Preparing to Meet This Wildness, May 2018


Before each season’s first paddle my eagerness to be on the water plays tug of war with the knowledge that I must prepare for it.

As part of this year’s preparation I decided to make a few small repairs to Bluebird. A couple of long scratches on the bottom of the hull needed attention. Years ago I was paddling between Bird Island and Skidoo Bay early in the season. Without realizing that an underwater spine of rock almost connects Finley Point and the island, I passed over the rocks at speed. I still remember the sound as rocks cut a pair of long lines down the bottom of the boat. Then last season I slipped between a friend’s boat and a log because I wanted to assist her with a stubborn spray skirt. When a big wave smacked her upwind side my boat was driven into a protruding branch that cracked the gel coat just above waterline. To solve these problems I bought a repair kit, read about the process, mixed gel and catalyst and filled the wounds. Using equipment from the woodworking shop I sanded with progressively finer grades of sandpaper before polishing the hull. In preparation for the season I also reviewed what I’ve stowed in my emergency dry bag and in my old Maine Guide bag, planning different layers of clothing for different types of weather. Before Thursday’s paddle I made myself take time to prepare a nutritious and calorie-rich lunch as well as two bottles of water, one with electrolytes.

These preparations to paddle put me in the mind of other forms of preparation. If we prepare before launching a kayak, we also prepare to teach, travel, or plant a garden. We prepare before building a home or designing a chair. We prepare for a job interview, a first date, a wedding, and before giving birth to a child. A move to another state requires extensive preparation as we try to meet the challenges of deep change. We prepare internally to hear someone else’s story, before surgery, or that life transition poorly named retirement. As we prepare for life, some people prepare for death. Our preparations put us in a better position to face potential difficulty. As we attempt to make ourselves ready, we lower the wave height of our anxiety.

On May 3, I drove up to Flathead Lake for the first paddle of the season. At the base of the Ravalli Hill I pulled off at the mandatory watercraft inspection station. In the age of aquatic invasive species, stopping for this inspection is a necessary and important part of preparing to paddle. In the deep shade of early morning the inspector’s smiles rose over me like sunrise. I thanked them for their work in keeping Flathead free of zebra and quagga mussels, as well as other imported creatures that would upset the ecology of the lake.

After the right-turn in Polson I learned that Finley Point State Park was closed for major reconstruction, so I continued north to Yellow Bay State Park where I would find access to the water. Here, under the cottonwoods shedding the sticky sheathes of their catkins, I rubbed talcum powder on the latex of my old-style dry suit so that I could slip the neck collar over my head and escape through the diagonal zipper at the end of the day. I spread various items on the bed of my truck so I would not forget something essential. I arranged protection for two cameras so they would not get wet. Then, after loading my boat I paused at the water’s edge. No matter how thorough I am with my other preparations, this is the one that seems most important. I pause to remember that the lake and its weather are infinitely more powerful than I am, that my slender boat makes its tentative and determined way at the mercy of these forces. I pause to remember some of the people I love. I stop at the threshold to give thanks for water so clean and pure that entering it feels sacramental.

I used to think of preparations as an obstacle between me and what I wanted to do—paddle my boat. All the little preparations, from tying down the boat to packing lunch seemed to stand between me and the goal of getting in the water to make beautiful strokes. More than a decade into the late-season life of a paddler I no longer see it this way. All these little acts and duties make paddling safer and free of agitation. In the process we make ready for meeting this wildness over which we glide.

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Beholder and Beheld

May 5, 2017

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting…(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”)

The other day a friend and I drove up the highway along the Bitterroot River on the way to a little spring fishing. We spoke about a question that Jedediah Purdy asked in a recent lecture at the university: “What are people for?” This is an old question, older that Wendell Berry’s book of essays on the subject and at least as old as the opinions of people who wrote early catechisms.

My first paddle of the season points toward an answer to this question.

It was very difficult to leave town. So many things clawed for my attention—concerns about one of my sons, a former student who wanted to tell me about her Senior Project, arrangements with a contractor who will rebuild our falling-down deck, the dandelions, oh, the dandelions. And then I hit the going-to-school and work traffic early on Friday morning; and then the tour bus got a flat tire across from the light adjacent Costco. I thought I’d never get out of town.

But I persisted. The weather predictions offered an acceptable level of risk for a solo paddler in cool conditions. If I got off the water before 4 p.m., I might miss the lightning and the sudden gusts accompanying a cold front. After seven months away from the lake it felt good to step into 40-degree water, to drop into the boat, kick off and glide over the concrete boat ramp and into deep blue.

Trusting the cloudy and calm conditions, I paddled across the strait to Wild Horse Island, humbly remembering what the first few thousand strokes of the season feel like. I paddled up the west shore of the island and noticed what I thought was a single Bighorn sheep on a ledge below the highest red crag. I said to myself, You might be able to hike to the top for a closer look.

 I pulled into Skeeko Bay, the only boat in the bay, and hauled Bluebird above the rising level of the lake. I vented my dry suit to help me cool off and started up the trail, pausing to take photographs of big Ponderosa Pines whose cambium layers had been harvested by first peoples visiting the island. I had promised these photos to an archaeologist friend. A winter with ample moisture and now spring rains made the island soft and lush. I found shooting stars all across the forest floor while everything else seemed about to bloom—arrow-leaf balsamroot, some variety of mustard, death camas, lilies, and all the other flowers whose names I seem to forget from one season to the next.

I made my own switchbacks up the steep slope toward the red crag, trying to imagine where the Bighorn might be on the other side of the peak. When I was two strides short of the crest, she suddenly bolted, alarmed either by the vibrations of my soft footsteps through the ground or perhaps my scent. I could only get a glimpse of her back as she fled from me. I took the last two steps more slowly and began to scan the slopes and gullies below me. In only a few seconds she had descended a couple of hundred yards down the steep slope toward the lake. Now, though, I saw a newborn lamb velcroed to her side. The ewe had chosen an incredibly remote and almost inaccessible ledge to give birth to and then protect her lamb. Alarmed, she had retreated to another ledge beyond the range of my basic camera. I simply stood and watched. Besides, as I later discovered, a smudge of sunscreen on the lens compromised all my pictures: I would have to remember what I saw. A couple of wads of shed hair were the only sign of the sheep’s presence on the ledge.

Content with having found the sheep that I first spied from the water, I turned back toward the bay. Simultaneously, an eagle and a pair of geese crossed over the island’s saddle but from opposite directions, the geese just under the eagle. At my feet lay countless mosses and flowers still waiting for that perfect combination of light and warmth to unfold.

As the only person on a 2,100-acre island at least one answer to the old question seemed clear. I felt a duty to behold, to behold each creature in its struggle for existence, and to behold all the living systems that support the living while recycling the dead. We are here to notice the fire scar and the blooming flower, the shotgun shell case and a downy feather on the beach.

Continuing to trust the conditions, I returned to my boat and resumed my paddle. At first I thought I would only paddle to the northern-most tip of the island; but when it seemed I would be allowed more, I continued around the island, down the east side and through the gap past Melita Island. In Osprey cove I found a mature bald eagle in a snag, the brilliant white head and tail giving it away on a cloudy day. Watching the bird, and hoping not to startle it into flight, I realized that we are also the beheld, the rest of creation beholding us to see how we do on the land and water we share.

Lost in Geese

On Friday, May 15, 2015, I officially retired from The University of Montana. This decision gives me more time to wander around the world in a state of amazement. Going out the front door to retrieve the mail can lead to astonishment, but when the mid-week weather looked promising I drove up to Flathead Lake to paddle my kayak, sleep in a tent, and rise at May’s early dawn to paddle again.

I spent the first afternoon exploring The Narrows. I circled islands, entered and paddled to the backs of long, deep bays left by the glacier’s retreat, and passed through the tunnel leading to Stone Quarry Bay. The evening invited even more paddling. After days of wind the lake was finally calm. Remnants of clouds created the perfect conditions for a striking sunset, and I would have enjoyed paddling with my next-door neighbors in the campground who chose to paddle slowly through the waning light. In the end I decided to sit in my camp chair, read poems by Marge Piercy, and let the changing colors on the textured water remind me of Impressionist paintings.

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During the night I heard small waves collapsing on the shore. So when I crawled out of my tent at 5:45 I was not surprised to feel a steady breeze coming from the northeast. I have learned that waves on the lake grow not only in proportion to the wind, but according to how long the wind blows and over what distance. So, I drank from my blue water bottle, skipped breakfast and stepped into my skirt. I crossed Finley Bay easily as it is protected from most of the wind by the long peninsula of Finley Point. But as soon as I rounded the knob to the north I encountered the full force of the wind and waves. When I was in the trough between waves some of the approaching crests stood at eye-level. I pressed on toward Bird Island, my goal for the morning. As I paddled parallel to the island’s west-facing shore, passed the island’s northern tip, and made a 180 degree turn, the waves required my undivided attention; I did not even consider reaching for my camera or pulling into my favorite bay on the island. I feared getting trapped and pounded between the waves and the steep gravel shore. When it came time to make the turn, I waited for an interval between waves, made a hard fast sweep, turned south in the island’s lee and began to ride the backs of the waves toward home.

Even my silent approach set off alarms among the geese on the island. In relative privacy they nest, lay eggs, and hatch their goslings on this sanctuary. As I slipped by, geese stood erect on the black blocks of argillite, their breasts extended into the morning sun. In time pairs and small flocks of geese launched and flew in circles overhead. After the adults lifted off, younger birds, seemingly torn between their island home and their desire to be with their kin, called out in distress. When the distance between themselves and their family members felt intolerable they leapt from the rocks, beat their broad brown wings and slapped flat feet against the water until they were able to join their elders in a circle around my passing. A few family groups came together into an organized flock and flew, as a friend says, as a single organism. As thrilling as it was to paddle through the morning waves, taking water down my collar, I felt elevated, even lifted out of my boat, by everything happening in the air and light. I could feel the elastic bands of belonging between and among birds, their attachment to each other and the island. It was as if I had entered a web of light and flight. My ears filled with the sound of wind, breaking waves, and calling geese, my eyes with the strokes of these powerful birds. I sat for my morning feast of amazement.

Dandelion Day: First Paddle of 2015

I hope I’m wrong, but I have a sense that this summer may be hot and dry with all the consequences we’ve come to expect. The best paddling this season might be in May or June rather than later in the year. When the forecast for a Tuesday in late April predicted 75 degrees and waves less than a foot tall, I decided to ignore the laundry, dandelions in the front yard and my need for a haircut, as well as a few more serious responsibilities.

IMG_2482After winter, even a mild one by Montana standards, I need reassurance that life at 47 degrees latitude shows signs of rejuvenation. On a scale larger than my back yard or the slope leading down to the stream I want to see evidence of the generative and recuperative power of the earth. I want to see arrowleaf balsamroot in bud and bloom, a bee bathing in pollen, shooting stars in moist and shady locations, evidence that deer dropped the antlers they displayed last summer and fall. I want to see white syringa on the slopes, blooming stems on orchard trees, lambs and calves in the pastures on the way to the lake. I want to sea bald eagles where I have found them before, osprey cutting out territory in the sky, meadowlarks among the meadows and pileated woodpeckers hacking out cavities in old pines. I want to see signs of life where I remember them. I count on this confirmation.

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I decide to paddle to Wild Horse Island and circumnavigate it counterclockwise. I make my first stop at Eagle cove, and then hike into the interior of the island from Osprey Cove, eating a lunch of anchovies in lemon-flavored olive oil on sourdough bread. I see the things I am looking for, earlier than normal in this warm dry year. They rise out of the ground, make the most of the light, the little moisture that has fallen, and honor their one opportunity to reproduce.

IMG_2481 It felt good to slip into the water like Rilke’s swan, to feel the boat glide in response to each stroke, and to come home as thoroughly and satisfyingly tired as the first paddle of the season leaves me. I can report that the world is vividly alive.

Because things are deeply and inescapably connected for me, something else is true. On the same day I left home to paddle a pristine lake, people in Nepal were still trying to dig family members and friends out of the ruins. People in the neighborhood of burned out buildings in Baltimore were sweeping the streets and hiding or discarding weapons used to express outrage and frustration with a system that kills unarmed men of African American descent. Wherever we are, in the Himalayas, or Baltimore, we want to see signs of life and some people do their part to establish the conditions for it to re-emerge. The least I can do with my privilege of being able to paddle toward an Island in bloom is to remember other lives.

Paddling Lessons, Part IV: Pinesmoke

This post is the last in a four-part series. In these posts I remind myself and other Flathead Lake paddlers about some of the risks and rewards of early season paddling.

In early June of 2010, on a cool but clear morning, I drove up to the Walstad fishing access with the thought of paddling to Wild Horse Island to see what flowers were in bloom. On this day I saw something I had never seen before. The memory of this experience reminds me to keep venturing into the world of early season paddling.

Again from the logbook:

This early in the season there are only a few trucks and boat trailers in the parking lot. I take a minute to walk out on the dock and assess conditions on the lake before setting Bluebird in the water. The jet stream flows in a straight line from the southwest—unlike the mid-summer norm. Wind from this direction means I’ll have a quartering tail wind and corresponding waves as I cross to Wild Horse Island. I adjust myself mentally to what it will feel like to be pushed from the stern quarter. I slip Bluebird into the water and settle myself, feeling for a low center of gravity before advancing into the waves that create an awkward rolling motion. Assisted, even if awkwardly by waves I cannot see, I make the crossing quickly and soon slide above the tumbled ramp of island shallows. I round the island’s tail and drop into Skeeko bay.

I love to hike on the island at this time of the year, so I haul Bluebird out of the water and roll the boat over in the shade of one of the big pines. I tuck my wetsuit, pfd, and booties in the cave of the cockpit and switch to more comfortable clothes and footgear for the hike. Before starting up the trail to the isthmus I check the State Park log. I discover, somewhat to my surprise, that no one has recorded an earlier visit to the island this year. Looking forward to whatever I may discover, I hike up the ridge, down into the canyon between peaks and then back up to the top of the middle peak. As memories are attached to places, I recall that this saddle between peaks was important to friends who died in a January crossing of the strait. I come to pay my respects to other people who loved this island.

I move quickly and fairly quietly through the soft bunch grasses and the windblown pine needles. It feels good to walk on the moist, almost spongy ground, so unlike the conditions in August or September. Below me to the right I spot five big deer and a red-tail hawk. From this high vantage point I take time to look at everything around me, searching for movement and anomalies. Taking time to look before moving, I find Bighorn sheep in the distance. They are bedded down in the trees. On a scabby, west-facing slope I find dozens of Bitterroot, blazing out of the windblown gravel like pink stars. It feels as if springtime is rising out of the ground and into my legs.

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Pleased with everything I see, I drop back into the canyon then pant up to the west peak. Before skipping down to the bay I take time to look south. From this last high point I see something that startles me. It looks as though the forest is on fire. Thick clouds of smoke rise up out of the trees and billow away in the wind. The smoke is thick enough to cast running shadows over the forest and grasslands below. Remembering the Mann Gulch fire and the fifteen men who got caught in an upslope conflagration, I don’t want to be caught in a similar situation. Needing a good decision, I study the scene below. It eventually dawns on me that the smoke is the wrong color—yellow not brown or gray. I suddenly realize that the wind is blowing pollen from the pine trees not smoke. Pollen streams from the trees in enormous yellow plumes that look like smoke. This explains why I saw so much pollen on the water while in mid channel. All is well. From an ecological perspective the timing of the wind and the release of powdery pollen have met each other perfectly. Astonished by the conjunction of such things, I continue my descent more amazed than afraid.

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Back at the beach I change clothes again, tuck myself back into Bluebird and slide into the bay. During the hike I consumed all the water I brought. I sweep away a fan of pollen beside me and dip my blue bottle into the lake. I raise it and take a big, long drink, leaving just a little for when I land again at Walstad. Refreshed, even if on my way to gastric distress that shows up later (I should have filtered the water), I turn out of the shelter of the bay and paddle down the west shore of the island. Now I face into the same quartering headwind that helped me fly to the island earlier in the day. I settle into an even pace, having learned not to hurry the process in an attempt to get out of the wind. It is enough to take one strong firm stroke and then the next, to let my body roll slightly with the boat’s roll rather than fight the motion. I try to let the energy pass through me rather than oppose it as if it were an enemy. I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s approach to resistance. In Mitchell’s translation of Chapter #30 the old man says:

For every force there is a counterforce.

Violence, even well intentioned

Always rebounds upon itself (#30).

Trying not to rely on force, I paddle on, accept rather than resist the quartering seas off the starboard side.

As near as I can tell, I was the only person on Wild Horse Island today, the only person to see billows of pollen so dense that they cast shadows over the undulating slopes. Though the weather at this time of the year is volatile and the water still cold, I am grateful for a chance encounter with the perfect timing of the living world.

Paddling Lessons, Part III: Under Fire

Paddling Lessons, Part III: Under Fire

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In June of 2009 my wife and I had an opportunity to spend a week at Flathead Lake. A friend had rented a cabin near Big Arm but needed to travel elsewhere for one of her four weeks. She offered us a chance to sublet the little cabin. On Tuesday of our week at the lake the weather seemed to be building toward afternoon thunderstorms. Despite the uncertain weather I launched my kayak with the intent of exploring the north-facing shore between Big Arm and Black Point. In the process I learned another lesson.

In my logbook I find the following account:

After breakfast I slide the boat off the lawn and head east along the shoreline. I take my time and explore each of the bays—where the Episcopal Church’s Camp Marshall will soon become a hub of playful activity, White Swan Bay, Indian Cove, the narrow slots of Whiskey Cove and Brindstone Harbor, then back out to Cat Bay. Along the way I pass a couple of boys daring each other to jump or dive off a dock into the still-cold water. They are as happy in the growing light and warmth as I am. At Black Point I turn around and begin the return journey. In the distance I see two thunderclouds beginning to build above Cromwell Island to the west. I recognize the potential danger of being caught out in the open. Clearly, I must race to safety before these clouds tower over me and electrify the lake.

I start back downwind and down wave. I ride the energy being drawn into the rising towers of the approaching storms. Ahead of me the two mushroom clouds begin to pour water and lightning down their thick grey stems, one onto Cromwell to the northwest, the other into the warm shallows of Big Arm Bay. Under the crash of thunder and the accompanying flash I feel terribly exposed. I am like a little black wick before an approaching flame. Too invested in my current direction to turn back, and knowing no one along the shore where I might ask for temporary shelter, I paddle on and hope to reach Melita Island before the lightning reaches me. As the fireworks continue further west, powerboats scatter like schools of fish. I sprint up the back of a wave until it catches my boat and launches it down the face, speeding me toward what I hope will be the shelter of trees and a little lee. I ride the storm’s energy toward its source.

When I start around the north side of the island a downdraft from one of the clouds drops out of the sky. All at once the wind reverses direction, blows the tops off the waves, and soaks me in spray. I laugh out loud and instantly see that I can’t go this way around the island. Forced to circle back I cling to the shore on my right. I reach Driftwood Point where flotsam and ducks pile up on in calmer water. I peek around the corner to see if I can paddle the last mile home. I want to get out of the red eye of the weather so I sprint to close the distance between the island and the shore, make a left turn into the area beside the dock, slide the boat out of the water, dash across the lawn, take the steps two at a time, and duck breathless under the porch.

From the safety of the deck and its overhanging roof I watch the storms continue to advance toward The Missions. The light changes. It casts a yellow-green hue on the ridges between peaks, throws a full rainbow over the lower lake to the south and produces orange, backlit clouds that appear to have been tumbled. It occurs to me that even when we are not on the water we live our lives caught between the rainbow and the lime-colored light, between the lightning and the dock, between fire and water. On this paddle I took a chance, placed myself in and under all the energy that poured out of the sky. I might have paid a high price; next time I will be more cautious. On this day I was too far out on the end of a long branch.

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Paddling Lessons, II: Learning to Yield

(May, 2008)

When two great forces oppose each other,

The victory will go

To the one that knows how to yield (Tao 69)

A few years ago my brother and I arranged to paddle together on the first anniversary of our mother’s death. She had been a difficult person in our lives, chronically ill and prone to trying to trying to control her sons. By paddling together on this anniversary my brother and I would celebrate our good health and freedom, two riches she never enjoyed. One day in May my brother drove to Montana from Seattle. The next day we drove together up to Flathead Lake. At this time of the year it was not hard to find a campsite at Big Arm State Park, so we erected his old Sierra Designs Starlight close to the beach. We spent the late afternoon and long evening paddling around Cromwell and Wild Horse islands.

During the night the weather changed. From inside the tent we heard wind in the trees and waves breaking on the shore next to us. In the morning we crawled out to find the wild conditions that made for a restless night. As we stood on the shore wind bore through the strait between Wild Horse and Melita Islands, turning the blues and greens into a froth of white. We knew it would not be a good day to paddle in an area receiving the full brunt of the wind. Hoping for calmer conditions elsewhere, we decided to drive up to Westshore Campground.

Conditions at Westshore were much the same. Determined but with trepidation, we launched at the boat ramp and paddled south—downwind and down wave, hoping to reach Cedar Island about four miles away. On the way conditions become even more severe. The wind blew harder and the waves became more ominous. We drew closer to shore in case we got into trouble. By the time we reached the Douglas Islands we knew it was not wise to continue; the further south we went the more difficult the return trip would be. The water opposite the cliffs at Painted Rocks would have been chaotic and dangerous.

In the narrow channel between shore and Mary B Island we turned around. In the lee of the little island we hopped out of our boats, stood in the shallows and rested. We kept our boats from blowing away by holding onto the combing around each cockpit. We took a few minutes to reconcile ourselves to the work ahead of us; returning to Westshore would be exhausting, a hard beat against the wind. Resigned to the inevitable we resumed positions. Choosing safety over further adventure, we headed north against waves that broke over our decks and swept up and around our skirts. Waves swallowed the upwind arm when we reached for a stroke on the starboard side and ate the downwind arm as they rolled under us. Looking north we saw wind gusts rattle the surface of the lake and then flail us. It took our best effort to make any progress. Someone observing our struggle from his deck shouted at us, but neither of us could afford to pause between strokes, turn to the side, or respond. We never knew whether he was shouting encouragement, offering us a chance to come ashore and rest, or whether he was cursing us for being on the lake. Each wave required our complete attention. Photographs were out of the question. Using my ears I kept track of Jeff just off my stern on the port side. We saved words for later but listened to the sound of each boat meeting the train of waves. Hoping that the peninsula above West Shore would break the wind for us, we dropped into the crescent of Goose Bay and circumscribed its perimeter.

When the dock at Westshore finally came into view we felt a great sense of relief. Three miles of this kind of paddling had been enough. We pulled in next to the dock wanting to avoid having our boats smashed on the rocks adjacent to the ramp. But even as we stood on the dock, waves blew through gaps in the planks and shot into the air. A gust of wind caught Jeff’s paddle and nearly blew it off the dock into the bay. He caught it with a toe. Barely able to control the boats when we lifted them into the wind, we secured them to Jeff’s rack and climbed into his Forrester. Inside the shelter of the car we felt the buffeting of the wind and gave thanks to be out of it. In the warmth of the car we noticed maple leaves beginning to unfold. We began to relax.

As hard as the return trip was for us, Jeff and I learned our own limits and the maximum conditions we can face in our boats. We learned that sometimes it is necessary to abandon a goal, no matter how desirable it seems. In the face of forces far greater than our own strength and determination it was prudent to yield and turn back.

After this day, as much as I love to paddle, I can imagine choosing not to paddle. There are days when morning wind whips the willows and causes big pines along the shore to sway. On stormy days light and shadow shift continuously and each leaf or needle or wave crest becomes a chip in the mosaic of light. On such days I must be able to imagine sitting inside, relieved that I am not contending with waves that break over the bow or lift the boat from behind and spiral it down into deepening troughs. There are days for tea in the tent.