Discoveries

In late August four of us left town for the lake. We wanted to escape the smoke in Missoula’s valley that made the simple act of breathing a health risk. Three of us wanted to go for a longer paddle. My wife preferred to read in camp and listen to lapping waves.

Joyce sometimes asks encouragingly, “Would you like to take a trip and paddle somewhere on the coast of British Columbia?” I know this is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world but I appreciate having access to the largest and cleanest body of fresh water in the western U.S. and feel as though I still have so much to learn, even after more than ten seasons of paddling Flathead Lake. I am content to keep exploring close to home because experience tells me, if I keep myself open and do not let my ability to perceive grow dull, I will make discoveries.

This trip confirmed that belief. Over the course of our two days we discovered how to have  fun while helping each other get ready to launch,

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

previously unseen panels of rock art and how prone they are to exfoliation and loss,

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

the beauty of black and blue ring waves during a hot morning but especially after sunset,

where eagles tend to roost and why it is extremely important not to set up a sleeping bag under those trees (I’m not providing a photograph of my mistake).

We also discovered a memorial to a young man. People who loved him wedged a painted tribute between opposing pieces of rock. Later, my friend Jeanne spotted a remnant from his tool collection. Walking between her tent site and the beach she saw an anomalous piece of rusted steel pushed level with the surface of dry moss and stone. Curious, she withdrew it from the ground and showed it to me. I explained that the object was a hollow chisel, a tool used to chop mortises so two pieces of wood can be joined with a tenon. Using gold-colored ink, someone painted messages of love and the man’s birth and death dates. Seeing this tribute, we speculated he might have been a woodworker. After we admired the tool and its subtle placement, we put it back exactly as we found it.

Passing through the gap between islands or crossing between island and mainland we also made discoveries about each other, learned things we did not know. We braided an invisible cord between and among us of understanding, memory and anticipation. For the rest of our lives we may tow each other along, connected by the stories we tell and create.

Though I am far-removed from childhood, the lake keeps teaching me to maintain the mind of a child, seeing the world as if for the first time, paying attention to it as if it might be the last.

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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.

Not What I Expected

When I returned from my last paddle, a seventeen-mile solo and overnight from the south end of the lake to Cedar Island, I could not write what I had planned to write. Reminded once again by fires in The Bitterroot that the West is burning, I had intended to write about Cedar Island as a microcosm for the planet, our “fragile island home,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C. But unexpected things happened during the trip that made the original idea less compelling. I came home uninspired and wasn’t going to write anything after the boat came to rest in the rack, but something keeps knocking on the door.

I knew from the weather report and the graphical forecast I always consult that I might run into thunderstorms on this trip. Years ago I got caught out far from shore in such a storm and resolved to be more cautious in these conditions and to take lightning much more seriously. When I drained my shoes, tucked myself in, and secured my skirt clouds were building off to the west, but the conditions did not seem dangerous. I pushed against a hearty headwind on the way to Wild Horse Island. By the time I rounded the point that protects Skeeko Bay the wind gusts were intense. It was as difficult to swing the paddle forward through the air as it was to make a stroke through the water. I paused to check on a couple of people in open cockpit boats who went for a short paddle from their anchored sailboat. Not having far to travel, they assured me they could get back to their boats. I decided to cross the bay and haul out on a gravel beach.

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I pulled lunch out of my mid-ship hatch, found a log to sit on and decided to wait and watch. Waves continued to build and break in the open water to the north. Thunder boomed and cracked overhead and lightning lashed the hills to the west. No one was waiting for me on Cedar Island. I had made no promises, and knew better than to push willfully toward my destination, no matter how much I wanted to set up my old Sierra Designs “Starlight.” It was warm enough that if I got wet I would be fine. While waiting for the lake to go through its paroxysms I did other things, stalked the island’s mule deer bucks, almost as big as elk, watched a hairy woodpecker ladder its way up a dying cottonwood, found a vicarious joy in watching a fisherman haul in a fat yellow perch. I climbed a bluff so that I could peer into the big gap between islands. Those three miles almost always feel intimidating. I wandered down to the bottom of Skeeko Bay to sign the log so that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has more information on how people enjoy this area within their care.

After a couple of hours I returned to my boat, found the conditions acceptable and pushed off for Cedar. Not wanting to linger in the opening between islands, I paddled hard, found “the box” of strong, smooth strokes and made very good time despite the headwind that eventually petered out. I dragged Bluebird up over the top of this year’s gray logs and began to imagine how I would arrange my camp and set up a place to make tea the next morning. Almost immediately a bald-faced hornet bit me on my left forearm and then proceeded to wedge itself between my watchband and wrist where it nailed me hard. It took several tries to dislodge the hornet and figure out why I had offended the beast. I stood still and looked around. I had unknowingly crossed the incoming flight path of these critters. They had built a nest under a log and wanted nothing between them and their entryway and escape route. Again, I had to back off my intentions. Yielding to hornets, I moved the boat a few feet north and chose a different route to the wind shelter where I would set up my whisper light stove. Fortunately, I am not allergic to these bites, but it was a long time before I could shake the sting that made my hair stand on end.

During the evening I wandered around the island, found desiccated cherries on the trees of the old orchard, a spot where a falling tree crushed the fence around the old wildlife enclosure, visited with a friendly blended family that had come up the lake by powerboat from Whiskey Bay. Toward dusk I found the almost unknown public access at Zelezney Bay and followed a water snake making its way to shore. Yes, I thought about our fragile island home and this island, deeply in need of rain. But now I think about how we sometimes have to abandon our plans and intentions in order to live with the world as we find it. We are no match for the force of the weather, not even for a hornet determined to protect its approach to this season’s home. In both cases willfulness would have meant trouble. Probably a better observation than the sermon I had planned.

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A Quandary

DSCF0184 Sometimes I paddle alone and sometimes with other people. When alone I like being able to focus my attention on the inner and outer worlds without concern for other people and their experience. When I paddle with friends I take pleasure in helping them discover a new bay or cove, or having the comfort of their presence when making a long crossing. But the two truths create a quandary.

I recently paddled twice in one week, once alone, once with a friend. The juxtaposition clarifies the quandary. In the first case I had a few hours at the end of a day to dash up to a small, nearby lake. Launching from a state campground, I pushed off while most people were settling into lawn chairs, beginning to prepare the evening meal, or as young people, told to entertain themselves, carried their hopes out to a dock to cast a line. I left the crowd and quickly found my way to the corner of an estuary where a mated pair of loons escorted their single offspring beyond the reach of predators and ski boats. The long necks of trumpeter swans stood above the reeds like goal posts, and by averting my eyes and laying down my paddle, I was able to put them at ease until they slipped off the bank and glided into the water. Then, beyond the mouth of the river and past willows full of warblers and flycatchers I was able to catch site of a doe leading her fawn into the lake for an evening’s dessert of water lilies. Alone, I was able to quietly approach wild creatures and slip past their wariness.

Later in the week I traveled with a friend to a different lake. Somewhat practiced at the ritual, and grateful for it, we helped each other with the loading and unloading of the boats, reminded each other about car keys and paddle floats. It was a pleasure to show him a hidden trailhead, an overgrown campsite, the way into a river mouth. Early in the paddle he pointed out a beaver lodge I might have missed, and together, we laughed at how the beavers saw fit to decorate their lodge with a crowning piece of green slate. Late in the paddle we approached a bald eagle and enjoyed watching it bend its bright white head around a branch so as to keep us in view. On the way home we pulled into a ramshackle ice cream station and enjoyed sweet treats at a picnic table. At the same time, drawn to conversation, I missed being able to pause and adequately consider the way rain drops, after they splash to the surface of the lake, create a bubble on the black surface, a metaphoric reminder that each of us is little more than a short-lived and bright bubble of awareness on a dark sea. Wanting to stay present to my friend’s experience I risked losing aspects of my own. Hence, the quandary.

At this stage of my life I know better than to resolve the tension too easily. I want neither to abandon the artist’s solitary way, nor will I cut myself off from the necessary stimulation and benefit of learning from others. People who are artistically inclined are often radically open to the world and how it registers in consciousness while at the same time being sensitive to others. It is not easy to maintain awareness of both simultaneously. Therefore, artists must continually navigate the tension. We strive to experience all we can and render it in words or paint or pixels, moving alone through the world where the perceptions are sharp, clear and undivided; at other times we carry on this practice the best we can in the company of other people without whom we would miss some of what the world calls to us to see. I know no other way than to paddle somewhere between the near point of solitude and the distant point of community.

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Finally, Close to Painted Rocks

Every time I go to the lake I am aware that I am passing through land that belongs to The Flathead Nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille peoples. This is not my land; it is theirs. Their roots in this landscape reach into the ground of at least 7,000 years of history and their stories reach back to a time before that. As I travel to the lake and pass over its waters, I wish I had a way of making a deeper connection with the people of this place. In an effort to make contact with the history of these people I have tried many times to approach Painted Rocks, a pictograph site on the west shore of the lake. Whether I am paddling north or south I often find that the waves in this area of the lake seem to be focused on the cliff where these red markings can be found. In these conditions waves bounce off the cliff at odd angles and create a complicated, chaotic sea. Or, even if the waves are calm, wakes from passing boats make this a somewhat hazardous place for a kayaker to slip the paddle under a deck line to pause and wonder.

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One Monday evening, however, when a friend and I had made arrangements to camp on Cedar Island, just south of the cliffs, the lake was so calm that we could safely approach the cliffs and their enigmatic markings. We were able to touch the wet dark rock under the limestone cliffs overhead and look as long as we pleased.

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To untrained eyes it appears as if the cliff bears depictions of bison, perhaps bison headdresses, and tick marks, possibly indicating kills or visits to this site. A book by Sally Thompson, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, People Before the Park, makes very clear that bison were “real food” to the Kootenai. Despite the risks, they made seasonal treks over the mountains into bison country east of the Divide to obtain the kind of protein that would sustain them through long winters west of the mountains. No wonder bison appear on these walls.

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Thanks again to Sally Thompson, an anthropologist and ethnographer, I was directed to Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella Clark. The book contains stories related to this area and a Kootenai story about Painted Rocks in particular. For anyone curious about this area and the deep memories of its original inhabitants, this story may be meaningful. Amazingly, it recognizes a time before and after the geological cataclysm of what we call Glacial Lake Missoula. I especially enjoy the humor in the characterization of Rabbit. In Clark’s words:

This myth about them (Painted Rocks) was recorded from William Gingrass. His Kutenai name, given him by his great-grand-mother, means “Grizzly Bear War Paint.”

 After the great flood long ago, no human beings were left in this country. But the spirits were left. Some of them were in the form of animals. They gathered together on a bench of land above where Flathead Lake is now. At that time there was no lake—just a big river coming down from the north. It wound around and flowed down through where the Hot Springs are now. All that country was under water; you can see the water marks yet on the east side of the Lone Pine country. A little stream flowed at the south end of the present lake. A long time after this story, Yawonick, something that lives down below the water, came up from the bottom of the river and changed its course. Then the lake was formed.

When the great flood went down, the spirits held a council there on the shelf above the old river. They had heard that new people were coming, and they knew they should decide what to do when the Indians arrived. While they talked, one spirit kept watch.

“The people will come in canoes from the north,” said the chief of the spirits. “We must have everything decided when they come, as to how we can help them. Each of you will have to have a special song that will help people. You will sing it and then put your picture or your name on these big rocks.”

“But why should we put them up here?” asked on spirit. “They will be so high that they will be hard to get to or even to see.”

“That is what we want,” replied Nupeeka, the chief of the spirits. Nupeeka means “spirit”; in the old days he was a kind of teacher also. “We want the people to go to the high places when they seek spirit power. Seeking power will be too easy if they can find it in the low places. They will have to climb to get to the spirit pictures and the writing in the high places.”

So the spirits sang their songs and painted their names in pictures on the rocks. The first Dawn of the Morning sang the first song and put his sign highest up on the rock; that spirit gave the strongest power. The spirits of Grizzly Bear and Cougar and Eagle—they sang their songs and painted their pictures. Each of them gives strong power. All the other spirits sang their songs and put their writing on the rocks—all except Rabbit. He just hopped around.

At last the lookout called, “We must end our meeting. I see the new people coming around the bend.”

“But I haven’t made up my song yet!” exclaimed Rabbit. “I haven’t a song yet and I haven’t painted my picture.”

“It’s too late now,” the other spirits told him. “The people are landing below the Painted Rock.”

So Rabbit was left out entirely. He has no power song. He gives no power to people seeking spirit power. He can do nothing but hop around.

The new people landed below the Painted Rocks, near where Rollins is now, in the Big Lodge country. It is called the Big Lodge country because of a vision two men had many years ago. Each of them saw in a vision where he should put up a lodge for a Sun Dance, for a sacrifice to the spirits. When they followed their dream, they came to the same place; each had seen the same spot in his vision. So they put one big lodge there for the two groups of people.

The harder a person had to work to get to the place for the power quest, the higher the spirit power he obtained. The spirit who appeared to a person in a vision recorded on the rocks how many days and nights he had been there and what power had been given him (149-151).

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Like first peoples, I, too, have had to work to get close to Painted Rocks, to the deep history the site depicts and to the long, almost geological memory of the people or spirits who left their marks here, recording and celebrating a time even before the lake.

The Return

The Return

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.

IMG_2713Before 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.

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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.

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On the Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

On the Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

On the morning of a day predicted to reach the mid-nineties I load Bluebird and follow The Blackfoot River east and then a chain of lakes north to Lindbergh Lake, on the other side of the range from where I usually paddle. I plan to paddle to the end of the lake,

logged outhike the trail to Crystal Lake,

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go for a short swim and return to camp for a late supper. Then I hope to watch a full moon rise over the Swan range.

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As I sit at the picnic table before and after my paddle I make a list of riches:

my wife’s soft kiss as I depart

yesterday’s massage that left me almost pain free

an old tent that still provides shelter depending on how hard it rains

a multi-grain bagel, a can of sardines and an apple

a water filtration pump in a campground without a spigot

a place to sleep, even if on the ground, in a sleeping bag that feels perfect

memories that tell me how to get to this place and where to find the trailhead at the end of the lake

memories of having been here with dear deceased friend John and my friend Lee who is still more than alive

a Werner graphite paddle

an eight-year-old kayak that is almost good as new despite scores of paddles

a clan of warblers in the chokecherries

clothes that are comfortable and safe in a variety of conditions

a tube of sunscreen I can tolerate

two mini-monster cookies now, and three later

a butterfly on my right shoulder

sunlight in the leaves

not needing several people to help me park or diesel fuel for a generator that runs all night

an extra tea bag

an Optimus Svea stove that is almost as old as I am

a hot moist washcloth in the morning

a visiting rabbit that pads soundlessly through camp

a larch tree the sawyers missed or recognized should stand five more centuries

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geese that swim past my stillness

a hawk on the path as I go for a walk at dusk

a female American Redstart who allows me to watch her while she forages on the ground.

After making my list of riches I pack up my tent, other equipment, and cinch down my boat. Ready to drive home, I suddenly remember a warm conversation the day before with a man who was new to the campground and lake. I decide to walk over to his site and say goodbye. I see that the man and his wife are packing up, but clearly they are eager for more conversation. Maurice and Polly ask me for more local knowledge, intending to return. Then the conversation drifts toward discoveries of things we have in common—years of teaching, friends in common, the sense that the earth is rapidly changing. This year rain in February washed all the mid-level snow out of the mountains and left many of the lowland streams de-watered or dry, a bitter foretaste of things to come. Walking along the trail around the lake, and then along the trail up to Crystal lake, I could not find a single huckleberry where there would normally be buckets of berries. The three of us are able to talk freely and openly about the evidence of change and the consequences, especially for wildlife, our children and grandchildren. This conversation feels like a drink of fresh water on a day that is already hot.

I could count my riches in objects or experiences in the natural world. But as I turn away from the red van Maurice and Polly have outfitted for camping, I also feel deeply grateful for human interaction and talk about things that matter. We discover shared concerns and values on both sides of a dry stream bed. This, too, is part of what makes us wealthy on either side of the range that rises above the lake.