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.


Guilty Escape


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.