Looking for a Gift

After a very cold October the weather of November felt gentler. The ground re-thawed and I found a better way to settle a couple of stones into the garden. I sprayed copper on my peach tree to control leaf curl. In the middle of November, I spotted a day in the forecast that looked suitable for a paddle. The predicted high was 45, the water temperatures held at 43 degrees and wind was not a significant factor.

Though I wish I were above such desires, I often go paddling in search of a gift from the lake or the process of being in the kayak. Sometimes I find a feather, an unusual pebble, a piece of driftwood, a solution to a problem I work over in the waves of my mind, or a growing sense of competence in my boat. While paddling I stay open to what the gift might be. Often, I encounter something unexpected.

I left town later than normal, around 9:30, to take advantage of the warmest part of the day, and arrived at the boat ramp about two hours later. Knowing that I need to dress for the water not just the air, I put a full dry suit over wool underclothes and stowed three pairs of gloves, my hands being the most vulnerable to cold.

As I pulled away from shore I was startled by a very large buck seasoning under a shed roof nearby. The head lay unceremoniously on the picnic table. As I began to stroke into the lake I did not have a particular goal. I simply wanted to experience the lake at this time of the year and did not want to put myself in a dangerous situation far from shore. Because the conditions allowed, I paddled to nearby Melita Island where I stood in the shallows of a crescent cut into the gravel. I changed from my light gloves to a heavier set with natural curves built into the fingers. This arrangement felt much better, since my hands would be wet all day. I now faced a decision: should I continue into the light breeze, using strength early in the day, or settle for returning to the north-facing shoreline where I could easily retreat to Walstad? The lake seemed to allow for a longer paddle, so I left Melita behind and crossed the strait to Wild Horse Island. I had never circled it this late in the year.

When making a crossing I fight an unconscious desire to paddle harder, feeling some anxiety about exposure. I kept reminding myself to slow down, to find a rhythm I could maintain over the two miles of open water. I reached the south east corner of the island as a construction crew arrived by boat to continue working on a new and beautiful passive-solar home. As I paddled up the east shore I saw how autumn’s winds had knocked down quite a few trees along the shore, or in some cases, around people’s cabins, branch piles telling the story. Along the way I noticed that a dock belonging to some friends was simply missing. Had they decided to replace an aging structure? Had a storm ripped it loose from its footings? I did not know; but remembering October’s weather, I was not surprised.

As I continued along the shoreline I realized I would be able to return to Osprey Cove where I had injured myself on May 29. With the lake 3 feet lower than when it is at full pool, the gradient of the gravel on the beaches is steeper. I pulled in close, lifted my skirt, and stepped out. I slid Bluebird up the gravel and pulled out my lunch for which I was more than ready.

After a steelhead sandwich and most of a bottle of water I began to explore the beach. I was relieved to see that the blood I’d left on the stones was long gone—nature taking care of these things. On the edge of the forest I found what for me was an unusual skeleton. At first it looked like it had belonged to a fish, but what first appeared to be a skull turned out to be a sacrum. This suggested that an eagle had taken a duck, and after feasting high in the tree, had cast down the remains.

Moments later I saw a large aluminum boat approaching the cove from the south. They pulled into the cove, let the big diesel engine idle and drifted. Two men standing at the transom scanned the timbered slopes above the island. Curious, I got back in my boat and paddled alongside. I spoke first and asked if they were aboard a research vessel, knowing that the Flathead Lake Biological Station has a similar boat. The men looked puzzled:

“Research vessel? Not really.”

Silence followed.

Seeing now where they were looking, I tried again, “Looking for eagles?”

“Yeah, there’s a nice one.”

I looked where they pointed their chins and saw the bright head and big body of a female bald eagle in the upper branches of a Ponderosa.

Like them, I held the boat steady and enjoyed the stolid presence of such a magnificent bird, more than capable of picking a merganser, gull or cormorant off the water. I wished them a good afternoon and slipped away.

Throughout the afternoon I kept seeing this unusual boat with its long, open afterdeck and blunt prow. It powered up to Cedar Island where I have often found eagles, across to Elmo, back to the west shore of Wild Horse, and then down toward Polson. I surmised they were out in November simply for the joy of seeing eagles.

I paddled on, noticing changes—how a tiny foothold of a building on a northside lot had now become a cabin; how the island wore a beautiful necklace of woody debris in tan and gray, less visible at high water; how the leaden skies intensify the color of young Douglas fir trees born of fire.

To shorten the distance, I paddled off shore and did not go into Skeeko Bay but headed for the rocky point that marks its western entrance. In the distance I saw something strange, something in the water, something moving. I kept my eye on this spot as I closed the distance: a herd of 6 mule deer had walked out into the lake on the gravel that accumulates in this area. They waded up to their bellies and even their ribs, occasionally dipping their heads for a drink, if not a wash. They, too, were taking advantage of a gentle day. They, too, knew this spot where they could be in the lake not just on its margins. Because these deer are unaccustomed to predators, they let me approach, but they eventually turned and shook themselves off like dogs, something I had never seen before. I tried to get past the gate of the passcode on my phone so I could take a picture of this unusual behavior, but the thick neoprene would not allow me to get inside the phone. I considered pulling off the tight glove, but knowing how hard it would be to put it back on, I chose safety over a photograph and filed the image in my memory.

I settled back into the process of stroking for shore when I heard the deep thrum of the boat that followed me into Osprey Cove. The men kindly circled me at a distance, something weekend boaters never do. I appreciated the wide birth and enjoyed the huge rolling swells from their wake that lifted me several feet in the air and then set me gently back down.

The whole day the sun never showed itself, but in the south, down near the low topography of Big Arm, more light appeared beneath the heaviest clouds. It cast an orange glow on the water and combined with the shadows on the back side of little waves to create what seemed like a genetic code of light and shadow, a glimmering bar code of horizontal orange and gray dashes. I had never seen such light. This was the gift I had not expected.

In the way that climbers reach a summit by permission of the mountain, I had been granted permission by the lake to enjoy its gifts in mid to late November. I had nothing to tuck under a hatch or stow in a dry bag, only the gifts of transience, a big vessel passing at a respectful distance, its engine strangely comforting, light and shadow, the remains of life beneath a towering tree, the memory of deer moving out along a gravel bar far from shore. This was more than enough to carry me through winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections Near Season’s End

Late September is a good time to reflect on this year’s season of paddling. I do not know if my jury summons, final yard chores, and the need to prepare for a brief teaching gig will allow me to get back to the lake for a final paddle. Not knowing if I will be able to return, now seems like a good time to write down my impressions since the paddle blade leaves no evidence of its sweep.

I first made contact with the lake in March. The water was covered with such a hard shell of ice that one could have walked from Dewey Pt. to Cedar Island, perhaps even the four miles to Wild Horse Island. Everyone was saying, “Will this winter ever end?” But by May I was paddling again, dressing for 40-degree water and wind delivering a smack of cold.

As I look back on my fourteenth year on the water I am left with the sense that the my experiences are still with me in the way that a long day on the water leaves a person’s inner ear adjusting to the rhythmic motion of waves.

I see clearly that paddling, like meditation, is not an end in itself. Yes, I love the pleasure of plowing into the wind on a hot summer day, receiving the splash of spray, or paddling on a calm evening, even one under the stars. And yes, I love the exhilaration of a downwind run and enough competence in the boat to let the waves roll me at odd angles without fear. But I am thinking about impressions and memories of a different sort.

Though I mostly paddle alone, I remember a particular day with friends. They wanted to gain more experience in their new Swift boats and enjoy the process of becoming more familiar with the long shores and crossings of Flathead Lake. After a lovely meal in evening light we trusted the next day’s forecast of “variable winds up to ten miles an hour with waves less than a foot.”

 

The next morning we launched from the United Methodist Church Camp, paddled past the pictographs left on a limestone wall, and cruised the shore up to Deep Bay where I could not resist a dive into clear water. After lunch we headed into a freshening wind. I knew we had our work cut out for us. As we paddled in rough but manageable conditions, I would say to them, “We could pull out here and call for a ride” or “We could rest in the lee of that island,” or simply, “How are you doing?” I loved hearing, “This is hard, but let’s keep going.” I loved the process of making good decisions with other people rather than carrying the burden alone, turning my ear to signs of distress or enthusiasm, my own or those of another. Making good decisions with other people feels like a lasting joy. In the end, rounding the last corner we were given the relief of a downwind run.

Looking back I see clearly that not every paddle needs to be an epic adventure. Just as it is possible to stroll along a river trail or wander through an old neighborhood, it is possible to paddle in a desultory way. For example, I remember an afternoon on Lake Alva. The membrane of consciousness registers the skittering of ducklings, the ruffled surface of baitfish trying to escape a predator, the stillness of a heron in the slow water below a beaver dam. After paddling across the lake and into one of its coves I remember sitting still in my kayak and marveling at fireweed growing out of fallen log. A slant of light fell through the forest and raised the flowers into a purple torch. After exploring the outlet of the lake, I returned to my wife’s fancy picnic of smoked salmon, Struan bread, fresh cherries from local trees, and Gorgonzola cheese. Sometimes paddling is less about working toward a destination and more about gaining a greater appreciation for the quietness at hand, the sound of a little girl speaking to her attentive grandfather and listening to him gently respond as he sat sunning himself on the beach.

 

As I look back I also sense how an aspect of paddling has implications for life beyond the water. When making a long crossing from point to point or shore to island and back the progress seems so incremental as to be barely discernible. Yet, with patience things come into focus. If I continue to paddle from where I am, rather than toward where I want to be, I eventually recognize a landmark, a white buoy or a leaning tree. The shape of an island becomes sharper; the memory of red barn on the hillside is confirmed. Such clarity is not given to us in the beginning; it comes to us over time. I count on this impression from a season in the kayak as I work to make sense of what is happening to our country, as I consider the impact of a Swedish teenager on our burning of the world.

Not all impressions are positive. In late August I joined five friends for a paddle down the Flathead River, a way of celebrating all that the Flathead basin carries to the world west of the continental divide. Leaving better campsites to families with children, we slid ashore after paddling five miles the first day. Almost immediately we were assaulted with the sound of ATV traffic, blowing dust and hours of random gunfire. Though I had camped in this spot before, a lot changes in fourteen years. A dusty and rutted road had been pushed into the river from who knows where. Now in the multiplying fire rings I found a failed engine starter, shell casings, an abandoned sponge too wet to burn, lots of plastic and aluminum. The next day at the takeout, dog excrement covered the beach and an empty Coors can, driven by a merciless wind, bounced down the parking lot. I asked myself, should we withdraw from places of violence and violation and search only for places not yet destroyed? Though I feel the temptation to withdraw, I also wonder, should I return to this place with equipment that might allow me to improve on the desecration? Or, do we need to go back to the sources of what cause people to treat the river and the earth in this way? I do not know the answers to my questions, but they stay with me.

As my last tomatoes ripen and bucks begin to chase does across the back yard I am left with another question: can we store beauty? I have seen so much of it this season—ovoids on the water while paddling in a September rain,

the flashing colors of a kestrel landing in the top of a Ponderosa, faces of smiling friends at the end of the day, an Arctic loon that allowed me to slip by while it was fishing before it continued its journey south, and always the variations on blue and green. Can we store such beauty like oats in a glass jar, like frozen plums in a bag that will see us through the winter to come? I’m not sure as each new experience seems to trespass on those that came before. The beauty we see seems to linger but not endure. It may last only as long as a musical note left in the concert hall. Yet, enough of what we experience lasts long enough to leave us with the motivation to return to the water. The lake calls us back because of all that it has given in response to our efforts to slide across its ever-changing face. Memories may lead me to next year.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of Timing

The Mystery of Timing

August 29, 2018

From time to time I remind myself that an eagle feather will not fall out of the sky and land beside my tent every morning; that I will not find a polished antler every time I walk up the hill; that not every June will be moist, free of wind, and permit each green thing to flourish; and that not every conversation will wander happily from topic to topic and end in resolution, understanding, and warmth.

And yet, some days the door to disclosure and discovery seems wide open. Yesterday, for example, I joined two friends who had just married for a post-celebration paddle around Wild Horse Island. After forty-six days without measurable precipitation and with smoke in every valley it had finally rained and cleared. A brisk breeze blew out of the southwest, a rarity in late summer. After launch we let the wind and waves rock and roll us toward the south east corner of Wild Horse Island and then gentle us toward Osprey cove on the timbered east side, with only a distant sailboat on a downwind reach in open water before us. As we turned into the cove we saw the final act of aerial competition between a bald eagle and an osprey, the heavy bird driven into a ponderosa, the lighter more agile fish hawk in quick retreat after a final taloned dive. On shore we sat in the marvel of brightly colored stones and enjoyed hunks of cheese, a tuna sandwich, Greek olives and monster cookies, calories not a problem.

As quiet as butterflies, three fulsome bucks came to the water to drink and seemed completely undisturbed by the sound of our voices or scent. It was not easy to reconcile their horny hooves, hardening antlers, and the softness with which they tipped forward and sipped the clear water.

Later, after rounding the north point of the island and we began the southbound leg of our circle, we came upon three enormous Bighorn rams on the steep and rocky shore below the red cliffs. Intent on rooting out some tasty mineral, one ram turned its rear to us while the others faced us squarely, warning us not to take one more stroke toward them. I felt astonished by their mass, the age and size of their curling horns, and hoped they would not crash into the water in an effort to drive me away. Their red eyes and hard stare were unnerving.

Some days we circle our islands and see nothing worth remark. No matter our hopes, or even our openness, the doors seem closed and no feather falls in the night. But other times the curtain between us and discovery, between us and the Other, whether human or wild, seems parted, pulled back within the stage’s curved frame. Yesterday was such a day. If our arrivals had been different by even five minutes we would not have seen what we saw. After hauling out we drove home in a state of wonder, grateful for the good fortune of timing and everything we had been allowed to see.

Deeper Currents

Deeper Currents

As everyone in the Northwest knows, the summer of 2017 was difficult. From the first week of July through the first week of September our forests were on fire and more smoke than we had ever experienced piled up behind a ridge of high pressure. Smoke poured into our valleys, filled our lungs, left ash on every surface, and embers in our yards. For many this was also a summer of anxiety and hasty preparations for evacuation. Some of us returned home to the smell of wet charcoal, black fields of devastation, and worse. In response to the casual question, “How are you?” people often answered “Depressed.”

As a paddler I occasionally inserted a trip on Flathead Lake between the darkest days of smoke, encountered locked gates at state parks, and waited like everyone else for the air to clear and costs to mount.

On September 29, I finally found a bright and fresh day for a solo paddle out to Wild Horse Island and a clockwise trip around its perimeter. It felt healing to exercise in pure air, to be reminded that our world is indeed beautiful after weeks of finding it fouled, polluted and threatened. Late afternoon light backlit every snowberry, spider web, needle and turning leaf in the draw above Osprey Cove. A shift in the wind gave me five fast miles at the end of the day.

During this paddle I thought I might feel elevated by the knowledge that our world we love had finally been returned to us. But after this summer I felt more reflective than jubilant. All the evidence suggests that what happened this summer will happen again.

I have always been skeptical of the human inclination to use nature for our own purposes, reducing it to one more resource that we exploit for our own pleasure. I know, it is good to wash one’s mind in the bath of green and blue water. It is good to test one’s inner strength in the face of variable winds and distance. It restores balance to play on the waves. But time in a kayak, especially by oneself, gives a paddler occasion to ask, “What is all this for? What larger purpose does it serve?”

In my post of May 7, 2017, I proposed that we have a responsibility to attend to and behold the things we encounter. But on this Friday in September the currents took me deeper. After this summer it seems we have an inescapable responsibility to address the forces that are making our world increasingly uninhabitable. It is no accident that our forests are burning and coastal cities are awash in water that overwhelms the land and its inhabitants. We are doing this to ourselves and we must undo what we have done. Or, to shift the metaphor, we must change course because the one we are on leads to ruin, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

It is not for me to say what others should do. We must see this for ourselves. But I am clear that I have a responsibility to understand the impacts of what we are doing to the planet and take action in word and deed to promote choices that lead toward better ways of being in the world. A paddle in bright light makes this clear. It is time to do more than sigh with relief or toss up our hands. We have work to do, changes to make, a course to correct, while there is time.

 

Remembering to Pause

I am probably not alone in feeling an inward pressure to keep moving, to stay productive, to make the most of my time. In late October, for some reason not clear to me, I remembered to pause rather than push.

Every year, if the weather allows, I try to make a paddle in late October or early November. Paddling at this time of the year allows me to honor the season in which my father died and his love for messing about in boats. I spotted a day between autumn storms and a few responsibilities. I loaded the boat the night before. In the morning both Bluebird and the windshield were coated in frost. I started the engine, and after the windshield cleared, drove north, pulling into the Finley Point Campground. The air was still cold, a hard wind blew out of the north, and waves, as predicted, rolled south. I paused in the truck to consider my options: drive back home; wait out of the wind to see if the waves would settle; or pause and observe before making a decision.

While sitting in the driver’s seat I struggled into my dry suit so that I could stay warm. I sat reflecting on my choices and watched the waves. Looking north, it was very clear that I could not take a direct route to Bird Island, one of my favorite places on the lake. Even from the parking lot I could see big waves crashing on the rocky shoal off the cliffs west of the peninsula that forms Finley Point. Looking west, I tried to imagine myself in the waves between the marina and Bull Island, an intermediate point of a large triangle that might eventually lead to the avian refuge of Bird Island. If I were cautious and patient, and took one wave at a time, it seemed possible to make the lee on the south side of the island. I launched but paused just outside the marina to get a feel for the swells. I did not need to commit myself to the island until I felt confident that the waves were manageable. Pausing gave me this clarity, so I proceeded.

When I reached the coves on the south shore of Bull Island I noticed that three fishing boats had also sought refuge out of the wind and waves. I slid between two of the boats and braced for balance. Like me the fisherman had grown tired of a rising and falling horizon. In addition, one boat needed patient attention with needle nose pliers after nylon fishing line had become wound around a drive train. We visited about the conditions and the prospect for a calmer afternoon. Eventually I backed away, found my own gravel bar and took time for lunch. All the while I listened to the wind in the trees behind me, telltale indicators of conditions to the north. I knew to wait.

While waiting on the island I wandered around, found little compositions of autumn color,

fallimage

eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

plume

and a pile of bear scat that proves hungry bears swim to the islands in a desperate search for food. After about an hour I sensed that the wind was beginning to subside and that gravity would eventually settle the waves. I paddled up the west shore of the island, but paused again before rounding it and heading into the fetch. I stayed out of reach of big waves crashing on the ramp of stone at the northern tip of the island and paused to study the more rounded waves in the open water. Trusting my boat and my experience, I advanced into the channel, taking each swell off the port quarter.

When I reached my favorite north-facing cove on Bird Island I took time to watch waves break and slide up the steep gravel. As the lake is being drawn down for winter, I could see that this beach was not a good place to land solo, so I swung right and rode the swells and wind down to the lee of Bare Belly Island. Though this is a small private island, I paused here to rest and eat my Honey Crisp Apple. I would not leave a trace of my presence. Now out of the wind and finished with the workout of crossing the channel, I shed my fleece hat, neoprene mittens, and opened up my dry suit. I waited long enough to come back to equilibrium and took time to look around. A few feet to my right I found a dog collar hanging in a cottonwood tree. Studying its position on the branch, the tag identifying Abby, and five phone numbers if she were ever lost, I realized that this was a memorial to a much-loved dog, a dog that probably liked to swim in the same shallows where I paused to rest. I could easily imagine the mutual affection between this animal and its owners.

Abbytag

In time I resumed my position in the boat and coasted back to the marina, finding that beautiful rhythm that times a paddler’s effort to the assistance provided by waves on a downwind run. About half way across Finley Bay I simply stopped, said to myself, This will be your last paddle of the season; take a moment to feel the lake under you. I lay the paddle across my skirt and felt the enormous pulse of the lake’s body. I took time to acknowledge how my boat supported me through another season of paddles. I paused to notice the larch trees, their color like spilled gold across the mountains, and felt grateful for people who had the foresight to insure that the public has a few places to gain access to this world. Remembering to pause revealed options, made for safe passages and helped me gain a deeper awareness of the lake and the forces that affect it. It felt good to pause before saying goodbye, at least until next spring.

Different Ways of Being: A Meditation on Speed

Different Ways of Being

Different Ways of Being

After I wrote “A Perfect Summer Day” several people thought I may have been too generous toward those who race across the lake r on massively powerful machines. When I wrote more tolerantly than I sometimes feel I must have still been under the salutary influence of the lake. This post is an attempt to articulate more precisely what I feel and think with respect to this contrast, the contrast between the jet ski and the kayak.

First, I want to acknowledge that this is an old conversation, even older than Kenneth Brower’s attempt to address the same problem in his 1978 book The Starship and the Canoe. In this book he reflects on the difference between George Dyson and his astrophysicist father Freeman Dyson. The elder envisions a starship powered by the controlled explosion of nuclear devices while the son dreams of a wooden sea-going canoe. Undoubtedly, the conversation is as old as the day the Spanish introduced horses to the North American continent, or the first automobile rolled down a street, or someone on snowshoes encountered the first snow machine.

I once was asked to baptize two children at another large lake in Montana. The family that invited me to lead this ceremony owned jet skis and offered their use as inducement so I would honor their unusual request to baptize their youngest children in a lake rather than at church. Before the ceremony they convinced me to ride one of their machines. I confess it was really fun to make tight-radius turns, to leap over my own wake, and to speed across the surface at a hair-plastering rate. But after a few minutes I found the experience boring. It did not engage me at depth. I slowed down, motored back to the beach, thanked the family and thought to myself, I’ll never do this again. I did, however, baptize their children.

As someone who paddles a kayak, I notice that not every wave is the same. Some waves seem to have excavated the depths of the lake and carry in their bodies a hidden power. Some waves are like the whorls in a fingerprint; the angles of encounter vary with every stroke into their forms. Waves are not always parallel to each other. If for no other reason than safety, a paddler must pay careful attention to these changes. While paddling I enjoy the sounds of water sliding by the boat or lifting and dropping Bluebird in the interval between crest and trough. When I visit with people around the lake I occasionally hear people say things like, “The lake is alive; it is its own being,” or “We must learn its moods and respect them.” For anyone who is this sensitive to the world, who listens this carefully to the world embodied in the lake, passage through the water in the thrall of these energies and changing temperaments is part of what makes the encounter so varied and valuable.

Flathead-2313

For many people there is more than enough pleasure in speeding over the surface, arriving at a destination quickly, and feeling the wind wash over their skin. I once caught a wave in the open water off Yellow Bay and was propelled at a breathtaking speed. In those moments the boat belonged to the wave not me. I know the appeal of speed. But it seems to me that the difference between the kayak and the jet ski is similar to the difference between a Big Whopper received at a drive-through window and a meal at our dining table when my wife has set it with crystal glasses, candles, and her Pembroke china. It is similar to the difference between a You Tube video of the Wailin’ Jennies and a live concert at the Top Hat on a summer evening in Missoula when the temperature is 96 degrees. The difference between the two approaches to the lake is as great as the difference between driving through the Redwoods at Prairie Creek State Park and walking through them, smelling the duff, feeling the texture of the bark, having one’s face stroked by a little wand of moist and lacy needles.

The problem with technology generally, and the jet ski or powerboat in particular, is that its encounter with the world is shallow. It skims over the surface of experience rather than moves into and through the physical substance of the world. Some things are simply too fast. I often feel this way when I ride my bicycle across campus. Even this pedaled machine is too fast and its relationship to the world too shallow to allow me to adequately greet people I know, to recognize a person from a distance and recall a name as the distance closes. In much the same way, as a craftsman, I realize that one tool is occasionally too fast for a given task and that it is better to slow the process down, to create less momentum and open up more time for the careful consideration of consequences. Sometimes the rasp is better than the router.

One approach to the relationship with the lake requires the rider to listen to the machine; the other approach listens to the body and senses all the subtle but incredibly important changes that take place within it. As I paddle I register when I feel strong, when I am beginning to tire, when I need hydration or food, when the layers of clothing seem just right or need to be adjusted. I pay exquisite attention to every perceptible change in the weather—every shift in wind direction, velocity and cloud formations. In these situations where the pace is slower we read the lake through its effects on the body. In choosing a lower level of technology, a vessel like a kayak, labor and joy are unified and reconciled.

Except in the most extreme situations there is no such thing as being out of gas. In one mode of transportation the cessation of the machine is absolute and the silence that follows it must seem stunning; but in the other case, we are always capable of one more stroke. There are depths of strength in the body and mind that the machine cannot imagine. In these situations, perhaps after several miles of headwind, we find out what we are made of.

After more careful consideration of the problem this is what I think. Some might dismiss the distinction between those who go fast and those who make the passage more slowly as a problem of age. At 64 I should know; but I think the division is much deeper than the separation between young and old. It has to do with one’s whole orientation to the world.

I have seen people speed across the lake and throw their wakes wherever they please without any awareness of their effects on the water and atmosphere, much less a paddler. In the kayak or canoe one’s awareness extends outward to the whole living body of the lake, down into its depths, up into the sky, and during a night paddle, even to the moon and stars. The issue, it seems to me, is how far does consciousness extend. It is becoming clear to me that the character and future of civilization depends on this question and how we answer it.

Jeff at speed

Jeff at speed

Gravel

Today, housebound, I am thinking of gravel. As I paddle around the lake, into its bays and coves, around its islands, I am learning where waves push rounded stones into heaps that are often hard to climb after exiting the boat. Lubricated by waves the stones slip and slide against one another, make it almost impossible to find firm footing, ground that does not give. Trying to ascend these beaches reminds me of the days after someone dies: it feels as if everything is giving way, rolling out from under foot, as if there is no way to rise. Under the lake surface gravel seems almost part of the liquid, not in suspension, but barely more solid than the water itself. I think of one particular beach on an island. One night I pulled my boat high enough so that it would not slip away. In moonlight that rose over The Missions, the night barely less hot than the day, I swam alone, open-eyed over fields of moonlit gravel, pearly light reflecting off the stones.selfcropped

I know a few places where the forces that produce waves and the points that resist them work together to create fans and long fingers of stones. In these places I sometimes lay my paddle across the deck, coast, reach down, and run my fingers through countless loose stones before paddling on.

There are places, more exposed to the worst winter weather, where waves paw the beach, pick up stones and throw them up the beach, into cracks and crevices in logs, into pockets where limbs used to grow, onto shelves in bedrock. It may be hard to imagine the lake throwing stones, but it does.

Early in this process I thought gravel was gray; but I know better now. Gravel is blue and green, red, brown, yellow, and occasionally even black. Gravel is like millions of Impressionist brush strokes, individually distinct, collectively a hue that shifts with the angle of light. I am glad that gravel is not gray in the same way I am grateful that people are not all one color. And as any child knows, water makes stones more colorful, dull in the hand, astonishing in the shallows.

Each stone embodies its own story, descended from its own place, gave itself to the current of the river that brought it into the basin, let itself by pounded, ground, filed-off, perfect at each stage and on its way to becoming sand, glinting sand. Every stone has its own shape, depending on its composition, its ability to resist, its history of protection or exposure. Just like us.BirdGravel

I also think of the sounds gravel makes. It can rattle, as when a few small stones carried into the boat by the corrugations of footwear rattle in the bottom of a dry hull. It can roar as millions of frictioning faces rub against each other in a storm. And gravel beaches can sound hollow—a mystery I still have not solved.

Today I sing a song of praise to all these rounded stones.

Clear At Last

Having put Bluebird away for the season I am already missing life on the water in this fine and fragile craft. It is time to feast on memories. On November 2, 2012, I wrote:

I sense both an opening in my teaching schedule and safe weather in which to paddle. To save a little time in the morning I leave the truck out overnight with the boat tied on the rack. In the morning I load up my duffel bag and some food and pull out of the driveway around 8:30. It is still fairly dark on the last Friday before the end of daylight savings time.
When I crest Evaro hill I leave valley fog behind. The back side of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, however, is shrouded in clouds. After I top the Ravalli hill and head north toward Arlee and St. Ignatius, I see rough-legged hawks on the outermost ends of the crossbeams of the telephone poles. Linemen have placed metal prongs on the arms of the poles to discourage hawks from perching on the middle section. Some of the birds sit atop the pole itself where it isn’t capped with an insulator. Their presence reminds me that winter is on its way. This will certainly be my last paddle of the year.
I return to Walstad to find public access and a place to park. I will always be grateful that John Walstad donated this property to the public in 1956. I find two cars in the lot and two trucks with boat trailers. The Mack Days fishing tournament concludes this weekend. Perhaps a few guys in the tournament have launched from here.

Almost as soon as I get out of the truck I am struck by the quiet, by everything I am not hearing. There is very little traffic on the road. I don’t hear guys chattering on the boat ramp or scouts playing in the lot as they wait their turn to head over to the island. I don’t hear chain saws or jet skis, ATVs or airplanes. Most of the cottonwood, elm, aspen, and willow leaves have fallen on the sidewalk and the beach. Just a few flags hang from the outermost twigs. In the distance larch trees stand out against the blue green background of pine and fir. October’s yellow green has become November’s light orange. I watch a leaf let go. The stem acts as ballast, the plane of the leaf as parachute. The leaf falls face up to the sky, swaying back and forth until it touches the ground.

In addition to the quiet I notice something else. The last time I was on the lake, forest fires had filled the basin with smoke, reducing visibility to less than a mile. I thought I might be able to see better today; but, in fact, I see much better, almost as if cataracts had been removed from my eyes. I am able to pick out details on Wild Horse Island, individual cabins on the south-facing shore, specific trees on the lower slope brought down by last week’s windstorm, even a few buildings in Elmo. Rain has washed the sky clear of smoke, dust, and pollen. I wonder, too, if the air has been cleansed of something less tangible–summer’s frenzy, the frantic quality of people driven to make the most of their weekends. I have never seen such a clear atmosphere. To see this well, to see the lake like this, seems like a good reason to paddle in November.

Today I want to paddle east to the major points on the south shore—White Swan, Matterhorn and Black Points, and down into the bottom of each of the fiords—White Swan, Indian, Whiskey, and Cat Bays. I paddle away from the dock at the fishing access and run parallel to LaBella Lane where Joyce and I got to spend a week three years ago. I remember dinner on a friends’ deck, the old boat sheds with their heavy overhead winches, some of the odd color schemes, the beautiful stone foundation supporting one of the older homes.

Along the way I see yellow, heart-shaped leaves that have been blown into the water from cottonwood trees. They drift in the subtle movements of water and will eventually settle and contribute to lake bottom sediments.

Under cloudy skies the patterns on the water alternate hypnotically between horizontal flashes of silver and a background of dark green or blue, depending on my distance from shore. In her Tinker Creek chapter on “Seeing” Annie Dillard cites Peter Freuchen who describes a kayak sickness that befalls Greenland Eskimos when they paddle in light like this (22). Hypnotic in quality, it can take possession of a paddler’s consciousness until he feels as though he is sinking into a bottomless void, almost as if the world has been inverted, with the sky below and the water overhead. Having recently read this passage, I try out this way of looking at the world. As I yield to this way of seeing, I feel pulled into falling and disorientation, what could become a kind of madness if one did not turn away. I feel it strongly enough that I focus my eyes on shore and a point in the distance. It is not hard to imagine what it would be like to wait too long to re-orient oneself.

I pass between Melita Island and the coast, stay outside Dream and Bootlegger Islands, then drop down into the bottom of White Swan Bay. I see a small beach and an old cabin hidden far back in the trees. I decide to land with the thought of taking a photo of myself in the boat. Paddling mostly alone, I have taken very few such photos. I let the bow touch the beach stones and hop out. I rig up my Gorilla Pod, spread the legs evenly and widely, and place it on the front hatch cover. The camera aims back toward the cockpit with the lake in the background. The arrangement seems top-heavy, so I know I am taking a risk with my camera. Nevertheless, I tell myself that if I move carefully back to the cockpit in the ten seconds I have, this might work. I set the time exposure button and press the trigger. I try to move smoothly back to the cockpit but as soon as I start to sit I cause the boat to lean ever so slightly. I watch the miniature tripod start to tip and the camera topple. I am on my feet in a flash and grab the camera out of an inch of water. I feel sick knowing that I may have ruined my camera and will not be able to take any photos this trip.

Letting the feelings move through me, I recall instructions I have read about wet electronics. Using the paper towel that surrounds my lunchtime apple, I wipe away all the moisture I can. It would be best to place the camera in a bag full of rice, not something I have on hand while kayaking. For now I place the camera back in its case and in the pelican box. When I get back to the truck I will open every compartment, remove the batteries and let the warming fan blow on the camera as I drive back home. If I can make myself wait through the night without trying the camera, maybe it will be all right the next morning. I try my best to waste as little time as possible in self-reproach. It is better simply to learn.

Resigned to the consequences of my mistake, I get back in the boat, secure the skirt, and head out of the bay for White Swan point. I round the point in the company of a line of fisherman hoping to hook the tagged lake trout worth several thousand dollars or the big prize for catching the highest total number of fish. I paddle along the east-facing shore of Indian Bay, remembering a satellite image that showed how the bay narrows almost to a channel at the end. With the water level about three feet lower than summer’s full pool, I see some long narrow fins of rock that stick above the surface. I imagine them as the ridged backs of humpback whales. At the very bottom of the bay I paddle in a few inches of water and hear the trickling sound of a small stream that enters the lake at this location. When I can proceed no further, I back out, turn around and follow the west-facing shore out to the mouth of the bay.

I head out in still-calm conditions to Matterhorn Point and spot the now-familiar red and green Texaco sign on the strong white stanchion bolted to the rock. The lake level is still about seven feet higher than it will be next spring. As a result, the fins of rock north of the point do not protrude above the water, but I sense their presence. Slabs of rock tip down toward the bottom of the lake, high on the west, low to the east. These great tilting slabs are a reminder of the weight of the glaciers that helped to form the lake basin.
Repeating the same pattern, I paddle down the east-facing shore of Cat Bay. This time I look carefully for hints of the presence of Safe Harbor Marsh, a Nature Conservancy Preserve just over the brow of one of the ridges along this shore. Twenty years ago I made a winter visit to the preserve. I remember looking over the ridge from the preserve side and seeing the lake. From the level of the lake, however, it is almost impossible to have a sense of the marsh’s location.

Near the bottom of the fiord I head back into open water, touch my paddle to the outermost rock of Black Point and begin the return journey. I feel tempted to paddle on to Bird Island or Finley Point, but know that this would add at least six miles to my total distance. I know my limits and decide to reverse course. This time I paddle down the west-facing shore and find a beautifully protected cove. It is utterly still. A sailboat, tied to its anchorage, seems as though it will be perfectly safe no matter what weather falls upon it this winter. I land on a small beach exposed now by the lower lake level. I find a place to sit in the silence and eat my lunch. Again I am amazed by everything I am not hearing. No hammer blows, no whining saws, no horseplay echoing from the docks, no deck parties carrying the sound of human voices. Occasionally a raven calls.

Still perfectly comfortable on a day of about 47 degrees, I settle back into my boat and push off from the beach. This time a slight breeze comes to me out of the south and helps me paddle across the open mouth of Cat Bay and quickly back to Matterhorn Point. I wave to fisherman and head for the point at White Swan. I head into a faint breeze blowing now out of the west. Paddling against a little wind the boat suddenly seems lighter, perhaps even faster, as if the little waves break some kind of surface tension that sticks to the boat. The water no longer feels heavy. I head now toward the south shore of Melita Island. I want to pass over the long gravel bar formed by the waves that normally sweep out of the northeast and cause gleaming stones to be deposited in this location. I touch down here, holding my position by sinking my hands in the gravel. I take a moment to catch my breath before the last passage to Walstad. I start to feel tired now and remind myself to use my best technique, not to slouch or let core muscles collapse. I reach for each stroke, let the crown of my shoulders rotate back right and then back left. Soon, the huge houseboat on blue steel pontoons comes into view. I pop the skirt, extract my legs, and coast into the ramp.
I have covered about seventeen or eighteen miles on a perfect November Day. In many ways paddling at this time of the year, provided that I am between weather systems, seems safer than paddling in April or early May. With the lake surface at 50 degrees, and the air at almost the same temperature, I am safer than when the air is warmer and the water at 38 degrees. I hope to paddle again during the quiet days when almost no one else is on the lake and the atmosphere has been washed by autumn’s first storms.

Swell Waves

(August 21 2009)

And you are ever again the wave

Sweeping through all things

(Rilke, Book of Hours, II, 3)

The semester will soon begin. I want to get in another paddle before I am bound to the routine of classes, office hours, and the internal pressure to try to make each class better than the last time I taught it. I also need a way to discharge the anxiety that accumulates in the final days before I meet my students. With all this in mind, I drive up to Finley Point Campground, arriving at about 10 a.m., and park the truck in the main lot because I am not going to camp. To get a feel for the day I walk out to the point, still shaded by the cottonwoods. I find unusual conditions. The wind is blowing out of the southwest rather than summer’s more typical northeast. I turn to my right and notice several people standing on the docks trying to decide whether to take their boats out on the lake. Something about the conditions causes them to hesitate.

I pause and try to assess them for myself: large swells, unlike any I have ever seen on Flathead Lake, roll toward the north. The distance between rounded crests is much greater than when whitecaps fill the fetch. I am relieved to see that the tops of the waves do not break. If waves this size tipped over and broke I would stay on shore and watch, like a surfer who perches on the cliff and does not carry his board down to the beach. When I see that the wave tops are smooth, even in the shallows of Finley Bay, I decide to proceed. I pull out of the little marina and suddenly feel the full force of the wind and the way the big waves slide under me from behind. For a moment I question the decision to launch and consider turning back. But after a few dozen strokes I begin to feel more at ease: these big swells will not swallow me. I concentrate on my breathing and adjust my paddling rhythm to the rise and fall of the swells.  Gradually, the tension leaves my body. After a few minutes I slip into effective and relaxed strokes, riding the remnants of what must have been a great storm.

As I head north I am surprised by my speed. I have never experienced anything like these big, soft swells. It feels good to be moving with rather than against all this energy. If one were inclined toward seasickness, this would not be a good day. I associate this waveform more with the ocean, having seen such waves off the coast of Southern California when I sailed as a young teen with my father. (I later learn from my wife’s uncle—a lifetime ocean sailor, that these are “swell waves”). Though swell waves are normally generated by distant storms on the ocean, I am experiencing the aftermath of a strong late summer storm on the lake. These swells are the remnants of what was once a stormy inland sea.

Carried on the round back of the swells, I quickly pass Horseshoe and Bare Belly Island to the east and notice a large powerboat heading toward an anchorage at the south end of Bird Island. By their quick movements, the people on board seem anxious to get to shore. Perhaps the rolling motion set up by the waves and a rising and falling horizon make seeking solid ground a necessity. I pass them as they wade ashore: they seem visibly relieved to be on land. Still assisted by the waves, I travel up the east shore of Bird Island, round the rocky point on the north end, and enter my favorite bay.

I explore the island on foot, cross through the island to the east shore, struggle over  deadfall, duck limbs and spider webs. Once through the tangle, I finally break into the open and look to the Mission Mountains. I decide to walk the shoreline back to my boat and bay. I hop rocks and wade through shallows. By setting my miniature tripod in the water I take a few pictures to get a water-level view across the bay. By the time I get back to my boat I need to cool off. I tuck my camera back into its waterproof case, climb the rocks and dive off several times, taking a few breast strokes into deeper water before turning around, swimming to shore and doing it again. I let the sun and air dry me as I eat my lunch.

Refreshed now, and seeing that the swells have dropped, I paddle the long open stretch between Bird Island and Matterhorn Point. The old Texaco sign now seems like a tall friend or sentry. I slip between the rocks on the point and shore, rest briefly, then cross back to Black Point. From here I head south to Safety Bay, a deep little fiord that is well named. Finding no place to land for another rest, I keep going, cross the narrow channel to Bull Island, round it and then cross back to Finley Point through The Narrows.

This trip, even through today’s swells, seemed relatively easy for a couple of reasons. I am near the end of a season of paddles. Having paddled as often as I could, I have increased my stamina. Time on the water and conscious effort to improve my forward stroke have helped me cover the day’s distance without feeling tired. This was a perfect 13-14 mile paddle, a mix of open water and close, shoreline details. If this is the last paddle of the season I will feel content. These high season summer days, with mostly clear skies and water that feels fairly warm, seem to pass as swiftly as geese riding the wind.

BirdIsland

Guilty Escape

cedarisland

I feel like I am doing something illicit as I drive away from Missoula on August 21, 2013. The Lolo Complex fire has burned 8500 acres, displaced 200 people from their homes, detoured and inconvenienced thousands more. As I travel west on I-90 I look over my left shoulder and see smoke from the fire drape itself like a five hundred foot thick blanket over the hills south of town. I feel as if I should stay with my fellow citizens, endure what they endure, not slip away to the north for a paddle under clear skies.

By the time I get my first full view of The Missions the sky is clean and blue except for an area high in the Mission Creek drainage where a small fire is allowed to burn in the wilderness. Dropping into Polson I see that a steady breeze from the northeast has turned Polson Bay into a turquoise frappe. Today I want to paddle from Westshore campground down to Cedar Island, round the island, then head back north to Deep Bay for a swim, and return. So, I head through town, check out the fishing access site at Elmo as a launch site for a possible future paddle, then turn off at the campground further north.

After unloading my boat and related gear I stand in the shallows. I want to get a feel for the lake and what it will permit. Modest white caps roll southwest down the length of the lake. I will have to take these waves on the port stern quarter for several miles. As long as the wind does not strengthen and start to blow the tops off the waves, experience tells me that I should be able to paddle back against this energy. It seems safe enough to proceed.

Almost immediately I am in the grip of the wind and the waves. I deploy the skeg for a little directional assistance and added stability. Paddling gives me a chance to brace intermittently, as needed. A few fishermen speed by, their wakes adding to the mix. As is so often the case the waves are particularly unpredictable around Painted Rocks. Once again I won’t be able to take a photograph of the pictographs. Suddenly the island comes into view. I proceed with my plan, speed down the east shore of the island and swing around into the lee. Only an osprey on a snag breaks the quiet. The bird seems incensed that I have intruded upon its morning.

I drift into the rock shelter near the derelict home on the island. I extract my lunch from the hatch and climb the rocks so I can look out on all the water to the north. I find my spot—part sun, part shade, and enjoy my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Below me waves roll the logs trapped against rocks. Blue, green, and yellow mix with each other according to the depth of the water. Everything is airy and bright.

I leave my vantage point feeling refreshed. On my way back to the boat I find a particularly fine goose feather, and pick it up for admiration. Before dropping back into Bluebird I wade out into the water to pick up a glass lemonade bottle that someone tossed away. I stow it in an extra bag in my rear compartment. I don’t want broken glass in these shallows. If I were really responsible, I would also remove the green shirt someone left behind. I am not quite that conscientious. I use my paddle to move it away from the water’s edge and hide it among the drift logs. I hope it will degrade.

I always feel a little anxious as I head out into the wind and wave train that now advances toward me. I remind myself to trust the cumulative effect of thousands of strokes. I glance to my left for reassurance and see that I am indeed moving north in relation to the shore. The day may come when I will not be able to move against these forces, but for now it feels good to apply myself in this way.

After a couple of hours I am at the mouth of Deep Bay but need to adjust my course to make way for the enormous tour boat operated by Far West Cruises. Tourists look shoreward from the canopied upper deck and never see me. I am not sure the captain does either, preoccupied as he is with his narrative about the lake. I feel grateful for the intimacy I have with the lake compared to their far remove.

I haul out in the bottom of the bay, wade back in and take the plunge. This is as warm as the lake will ever be, I tell myself. It feels good to be thoroughly wet, head to toe. On my way back to the campground I stay very close to shore. I pass through the milky water against the cliff, wondering if there is a clay deposit here, and see that in late August the reds and yellows of autumn are beginning to emerge on the dry slope above.

Bathing beauties sun themselves on the gravel where I normally pull out, so I slide up the adjacent concrete boat ramp and am careful to not let Bluebird come to ground against the abrasive surface. As I begin to carry everything back to the truck someone calls out, “Hey, I like your craftsman-style boat rack. Mine is made of two-by-fours and screws. Yours is beautiful.” I am not sure how to respond and can only muster, “Thanks. Yours works as well as mine.” I laugh to myself thinking, my truck rack may be the most-admired thing I ever made.

As I drive back down the west shore of the lake I return to the sense that I stole this day, stole it from school preparation, stole it from my community laboring under the smoke, stole it from the grip of anxiety. As I head south I try to bring along with me today’s experience of ease and pleasure at paddling in clear water under a clear sky. I return bearing treasure.