Nighthawk Mountain

 

All the posts in this blog focus in one way or another on sea kayaking. This post, however, has nothing to do with my boat. Strangely, though it seems to belong in Ospreypaddler. After writing this piece I realized that I approach a river, a mountain, and a bird in much the same way as I approach a paddle on Flathead Lake. With each encounter I have the sense that there is something to learn as I slide my boat into the water. In much the same way there is always something to learn from a river, a bird, and a burned over mountain.

I step out of the unlit propane darkness of the Magruder cabin into pale morning light. In this steep, rough country it will be a couple of hours before sunlight lands in the meadow. From the bottom of the valley where the Selway River flows through granite cliffs and burned timber toward the Lochsa River, I look at the terrain above me. I hear it calling. Instead of fishing with my friends I decide to try to hike to the top of one of countless high knobs above the river. I am happy to leave the cutthroats in the river undisturbed. Instead, I need to test myself, need to see if lungs and heart are working as they should. Before this trip I had not been feeling well. I’d lost energy, felt listless, unmotivated. Was this the result of two weeks of days in the nineties and air choked with smoke from surrounding fires or something more serious? This hike, I tell myself, will help answer the question.

I cross the wooden bridge over the river, taking a moment to look down into the deep green pool below. Just past the bridge the “Kim Saddle” trail leads up through charred timber, thimbleberry, mountain maple, and fireweed. For the first few hundred yards the trail swings back and forth across a vernal stream sliding through a downward fold in the topography. Eventually the trail crosses the trickle for the last time and begins to switch left and right across the slope of the high place I want to reach. I pause now and then to listen to my lungs and heart, waiting for the engine to wind down. In time I crest a saddle and can see the upper reaches of the valley of the Selway and on toward slopes devastated by fire. Even from a distance I can see initial stages of recovery. The sun turns bare spires into pointed pencils of light.

I leave the trail here and turn left toward the rocky crest I saw from the valley about 800 feet below. I see a cairn that someone built on the highest knob and fit a couple more pieces of granite into the structure. I turn back to the rock pile that hangs above the valley and take a few more steps. Suddenly I see a mottled bird leave a rock and make a slow fluttering flight down toward the valley to the south, its tail spread open but almost folded under its body, making slow flight possible. Because of the bird’s coloring and almost silent flight I first think I have startled an owl from a daytime nap. Pleased to have had such a close encounter with a wild bird I proceed toward my goal where a big fir log, black from fire, teeters on the final rock.

To my surprise the bird circles back and flutters toward me. It is so close I can see its open mouth, long pointed wings and the distinctive white wing bar of a common nighthawk. At dusk I have seen them flying over the meadow down below. Each evening I have watched them dart, dip, and make their stutter flaps as they accelerate toward insects in the air. Up here, alone with the bird, I cannot tell what it is trying to communicate with its long silent wings and approach. In this extremely remote location is it unafraid and curious about a human being, or is it trying, without the unambiguous weapons of goshawk and eagle, to warn me away from its nest, a mere scrape in the gravel on the top of a mountain? I do not know the language of nighthawks but try to imitate its low clucks. It continues to make untraceable loops in the air, each time coming within a few feet of the hand I extend in greeting, arm and wing bearing a striking and evolutionary resemblance. I would give anything if it would land on my hand, but know this is unlikely. From time to time it pauses on a branch hanging over the void. Its long, pointed wingtips droop below its two-ounce body. If I do not see it land I cannot distinguish the bird from the flaky gray bark of the tree limb.

The bird comes to me several more times after I turn from the final rock. I flatter myself with the thought that it likes my company in this extreme, lonely spot in the wilderness; but being more realistic, I think it is trying in its gentle and harmless way to warn me to leave its mountain hideout. Concluding that I should no longer be a disturbance, I bid the bird farewell with a few soft whistles, turn my back and descend the mountain.

I know now that heat and smoke have sapped my energy and motivation, but these energies return when I decide to apply my legs to an ascent. I am all right after all. But more importantly, I have found the daytime resting place of a bird that otherwise ignores me as it plies the night, scooping its prey in the net of an orange and open mouth. I speed down the mountain, grateful we set aside places where two strangers from different worlds meet in the wilderness, try to understand each other’s language and movements, the human respectful of the needs and territory of the wild one it has unwittingly approached. We have met each other and caused no harm.

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