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.