Wordless Instruction

Wordless Instruction

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I sometimes paddle with friends Jeanne and Glenn. Last fall Glenn asked if I would help him make a Greenland style paddle as a Christmas gift for Jeanne. This long, tapered design has been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years and offers an alternative to modern high-angle paddles in space-age materials. I said yes.

At a local lumberyard that has access to unusual timbers Glenn found a flawless piece of western red cedar. The grain was vertically aligned permitting us to create a reasonably stiff paddle with the least amount of weight. Once we settled on the proper length for the paddle, I jointed and planed the plank to make it straight. We then explored our way to a pleasing taper from the tip of the blade to the handle area. I roughed out the shape on my band saw.

Knowing we had options, I suggested to Glenn he would most enjoy the process of making this paddle if he refined its shape with hand tools rather than power tools. As I demonstrated the effectiveness of my smallest Krenov-style plane and a small brass spokeshave he was convinced. Over the next three weeks we met as often as possible to work on the paddle. When our work periods included the lunch hour, Glenn kindly brought fried chicken and wrapped sandwiches.

Sometimes we worked on opposite ends of the paddle, moving toward each other; other times I turned away to let Glenn’s relationship to the paddle develop on its own. I tried to give him a minimum of instruction so that he would begin to relate to the tools and the material rather than to me. I wanted him to grow more intimate with all the connections between sensitive hands, fragrant wood, and his own neurological pathways as the strokes became familiar and repeatable. To the best of my ability I aimed for what Tao Te Ching calls “wordless instruction.”

Day after day Glenn removed material, looking for a pleasing shape and a proper feel in the hand. Gradually the paddle gained symmetry and the lines began to flow. Eventually we unified all the small facets from the tools’ passage over the wood by hand sanding through a series of abrasives until the paddle was extremely smooth. We also wet the wood with water to raise the grain, and when it was dry, sanded off the fuzz. We rubbed in some tung oil to reveal the wood’s final color and offer modest protection from the water.

But Glenn was not finished. In his mind’s eye he saw a loon and Jeanne’s initials on one of the blades. I encouraged him to draw out what he wanted to see on a piece of scrap paper, then on the wood itself. Meanwhile, I unpacked my wood burning stylus and turned on the pyrograph. After a little practice Glenn mastered the pace of stroking the pen over the surface of the wood while allowing it to recover its heat between strokes. He created a small, beautiful loon and wove the initials into a subtle water pattern beneath the bird.

In the end we held the paddle upright and rested the wood on the top of my toes while my wife took a photo of the proud craftsmen.

Perhaps a few hundred people a year make their own kayaks and paddles. For the most part, though, these tools for crossing water are made of carbon, fiberglass, Kevlar, and roto-molded plastic. Making a paddle from timber felled just across our northern border and using hand tools put us in touch with a non-industrial process, the joy of working together and working by hand. Again, as Tao Te Ching says, there is a rare satisfaction in being able to say, “we did it ourselves.”

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Bones

This past summer was a difficult season to paddle in Montana. Beginning in July, smoke from fires in Idaho began to slip over the mountains and fill our valleys. As the jet stream avoided our latitude more fires in the region poured smoke into the Missoula, Mission and Flathead valleys. Almost all of August and September were lost to a choking and hazardous particulate pall. As a result, I did not paddle nearly as much as I normally do; it wasn’t safe or wise. Out of the haze and the odor of burned forest I see a surprising image from this past summer—an image of bones.

On a beach in a little cove on Cedar Island I found a beautiful, long, rib bone as well as a large vertebra. Knowing that no animals of this size live on the island, I suspect that some large ungulate washed down the Flathead River or rode the lake’s currents and washed ashore on this island. All the forces of nature worked on the remains and left these gleaming architectural elements of a once-living being.

Then, on one of my circumnavigations of Wild Horse Island, I spotted a skeleton in the driftwood, the bones and sun-bleached limbs of trees nearly indistinguishable. I paddled ashore, secured Bluebird, and investigated. This was almost certainly the skeleton of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Though the skeleton came to rest below one of the island’s cliffs, I have watched these sure-footed animals enough to know that it is extremely doubtful that an adult Bighorn fell in this location. The fact that the skeleton was headless confirmed my worst suspicions: someone probably poached a big ram and left the body to rot in the afternoon sun.

Maybe it is appropriate that one of my final memories of 2017 focuses on bones, the remnants of death. But at the time I discovered these bones, I felt astonished by their beauty. I ran my fingers along the flutes of the ribs, marveled at their ligature, could not begin to comprehend the complexity of a spinal column. Nothing about these remains was gruesome, except the possibility that someone poached a protected animal.

Bones seem important for another reason. The internal skeleton of an animal supports its whole structure, sets it up for life. These bones were something to admire not avoid. They revealed the essence of the animal. Ever since encountering these bones I have been reflecting on the problem of essence, the deepest, innermost aspect of life and its purpose. But this has been anything but an abstract philosophical project for me. I have been asking about the bones of my own life, not the once-broken radius in my right arm, the nodes in my spinal column that press on the nerves, but the essence of why I am here and what I must do. Trying to peer through the smoke and confusion at the turn of the year I am determined to pay attention to each encounter, to reckon with both the suffering and the glory, the heartbreak and the beauty.

Summer smoke and all its metaphorical expressions in the form of political speech and posturing, tempt us to contract our attention. It seems more than likely that some people may actually be trying to divert our attention. This summer, for the sake of sanity, it seemed important not to see, smell, or listen. But the bones on the beach remind me to keep paying attention, to search out the inwardmost structure of things and how it hangs together or comes apart. Last summer I touched the bones, ran my fingers across their polish and curves. As if speaking to me they said, Behold. Attend. Bear witness. I carry this mandate into the new year.

Gratitude and Anticipation

The verge of the New Year seems like a good time to both look back and look ahead. As I consult memories of the season past I am grateful for every opportunity I was given to paddle in 2016, whether threading the islands of Flathead Lake, making open-water crossings, paddling solo or as part of a pair. I feel thankful for my Cedar Island overnight, the dramatic storm I witnessed in September and the long, placid reach from Angel Point to Bigfork that followed the storm. But in reflection I am most grateful for something that had little to do with actual paddling.

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On one occasion, described in my post “A Quandary,” a friend and I paddled on the more-protected waters of Lindbergh Lake while a thunder and lightning storm blasted away at the peaks of the Mission Range to the west. Safe below, we were merely soaked in rain. Then, in mid-August my friend Glenn and I paddled among the islands of The Narrows on Flathead Lake during a brief rainstorm. On this occasion we took refuge, appropriately, in Safety Bay. In our shelter from the storm and waves we lay our paddles across our laps and simply listened to rain patter our decks and mark the gray-green water all around us with millions of little crowns. On both of these occasions our kayaks carried us into intimate contact with the return of natural rhythms—a little rain in midsummer, something we no longer take for granted. At a time when we could have turned back or scuttled our trips altogether, we moved into the storm’s darkness and the potential for getting wet. For our modest efforts we were rewarded with exposure to the life-giving gift of rain, its power to recharge aquifers and streams, as well as renew the forest.

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I occasionally need a chance to test myself by means of a long, hard paddle, or simply paddle to somewhere private where I can dive off a rock; but looking back on the year now gone, I am most thankful for rain that assured me that Nature’s rhythms are not irrevocably broken or thrown so badly into disorder that we fear for our lives. The sound of rain and all that it restores climbs now to the top of my list of gratitudes. Believing, at least for now, that I can trust these rhythms, I begin to look forward to the next season. In fact, I go to sleep at night imagining my favorite paddle, the strength and patience to complete it, trusting I may have the chance.

A Better Reason to Lose Sleep

On the evening of February 29, 2016, everything I read caused me to fear for the fate of our world. In The New York Review of Books I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, a book about the Koch brothers, their father’s association with both Hitler and Stalin and their own contributions to toxic waste and the manipulation of democracy. In the latest issue of The Smithsonian I read about the destruction of tropical forests in Borneo and the replacement of these diverse human and natural communities with the monoculture of palm oil plantations. I could not bear to finish the article on snow leopards and could barely take the measure of the extent of antiquity destruction in Iraq, Syria and Africa. At least I knew not to turn on the radio where I would hear another obfuscation, denial of responsibility, or piece of pandering on the eve of “Super Tuesday.”

Too late in the evening, because of its impact on restful sleep, I turned to a documentary of the 1500 km circumnavigation of Ireland by John Hynes and Sean CahilI. Watching the Rapid Media production (https://www.rapidmedia.com/adventurekayak/categories/video/7123…), I felt their anticipation as John and Sean set off from Old Head of Kinsale. I felt the blisters, the stickiness of sunscreen, the need for a shower and the exercise-induced hunger that almost no amount of food could satisfy. I felt their exhilaration as they paddled through sea caves and between massive black cliffs covered with gannets. I heard the rain on the tent, the whine of the gale, the effect of headwinds and the relief of a tidal assist.

All that I lost in sleep I gained in spirit as I watched two men make good decisions in the face of lethal forces, as I watched them take pleasure in companionship, as they returned to their starting point and the arms of people who love them. Kilometer by kilometer they absorbed the sea and its gifts, gained an intimate connection with the colors of their land, the musical names of its coastal features, and the kindness of strangers who became friends.

Watching the record of this long paddle and sensing the pride two men feel for their own country and its history, I felt restored to myself. I regained a grip on those values that secure me on the cliff of an unsettling world. People do not paddle a kayak to make money, to gain power, except over themselves and their fears. We do not paddle in order to hear the cheers of a fawning crowd or to congratulate ourselves on gaining more control over parts of the earth that are better left alone. Nor do we paddle in order to take advantage of other people under the cover of legal darkness. I do not paddle to escape the world but to become clearer about what matters in it. Paddling a kayak helps me see a deck compass in the moral fog. It teaches me not to lose heart in the face of headwinds from every quarter.

What did it matter that I could not sleep after watching this documentary? I have lost enough sleep thinking about people and market forces that destroy the world. Why not lose sleep imagining the grace of a beautiful human-powered craft? Better to lose sleep over the sound of the waves and wind, the joy of realizing a vision that ties a Celtic knot of affection around the beating heart of the living world.

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One Reason

With another round of snow expected this weekend and temperatures in the twenties it is no time to paddle. It is a good time to reflect. In the interior space of winter I ponder my motivations for paddling Bluebird on Flathead Lake.

Over the years I have certainly gone to the lake to test myself, to lay out a course and press through whatever conditions I find to cover the distance, set off for a bay or island, even spend myself in an effort to reach a destination in the fewest possible hours. I have gone to the lake to introduce the experience to friends, taking as much delight in their encounter with the lake as when a companion catches a fine fish upstream of where I cast. I have gone to the lake when I have grown tired of the focused work of preparing for class or reading student essays. I have gone to the lake to be broken open by the distances, snow-covered ridge lines, the effect of moon and starlight on the dark field of night. I have often gone to the lake to bathe in the colors, passing in and out of variations on green and blue. Especially in springtime I love to go to the lake to brush by the flight of geese, to pass under their wing beats and imagine their migrations. Though I paddle for all these reasons it is also true that I have gone to the lake to work through loss. Sometimes I relate to the world physically in search of a different state of mind.

I grew up sailing with my father. We spent many hours learning the idiosyncrasies of a heavy wooden but beautiful Swedish sloop. We raced and we dawdled, sanded, varnished and scrubbed. We poked around in a little sabot or entered it in short races launched from a beach; for some unknown reason it seemed to win every race we entered. We came home smelling of salt. When he died the remnants of his life helped me realize that boats had been a central part of his identity, one of the many ways he brought joy into his life. In his absence I took up the paddle, partly as a way of honoring this part of our life together.

Dad&G Looking back on the last several years I see that I occasionally sought out the lake to paddle through grief at losing a man I loved. This must be one of the reasons that I only mildly complain about a headwind. It gives me an opportunity to work through the resistance we feel at having to accept a loss. As each wave slides down the length of the hull I have an opportunity to let go of things I have lost. Endless strokes become practice in making contact, laying hold, and letting go, in admitting something into awareness and allowing it to slip by.

In trying to describe the experience of grief, and remembering Europe’s mountain tunnels, Rilke uses the image of drilling through stone. The work of grief can be this hard, whether we have lost a father or friend, a spouse, child, or position we thought we deserved to receive or retain. If I blend the images, I realize that I have often drilled through waves and wind, through fatigue and fear in the hope of arriving at a distant shore, not necessarily the shore of an island but the shore of a lighter state of being. I have pressed through the weight of water and let it pass in order to stand more available to the present and less anchored to the past. This is one of the reasons I carry Bluebird down to the margins of water and stone.

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Gratitude

As anyone knows who reads this blog, more often than not I paddle alone. I love the freedom this gives me, paddling where and how I choose, setting my own pace, paying my own form of focused attention to the liminal space between water, light, and human consciousness. But as I look back on the year now behind us I feel extremely grateful to those people who have paddled with me. Standing on the edge between one year and the next, I feel particularly grateful to the following people:

my beloved who prefers to stay close to shore;

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my dear friend John who, like Rilke’s swan, slipped quietly into deeper water;

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Professor Clem Work who brought his camera and artist’s eye to the lake and allowed me to see the world through his lens;

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Jeanne and Glenn who followed me to the island and carried a picnic into the cove where we ate and talked as Bighorn rams and ewes traveled the trail to the isthmus;

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Jeff who joined me for a bronco ride across Finley Bay and a downwind race in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse islands;

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my brother, also named Jeff. Here the debt is larger as I remember how he taught me to use my camera more skillfully, began to teach me about the physics of waves, and is in the process of forgiving me for taking him nearly three miles past our haul-out because I completely forgot myself (and him) in the joy of meeting an approaching headwind and the waves it generated north of White Swan Point.

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We can count our riches in coins and objects or we can count them in the form of gratitude for time spent with other people who expanded the island of our awareness. With these people I have braided wakes left by every stroke.

Memories

We lose everything, but make harvest

of the consequences it was to us. Memory

builds this kingdom from the fragments

and approximation. We are gleaners who fill

the barn for the winter that comes on.

 –Jack Gilbert, “Moreover”

This is the time of year when ranchers in Montana pull stored sunlight out of their barns and spread it on frozen fields for hungry animals. This is the time of year when Blackfeet, Salish and Crow pull stories out of ancient storehouses and remind each other who they are and where they came from. Memories are the feast of the season.

At this time of the year a paddler builds a kingdom out of remembered fragments and approximations of the season past. In many cases the memories are composed only of images—a wave that caught my brother on the upwind side of a dock, lifted him on its crest and almost set him down on its deck; a wall of stone where water flowed out of cracks and created a bank that overflowed with green and living things; an encounter with an eagle where the air flowing over its feathers was felt on my skin; a vast space of open water with the paddler a mere speck in the blue distance. And sometimes the memories take the form of a story. Like a tool in a cabinet, we keep pulling it out of the drawer where it is stored, handle it, turn it, reflect on its significance and use to us.

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Though I could pull open any of several drawers of stored memories, this winter I feel drawn to return to a day in September a few years ago. Having begun the semester but not yet burdened with the first batch of student essays, I drove up to Finley Point. Drawing on the strength of a full season of paddles, I wanted to depart from the state campground and stroke my way to Wild Horse Island on as direct a line as possible. But I hesitated as I stood on the concrete abutment that helps to form the marina. Breaking waves flowed down the fetch from north to south. Would it be foolish to paddle alone on such a day, on a day when no one else was on the lake and available to render aid if I got in trouble? Was I willing to take the risk?

Trying to quiet these questions in my mind, I slid Bluebird into the channel between the bobbing docks. The moment I passed the mouth of the marina I felt the full force of the waves running down the lake and striking the starboard quarter of my boat. I committed myself to the process of meeting each wave as an individual, rose in the crests, dropped into the troughs, and adjusted to each push and slap with more or less forceful strokes. I maintained this focused attention for about two hours before I began to realize the true danger of my situation. If my attention faltered or wandered even slightly, as fatigue began to pervade my body, I might lose my balance in the waves and find myself in grave danger. This realization tapped the last measure of my strength and allowed me to reach the island safely. I hauled Bluebird out of the waves on the backs of some drift logs, climbed the bluff and drank all my water. I rested, waited, watched. I needed time to recover.

I wandered around the island’s east shore, grateful for the stability of rock and earth beneath my feet. When I eventually returned to my overlook I realized that the wind was beginning to drop. The waves no longer broke, though swells swept the surface of the lake. These were safe enough conditions for me to paddle back across the lake to another island and then the last three miles home.

I continue to reflect on this day. At times I think I was willful in relation to far greater powers and that my safe arrival and return were less a matter of skill and strength and more a matter of luck. Other times I feel the exhilaration that this day brought me, recalling, as Mihaly Csikszentymihayi said of happiness:

 Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives are not passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.

As near as I can tell, we live somewhere between the stone, feather, or spring that we happen upon and the happiness we “make happen.” If this is true, then I strive for consciousness not only of the wave as it surges toward me and the exhilaration of meeting it, but of the space between forcing my will upon the world and simply receiving its inexplicable gifts. I want to be aware of the edge of each, the things we make happen and the things we receptively receive. In this consciousness we make a way in the world.

I know I will lose the ability to make such paddles as I lean into the middle of my late decades. But between now and then I want to glean my experiences from the field of the lake and its islands; I want to harvest the consequences of memories, and fill the barn as long as I can. On a winter day I open the drawer where they are stored, pull them into the light and turn them in my hands.

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