This Vastness

It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control.

            Olivia Laing, To the River

 On June 6, 2018, between a late picnic and dinner, I paddled from Finley Point State Park to Yellow Bay State Park, about ten miles northeast as a kayak tracks. On the way I stopped briefly at Bird Island for a drink of water. When I left the island I suddenly felt the gap between the island behind me and the east shore of Flathead Lake about three miles to my right. Until then the peninsula and the island had been protecting me from this awareness. As I concentrated on smooth, rhythmic strokes, a phrase kept floating through my mind—this vastness. I felt the expanse between kayak and shore, the column of height and depth between lake level and the peaks of the Mission and Swan ranges above me, the distance between where I launched and where I hoped to arrive. In the process I kept picturing my kayak from above. This had happened once before, years ago, when I paddled from Finley to Wild Horse. From a vantage point outside myself the kayak seemed like little more than a pine needle on an infinite sea, a blade of grass afloat on a flood. Ever since this experience I’ve been pondering the mid-paddle mantra that came to me in the course of this trip.

It is sometimes a challenge to be where one is, however far from shore. Faced with vastness one can become anxious. It is easy to feel an internal pressure to shorten the gap and close the distance, while peaceful acceptance of vastness calms the mind. Trying to be where I was, far from shore, it occurred to me that in the West we are often given an opportunity to see ourselves in scale as we move through the vastness around us. The mind flies toward the heights and reaches out across the water or the plains. In the process we come to see ourselves as a tiny body of being surrounded by distances not frequently experienced in the confines of urban environments. Before the depths of sky and all the miles in view we see ourselves in perspective. Especially in a kayak there is little danger of overestimating one’s power and influence in the face of such landscapes. We are little more than a speck, even if a conscious one.

When I finally popped the skirt, extracted my legs, and pivoted over the combing for a soft landing on the rounded stones of shore, I felt grateful for the chance to move through the vastness that remains the context and measure of all human things.

 

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Report from the Island, May 18-19

The forecast was not good—wind out of the northeast at 15 miles-per-hour with gusts to 30, rain, and waves 1-2 feet. Water temperature 39 degrees. I was tired of pulling dandelions so I went paddling. In a year of record snowfall and now epic flooding I knew the island would be green. It would be worth the effort to cross from Big Arm to Wild Horse.

 

When I pulled into my campsite conditions were dismal. I waited for a lull before setting up my tent. The only flat ground was next to the fire pit. It was a good thing I don’t make fires.

From time to time I checked my latest weather app until I had a sense of the pulse of the storms. In the diastole I pulled on my neoprene top and dry suit. I slid Bluebird into the gray water and pulled for the island. It felt good to sink into the headwinds. When gusts approached I ducked and made low angle strokes. In the lulls I returned to more efficient high angle strokes. Two hours later I pulled my kayak over some logs and secured it in the arms of driftwood. Arrow leaf balsamroot covered the hillsides. Walking through the clusters felt like wading through leather. In the interstices lupine, harebells, biscuit root and vetch reached for their share of the light. Climbing the first slope I came across patches of death camas, false asphodel and starflower. On the rocky crest I watched a pair of young eagles make intersecting gyres or hold positions in the wind with only the slightest movement of individual feathers. Knowing my interval would not last I waded back down the hill and let the rolling chop push me back to camp.

Joyce’s Yucatan soup, heated in my WhisperLite stove, and tortillas warmed on the lid of the pot never tasted so good. I was in my bag by 9 p.m.

The next morning was gray but not raining. The wind had not had time to build waves so I did it again, this time paddling around the corner of the island and into Skeeko Bay. After signing in at the register and seeing that I was only the second kayak to make it to the island this year, I walked the trail to the saddle with, as Andrew Marvell says, a green thought in a green shade. I continued up the east-west ridge and watched the bronze backs of retreating turkeys. They walk uphill faster than I do. Seeing the birds helped explain the broken feather I had found the day before. Peaking over the ridge I spotted four Bighorn rams lounging in the balsamroot. On a rocky nob where I know to look for bitterroot I found the flowers. This early in the season they were all promise and no bloom.

 

 

 

 

Satisfied that I had again made a deep connection to the island I started back down. On the way I heard a low growling off to my right. As I turned my head I caught a glimpse of a red fox in full plumage leaping between the flowers, unhappy that I had disturbed his proprietary rights to the island. Further down the trail I saw where the fox had excavated a vole, exposing the now-dry root and source of the flowers. Gliding down through the trees it seemed this island belongs to its non-human creatures first of all. They take as much pleasure as we do in all the life brought into the open by rain and light. They have first rights to the air and its breezes, the flowers and their variations.

Back on the beach and while climbing back into my yellow ziplock of a dry suit I noticed a group of paddlers crossing over to the island from Dayton. After they landed I walked over to greet them, a pair of guides with a new paddling business and two clients. They, too, had come to see the island in its green splendor. In Montana after a year of fire, snow and flood, this place felt like our Sistine ceiling, our Louvre, our MOMA. It was ours to visit but not remain.

 

 

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.

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.