Such Simple Pleasures

(July 10, 2014)

Two Chairs

On my paddles I pay attention to my own experience, both internal and external. Sometimes this happens out of necessity because conditions on the lake require my utmost concentration. But in midsummer, after two weeks in the nineties, and when many people take their Montana vacation, I am most aware of the experience of other people. These vignettes suggest the pleasure people take in being on, in, and near the water whether they own a piece of property or simply pull into an area where the public is granted access to the shore and all that lies beyond.

At Finley Point State Park where we have come for a picnic and a paddle around the islands a Japanese family, perhaps on a vacation to Glacier National Park, plays in the shallows. The father/husband photographs waves washing over stones with his iPhone while his wife prepares a simple meal at the picnic table and calls out swimming instructions to her two young children who are beginning to learn to swim underwater, their eyes protected by little sets of goggles. Meanwhile, the grandmother, no bare skin showing, tries to learn how to skip stones. She bends to pick out her stone and then gives it a side-arm toss. Clearly, she is hooked on the possibilities.

A couple from Alberta with a Scottish accent stops by to describe their happiness in being at the lake. They take two miniature poodles on leashes for a swim. When the dogs hesitate about being led into the water, the man turns to me and says with a wry smile, “They are supposed to like water.”

A man from Moab, camping with his siblings and parents rigs his GoPro camera to the back of his Airedale. He then takes the dog and camera for a swim, later downloading the dog’s-eye-view onto his laptop. I can tell that he is delighted by a non-human point of view.

An adolescent boy and his two sisters create their own game of tag in the shallows off the point. One sister on foot and the other sister in an inner tube try to catch the boy in a kayak. After he is tagged he tries to tag one of them.

During my paddle a newly fledged osprey flies overhead and lands on a dead branch below the nest where it was born. After I pass under the snag the bird leaps from the limb, circles behind me, then appears in front of me. With almost no effort and without wetting its wings the bird simply dips its talons in the water and picks up a live fish. Seemingly proud of its catch, it makes several more circles around me before returning to its perch.

In the bottom of Cat Bay, after passing property heavily marked with signs saying that a security company is watching me through its cameras, I find the deep fold of a tucked-back bay and slip past a couple in lounge chairs. When I wave and they do not respond I realize that they are taking a late afternoon nap. They have come deeply to rest.

After I complete my paddle and pull up on the rocky shore of the state park the man with the Airedale approaches. When he asks sophisticated questions about my boat I can tell he is also a paddler. He soon tells me about his own paddling experience and how last summer he and a friend crossed Lake Michigan, commencing to paddle at midnight, finishing at 5 p.m. the next day. As he tells the story of how they were assisted but concerned about big quartering seas, he gently swirls half a lime in a gin and tonic.

When it is time for me to reload my boat I return to the marina from which I launched. I find a grandfather tacking out of the narrow space with his two grandchildren. In a gentle breeze they head out for a sail in a Hobie Cat with a rainbow-colored sail.

While loading my boat back onto its rack I see a car pull into a parking spot facing the lake. A young woman in a cowboy hat emerges from her hot car. As she sees the lake on a cloudless evening she raises her arms and breaks into song. Her voice is beautiful, unexpectedly beautiful.

As I walk back to our picnic spot I pause to visit with a couple from Wyoming. They have rigged a tent over the bed of their pickup and then begin to roast hotdogs over their campfire. The man places an unopened can of beans in the fire to heat the contents before opening the can. Though I am not a fan of hotdogs my mouth begins to water as the flavors and scents rise with the smoke of the fire.

All through our picnic dinner a trio of children plays in the water. They invent games with rules of their own making. They swim and play past the shock of the water’s cool temperature. I can imagine how hungry they will be when they emerge from the water for whatever meal their parents are preparing.

During the drive home a nearly full moon rises over The Missions. As we pass slowly through Ronan our eyes, the moon, and Gray Wolf peak fall into an alignment strikingly similar to a gun sight. The moon accompanies us all the way down the valley, disappears as we go through the canyon section north of Arlee and then reappears over the Rattlesnake wilderness. After we descend Evaro hill it reappears over Mt. Sentinel east of the Missoula valley and promises to illumine the night.

I cherish my own meditative experience while paddling. But this day I have seen how the lake calls to all the other people and creatures I have encountered. They, too, dip their cups in this deep lake.

Patience

Paddling around and through The Narrows on Flathead Lake offers the paddler a wide range of possibilities and variations. One island leads to another; intense sunlight gives way to shade, and shade to a blast of light; deep open water ends suddenly in a sparkling ramp of stones or a reef. This is simply a great place to paddle.

After driving north from town on a hot day in July, I can hardly wait to get my boat in the water. I make myself wait through the process of setting up camp, erecting the tent and an alcove for shade around the picnic table. I fill the big blue jug and placed it on the bench at a slight angle so that water will flow through the spout with a little pressure. I make myself wait for friends who are delayed in town but who plan to rendezvous with us. When everything is finally in order and friends found their way to the spot we reserved for them I slip Bluebird in the water and begin to paddle toward the unnamed island just to the northeast of Bull Island. I can easily complete this four-mile paddle before dinner.

In years past a pair of bald eagles raised their seasonal broods in a big nest on the south side of the island. I want to see if the nest is active this year. My attention is soon drawn to the conditions, however. As high pressure builds in the region, a strong wind blows out of the north. Whitecaps begin to form in the open water between the state park at Finley Point and the island. The wind and waves give me the resistance I need after containing my energies in camp: I need to paddle against something. At last I can express my own energy openly and fully.

In the distance I can see the smooth water of the island’s lee, the body of the island and tall pines blocking most of the wind. I slip into the quiet and catch my breath. Even here, though, I can hear the wind on the other side of the island and the waves crashing on the north-facing shore. I begin to paddle cautiously along the west side of the island. I feel safe enough paddling directly into the force of the wind and waves. I pull a few yards past the north shore of the island and feel daunted by the big dark waves that break against the ramp of rock leading to the body of the island. I know that turning my boat sideways to these forces could easily result in a spill. If this were to happen, my boat and I would be thrown against the rocks on shore. While holding my position straight into the wind and waves I consider a couple of options: I can back away into the relative calm water of the west shore and return the way I came, or I can wait for the best possible interval between waves, paddle hard through the opening, and begin the process of rounding the small island’s north side.

Trying to make a good decision, I wait in the rolling waves. I simply hold my position and observe the waves. I watch them roll down the fetch of the lake, see how their dark bodies rise and tip over in a white noise of air-saturated foam. In time I begin to get a feel for the rhythm of the waves. When I seem to have the pattern in mind and my energy in hand I wait for one wave to break, accelerate into the opening before the next wave, make several very hard strokes and initiate a turn just as the second wave breaks on my port quarter. I brace hard on my right to keep from being rolled like a log, then accelerate again to build a little distance between the next wave and my boat. In a few seconds I am past the north side of the island and heading for camp. Though I have completed the turn I need to keep my focus. The waves keep breaking on my stern quarter and require a quick brace in response. From time to time I try to paddle fast enough to catch a wave, riding the interval between the approaching wave and the receding one. When one wave passes under me I pause so as to not use up my energy paddling up the backs of waves. In a few minutes I am well on my way back to camp and the feast that awaits us as we gather at the picnic table of campsite #2.

I have often paddled in what I consider the safe range of waves that flow across Flathead Lake (1-2 feet). I have occasionally felt frightened, less by the general train of waves and more by the odd, idiosyncratic wave that seems bigger than the rest. This short paddle, one I have done many times, taught me something new. When I felt frightened by what I saw on the north side of the island—the full expression of the length of the lake’s power, I realized that I did not need to force my way into the tumbling waves. I did not need to maintain the pace that took me to the island. I could hold my position, wait, observe, consider options, and then decide. I could watch long enough to sense the subtle variations in the rhythm of the waves and advance into the best opening possible. I could trust my ability to accelerate, trust my body to adjust to the wave’s tendency to bring me parallel rather than perpendicular to its energies. I could wait for fear to pass and the wisdom of experience and confidence to flow back into my body. Having learned to wait, I made a safe passage around the island’s north shore and coasted back to safety and friends.

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Sunset, Moonrise, Dawn

(July 2013)

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The moon this July has been extraordinary. At home it rises over Mount Dean Stone like a plate of ivory, climbs through the branches of a black ponderosa, and throws a wave of light against the south-facing shop where I build my furniture. For a couple of years I have wanted to do another night paddle, perhaps in moonlight. Before driving to Colorado to see family, Joyce and I quickly pack up the camping gear, secure a sloping site at Big Arm and eat a dinner we prepared at home. I sit facing the lake so that I can judge the conditions. Under high atmospheric pressure the lake basin receives a breeze out of the north that sweeps around Wild Horse Island and aims its energies toward the bottom of Big Arm bay. I watch as white caps lose their crests and the wind gradually lessens, leaving waves about a foot high.

I launch from the beach where Fish, Wildlife and Parks docks its big aluminum-hulled boat with the 200 horsepower Honda outboard. The contrast in vessels strikes me as humorous. If I were ever to need a rescue I might see all that power differently. Once in the water I enjoy releasing the energy of anticipation as I face the waves and wind. Bluebird splashes onward toward Wild Horse Island in progressively calmer conditions. In the lee of the island the water is much quieter. As I begin the paddle around the island, I notice a few landowners leaving the shade of their cabins after a day in the mid-90s. They come down to the beaches and docks for a swim. At Driftwood Point I pull into the snags of dead junipers and pines and read a FWP sign saying that a bear has been seen recently on the island. Perhaps the bear, too, wanted to cool off with a swim.

As the sun disappears over the horizon I paddle up the eastern shore of the island. In the distance The Missions have turned a pale violet, rocks near shore the black of silhouette. One crescent south of Osprey cove I hear a commotion over head. I see the middle act of the eternal drama between osprey and bald eagles. I look up in time to see the eagle bear down on the osprey from above. The osprey rolls onto its back. The birds lock talons and lose altitude. Then I see the eagle pumping toward me, fish in its grasp.  I can’t tell for certain who caught the fish first—probably the osprey. Next,  a second eagle pursue the osprey while the first eagle rises to its roost. Again, the osprey is the loser, beaten by size and weight. In Darwin’s terms, this is the struggle of existence.

In the growing darkness I continue paddling north, close to the rocky shoreline and at a slow pace. I would love to see bighorn sheep or the island’s mule deer, or something as secretive as an otter near shore, but the island does not reveal these inhabitants. Travelling along what is now the back of the fish-shaped island, I begin to look for a place to rest and wait for the moon. I find a deep cove with a beach of small pebbles and pull ashore. It feels good to get out of the boat, to step into the coolness, to feel rock under my feet. After the windy crossing and the paddle north I go for a swim in the darkness. I am refreshed by immersion.

I change into dry clothes, eat one of my two cinnamon raisin bagels, drink a quart of water and guess where the late-arriving moon will rise. If I had come a few days earlier, the rising of the moon and the setting of the sun would have occurred simultaneously. Tonight, I must wait for the moon. Around 11 p.m. it rises over the tops of the island trees to my right. Two or three days past full, it fills the forest around me with white corridors and long shadows and takes over where the sun left off. Trusting the light and the dark, I nestle into the stones beside a long straight cottonwood that has fallen parallel to shore. I sleep for a few hours and wait for the approach of dawn.

The sun rises like a trumpet blaring over The Missions. Feeling the heat of the day the moment the sun appears over the range I gather my gear, eat a duck egg, an apple and my last bagel. I launch in the early light to complete the paddle and have morning tea with Joyce. I head out of the cove into gently flowing air and calm water. After rounding a couple of points, I see the moon again, four fingers above a ridge. I am surprised by how glad I feel to see it again. It seems like a friend departing for another land. Something in me wants to wave goodbye. In the quiet of early morning I paddle past six sailboats tucked into Skeeko bay, two of them tied head to toe, silence suggesting that everyone is still asleep. I continue slowly along the west shore of the island, hoping to see the animals I could not spot last night. At the tail of the island I look southwest and try to locate the campground three miles away.

In the strengthening light I begin the crossing. About a half hour into the process I see jet skiers, camped along the shore, begin to cast their wakes into the air as they take advantage of the calm conditions. Though I do not enjoy the whine of their engines, they help me locate my landing. I paddle on, spot Joyce’s wave, step on shore. I feel happy to have paddled through sunset, moonrise, and dawn and all the subtle variations of light. I put down paddle, pfd and skirt, and come to the table for tea.

Summer light can seem almost garish in quality as it glances off the water. Convection raises wind and waves that fill the shore with noise. All the people, desperate for the cooling effects of water, and needing distance from the heat of home, add to the activity along the lake’s perimeter. All of this helped me feel drawn to the afterglow of sunset, the quiet of the night, the subtleties of moonlight’s shadows, the first hints of morning light before the sun claims the day. I timed my exploration of this other world well. Everything has been gentle, even in July. I have lived into the Celtic Blessing:

 Deep peace of the running wave to you,

Deep peace of the flowing air to you,

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace of the gentle night to you,

Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.

Deep peace to you.

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Mayflies, Part II: Asking Too Much

(July 2012)

After our night in camp we wake to calm conditions. For several years I have been telling Joyce about a particular bay on Bull Island owned by the University of Montana. I have been told that my faculty status gives me permission to land there. Though she has never done an open-water crossing and prefers to stay close to shore, Joyce seems willing to give this paddle a try. We launch from the beach. I help her get settled in her boat and set a very slow pace that seems manageable to her. We do not have to contend with waves or wind, so the crossing goes easily, even if slowly. We pull into the bay where a sailboat has anchored. A woman on deck moves through a series of yoga poses while a man dives overboard with mask and snorkel. Joyce and I swim from shore. Conditions are utterly calm, the water like mercury. Better able to float than I, Joyce lies back, face to the sky, and lets herself be supported by, “this all-surrounding grace,” as Denise Levertov called it in her poem “Avowal.” We feel thoroughly refreshed.

Joyce seems so comfortable in these conditions that I suggest we paddle up along the west shore of the island. She agrees after securing from me that this will not be a long paddle. We paddle northward through countless shades of blue and green, colors made even deeper by morning’s shadows cast by the island. At the tip of the island I see Bird Island in the distance. I say to Joyce, “We’ll never be closer to Bird Island. I’ve always wanted you to see the bay on its north shore. What do you say? Do you think you can paddle that far?” She asks me to estimate the distance. I tell her, “About three miles.” Wanting to please, and setting aside her own concerns, she agrees. To make life easier for her we trade paddles. My Werner graphite is the better paddle. We leave Bull Island behind and strike off for the little blue shape to the northeast. After about a half hour Joyce has the sense that we are not making any progress: “The island seems not to be getting any closer. How long do you think this will take? Are you sure we are making progress?” I make all the assurances I can, but realize that I have made a mistake in inviting her to make this crossing after having already crossed to Bull Island. I now take it for granted that when paddling far from shore it is harder to have a sense of one’s progress. Because this is Joyce’s first time to have this experience, she grows somewhat anxious, needs all the encouragement I can give her. We have committed ourselves to something that is hard to undo. When I am in this situation by myself, I remind myself to ignore the destination when progress seems so incremental, or I pick up the pace, consuming the distance like yesterday’s sandwich. Today, this technique will not work. I slow the pace, point out clumps of pollen, bumblebees, flying ants, a white feather that passes by our boats, dozens of intermediate signs that prove we are making progress. I try to explain that looking at the goal could discourage her. This crossing is all about one stroke and then the next. We have to contain the desire to arrive.

Even if Joyce is not an athlete she has considerable upper body strength and more than enough stamina. I stay beside her, talk more than normal, think up other topics. Eventually the island comes into sharper focus. I can identify the big blocks of stone that armor the west-facing shore and mark the entrance to the bay. When we round the corner we discover that the bay already contains two powerboats and a tour’s pontoon boat. I decide to enter first and pick a spot to land that is on the far right, close to the rocks. We slip into this narrow spot without disturbing all the other people who have come to the shelter of the cove. I assist Joyce with her landing. She is very glad to stop. I can tell that she is tired. As I scan the crowd, I feel disappointed that so many other people are here. Today this is not “my” bay. On a day as beautiful as this I should have known other people would be here.

We secure our boats and retreat to the black blocks of rock on the point. I know not to rush Joyce who is now concerned about the paddle from Bird Island back to Finley Point. We take time to eat our simple lunches, drink water, split a big cookie and an apple. I strip down to my bathing suit and dive from the rocks, swimming back around into the bay where it is easier to climb out. Joyce wades in the shallows near our boats.

We take a few minutes on the beach and visit with some of the people gathered there. Nine or ten belong to the pontoon boat. They are on a tour of some sort and have never been to a place like this. A handful of boys throw stones, something they seem born to do. We try to be polite but do not linger. We slip out of the bay and head south. I keep up a distracting story as we move from the island to the tip of Finley Point and then down the peninsula back to camp. Joyce has had enough. While I am quick to acknowledge my mistake in asking her to go this far, about nine miles, she generously tells me, “It’s partly my fault. After all, I said ‘Yes’ to your invitation. We should have come back to camp after our swim on Bull Island.”

After we return to camp we give each other a little distance. We need some time and space to allow the tension to settle and have everything come to rest. As the dinner hour approaches I sense that this is not the evening to fix another camp dinner. We leave everything in place and drive north to a restaurant. As the heat of the day begins to dissipate we sit in the shade at an outdoor table, drink a beer, eat a meal that someone else fixed. Satisfied and at peace, we head back to camp, spend a little time looking at the quiet lake, then head for bed. Trying to do too much I almost ruined the day.

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Camping requires us to load and unload a lot of gear. Nevertheless, it gives us an opportunity to spend more time on and beside the lake. We can linger as the light changes, experience the range of the day’s temperatures, sleep to the sound of lapping water. It is worth the effort. I have one regret: I asked too much of Joyce and almost ruined her pleasure in shorter paddles. I should have known from my own experience that a long paddle across open water is like looking at a line that presents itself only as a point. Sometimes there is more pleasure in simply moving slowly along the line, noticing shoreline trees and stones, the ever-changing prospect of weaving in and out of contiguous bays. Long, open-water crossings are not for everyone.

Mayflies, Part I

(July, 2012)

Soon after her birthday, Joyce and I decide to camp at Finley Point. Joyce uses the new reservation system with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to secure a walk-in site for a Monday and Tuesday night. Without advance planning I doubt we would be able to secure this site for a weekend in July. Montana FWP has plans to expand the campground but this project will have to wait for a time when more money becomes available.

On the way out of town we pick up sandwiches from our favorite shop. We spread out the white wrapper in our laps and make a delicious mess as we drive north. We stop, as we must, at the inspection station. I have been through here so many times that I am well known by the staff. We combine the serious business of making sure that my boat will not be importing dangerous plants and mollusks with some gentle teasing (They would like me to remove the road-killed skunk on the highway across from the station, and offer this job twice). It is essential that Montana succeed in stopping the importation of non-native aquatic mollusks like zebra and quagga mussels. I strongly support these efforts, answer all the questions, give the team a clean boat to inspect, and skip through in a few minutes.

The day is hot by 2 p.m. when we pull into the campground. We set up our Hobitat on the gravel pad, pump up air mattresses, and stow food in the bear-proof boxes. By the time the chores are done, we are both ready for a swim. I can barely contain my desire to put my boat in the water; so while Joyce lets a light breeze cool off her wet bathing suit on shore, I slide Bluebird into the water using the new gravel ramp that Fish Wildlife and Parks created near the south boundary of the campground. This is a much friendlier area for paddlers who don’t want to negotiate summer congestion and the noise of engines and jet skis at the other end of the campground.

Thrilled by the freedom of a summer evening, I make a quick circuit around the islands in the Narrows. I scout for places Joyce and I might explore together, revel in the warm air and water temperatures that feel much safer than they are in early June, not to mention April and May. I circle Bull Island clockwise, take the north end of Bull Island on my right and speed back to camp ahead of thunderclouds forming along the western horizon. I roll the boat upside down on the new beach in case it rains and walk toward camp as Joyce begins to cook pork chops from a local farm and onions on her old three-burner Coleman, a gift to her from her parents when she graduated from TCU forty-five years ago. The smell whets our appetites.

During the evening the once-distant storms pass to the north and west; nevertheless, the lake becomes riled and wild. All the color washes out of the ridges of the Salish Mountains beyond the opposite shore. Everything becomes a variation on the theme of gray. As the sun goes down, the wind drops, quieting the lake. The ragged remnants of graphite cumulonimbus suddenly become a full palette of pinks, blues, and oranges. Then the surface of the lake picks up the sky’s colorful stain. Even the stones on the beach reflect the colors that shift from one shade to another over the course of an hour. Eventually the islands and west shore turn into black silhouettes. During this display, Joyce reads in her not-so-comfortable aluminum and canvas chair perched on the edge of a steep drop above the water.

Meanwhile, I watch the largest mayfly spinner fall I have ever seen. Something about the photo period and the temperature of air and water cues the insects. Though not an entomologist I think these mayflies are Gray Drakes (Siphlonurus occidentalis). Millions of them climb into the sunset and then fall toward the water to drop their eggs.  They fill the sky in every direction and clog the spider webs that have been suspended like aerial drift nets between branches of fir trees. The mayflies also call out common nighthawks that swoop through the air and pick them off with their fine beaks. One second the birds cut through the air like flung blades; the next they make sharp cuts and turns to fly into a concentrated cloud of insects, their movements as erratic as jacks bounced across summer concrete. The climax of this hatch becomes a banquet for birds and spiders. Every photograph I take of the sunset catches a blur of insects in the immediate foreground.

If I had focused only on a day paddle, if we had not chosen to camp, we never would have seen these things. Sometimes the best I can do is drive up and back in a day; but spending a night or two we get to enjoy the changes, something as ephemeral as a hatch of insects or a shifting color in the sky. This evening I am conscious of all that we would miss by hurrying home in the squint of headlights. We crawl into our sleeping bags with a sense of anticipation about tomorrow. Let’s see what a new day brings.

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