Finally, Close to Painted Rocks

Every time I go to the lake I am aware that I am passing through land that belongs to The Flathead Nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille peoples. This is not my land; it is theirs. Their roots in this landscape reach into the ground of at least 7,000 years of history and their stories reach back to a time before that. As I travel to the lake and pass over its waters, I wish I had a way of making a deeper connection with the people of this place. In an effort to make contact with the history of these people I have tried many times to approach Painted Rocks, a pictograph site on the west shore of the lake. Whether I am paddling north or south I often find that the waves in this area of the lake seem to be focused on the cliff where these red markings can be found. In these conditions waves bounce off the cliff at odd angles and create a complicated, chaotic sea. Or, even if the waves are calm, wakes from passing boats make this a somewhat hazardous place for a kayaker to slip the paddle under a deck line to pause and wonder.


One Monday evening, however, when a friend and I had made arrangements to camp on Cedar Island, just south of the cliffs, the lake was so calm that we could safely approach the cliffs and their enigmatic markings. We were able to touch the wet dark rock under the limestone cliffs overhead and look as long as we pleased.


To untrained eyes it appears as if the cliff bears depictions of bison, perhaps bison headdresses, and tick marks, possibly indicating kills or visits to this site. A book by Sally Thompson, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, People Before the Park, makes very clear that bison were “real food” to the Kootenai. Despite the risks, they made seasonal treks over the mountains into bison country east of the Divide to obtain the kind of protein that would sustain them through long winters west of the mountains. No wonder bison appear on these walls.


Thanks again to Sally Thompson, an anthropologist and ethnographer, I was directed to Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella Clark. The book contains stories related to this area and a Kootenai story about Painted Rocks in particular. For anyone curious about this area and the deep memories of its original inhabitants, this story may be meaningful. Amazingly, it recognizes a time before and after the geological cataclysm of what we call Glacial Lake Missoula. I especially enjoy the humor in the characterization of Rabbit. In Clark’s words:

This myth about them (Painted Rocks) was recorded from William Gingrass. His Kutenai name, given him by his great-grand-mother, means “Grizzly Bear War Paint.”

 After the great flood long ago, no human beings were left in this country. But the spirits were left. Some of them were in the form of animals. They gathered together on a bench of land above where Flathead Lake is now. At that time there was no lake—just a big river coming down from the north. It wound around and flowed down through where the Hot Springs are now. All that country was under water; you can see the water marks yet on the east side of the Lone Pine country. A little stream flowed at the south end of the present lake. A long time after this story, Yawonick, something that lives down below the water, came up from the bottom of the river and changed its course. Then the lake was formed.

When the great flood went down, the spirits held a council there on the shelf above the old river. They had heard that new people were coming, and they knew they should decide what to do when the Indians arrived. While they talked, one spirit kept watch.

“The people will come in canoes from the north,” said the chief of the spirits. “We must have everything decided when they come, as to how we can help them. Each of you will have to have a special song that will help people. You will sing it and then put your picture or your name on these big rocks.”

“But why should we put them up here?” asked on spirit. “They will be so high that they will be hard to get to or even to see.”

“That is what we want,” replied Nupeeka, the chief of the spirits. Nupeeka means “spirit”; in the old days he was a kind of teacher also. “We want the people to go to the high places when they seek spirit power. Seeking power will be too easy if they can find it in the low places. They will have to climb to get to the spirit pictures and the writing in the high places.”

So the spirits sang their songs and painted their names in pictures on the rocks. The first Dawn of the Morning sang the first song and put his sign highest up on the rock; that spirit gave the strongest power. The spirits of Grizzly Bear and Cougar and Eagle—they sang their songs and painted their pictures. Each of them gives strong power. All the other spirits sang their songs and put their writing on the rocks—all except Rabbit. He just hopped around.

At last the lookout called, “We must end our meeting. I see the new people coming around the bend.”

“But I haven’t made up my song yet!” exclaimed Rabbit. “I haven’t a song yet and I haven’t painted my picture.”

“It’s too late now,” the other spirits told him. “The people are landing below the Painted Rock.”

So Rabbit was left out entirely. He has no power song. He gives no power to people seeking spirit power. He can do nothing but hop around.

The new people landed below the Painted Rocks, near where Rollins is now, in the Big Lodge country. It is called the Big Lodge country because of a vision two men had many years ago. Each of them saw in a vision where he should put up a lodge for a Sun Dance, for a sacrifice to the spirits. When they followed their dream, they came to the same place; each had seen the same spot in his vision. So they put one big lodge there for the two groups of people.

The harder a person had to work to get to the place for the power quest, the higher the spirit power he obtained. The spirit who appeared to a person in a vision recorded on the rocks how many days and nights he had been there and what power had been given him (149-151).


Like first peoples, I, too, have had to work to get close to Painted Rocks, to the deep history the site depicts and to the long, almost geological memory of the people or spirits who left their marks here, recording and celebrating a time even before the lake.


The Return

The Return

On August 16-17, a friend and I made one of my favorite mid-summer paddles. We put in at the Walstad Fishing Access point near Big Arm and paddled north against waves and wind past Wildhorse Island and then on to Cedar Island.

IMG_2713Before setting up camp we decided to walk around the island. I showed my friend the remnants of a craftsman style home and the cold cellar where geese now build nests, the meadow, untended orchard and derelict corral, the cistern now filled with garbage instead of cool, clear water. We found goose eggs lying open on the now brown moss covering the deep forest floor. But we also found trash—a margarita bottle balanced on a drift log, aluminum cans that never burn in fire pits, lots of toilet paper, a few diapers, an empty potato chip bag, bottle caps and plastic on the beaches. In this exceptionally dry year, with 86 fires burning around us, the sere conditions help to preserve garbage as if it had been sealed in a desert tomb.


On our walk I complained about what we were seeing. I felt the disjunction between this island outpost in the largest lake west of the Mississippi and the effects of human visitation. Internally I asked, how can someone not care about this place? I could acknowledge pure accident, the way a gust of wind whips an object out of an upraised hand; but my judgments about the carelessness that follows the consumption of too much alcohol and the thoughtlessness of the privileged piled up like logs on the beach. As I walked along I felt unprepared to pick up the garbage I found. I needed gloves and nose plugs; I needed a garbage bag with a tie; I needed an empty boat, not one full of camping gear.

In the same way that one should not pray for the hungry without being willing to feed them, I do not want to complain about garbage on Cedar Island without being willing to do something about it. I need to return to the island, leave Bluebird’s chambers empty so that I have room to pick up what I find. This island has given me a vantage point on sunrise, a high perch to watch the sun go down and cast its red glow on the Mission Range. This island sails like a ship through the night sky. On one level I feel as though I have a debt that I want to find a way to repay. I can work off this debt to beauty by making time to return to the island and come prepared to transport its garbage to a proper depository. I cannot do anything about Syria or help immigrants on Greece’s shores, but I can do something about the condition of Cedar Island. I must return.

Early on Monday, August 24, I headed back to the lake. My boat was empty except for emergency gear. I slipped Bluebird into choppy conditions around the Westshore campground and sped south, timing my strokes to coincide with the push of the lake on my port stern quarter. I covered four miles in 45 minutes, lifted my boat into the drift logs, and took gloves and bags out of the stern hatch.

I circled the island counterclockwise, alternating between the forest interior and the beaches where people had burned their fires and left their trash. Predictably, I picked up glass, plastic and Styrofoam, but also managed to free a rope tied around a tree, and steeled myself to pick up the paper trails; but I drew the line on corrugated steel and plywood. On one beach I saw how a beach fire radiated outward, its flames following the flammable roots of cottonwoods, then climbing the trunks and killing the grove.

When I reached the east side of the island I heard the voices of a young man and woman. They had spelled a name by laying little stones on the bleached back of a drift log, their cell phones nearby as they swam in the coves. I eventually completed my circle and returned to the beach where I had left Bluebird and saw that the young couple had crossed to the island in a small open kayak and a stand-up paddleboard. They eventually joined me on the beach as I paused to eat a snack before heading north. They had figured out what I was doing and were willing to take a photo of my trash before I tucked it in the wide mouth of my stern hatch. The young man kindly inquired about the shin I barked on a broken limb from a fallen fir. As they left the beach for nearby Zelezny Bay, I felt happy watching them play on the stage of their mutual affection.

Using a kayak as a garbage barge is a strange thing to do. Drawing the moral lines sharply, one might even argue that it was wasteful to drive the distance from Missoula to clean up the island. Further, the garbage on Cedar Island does not compare to plastic in the Pacific or on Caribbean beaches. But I have learned how important it is for me not to suppress the empathic or moral response. With every suppression the impulse to respond to the world grows weaker. As often as I can I try not to let this happen. I don’t want the sympathetic response to the world within my reach to die out. Ultimately, this is why I returned to the island.


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.

Between Stars and Swans

(September 27, 2013)

I see another opening for a paddle. At the university I am between Galileo and Descartes and can catch my breath. The grass is too wet to mow after record-setting rains earlier in the week. I go to bed early Thursday night, planning to paddle on Friday, but feel so excited about what will almost certainly be my last paddle of the season that I wake in the middle of the night. I know that I won’t sleep unless I move, so I go outside for a view of the sky. The season’s first hard frost covers every surface with a bright glaze. Overhead, big stars and a couple of planets surround a half moon as if drawing close to their mother. With this image in my mind I return to bed for a little more sleep.

In the morning I glance outside to see my kayak and truck covered with the same hard frost. The day is supposed to be as clear as the night, but I have my doubts. I tell Joyce goodbye and promise to take my cell phone as I head out the door. Heading north I see that days of rain after a frighteningly dry summer have brought raptors down to the fence lines and wires. Rough-legged and red-tail hawks scan the fields from Arlee to St. Ignatius. Up high the first snow has fallen on The Missions. The log decks at Hunts suggest they may be able to saw all winter. Atop the Polson moraine I see a lake that looks like gray fleece. I pass through town and pull into the lot at Walstad. I want to paddle around Wild Horse in a clockwise direction, visiting the places in the daylight that I explored during the night this past July.

As I begin to paddle to the island I notice something I have never seen before: the horizon in every direction looks as if hundreds of geese are taking off from the surface of the water; it is as if flashing wings span the horizon. I see no birds, so I am puzzled about the cause of this apparent disturbance on the surface. Looking carefully at the horizon it appears to me as though the relatively warmer temperature of the lake in relation to still-cool morning air creates the illusion. When a distant boat passes across the horizon it seems to ride on airfoils, in the air, not the water. I like the effect.

When I make the crossing to the island I usually draw near to the shore and enjoy the psychological relief that comes with seeing the bottom again. In this case I keep myself off shore and take a direct line to the flagpole snag that marks the entrance to Skeeko Bay. I pass one eagle along shore and then a second on the nearly branchless tree. I pass the big bay on my right and meet the shoreline near the island’s Primitive Area, then find my way to the beach where I rested during the darkest hours of the night. I haul out here and go for what Pooh called “an explore.” I pause over dry flowers standing stiff above the duff, find an antler shed, nearly invisible in the matted grass, a deer skull at the base of a stump, several feathers shed in the molt of August, a large ziplock baggie that I carry back as trash. The island is silent; the only sounds made by trucks gearing up the grade on the highway across the strait. After wandering I return to my boat, nestle in the gravels, and eat my lunch.

As I resume my paddle I seriously consider continuing north to Cedar Island. The crossing would add six total miles to the paddle, but I feel uncertain about the weather. Choosing caution over adventure, I continue around the island. When I reach the northernmost rocks I realize that I have made a good decision. Without having realized it until now, I have been paddling in a false calm. The island has protected me from winds blowing hard now out of the southeast. I cinch my hat to face the gusts and begin to work. By the time I reach the southeast corner of the island I realize that I need to make another decision. I had planned to follow the southern coastline of the island, traveling east to west, then cross back to Walstad. Today this would leave me with a final crossing in broadside winds and waves. I abandon this plan and head straight for the north shore of Rocky Point. I prefer a stiff headwind to taking wind and waves at oblique angles. This, too, proves to be a good decision. While the wind blows consistently from one direction the waves are utterly chaotic and disorganized. I lower the angle of my paddle, so as to keep the blades a little closer to the surface, and take the wind in the teeth.

I eventually come into the relative lee created by the shoulders and ridges of the north-facing topography. As I head west I pass Camp Marshall, an extraordinary home with a jet helicopter in the front yard, a few people hammering things down before winter or tucking their boats away. Ahead of me the water looks like abraded carbon, Melita Island black as coal. I eventually arrive at the public dock, give two boys casting lures a wide berth, and swing into the quiet little bay just beyond the access site. After putting my gear and boat away I use the high back of the bench near the dock as a windbreak and eat a huge honey crisp apple.


On the way home I see even more clearly that I made good decisions today. Snow squalls veil the canyons between peaks in The Missions and rain begins to fall west of the highway near The National Bison Range. To slow the pace I take the long way around to Ravalli and increase the chance of seeing more birds. I stop several times to take photographs through the truck‘s open window. I feel drawn to all the colors of autumn grasslands, reflections in the water of Ninepipes, and rain falling near Moiese.  Up ahead I see two trumpeter swans with 80-inch wingspans flying from right to left. They pass through the telephone wires, cross the road, and continue south. I check my rear view mirror to see if I can stop again. Seeing headlights, I drive on, capturing the birds in memory rather than pixels. This has been a good way to end the paddling season. I see why I woke in the middle of the night.


Guilty Escape


I feel like I am doing something illicit as I drive away from Missoula on August 21, 2013. The Lolo Complex fire has burned 8500 acres, displaced 200 people from their homes, detoured and inconvenienced thousands more. As I travel west on I-90 I look over my left shoulder and see smoke from the fire drape itself like a five hundred foot thick blanket over the hills south of town. I feel as if I should stay with my fellow citizens, endure what they endure, not slip away to the north for a paddle under clear skies.

By the time I get my first full view of The Missions the sky is clean and blue except for an area high in the Mission Creek drainage where a small fire is allowed to burn in the wilderness. Dropping into Polson I see that a steady breeze from the northeast has turned Polson Bay into a turquoise frappe. Today I want to paddle from Westshore campground down to Cedar Island, round the island, then head back north to Deep Bay for a swim, and return. So, I head through town, check out the fishing access site at Elmo as a launch site for a possible future paddle, then turn off at the campground further north.

After unloading my boat and related gear I stand in the shallows. I want to get a feel for the lake and what it will permit. Modest white caps roll southwest down the length of the lake. I will have to take these waves on the port stern quarter for several miles. As long as the wind does not strengthen and start to blow the tops off the waves, experience tells me that I should be able to paddle back against this energy. It seems safe enough to proceed.

Almost immediately I am in the grip of the wind and the waves. I deploy the skeg for a little directional assistance and added stability. Paddling gives me a chance to brace intermittently, as needed. A few fishermen speed by, their wakes adding to the mix. As is so often the case the waves are particularly unpredictable around Painted Rocks. Once again I won’t be able to take a photograph of the pictographs. Suddenly the island comes into view. I proceed with my plan, speed down the east shore of the island and swing around into the lee. Only an osprey on a snag breaks the quiet. The bird seems incensed that I have intruded upon its morning.

I drift into the rock shelter near the derelict home on the island. I extract my lunch from the hatch and climb the rocks so I can look out on all the water to the north. I find my spot—part sun, part shade, and enjoy my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Below me waves roll the logs trapped against rocks. Blue, green, and yellow mix with each other according to the depth of the water. Everything is airy and bright.

I leave my vantage point feeling refreshed. On my way back to the boat I find a particularly fine goose feather, and pick it up for admiration. Before dropping back into Bluebird I wade out into the water to pick up a glass lemonade bottle that someone tossed away. I stow it in an extra bag in my rear compartment. I don’t want broken glass in these shallows. If I were really responsible, I would also remove the green shirt someone left behind. I am not quite that conscientious. I use my paddle to move it away from the water’s edge and hide it among the drift logs. I hope it will degrade.

I always feel a little anxious as I head out into the wind and wave train that now advances toward me. I remind myself to trust the cumulative effect of thousands of strokes. I glance to my left for reassurance and see that I am indeed moving north in relation to the shore. The day may come when I will not be able to move against these forces, but for now it feels good to apply myself in this way.

After a couple of hours I am at the mouth of Deep Bay but need to adjust my course to make way for the enormous tour boat operated by Far West Cruises. Tourists look shoreward from the canopied upper deck and never see me. I am not sure the captain does either, preoccupied as he is with his narrative about the lake. I feel grateful for the intimacy I have with the lake compared to their far remove.

I haul out in the bottom of the bay, wade back in and take the plunge. This is as warm as the lake will ever be, I tell myself. It feels good to be thoroughly wet, head to toe. On my way back to the campground I stay very close to shore. I pass through the milky water against the cliff, wondering if there is a clay deposit here, and see that in late August the reds and yellows of autumn are beginning to emerge on the dry slope above.

Bathing beauties sun themselves on the gravel where I normally pull out, so I slide up the adjacent concrete boat ramp and am careful to not let Bluebird come to ground against the abrasive surface. As I begin to carry everything back to the truck someone calls out, “Hey, I like your craftsman-style boat rack. Mine is made of two-by-fours and screws. Yours is beautiful.” I am not sure how to respond and can only muster, “Thanks. Yours works as well as mine.” I laugh to myself thinking, my truck rack may be the most-admired thing I ever made.

As I drive back down the west shore of the lake I return to the sense that I stole this day, stole it from school preparation, stole it from my community laboring under the smoke, stole it from the grip of anxiety. As I head south I try to bring along with me today’s experience of ease and pleasure at paddling in clear water under a clear sky. I return bearing treasure.