No Escape

August 19, 2021

On Thursday I returned to a portion of the lake I haven’t seen in a while—the west shore between Goose Bay and Cedar Island. I wanted to refresh memories of certain features of the landscape, one beach in particular where I rested during the long paddle between Sommers and Big Arm. I also needed a break from news of the rise in Covid infections, the recently released U.N. report on climate, and the situation in Afghanistan where desperate people are being blocked from entering the airport for evacuation flights, clung with their hands to landing carriages, or huddle now in their homes in fear of a knock on the door. For me Afghanistan is not an abstraction. I vividly remember a conversation with a female Afghan college student after a lecture on poetry in the classroom. She spoke to me about a poem that was honest about death. I am haunted by a phone call I received from another former student. He had been an interpreter for U.S. officers during the war. He called from a place he did not name, desperate for money because he was probably trying to get his parents out of the country. I feel my way into their situation.

Needing a break from these stories and memories I slipped into the water at the Westshore State Park and headed south against a modest head wind, hoping that I would have the benefit of wind from the south on the return paddle. This was the first cool day after the hottest July on record and an August that has left a film of ash on every horizontal surface.

I headed across Goose Bay, remembering that ethnologist Frank Bird Linderman had built a cabin somewhere in the curve of its shelter. I passed Miller Point and looked to my right at the beautiful white bridge that arches over the lake and links a magnificent property to a black tower of rock. I stroked on toward Painted Rocks. Suddenly I heard a loud rhythmic pounding behind me, the rapid thudding of a very heavy helicopter. The sound grew increasingly loud and began to seem threatening, as if I were caught on the tracks and being chased by a locomotive. Turning around 180 degrees is difficult in a sea-kayak, my camera too deeply stowed for a photograph. All I could do was wait for the machine to pass overhead. A moment later an enormous dual rotor, mat-black, helicopter flew overhead only about 100 feet above the surface of the lake. Never having served in the military, I was unprepared for what would follow the dark machine’s passing. A few seconds after seeing the helicopter head south parallel to the coastline, the surface of the water became agitated. Suddenly I was hit by the rotor wash—an intense burst of wind that nearly stripped my broad-brimmed hat away and required a quick brace.

Photo Credit: Terrence Burke

At first, I thought the helicopter might be heading south at nearly 200 miles per hour toward the Thorne Creek fire north of Thompson Falls or perhaps that it would swing east and drop water on the Boulder 2700 fire that started near Finley Point. I paddled on toward Cedar Island in the hope that so much power might be brought to bear in the fight against the flames. Glad to see the island again, I planned to circle it a counterclockwise fashion, stop for lunch in a tiny cove on the east side, and go for a swim, wanting to wash myself clear of this summer. Just before leaving the limestone cliffs and crossing to the island, I heard the helicopter again. It had circled back and now was flying north. It rounded the cliff face and flew right at me, its dual, counter-rotating 60-foot rotors and roaring Lycoming T55 engines about a hundred feet above my head. This time I knew to expect the rotor wash and prepared for its blast before it fell on me.

For the rest of the day I told myself that this helicopter must have been enlisted in the firefighting effort, but things did not add up. Doing a little research after I drove home, I learned that the CH47, commonly called a “Chinook,” has been used to deliver water to fires in California, but all those machines have bright insignia and the nozzle they lower into the water was nowhere in sight. What I thought might be a refueling tube projecting from its nose was actually a big black machine gun that looked more like a cannon. This was a heavy lift helicopter, capable of raising an F-15 off a tarmac or ferrying 38 soldiers and their weapons to the scene of battle. This was not a firefighting machine, this was a war machine.

Reflecting on my encounter, it now occurs to me that not even such machines and all the weight of U.S. ambitions, not even 83 billion dollars nor the cocksure confidence of young men were capable of fending off the influence, planning, coordination, intimidation and extortion of The Taliban. Quite simply, our weapons will not save us. They will not save us from insurgency or from better intelligence. Despite all their power, they will not save us from drought, fire or flood. Like picking up a sledge hammer when we need a paring chisel, we are using the wrong tools for the job. The hubris of empire has fooled us into thinking we can do anything we want. Not so. In Afghanistan dust storms and a shoulder-mounted rocket brought down these machines.

Now the next morning, I am left with the fear I felt as this machine followed me from behind or suddenly appeared in front of me when it rounded the face of the cliff. Yes, I can imagine the hope that so much power might save us, the hope of the powerless; but more than anything I feel the residue of fear as these machines depart, leaving us in the wash of their down-drafting wind.

In the days of drought and fire I fled to the lake, immersed myself in liquid green and blue. But I discovered that none of us can escape the consequences of choices we have made or some of the illusions we try desperately to maintain.