Once Again

September 11, 2020

On May 4, I fell from my bicycle and broke my left arm in three places. At impact I also dislocated the radius and tore up muscles and nerves from elbow to hand. I could not paddle all summer. Like people afraid of contagion, I had to give up things I loved in order to stay safe and to heal.

On September 10, my wife and I took a little driving trip up through what we call “the Seeley Swan,” a long valley with a divide at the top where the waters flow either north or south. After settling into a motel, I drove down to the public beach and launched Bluebird into the clearest water I had seen all year, paddled to the wild west side of the lake and then north against a head wind that allowed me to apply muscles I had tried to maintain during months of recovery. The next day, September 11, after a breakfast of wild mushrooms, eggs, and Cambazola cheese, with fruit and a sourdough roll on the side, we drove down the Swan River and into the Flathead watershed, the Yang to Swan’s Yin.

We pulled into the campground at Finley Point, marked “Full” like every other campground in Montana this summer, as people from our own state and the rest of the nation head outside. We pulled into the day-use parking lot and left one space between us and a battered truck covered with red insignia and a flaccid flag. I unloaded Bluebird and placed the fragile hull on the rough boat ramp, stowed the bag for “what ifs?” adjusted the ferrule for the right degree of feather, and stroked out of the marina and toward Bird Island.

Earlier in the summer I learned that the island had burned. I first thought lightning might have caused the fire, but a friend later told me the fire was probably human-caused. During the long months when nothing in my arm seemed to be improving, I held out hope I would be able to paddle to the island before cold gripped the land. I wanted to see what fire had wrought. As I crossed Finley Bay I could see four paddlers about a mile ahead. They had launched a few minutes earlier and also wanted to see the island. I rarely see other paddlers on the lake, so this seemed like a chance to enjoy being part of a flotilla. Paddling hard, I caught up with them before they reached the tip of the peninsula and learned they were part of a paddling club out of Kalispell. We eventually split off from each other when I proposed to go counter-clockwise to their clockwise circle around the island.

When I reached the southern edge of Bird I saw the first of many signs erected by Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks asking people to stay off the island. Perhaps the department wanted to conduct archaeological studies in soil now exposed by the fire or protect the public from burned trees sure to fall in the next strong wind. Though I wanted to look for the first signs of recovery brought on by this massive release of nutrients, I accepted the restriction. Even without landing I could see that nearly all the undergrowth had been consumed by fire; trunks of larger trees had blackened; some trees had already fallen, root wads now in the air; only a few trees at the waterline seemed unharmed.

When the other paddlers and I next intersected, like electrons moving in opposite directions around a nucleus, we devised a plan to meet on the beach at Bare-belly, a tiny island a few hundred yards south. It was an ideal location to continue our conversations, to eat together at a respectable distance, to hear stories about paddles from the Washington coast to Sitka, Alaska. We identified the origins of our love of paddling, compared hull and paddle designs and shared where we were on the day we learned about jetliners crashing into the World Trade Towers. Gratitude for our lives and our connection to this clean, vast lake permeated every story.

Having left my partner on the beach at the campground, I felt internal pressure to resume my paddle, so I lifted Bluebird off the beach and stroked back to join Joyce for a picnic. She had spread out our red-check tablecloth and the remnants of snacks packed for our drive. As we ate, a tall, handsome man approached and asked where I had paddled and where we were from. Sensing his desire to learn, I answered his questions and then began to listen to his story:

We sold everything we owned, bought a truck and an RV and drove up from California. We are so glad to be out of there. My wife is a professional photographer. She talked to the state and offered to trade photos and drone video of the park in exchange for a reduced rate on our campsite. We’ll stay in Montana through September then head south just ahead of the cold until we get to Tennessee. We’re looking for a red state and a good deal on some land where we can park the RV.

 I resisted the impulse to tell him that even Democrats can be patriotic and we always take our lives with us. It was better to listen and to learn.

 As much as anyone, I know the joys of paddling through variations on blue and green, the peace of the running wave and flowing air, the exhilaration of driving a prow into wind and waves. I wanted to recover from my injury so I could experience these things once again. As much as I enjoy paddling a sea-kayak, I will remember this day for its people, for the stories we want to tell, for the way we humans long to explore what we have not yet seen and do not yet understand, for the way we want to congregate with people who seem to belong to our tribe or separate from people who are different and frightening. Like Bird Island after the fire, it will take a long time for the seeds of a new way to germinate and for us all to recover from things we have wrought.

Discoveries

In late August four of us left town for the lake. We wanted to escape the smoke in Missoula’s valley that made the simple act of breathing a health risk. Three of us wanted to go for a longer paddle. My wife preferred to read in camp and listen to lapping waves.

Joyce sometimes asks encouragingly, “Would you like to take a trip and paddle somewhere on the coast of British Columbia?” I know this is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world but I appreciate having access to the largest and cleanest body of fresh water in the western U.S. and feel as though I still have so much to learn, even after more than ten seasons of paddling Flathead Lake. I am content to keep exploring close to home because experience tells me, if I keep myself open and do not let my ability to perceive grow dull, I will make discoveries.

This trip confirmed that belief. Over the course of our two days we discovered how to have  fun while helping each other get ready to launch,

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

previously unseen panels of rock art and how prone they are to exfoliation and loss,

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

the beauty of black and blue ring waves during a hot morning but especially after sunset,

where eagles tend to roost and why it is extremely important not to set up a sleeping bag under those trees (I’m not providing a photograph of my mistake).

We also discovered a memorial to a young man. People who loved him wedged a painted tribute between opposing pieces of rock. Later, my friend Jeanne spotted a remnant from his tool collection. Walking between her tent site and the beach she saw an anomalous piece of rusted steel pushed level with the surface of dry moss and stone. Curious, she withdrew it from the ground and showed it to me. I explained that the object was a hollow chisel, a tool used to chop mortises so two pieces of wood can be joined with a tenon. Using gold-colored ink, someone painted messages of love and the man’s birth and death dates. Seeing this tribute, we speculated he might have been a woodworker. After we admired the tool and its subtle placement, we put it back exactly as we found it.

Passing through the gap between islands or crossing between island and mainland we also made discoveries about each other, learned things we did not know. We braided an invisible cord between and among us of understanding, memory and anticipation. For the rest of our lives we may tow each other along, connected by the stories we tell and create.

Though I am far-removed from childhood, the lake keeps teaching me to maintain the mind of a child, seeing the world as if for the first time, paying attention to it as if it might be the last.

The Tender Time

I find that perfect pair of days in early May when I can leave town in good conscience, pack minimally for an overnight, and drive up to the lake. This is the tender time.DSCF0121

The lake lies down and does not flash its summer sword of wind and waves. The grasses are soft and supple. I can walk barefoot between campsite and picnic table where I fix evening tea and morning coffee. In a cove I find an osprey nest and a fallen feather from one of the two birds overhead as they make banking turns through the trees, testing each others desire.DSCF0129

Arnica and balsamroot are in full bloom and their leaves do not crackle underfoot. Western Serviceberry wears its wedding dress.DSCF0118

One evening I paddle from Finley Point out to Black Point and then around the corner to what the old map calls Matterhorn Point. I look across the strait to Wild Horse Island, but do not cross: on the first paddle of the season muscles are also tender and do not yet have the hardness I associate with late summer or early fall. The next morning I paddle to the end of Finley Point, round its tip shaped like an adolescent molar, descend deep into the calm water of Skidoo Bay and return. The few other campers in the quiet campground must have been watching me return from the islands and points. After I lift my boat onto the grass, straighten my back and sigh with satisfaction, they say, “Welcome back.” Even the people are tender at this time of the year.