Not What I Expected

When I returned from my last paddle, a seventeen-mile solo and overnight from the south end of the lake to Cedar Island, I could not write what I had planned to write. Reminded once again by fires in The Bitterroot that the West is burning, I had intended to write about Cedar Island as a microcosm for the planet, our “fragile island home,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C. But unexpected things happened during the trip that made the original idea less compelling. I came home uninspired and wasn’t going to write anything after the boat came to rest in the rack, but something keeps knocking on the door.

I knew from the weather report and the graphical forecast I always consult that I might run into thunderstorms on this trip. Years ago I got caught out far from shore in such a storm and resolved to be more cautious in these conditions and to take lightning much more seriously. When I drained my shoes, tucked myself in, and secured my skirt clouds were building off to the west, but the conditions did not seem dangerous. I pushed against a hearty headwind on the way to Wild Horse Island. By the time I rounded the point that protects Skeeko Bay the wind gusts were intense. It was as difficult to swing the paddle forward through the air as it was to make a stroke through the water. I paused to check on a couple of people in open cockpit boats who went for a short paddle from their anchored sailboat. Not having far to travel, they assured me they could get back to their boats. I decided to cross the bay and haul out on a gravel beach.

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I pulled lunch out of my mid-ship hatch, found a log to sit on and decided to wait and watch. Waves continued to build and break in the open water to the north. Thunder boomed and cracked overhead and lightning lashed the hills to the west. No one was waiting for me on Cedar Island. I had made no promises, and knew better than to push willfully toward my destination, no matter how much I wanted to set up my old Sierra Designs “Starlight.” It was warm enough that if I got wet I would be fine. While waiting for the lake to go through its paroxysms I did other things, stalked the island’s mule deer bucks, almost as big as elk, watched a hairy woodpecker ladder its way up a dying cottonwood, found a vicarious joy in watching a fisherman haul in a fat yellow perch. I climbed a bluff so that I could peer into the big gap between islands. Those three miles almost always feel intimidating. I wandered down to the bottom of Skeeko Bay to sign the log so that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has more information on how people enjoy this area within their care.

After a couple of hours I returned to my boat, found the conditions acceptable and pushed off for Cedar. Not wanting to linger in the opening between islands, I paddled hard, found “the box” of strong, smooth strokes and made very good time despite the headwind that eventually petered out. I dragged Bluebird up over the top of this year’s gray logs and began to imagine how I would arrange my camp and set up a place to make tea the next morning. Almost immediately a bald-faced hornet bit me on my left forearm and then proceeded to wedge itself between my watchband and wrist where it nailed me hard. It took several tries to dislodge the hornet and figure out why I had offended the beast. I stood still and looked around. I had unknowingly crossed the incoming flight path of these critters. They had built a nest under a log and wanted nothing between them and their entryway and escape route. Again, I had to back off my intentions. Yielding to hornets, I moved the boat a few feet north and chose a different route to the wind shelter where I would set up my whisper light stove. Fortunately, I am not allergic to these bites, but it was a long time before I could shake the sting that made my hair stand on end.

During the evening I wandered around the island, found desiccated cherries on the trees of the old orchard, a spot where a falling tree crushed the fence around the old wildlife enclosure, visited with a friendly blended family that had come up the lake by powerboat from Whiskey Bay. Toward dusk I found the almost unknown public access at Zelezney Bay and followed a water snake making its way to shore. Yes, I thought about our fragile island home and this island, deeply in need of rain. But now I think about how we sometimes have to abandon our plans and intentions in order to live with the world as we find it. We are no match for the force of the weather, not even for a hornet determined to protect its approach to this season’s home. In both cases willfulness would have meant trouble. Probably a better observation than the sermon I had planned.

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A Quandary

DSCF0184 Sometimes I paddle alone and sometimes with other people. When alone I like being able to focus my attention on the inner and outer worlds without concern for other people and their experience. When I paddle with friends I take pleasure in helping them discover a new bay or cove, or having the comfort of their presence when making a long crossing. But the two truths create a quandary.

I recently paddled twice in one week, once alone, once with a friend. The juxtaposition clarifies the quandary. In the first case I had a few hours at the end of a day to dash up to a small, nearby lake. Launching from a state campground, I pushed off while most people were settling into lawn chairs, beginning to prepare the evening meal, or as young people, told to entertain themselves, carried their hopes out to a dock to cast a line. I left the crowd and quickly found my way to the corner of an estuary where a mated pair of loons escorted their single offspring beyond the reach of predators and ski boats. The long necks of trumpeter swans stood above the reeds like goal posts, and by averting my eyes and laying down my paddle, I was able to put them at ease until they slipped off the bank and glided into the water. Then, beyond the mouth of the river and past willows full of warblers and flycatchers I was able to catch site of a doe leading her fawn into the lake for an evening’s dessert of water lilies. Alone, I was able to quietly approach wild creatures and slip past their wariness.

Later in the week I traveled with a friend to a different lake. Somewhat practiced at the ritual, and grateful for it, we helped each other with the loading and unloading of the boats, reminded each other about car keys and paddle floats. It was a pleasure to show him a hidden trailhead, an overgrown campsite, the way into a river mouth. Early in the paddle he pointed out a beaver lodge I might have missed, and together, we laughed at how the beavers saw fit to decorate their lodge with a crowning piece of green slate. Late in the paddle we approached a bald eagle and enjoyed watching it bend its bright white head around a branch so as to keep us in view. On the way home we pulled into a ramshackle ice cream station and enjoyed sweet treats at a picnic table. At the same time, drawn to conversation, I missed being able to pause and adequately consider the way rain drops, after they splash to the surface of the lake, create a bubble on the black surface, a metaphoric reminder that each of us is little more than a short-lived and bright bubble of awareness on a dark sea. Wanting to stay present to my friend’s experience I risked losing aspects of my own. Hence, the quandary.

At this stage of my life I know better than to resolve the tension too easily. I want neither to abandon the artist’s solitary way, nor will I cut myself off from the necessary stimulation and benefit of learning from others. People who are artistically inclined are often radically open to the world and how it registers in consciousness while at the same time being sensitive to others. It is not easy to maintain awareness of both simultaneously. Therefore, artists must continually navigate the tension. We strive to experience all we can and render it in words or paint or pixels, moving alone through the world where the perceptions are sharp, clear and undivided; at other times we carry on this practice the best we can in the company of other people without whom we would miss some of what the world calls to us to see. I know no other way than to paddle somewhere between the near point of solitude and the distant point of community.

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People Are the Thing

I did not see my father very often during his later years. I lived in Montana and he lived on Cape Cod. Transportation logistics and schedules combined to keep us apart, but toward what would turn out to be the end of his life I made a couple of visits. With multiple arms of the family at his house one summer in East Harwich, he and I used “walk into town for donuts” as an excuse to have some time with each other. As we walked in the deep grass of the borrow pit he said, “People are the thing.”

I often wonder what he meant and continue to speculate about the timing of his remark. His observation came back to me yesterday, the day after Memorial Day, when I paddled out to Wild Horse Island alone. Wind out of the northeast generated small white caps in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse Islands. I made the crossing into a quartering head wind, felt relief in the lee between Cromwell and Wild Horse, and then rounded the corner into Skeeko Bay. I thought I would have it to myself but found a cabin cruiser, bow to the gravel.

I checked the box where Fish Wildlife and Parks keeps the trail roster and saw that the boat belonged to a family of four from South Dakota. Bless the person who put a working pen in the box. I headed up the trail to the saddle that overlooks the strait to the south and The Mission Range beyond. When I stopped to take a photograph of a tight, new, and passionately purple pinecone DSCF0160

I was startled by a boy who suddenly approached me from behind. He was very anxious and his Down’s-affected speech made it hard for me to understand him. I took time to learn that he was looking for his sister and did not know where she was. Together we found her kneeling in the fresh grass by the old homestead cabins. As she tried to soothe and quiet him I took off for the ridgeline topped by the two pine trees where I often find Bitterroot flowers blooming in the hard scrabble. Clad in neoprene booties and bib, I must have been an odd looking pilgrim as I made my way up the slope and found the flowers that grow, improbably, out of rock on a southwest-facing slope. I took time to admire them individually and in clusters, looked out toward The Missions that, thankfully, still wear some snow and then scanned the open slopes for Bighorn sheep. Because I wanted to circle the island during the rest of the day I did not take time to sneak up on the sheep for a closer look.

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DSCF0159I headed down the trail, satisfied that I had visited what feels like a sacred site, but also excited about the rest of my paddle. On the way down, stepping carefully so as not to bruise a heel, I spotted the boy, his sister, and now his parents perched on a rocky promontory at the bottom of the ridge. Assuming that they might be strangers to the island, and thinking I might be able to orient them, I left the trail and waded through the grass to their perch. Approaching from below, I noticed a water bottle at the base of the rock pile. I looked up and said to the sister/daughter, “Is this your water bottle?” She responded, “Yes, I was just climbing down to get it.” “Shall I toss it to you?” “Sure” she replied. I made a good toss and she made a good catch.

Having now had two brief encounters I decided to climb up to their lookout. On the way I noticed more Bitterroots and pointed out that this was our state flower. We had a brief discussion about how native peoples used the roots and where the family might find the Bighorn sheep, if they felt inclined to seek them out. All the while I felt for the appropriate interpersonal distance in this encounter. Looking at them with a minimum of eye contact, it seemed to me as if they were almost stunned by the spaciousness around them, the light in the air, the mountains in the distance, the flowers at their feet. After a few more words I wished them well and slipped away. Though people are the thing I did not take a photo of this family; I believe it would have felt like a violation. Instead, I picked up the trail again and descended to my boat in the piles of storm-driven driftwood.

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The rest of the day, paddling across the mouth of some of my favorite coves, taking time to explore the northernmost tip of the island, pausing to eat a plastic container full of rhubarb crisp, picking up speed in the subtle current along the east shore of the island, I thought about this encounter and my father’s assertion. What would the flowers be without our admiration? What would the sheep be without us as they ruminate on the slopes made lush by recent rain? What would the eagle be, nearly hidden inside a willow, without my quiet visual intrusion into its green roost? Of course the world would be fine without us, and in many cases would be much better without us. But potentially we are here as perceivers of what we find. The world offers itself to our imagination, as Oliver says, but first to our observation. It gives itself so that we take notice. It may even need us, the most transient of all, so that we will praise it, or so thought Rilke in his ninth Elegy. People are the thing because of our capacity to be aware, to recognize patterns, make connections, and see relationships between things.

So often paddling alone, at home by myself out in the wind and the waves, I find that these human encounters register on my consciousness with surprising force. I felt the boy’s desperation as he searched for his sister somewhere on the big and strange island. I felt for his sister as she became separated from her water bottle and struggled with ambivalence about her brother. I felt for their mother as she admired the Bitterroots and wondered at their place in native culture and history, a history that may have been her own. I felt for the father as he carried responsibility for conducting his family safely through this new world. And as we all do, we feel for the strands of connection and the right forms of distance, our capacity for this subtle awareness equally amazing.

On the way to donuts, craving our own quiet conversation, my father tells me that people are the thing. It falls to me to figure out what he meant. I get to finish the puzzle. A few pieces begin to fit together like bracts on the cone.

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.

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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Remembering to Pause

I am probably not alone in feeling an inward pressure to keep moving, to stay productive, to make the most of my time. In late October, for some reason not clear to me, I remembered to pause rather than push.

Every year, if the weather allows, I try to make a paddle in late October or early November. Paddling at this time of the year allows me to honor the season in which my father died and his love for messing about in boats. I spotted a day between autumn storms and a few responsibilities. I loaded the boat the night before. In the morning both Bluebird and the windshield were coated in frost. I started the engine, and after the windshield cleared, drove north, pulling into the Finley Point Campground. The air was still cold, a hard wind blew out of the north, and waves, as predicted, rolled south. I paused in the truck to consider my options: drive back home; wait out of the wind to see if the waves would settle; or pause and observe before making a decision.

While sitting in the driver’s seat I struggled into my dry suit so that I could stay warm. I sat reflecting on my choices and watched the waves. Looking north, it was very clear that I could not take a direct route to Bird Island, one of my favorite places on the lake. Even from the parking lot I could see big waves crashing on the rocky shoal off the cliffs west of the peninsula that forms Finley Point. Looking west, I tried to imagine myself in the waves between the marina and Bull Island, an intermediate point of a large triangle that might eventually lead to the avian refuge of Bird Island. If I were cautious and patient, and took one wave at a time, it seemed possible to make the lee on the south side of the island. I launched but paused just outside the marina to get a feel for the swells. I did not need to commit myself to the island until I felt confident that the waves were manageable. Pausing gave me this clarity, so I proceeded.

When I reached the coves on the south shore of Bull Island I noticed that three fishing boats had also sought refuge out of the wind and waves. I slid between two of the boats and braced for balance. Like me the fisherman had grown tired of a rising and falling horizon. In addition, one boat needed patient attention with needle nose pliers after nylon fishing line had become wound around a drive train. We visited about the conditions and the prospect for a calmer afternoon. Eventually I backed away, found my own gravel bar and took time for lunch. All the while I listened to the wind in the trees behind me, telltale indicators of conditions to the north. I knew to wait.

While waiting on the island I wandered around, found little compositions of autumn color,

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eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

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and a pile of bear scat that proves hungry bears swim to the islands in a desperate search for food. After about an hour I sensed that the wind was beginning to subside and that gravity would eventually settle the waves. I paddled up the west shore of the island, but paused again before rounding it and heading into the fetch. I stayed out of reach of big waves crashing on the ramp of stone at the northern tip of the island and paused to study the more rounded waves in the open water. Trusting my boat and my experience, I advanced into the channel, taking each swell off the port quarter.

When I reached my favorite north-facing cove on Bird Island I took time to watch waves break and slide up the steep gravel. As the lake is being drawn down for winter, I could see that this beach was not a good place to land solo, so I swung right and rode the swells and wind down to the lee of Bare Belly Island. Though this is a small private island, I paused here to rest and eat my Honey Crisp Apple. I would not leave a trace of my presence. Now out of the wind and finished with the workout of crossing the channel, I shed my fleece hat, neoprene mittens, and opened up my dry suit. I waited long enough to come back to equilibrium and took time to look around. A few feet to my right I found a dog collar hanging in a cottonwood tree. Studying its position on the branch, the tag identifying Abby, and five phone numbers if she were ever lost, I realized that this was a memorial to a much-loved dog, a dog that probably liked to swim in the same shallows where I paused to rest. I could easily imagine the mutual affection between this animal and its owners.

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In time I resumed my position in the boat and coasted back to the marina, finding that beautiful rhythm that times a paddler’s effort to the assistance provided by waves on a downwind run. About half way across Finley Bay I simply stopped, said to myself, This will be your last paddle of the season; take a moment to feel the lake under you. I lay the paddle across my skirt and felt the enormous pulse of the lake’s body. I took time to acknowledge how my boat supported me through another season of paddles. I paused to notice the larch trees, their color like spilled gold across the mountains, and felt grateful for people who had the foresight to insure that the public has a few places to gain access to this world. Remembering to pause revealed options, made for safe passages and helped me gain a deeper awareness of the lake and the forces that affect it. It felt good to pause before saying goodbye, at least until next spring.

Clearings

Sometimes we wait a long time for things to clear up. Day after day of undifferentiated gray eventually gives way to more definition in the clouds, a kind of coagulation of vapors with patches of blue in the background.

A change in the weather may be metaphor for clearings in other aspects of our lives. We can wait a long time before we are clear about vocation, avocation, and the line in between. One day, after muddling around in the options, we wake up and say to ourselves, I am more a person of this region of the earth than this one, more a person of the forest than the desert, more urban than rural. Or, after some confusion in the realm of relationships, causing pain in someone else’s life, or on the receiving end of such pain, we realize that one particular person is the true companion of our lives. And sometimes these things never come into focus; they remain blurry, obscure, and without clear margins, as the surgeons say.

When things do become clear it feels like a gift, something that arrived in its own time from another world. Clearings lift the heart. The energy we spent feeling around in the dark suddenly becomes available for a deeper exploration of where we are and does not dissipate itself in all the half-hearted starts and stops of our confusion. Though such clearing came at the end of our stay near Lakeside, it did eventually arrive. The clouds congealed over The Missions and the way, even if only the way home, became clear.

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