May 3, 2020
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we cause a death we did not intend. A father called to an emergency checks his rear view mirror, sees nothing, then rolls over his infant son; the car strikes a warbler leaping into flight from a willow thicket; we join a group of mourners during the pandemic and come home coated with tears and virus.
Yesterday was the perfect day for a spring paddle: light winds on the surface, soft swell-waves left over from a storm the day before, temperatures rising to the sixties after morning frost, not a cloud in the sky until late afternoon.
The water level was still seven feet shy of full pool so I carried my boat over the breakwater and out across the beach to reach the edge of the lake. I paddled out to Bull Island, feeling for the rhythm of strokes and breath that become automatic by season’s end. Knowing that May is the nesting season for Canada Geese, I stopped for lunch on an open beach far from hidden nests. Initially the geese flew out and landed on the water but soon returned to their circles of down.
After lunch I paddled north against a light breeze and saw the mountains as never before. Six weeks with very little human activity during the initial stages of the pandemic had cleared the air. I could not only see the high peaks of Glacier Park but all the way to the Whitefish Range, nearly 70 miles away. I crossed open water to Bird Island, chose not to land because I did not want to disturb the geese, then south to the tiny islands that are mostly covered by high water in high summer. I chose a spot to land, no apparent geese in sight. As I looked around I saw a patch of vetch in bloom and decided to look at it more closely. On the way I found a broken bottle neck, the sharp glass a threat to any swimmer. I picked it up and planned to stow it before tossing it in the trash. After taking a photograph of the season’s early wildflower, I took a couple more steps into the desiccated trees at the top of the rock. Suddenly a goose I did not see as much as hear burst from the ground and flew out to the water. It left behind a nest with four big white eggs.
Since I had already disturbed the bird I decided to take the glass back to the boat and return for a photograph of the nest, never having seen a goose nest at this stage. After putting the glass in a dry box, I started back toward the nest and in peripheral vision saw black wings overhead. Curious, I thought. I peered through the dead branches of the tree next to the nest and saw that one of the eggs had been broken and its contents drained. Only a little blood showed in the big white cup. Suddenly I realized that a raven had probably seen me come to the island, sensed an opportunity in my approach, and seized on it the moment I unintentionally disturbed the goose protecting the eggs. Turning my back to take the glass back to the boat I had given the raven just enough time to break the egg and eat a meal. I had helped to kill a goose.
I could console myself by saying, this is the struggle of existence: what the goose loses the raven gains. I could say, there are plenty of geese; one death does not make much of a difference. But having seen the blood on the white shell I continue to feel complicit, an ally of death. These days death needs no help. I do not want to make its work easier. In this case I have no way to make amends for this killing.
After driving home, I put my gear away and think now about how the circles overlap and intersect, the circle of migrating geese, sharp-eyed ravens, and a respectful, cautious paddler. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we open a door and death steps in.