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.


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.


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


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.


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.



Paddling Lessons, Part I

The sun is beginning to rise through the firs a little further north each morning, even when dawn begins at fourteen degrees. I cannot help but think about paddling, even if the boat won’t go in the water for another couple of months. I turn the pages of the logbook and find a few things I want to remember as I prepare for another season. I don’t want my enthusiasm to get ahead of my experience. I want to recall a few paddling lessons.

I think back, for example, to a paddle I made three years ago in the first week of April. Wanting to become more familiar with the east shore of the lake I drove up to Yellow Bay. I pulled into the campground, named for the yellow rock on the north side of the bay, an Algonkian substrata, a Precambrian formation that also appears in Glacier National Park. I walked down to the beach, its broad fan exposed now because each winter the lake is drawn down to accommodate runoff from surrounding mountains. As I approached the water I spotted small, transparent plates of ice floating in the bay, the mica of ice. They made a tink, tink sound when I stirred them with my paddle. Despite the cold and a little breeze out of the northeast I decided to launch. When I stepped into the lake with my boat the water burned through my neoprene booties. Cold that feels like fire made me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”:

…The water seems suspended

above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones…

If you would dip your hand in,

Your wrist would ache immediately,

Your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn

As if the water were a transmutation of fire

That feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

The cold also brought to mind a diagram Tom Bansak gave me one day when I stopped by the Flathead Lake Biological Station. At these temperatures a person in the water would lose consciousness in between fifteen and thirty minutes; death quickly follows. One reminder was poetic, the other medical and sobering.

Despite this warning I felt called into the bay by sunshine and Bird Island in the distance. A slightly darker blue in a world of blue, the island rode the pale water about six miles to the south. At the start of the paddle I stroked through the strain of muscles that hadn’t been used in this way for several months. Push-ups and pull-ups alone did not maintain the muscles needed for paddling. I passed out of Yellow Bay and into the deepest part of the lake, about 370 feet at this time of the year. There were no other boats in sight, despite the clear skies. I reminded myself, If you have difficulty, you are on your own. I tried for smooth movements, not wanting to catch a blade. I settled into the rhythm.

As I approached the island I saw five pairs of unhappy geese. The island had been theirs until I showed up. Having found broken shells during summer visits to the island I knew they had nests hidden in the forest. I felt torn. On the one hand I really needed to land, to rest a moment in the sun and the lee, and on the other hand I knew I should leave the island to the geese. They became even more agitated as I pulled into the cove that I barely recognized despite dozens of summer visits. In April the large blocks of stone that frame the cove and the steep ramp of cobbles that form the beach were exposed. At this lower lake level the cove seemed much smaller than it did at summer’s full pool.


Knowing that I would disturb the birds, but acceding to my own needs, I landed on the island as quietly and gently as possible. I ate my lunch in a modest patch of sunlight on a rock as far from where the birds nested as possible. After eating I stretched briefly. Meanwhile, the geese paddled back and forth across the cove, anxious for me to leave. After a few minutes on shore I returned to Bluebird and passed the geese without making direct eye contact. About a hundred yards out I braced, turned around and saw that they had moved back into the cove behind me.

In the clear, cold air I could see my reverse destination and stroked for Yellow Bay. I pulled into the bay a couple of hours later, avoiding a fisherman lobbing lead and bait into the water. After landing I carried a few pieces of gear up to the truck. In the shade, maintained by the shadow of the truck, I saw that frost had still not melted.

On the drive home I reflected on the risks and rewards of early-season paddling. The danger of the cold had been obvious to me. But in paddling on such a day I had been drawn to two great wonders—the beautiful rhythm of paddling, the reach, pull and sweep, and the way the body’s core traces an invisible infinity symbol with each stroke. But I had also craved the expanse of the lake and evidence that life was beginning to emerge after a winter indoors. On reflection I realized that I should have left the island to the birds. This early in the season I should have stayed closer to shore; it would have been enough to play on the line between mountain shadows cast over the water and the great fields of light.

Overnight Solo

(June 9, 2014)


I had almost forgotten. Packing for an overnight paddle is a lot of work. Even though I take the simplest approach possible, especially with respect to food, I have to make a list of essential items. I cannot afford to forget anything. I begin to wonder whether such a trip is worth the effort. It would be easy to succumb to inertia. The lawn needs mowing. Weeds grow faster than I can pull them. I haven’t finished all the preparations for my fall course at the university. Several projects wait for my attention in the shop. I can think of dozens of reasons to stay at home. Yet, something calls to me.

I drive north through the light traffic of a Monday afternoon in early June and park at the Walstad access point, deciding to enter the lake via the little bay south of the parking lot and boat ramp. I want this area’s soft ground under my boat when I load it with gear. On the beach protected by a screen of willows I change into my dry suit. The lake is rough and the water is still too cold for a spill. I then reverse the morning’s process of packing the truck by taking everything out and loading it in suitable hatches, saving the day hatch for my camera, keys, cell phone for emergencies, an extra water bottle and a rescue rope.

On the way to the island I ride the back of the green dragon. It is not often that I have a tail wind, but this time wind and waves push the stern port quarter. I make the yaw of the boat less disconcerting by deploying the skeg and enjoy the rush and hiss of waves passing under me. I quickly reach the strait between Wild Horse and Cromwell Islands, advance through the channel, then set my sights on Cedar Island to the northeast. I cover the nine miles in relatively short order, round the island’s south tip and begin to paddle slowly up the east side searching for a place to land. Several spots seem promising but many are barred by fallen logs driven ashore by winter storms. I select one with a gradual slope and good access to the forest.


I haul out, choosing to skid Bluebird over the backs of two large pieces of polished driftwood rather than lift the loaded boat. I unpack everything I stowed and set up camp. I choose not to erect the tent, relatively confident about the weather and wanting to sleep in the open. (I will later regret this decision when carpenter ants come to visit and force me to erect the tent after midnight). In the course of the evening I explore the island and gradually make sense of some of the island’s history. Intact sections of a wire fence remind me that in years past the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used the island’s interior to corral bighorn sheep brought over from Wild Horse. The once grand bungalow on the north end of the island has become an easel for painted graffiti. Where cedar shingles have not been ripped off to start fires people have written their philosophies, proclaimed their love, declaimed themselves, cited scripture, sprayed wild mages. On the south side of the house tall lilacs, a symbol for domestic life, still bloom. In the shady forest interior behind the house the limestone root cellar recently provided shelter for nesting geese. Down covers the floor just inside the entrance, the door ripped from its hinges when the lock would not yield to someone’s curiosity or inclination to steal. In the course of the evening I play hide and seek with a doe that must have swum over from the mainland. On the edge of the meadow I spot a buck in velvet without him spotting me.

Cedargoose Back at camp I watch the effects of sunset to the west on the Mission Mountains and Swan Range to the east. Near dark I let myself down into my own down and begin to let sleep take me like a wave. I am suddenly roused, however, by an advancing sound. I look up just in time to see a bald eagle pass low over me. I do not so much hear the big pumping wings as feel the effect of the airflow. I have never been so close to an eagle as to feel the movement of the air it displaces.

I fall asleep to the image of the eagle passing over me but wake several times to sweep ants away. I don’t sleep well until after I erect the tent. Dawn arrives like a cymbal crash and I wake with a start. Before the atmosphere warms little puffs of clouds pass over the ranges to the east and disappear into the light. I make hot water for tea on my almost fifty-year-old Primus stove, amazed by its simplicity and efficiency; this must be the least technical stove still in use. After granola and raisins I repack my simple camp, re-stow the gear and circle the island counterclockwise. I pass into the cool shadow cast by the island over the strait between Cedar Island and Shelter Island with its incongruous castle. As I pass the imposing structure I think, at least the builder had sense enough to place the breakfast table in the morning light.

Crossing the open water again I set my sights on a small cove on the north side of Wild Horse. I am alone on the lake, stroking my way through distance and time.

I eventually come into the shelter of this shallow arc of land, one of my favorite places on earth. As I pull the boat out of waves’ reach I see that someone before me erected a simple marker by placing a large feather upright in the gravel: a fitting way to honor the bird and the beach.

As I explore this part of the island I am pleased that unusually dry conditions for May and early June have not kept flowers from blooming and lush grass from growing in the swales. I take a moment to study the complex interior of a sago lily,


the intensely pink blooms of bitterroot flowers sprawled improbably over a rocky spine,


and some kind of ceremonial site set in a circle of stones and cones. Curious, I lift the central stone for clues. Only a little mold remains to commemorate a life or whatever led someone to create this modest circle of remembrance. After climbing the first ridge I drop into deep forest and hear a whinny: the wild horses are nearby and have detected my scent. I stand behind a large Ponderosa and wait. I see the lead mare come into the open. When she sees the lush grass she breaks into a gallop and her four companions, including the now-full-grown horse born on the island, race after her. They bend to the grass, switching their tails in what must be a sign of pleasure. I do not cross into the Special Resource Zone, obeying the sign that asks people to leave the area as a sanctuary for island animals until at least July 15. I am content to stand on the boundary watching the horses.


I retrace my steps through the timber, over the ridge, and down to the beach. I tuck myself in and paddle the last miles home.

On the drive back to Missoula I review my decision to make this trip. If I had not left some things unfinished; if I had let inertia or a nagging sense of responsibility stop me in my tracks; if I had pulled back from the thoughtful packing of gear I would have missed the pulse of eagle wings at dusk. On the second morning I would have missed the calliope hummingbird attracted to my bright red paddle jacket, mistaking me for the largest hibiscus on record. I would have missed the architecture of the sago, the scent of spent balsamroot, the ghost of a goose in the broken shell it left behind, and the way morning shadows flowed over the island like a watercolor brush loaded with water and pigment.

Sometimes it is worth the effort to leave home, to take a few essentials on the way to experiences one might be able to imagine but not receive without pulling away from the gravity of responsibility and the drag of routine. It was good to let the islands and the lake pull at me and to respond with my consent.

May Miniatures


…And these Things,

which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,

they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all..

(Rilke, The Ninth Elegy)

If one is prepared for the paradox of cold water and warming air temperatures, paddling in May can be a joy. Though the lake level is rising as the rivers pour runoff into the basin, some of the public boat ramps and access points don’t provide enough clearance for powerboats to launch safely. As a result, far fewer boats churn the lake surface, especially before Memorial Day. If a paddler catches an interval of high atmospheric pressure between spring’s wind events, one can paddle great distances in relative calm. At such times the lake feels open for exploration.


I recently took advantage of one of these opportunities and paddled through The Narrows and up to Wild Horse Island. Starting from the campground at Finley Point I landed at Osprey Cove. As I approached the cove I heard calls of distress from the osprey in the snag at the north end of the cove. Wanting to cause as little upset as possible, I hugged the rocks at the south end of the cove and hauled Bluebird up the steps of the adjacent gravel ramp then opened up my dry suit to cool off. Curiosity soon got the better of me and I began to explore the cracks in the big blocks of stone that armor the edge of the cove. Even these unlikely places host blooming plants and mosses. Soon I began to hike up the steeply wooded slope above the cove. Thanks to spring rains the ground was soft underfoot. Gaining a little elevation, I took in the broad view—Cedar Island and The Missions beyond. Mountains still held snow from late season storms, but the near-at-hand held my attention. On the body of a fallen tree I found a miniature garden of mushrooms, mosses, a fir seedling and silky phacelia. On more open slopes I found harebells at the end of their long fine stalks, shooting stars beginning to fade, arnica and balsamroot in full flush.


This early season paddle reminds me that there is more to see on the island than Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep and big bucks in velvet. Deep in the forest a palette of colors and diverse forms express themselves in miniature. A kayak offers access to these micro-worlds before tour boats motor by scouring the slopes for “game” and before jet skis cut high-speed turns in the liquid blue. Sometimes the world at our feet calls out for our attention. As the prophet reminds us, the grass withers, the flower fades.


A Goal?

(May 3)

I unload Bluebird on a gray, windy morning at Wayfarer Park near Bigfork. While I stow a dry bag stuffed with emergency gear a fisherman backs his boat down the concrete ramp and nearly runs over me. By the look on his face I sense that he may be embarrassed, but he is in such a hurry to launch his boat that he doesn’t say a word. I step over my boat so that I am not caught between the man’s desperation and my own deliberations. I decide to wait for him to race off to the ledges and troughs where he pictures fish he wants to catch.

Knowing that conditions will be rough and the water cold, I choose a modest paddle: Wayfarer to Wood’s Bay, about six miles south, and then return. As soon as I am in the water wind and waves strike the right stern quarter. The waves slide under me diagonally and create a disconcerting rolling motion. It is rough enough that I hear the waves combing cobbles on the beach, a kind of mountain surf. I paddle south parallel to shore where vacant cabins await their summer visitors and most boats hang suspended above the rising lake level. Off to my left I spot first one and then a second giant boulder, “erratics” in the language of geologists, deposited by receding glaciers and large enough to be unmoved even by the torrents of Glacial Lake Missoula. On the hillsides above the lake larch trees turn a color that Winsor Newton calls “sap green.” This color is so intense it almost seems charged with electric current.

After about four miles of this rolling motion, and as it begins to rain, I rethink my goal for the day. If the conditions worsen, I will have a hard time making the return paddle. If I go over into water only a few degrees above snowmelt, I could become hypothermic very quickly, even in a dry suit. I remind myself that I am not obligated to round Yenne point and head into Wood’s Bay. I decide to execute a left turn I learned from watching Leon Somme. Turning back, heading now into a quartering wind and a corresponding chop, raises a question: what is the goal of a paddle? I often try to complete a circuit, reach an island or point, draw a triangle with my boat or fully explore a distant bay; but sometimes my goal is deeper than a destination. Today it seems right only to venture out with as little as possible between me and the forces around me—the wind, the waves, the rain, the white wall of a spring storm about to descend on me from Jewel Basin. In a kayak we scale back the layers of protection between ourselves and these great forces. We maximize exposure while preserving the ability to make a safe passage. Today I am like a climber who turns back twenty feet short of the peak because it is enough to have time on the mountain. It is enough to feel these forces painting the slopes green, driving the waves toward shore, equipping the body with a kind of neurological beauty that makes countless adjustments to pitch, roll, and yaw. At the turn I see my actual goal.

Waterline As Watermark

(April 4, 2014)


For the past couple of years I have wanted to extend my paddling season, to venture out earlier and take advantage of the quiet beauty of autumn. As I think about my plans for tomorrow, the first paddle of the season, I confess to feeling a little anxious. Flathead Lake is not kind; it is its own self. I have an appropriate fear of cold water and wind blowing across its surface. I wonder if the competence I felt at the end of last season will come back to me when I tuck myself in the boat. I wonder if my physical conditioning during the winter will be equal to the demands of paddling in rough water or equip me to paddle the longer distances that curiosity requires. I also worry about the sudden changes in conditions that often occur in springtime, especially a blast of wind that pours down through the canyons between peaks and descends onto the lake. I only have my own strength, my own wits, attention to sky and water to help me avoid trouble. I have no engine whose throttle I can throw to get me back to shore and safety. At the same time I feel excited about exploring more carefully a portion of the lake I have usually passed on my way to some other destination. I wonder what Shelter Bay, protected from north winds, will be like in early April, and if I can cover seventeen miles in a round trip to a spot on the map and in my mind.

I have made careful preparations for this paddle. Over the winter I purchased my first dry suit, an extra layer of protection from the cold and wind. I have given more careful thought to the food I should take with me. Perhaps most important, I can draw on eight years of experience. This will help me turn back when conditions warrant, or not launch in haste. I know bays where I can seek shelter, have a better sense of what to look for in the sky that spells danger. I have a feel for that middle passage between foolishness and paralyzing fear; I have already reckoned with far superior powers.

Driving north the next morning I feel eager to see the lake again, especially after this winter with its hard, late storms and cold temperatures. This early in the year I doubt there will be another paddler on the lake.

In the early spring the lake is about ten feet lower than when it stands at full-summer pool. Regulated at Kerr Dam, Flathead Lake needs to be drawn down in winter to accommodate a massive influx of water from the Swan range and Glacier National Park. The best way to avoid the silt at the north end of the lake or on the east shore is to launch at Walstad on the south shore. I pull into the fishing access site and discover that the lake level is below the far end of the long, concrete boat ramp. It makes sense to back down the ramp rather than carry all my gear from the parking lot. On the cobbles I find a couple of slabs of stranded Ponderosa bark, place them on the concrete and then unload my boat, spanning the bark so as to protect the hull from an abrasive surface.

Looking out toward Wild Horse and Melita Islands I see a glassy surface. After a few minutes of paddling I encounter thin slips of ice in the channel between islands that tell me the lake was calm last night. I part them with the prow. They remind me of the glaze of sugar on the top of crème brulée. On the east shore of Cromwell Island I see a block of shelf ice that in the morning sun looks like a pack of pelicans.

Grateful for the benefits of time in the gym, I enter the open water between the northeast corner of Wild Horse and the west shore. With only a slight headwind I feel secure making this crossing. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to start paddling I forgot to “burp” the dry suit. It now puts pressure on my chest and lungs, making it more difficult to breathe. The neck gasket is still too tight and I am losing circulation in my hands from a combination of the wrist gaskets and having pulled the Velcro straps too tight. I adjust the gloves and fantasize about trimming off more of the neck gasket. I am not comfortable but must proceed. There is no place to stop.

Eventually, I am able to identify the Methodist Church camp on a point to the north. A large willow, beginning to turn orange, gives me a spot to aim for in Shelter Bay. I feel relieved when I finally enter the bay. I have covered about 8.5 miles without a break. I am eager to get out of the boat and unzip the dry suit. After landing, I pull out my lunch—cheese sandwich, apple, two cookies and a full bottle of gator aid. I find a nice spot under a fir tree well above a long ramp of exposed gravel.

After lunch I wander around the beach. I find a broken section of steel fence post. The shaft is buried in the gravel; the sharp end and fins stick up. A piece of steel like this would make a mess of a swimmer’s foot or a diver’s scalp. So I work it loose from the gravel and heave it up into the forest. Along the waterline I find things I have never paused long enough to notice—plastic wadding from shotgun shells, a blue strand of fishing line, a plastic lipstick tube, a girl’s naked doll, feathers from geese and gulls, a branch collar from a tree surrounding a yellow stone, a line of pine needles, maple samaras, catkins, the vertebra of a large mammal, highly polished roots that seem like a full spinal column, and birch bark that help define the water line. These lateral collections strike me as the year’s watermark, not pressed into paper, but resting on stone. Waterlines tell stories.


Before getting back in the boat, I am careful to “burp” the dry suit this time. I immediately encounter headwinds. I feel strong enough to bear down and paddle against the resistance but know I will need to pause on Wild Horse Island before making the last open-water crossing. On the point marking the entrance to Skeeko Bay I haul out. Small waves breaking on the beach make the exit tricky. I lift Bluebird into a pool of water just inside a gravel berm. Stranded ice contributes melt water to the little pool. I take a few moments to lie back against the slope of pea-sized gravel and rest. The sun has warmed the stones enough to create a very comfortable place for me to rest. I drink almost all of my remaining water and eat the second half of my apple. I have about three miles to go, all against the wind.


Leaving the beach is even trickier than landing. Not thinking things through, I put the boat into the water parallel to the shore. A wave spills into the cockpit. I have to haul the boat out again, pump and then sponge the spill. The second time I wade out a few feet to get past the little breakers, swing a leg over the boat, straddle it, sit, and insert my legs, a process made slightly more difficult in the bulk of the dry suit. I resume paddling, make relatively swift progress along the island beginning to turn green and then face the open crossing. Fortunately, the wave height has not increased, though the wind still works against me. I am eager to step into the shallows below the end of the boat ramp.

On the drive home my optic nerve registers the imprint of trumpeter swans in a vernal pool and the emerald wash of grass beginning to spread across the fields. This has been a good, if exhausting first paddle of the year. The lake and I are back in touch.

Blue Silk

In spring the day may begin clear as a button-down pinpoint fresh off the iron. In the morning geese call to one another overhead as first light ignites their wingtips. But as the day warms the engine of the sun seems to lift moisture out of the lake and into the air. It reaches for little wisps, gathers them, kneads this moisture into clouds, packs them tighter until they begin to have weight, until they begin to tumble and rumble. Then the wind blows or it rains, and the waves on the water begin to build. And after all this energy is spent and night comes on, the heaviness in the sky breaks up and blows away. Pearly clouds pick up sunset’s fire like opals as the sun touches the horizon. If the last of the gray clouds in the foreground move off and dissipate in a lighter atmosphere, we see a light blue line at the horizon, a line sometimes tinged with green. In springtime a paddler needs to look for intervals, the openings between storms and windy conditions. This interval might come soon after sunrise or in the space between sunset and starlight. We especially need these openings when far from shore.

In mid-May we experience record-breaking heat for this date, the kind of heat that already makes us think about fire season. I head for the lake. Trying to get the maximum number of paddles per drive, I set up camp around 4 p.m. The weather seems dependable so I don’t bother with the rain fly. Around 5 p.m. I begin to paddle toward Matterhorn Point. The whole surface of the lake is like my blue silk shirt—smooth with a few soft wrinkles. I experience none of the noise and chafe of rough conditions, nor the anxiety that goes with having to respond to the odd, large wave.

When I get to the point I see Wild Horse Island about three miles away. Even though it is dinnertime and I had planned to turn back, the water is completely calm and irresistible. Many times I have looked from this point to the island and felt that the intervening space seems almost impassable, but not this evening. As I ponder the decision to turn back or go on, it feels as though the lake is offering me a series of open gates. Almost any paddle feels possible. I am amazed that no one else is on the lake experiencing these conditions. Seizing the opportunity, and knowing it is rare, I enter the opening. Dinner can wait. I leave the point behind and cover the intervening distance quickly, the sun still high in the sky. I feel almost no resistance to anything I might like to try.

I find a place to land between cabin sites, no one in sight, and lift my boat above the water line. I slip my water bottle out of its special spot next to the right side of my seat, rummage through emergency gear for an energy bar and dried apricots. I hike up a steep slope and find a downed tree where I can sit and marvel at calm water in May. The island is lush, the Palouse prairie grasses long and drooping. Everything smells of balsamroot and warm sap. Like the plants at my feet I soak up water and light, look south to the mountains still mantled in snow. The lake registers no more than a whisper.

Having paddled farther than I planned, I finish up my snack, drink all but a sip of my water that I will save for later, descend the slope and slip Bluebird back in the water. I am alone on the lake in the most perfect conditions I have ever seen. If I had the strength, this would be an ideal evening to add a circumnavigation of the island to this long crossing. Though nearly intoxicated by the conditions, I have enough experience to resist the temptation. I know how fatigue can fall on a paddler like a sudden weight. So, in a state of joy I paddle the 8 miles back to camp and arrive just after sunset. I carry Bluebird up to my campsite and think now I can eat. I get the cooler out of the truck. Simple but rich fair again— leftover Columbia River steelhead on multi-grain bread, fresh fruit, more water, and two big cookies. It is all I can do not to eat the cookies first. In light that seems reluctant to leave the sky I sit for a while on the concrete breakwater and savor both my food and this paddle, valuing the memories as much as the food. I have seen geese on all the islands, a mated pair of eagles in a snag on the south shore of the island due east of Bull Island. They sat on a huge nest made of driftwood from the beach. I wonder when the downy nestlings will begin to peer over the lip of the tangle that protects them.

After almost all the light has been swallowed by darkness I settle into my sleeping bag. A final image appears in my imagination. As if from the vantage point of a small airplane, I see a lone paddler on a still lake. A long faint trail dissipates behind his boat. The lake is a sea of blue, purple, and pink. Venus blazes away just above the horizon to the west. The evening ends with gratitude for this image. I drop myself into it and fall sleep.Image