We found goose eggs lying open on the now brown moss covering the deep forest floor. But we also found trash—a margarita bottle balanced on a drift log, aluminum cans that never burn in fire pits, lots of toilet paper, a few diapers, an empty potato chip bag, bottle caps and plastic on the beaches. In this exceptionally dry year, with 86 fires burning around us, the sere conditions help to preserve garbage as if it had been sealed in a desert tomb.
On our walk I complained about what we were seeing. I felt the disjunction between this island outpost in the largest lake west of the Mississippi and the effects of human visitation. Internally I asked, how can someone not care about this place? I could acknowledge pure accident, the way a gust of wind whips an object out of an upraised hand; but my judgments about the carelessness that follows the consumption of too much alcohol and the thoughtlessness of the privileged piled up like logs on the beach. As I walked along I felt unprepared to pick up the garbage I found. I needed gloves and nose plugs; I needed a garbage bag with a tie; I needed an empty boat, not one full of camping gear.
In the same way that one should not pray for the hungry without being willing to feed them, I do not want to complain about garbage on Cedar Island without being willing to do something about it. I need to return to the island, leave Bluebird’s chambers empty so that I have room to pick up what I find. This island has given me a vantage point on sunrise, a high perch to watch the sun go down and cast its red glow on the Mission Range. This island sails like a ship through the night sky. On one level I feel as though I have a debt that I want to find a way to repay. I can work off this debt to beauty by making time to return to the island and come prepared to transport its garbage to a proper depository. I cannot do anything about Syria or help immigrants on Greece’s shores, but I can do something about the condition of Cedar Island. I must return.
Early on Monday, August 24, I headed back to the lake. My boat was empty except for emergency gear. I slipped Bluebird into choppy conditions around the Westshore campground and sped south, timing my strokes to coincide with the push of the lake on my port stern quarter. I covered four miles in 45 minutes, lifted my boat into the drift logs, and took gloves and bags out of the stern hatch.
I circled the island counterclockwise, alternating between the forest interior and the beaches where people had burned their fires and left their trash. Predictably, I picked up glass, plastic and Styrofoam, but also managed to free a rope tied around a tree, and steeled myself to pick up the paper trails; but I drew the line on corrugated steel and plywood. On one beach I saw how a beach fire radiated outward, its flames following the flammable roots of cottonwoods, then climbing the trunks and killing the grove.
When I reached the east side of the island I heard the voices of a young man and woman. They had spelled a name by laying little stones on the bleached back of a drift log, their cell phones nearby as they swam in the coves. I eventually completed my circle and returned to the beach where I had left Bluebird and saw that the young couple had crossed to the island in a small open kayak and a stand-up paddleboard. They eventually joined me on the beach as I paused to eat a snack before heading north. They had figured out what I was doing and were willing to take a photo of my trash before I tucked it in the wide mouth of my stern hatch. The young man kindly inquired about the shin I barked on a broken limb from a fallen fir. As they left the beach for nearby Zelezny Bay, I felt happy watching them play on the stage of their mutual affection.
Using a kayak as a garbage barge is a strange thing to do. Drawing the moral lines sharply, one might even argue that it was wasteful to drive the distance from Missoula to clean up the island. Further, the garbage on Cedar Island does not compare to plastic in the Pacific or on Caribbean beaches. But I have learned how important it is for me not to suppress the empathic or moral response. With every suppression the impulse to respond to the world grows weaker. As often as I can I try not to let this happen. I don’t want the sympathetic response to the world within my reach to die out. Ultimately, this is why I returned to the island.