Waves Lift

 

 

 

 

 

On the summer solstice my wife and I camped at the lake, finding one of the few sites open for tents next to parking lot full of trailers and RVs. Our “overnight” allowed me to make a long afternoon paddle the first day and a morning paddle on the second day to some of my favorite islands and bays. Both days windy conditions kept other boats off the lake, but I ventured out anyway, my desire to paddle stronger than my fear.

Both days I faced strong headwinds, quartering winds, and less often, a downwind ride, paddle held aloft like a pair of sails, all conditions that made it difficult to relax. One particularly strong gust of wind stripped the paddle from my hands. I immediately plunged my hands into the cold water to arrest my forward movement. Then, I hand-paddled backwards to intercept the drifting paddle before continuing my entrance into a new bay I wanted to visit. After losing and regaining my paddle I decided to pull a leash from my vest. Never before had I felt the need for this precaution.

Naturally, windy conditions produce waves, waves that vary depending on lots of factors—the length of the fetch, the deflecting effect of islands, the influence of shoals, the temporary flattening effect of gusts, and so on. Some waves on Flathead Lake are powerful or turbulent enough to overturn a kayak. On both days around the solstice, however, I experienced something I have wanted to describe. When I am in the trough between waves the approaching wave seems like it will swamp the boat or overturn me. While these waves sometimes broke over the boat and sent spray into my face, to my amazement I know that waves also lift. Because boats are buoyant waves slide under and suddenly elevate the trusting paddler.

I have never been able to photograph this phenomenon while paddling. Windy conditions demand my whole attention. Nevertheless, I have come to trust this process and believe it has implications for other aspects of our lives. The forces that potentially threaten us—an unexpected set of demands, a danger or fearful encounter, all these things also have power to lift us. Experience tells me, if we keep breathing (our own form of buoyancy), the energy of waves rolls under us. The waves have power to lift us above the troughs, the trough of fear, tension, or lack of perspective. Nevertheless, I have found it necessary to let this happen. We cannot stop the advancing wave, but we can allow it to roll under us and lift us above the turbulence.

 

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People Are the Thing

I did not see my father very often during his later years. I lived in Montana and he lived on Cape Cod. Transportation logistics and schedules combined to keep us apart, but toward what would turn out to be the end of his life I made a couple of visits. With multiple arms of the family at his house one summer in East Harwich, he and I used “walk into town for donuts” as an excuse to have some time with each other. As we walked in the deep grass of the borrow pit he said, “People are the thing.”

I often wonder what he meant and continue to speculate about the timing of his remark. His observation came back to me yesterday, the day after Memorial Day, when I paddled out to Wild Horse Island alone. Wind out of the northeast generated small white caps in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse Islands. I made the crossing into a quartering head wind, felt relief in the lee between Cromwell and Wild Horse, and then rounded the corner into Skeeko Bay. I thought I would have it to myself but found a cabin cruiser, bow to the gravel.

I checked the box where Fish Wildlife and Parks keeps the trail roster and saw that the boat belonged to a family of four from South Dakota. Bless the person who put a working pen in the box. I headed up the trail to the saddle that overlooks the strait to the south and The Mission Range beyond. When I stopped to take a photograph of a tight, new, and passionately purple pinecone DSCF0160

I was startled by a boy who suddenly approached me from behind. He was very anxious and his Down’s-affected speech made it hard for me to understand him. I took time to learn that he was looking for his sister and did not know where she was. Together we found her kneeling in the fresh grass by the old homestead cabins. As she tried to soothe and quiet him I took off for the ridgeline topped by the two pine trees where I often find Bitterroot flowers blooming in the hard scrabble. Clad in neoprene booties and bib, I must have been an odd looking pilgrim as I made my way up the slope and found the flowers that grow, improbably, out of rock on a southwest-facing slope. I took time to admire them individually and in clusters, looked out toward The Missions that, thankfully, still wear some snow and then scanned the open slopes for Bighorn sheep. Because I wanted to circle the island during the rest of the day I did not take time to sneak up on the sheep for a closer look.

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DSCF0159I headed down the trail, satisfied that I had visited what feels like a sacred site, but also excited about the rest of my paddle. On the way down, stepping carefully so as not to bruise a heel, I spotted the boy, his sister, and now his parents perched on a rocky promontory at the bottom of the ridge. Assuming that they might be strangers to the island, and thinking I might be able to orient them, I left the trail and waded through the grass to their perch. Approaching from below, I noticed a water bottle at the base of the rock pile. I looked up and said to the sister/daughter, “Is this your water bottle?” She responded, “Yes, I was just climbing down to get it.” “Shall I toss it to you?” “Sure” she replied. I made a good toss and she made a good catch.

Having now had two brief encounters I decided to climb up to their lookout. On the way I noticed more Bitterroots and pointed out that this was our state flower. We had a brief discussion about how native peoples used the roots and where the family might find the Bighorn sheep, if they felt inclined to seek them out. All the while I felt for the appropriate interpersonal distance in this encounter. Looking at them with a minimum of eye contact, it seemed to me as if they were almost stunned by the spaciousness around them, the light in the air, the mountains in the distance, the flowers at their feet. After a few more words I wished them well and slipped away. Though people are the thing I did not take a photo of this family; I believe it would have felt like a violation. Instead, I picked up the trail again and descended to my boat in the piles of storm-driven driftwood.

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The rest of the day, paddling across the mouth of some of my favorite coves, taking time to explore the northernmost tip of the island, pausing to eat a plastic container full of rhubarb crisp, picking up speed in the subtle current along the east shore of the island, I thought about this encounter and my father’s assertion. What would the flowers be without our admiration? What would the sheep be without us as they ruminate on the slopes made lush by recent rain? What would the eagle be, nearly hidden inside a willow, without my quiet visual intrusion into its green roost? Of course the world would be fine without us, and in many cases would be much better without us. But potentially we are here as perceivers of what we find. The world offers itself to our imagination, as Oliver says, but first to our observation. It gives itself so that we take notice. It may even need us, the most transient of all, so that we will praise it, or so thought Rilke in his ninth Elegy. People are the thing because of our capacity to be aware, to recognize patterns, make connections, and see relationships between things.

So often paddling alone, at home by myself out in the wind and the waves, I find that these human encounters register on my consciousness with surprising force. I felt the boy’s desperation as he searched for his sister somewhere on the big and strange island. I felt for his sister as she became separated from her water bottle and struggled with ambivalence about her brother. I felt for their mother as she admired the Bitterroots and wondered at their place in native culture and history, a history that may have been her own. I felt for the father as he carried responsibility for conducting his family safely through this new world. And as we all do, we feel for the strands of connection and the right forms of distance, our capacity for this subtle awareness equally amazing.

On the way to donuts, craving our own quiet conversation, my father tells me that people are the thing. It falls to me to figure out what he meant. I get to finish the puzzle. A few pieces begin to fit together like bracts on the cone.

Through New Eyes

Image(June 2013)

People occasionally ask me to introduce them to paddling on Flathead Lake. They want the benefit of my experience before they venture out on their own. At a chili feed for a local nonprofit my friend C.W. bid several times during the silent auction on a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. When the opportunity went to someone else, I turned to him and said, “Would you like to go with me some time for free?” His eyes brightened. He said, “Sure.” Two years later, after his retirement and several other major events in our lives, we finally found an opportunity to make good on our plan.

Before C.W. arrives I check the graphical forecast and a satellite image (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/flatheadlake/. A big yellow comma full of rain hangs over the lake but will pass to the east later in the day. After C.W. pulls into the driveway we load his extra clothes, lunch, and camera gear into my truck and take off. On the way up the valley we see clouds clinging to The Missions. Elsewhere, the ceiling is flat and gray. When we crest the Polson moraine we see a calm lake, sections of black water that are perfectly breathless. It has stopped raining. When we pull into the Walstad access, with the thought of crossing to Wildhorse, I say, “I have never seen it so calm here in mid-June. We’ll have a great day.”

As we pull away from the dock we stay close together until I can see that C.W. is comfortable in the boat. When I see him pull the skirt while we are in mid-channel and reach into his lap where he stowed his camera, I know he will be fine. He takes photographs throughout the day, evidence perhaps of his habits as a journalist. He had been a reporter for Rocky Mountain News before coming to the University of Montana where he had a distinguished career as a professor in the School of Journalism. As I keep watching, I realize that he is as much an artist as a reporter recording a story.

When we reach the island C.W. feels drawn to the margins where trees have fallen into the lake and left long ghostly bodies angling down toward darkness. Later, when I see his photographs, I discover that he was also drawn to the abstract forms on shore, tree branches sticking out of the trunk of a tree in parallel curves that reminded him of ribs, gnarled root balls that revealed a tree’s contortions around impermeable stone. As a photographer he recognizes the moment when an angle of sunlight allows him to see objects underwater but near shore, blocks of stone dusted with spring sediment or gravels scrubbed by shore waves. He keeps seeing and recording the interface between things: the line between shadow and light, the comparatively hard or sharp forms of things on shore—dead tree branch, or leaf edge, and the soft forms of pebbles beneath the surface. Using his telephoto, he finds a trio of adult geese introducing eighteen goslings to what must have been their first open-water paddle. We pass them going opposite directions far from shore. When we slip beneath an eagle on its overhanging perch he frames it from below. When we are on the island and find a band of rams, he selects a trio of particularly big boys out of the whole group, their massively thick horns protruding above the island’s long and, for now, still-green grass.

Later in the day, after we climb to a rocky promontory with a ledge full of bitterroots, the blooms tightly folded under gray skies, we search for the island’s horses. By not hurrying, and consulting my memories of where I had seen them in the past, we spot the foal, now a full-grown horse, startling red and white among black mares. Again, with an artist’s eye, C.W. looks for the patterns in their arrangement with each other. When we find the skeleton of the horse that died this past winter he asks me to hold a femur that I extracted from the grasses beginning to conceal it. He takes a photo of me holding the massive bone. Afterwards I think of Georgia O’Keefe painting found objects in New Mexico. Keeping an eye on the muted sun I suggest that we head back down to the bay. Because the water is still calm I suggest that we put a bend in the route of our return and circle Melita Island before heading back to the dock.

Kayaking on Flathead Lake is about crossing from mainland to island, the beautiful rhythm of strokes, countless adjustments to wind and waves–all the things that bring me a sense of exhilaration. But on this paddle I learned that paddling the lake is also about seeing in new ways, taking time to see patterns I usually ignore or fail to recognize, seeing the interaction between water and shore, object and reflection, even the beauty in death. This morning I pulled out of the driveway hoping to introduce a friend to a new subject. I returned as a student learning to see in a new way. By trying to view the world through my friend’s eyes every time he raised his camera, I learned that I had been passing by some of the marvels of form, color, and relationship as I sped from point to point. On this day the teacher became a student. I learned another reason to paddle with other people. As I helped my friend load gear back into his car he said, “Thanks, this opens up a whole new world.” I felt the same way.