Paddling Lessons, Part I

The sun is beginning to rise through the firs a little further north each morning, even when dawn begins at fourteen degrees. I cannot help but think about paddling, even if the boat won’t go in the water for another couple of months. I turn the pages of the logbook and find a few things I want to remember as I prepare for another season. I don’t want my enthusiasm to get ahead of my experience. I want to recall a few paddling lessons.

I think back, for example, to a paddle I made three years ago in the first week of April. Wanting to become more familiar with the east shore of the lake I drove up to Yellow Bay. I pulled into the campground, named for the yellow rock on the north side of the bay, an Algonkian substrata, a Precambrian formation that also appears in Glacier National Park. I walked down to the beach, its broad fan exposed now because each winter the lake is drawn down to accommodate runoff from surrounding mountains. As I approached the water I spotted small, transparent plates of ice floating in the bay, the mica of ice. They made a tink, tink sound when I stirred them with my paddle. Despite the cold and a little breeze out of the northeast I decided to launch. When I stepped into the lake with my boat the water burned through my neoprene booties. Cold that feels like fire made me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”:

…The water seems suspended

above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones…

If you would dip your hand in,

Your wrist would ache immediately,

Your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn

As if the water were a transmutation of fire

That feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

The cold also brought to mind a diagram Tom Bansak gave me one day when I stopped by the Flathead Lake Biological Station. At these temperatures a person in the water would lose consciousness in between fifteen and thirty minutes; death quickly follows. One reminder was poetic, the other medical and sobering.

Despite this warning I felt called into the bay by sunshine and Bird Island in the distance. A slightly darker blue in a world of blue, the island rode the pale water about six miles to the south. At the start of the paddle I stroked through the strain of muscles that hadn’t been used in this way for several months. Push-ups and pull-ups alone did not maintain the muscles needed for paddling. I passed out of Yellow Bay and into the deepest part of the lake, about 370 feet at this time of the year. There were no other boats in sight, despite the clear skies. I reminded myself, If you have difficulty, you are on your own. I tried for smooth movements, not wanting to catch a blade. I settled into the rhythm.

As I approached the island I saw five pairs of unhappy geese. The island had been theirs until I showed up. Having found broken shells during summer visits to the island I knew they had nests hidden in the forest. I felt torn. On the one hand I really needed to land, to rest a moment in the sun and the lee, and on the other hand I knew I should leave the island to the geese. They became even more agitated as I pulled into the cove that I barely recognized despite dozens of summer visits. In April the large blocks of stone that frame the cove and the steep ramp of cobbles that form the beach were exposed. At this lower lake level the cove seemed much smaller than it did at summer’s full pool.

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Knowing that I would disturb the birds, but acceding to my own needs, I landed on the island as quietly and gently as possible. I ate my lunch in a modest patch of sunlight on a rock as far from where the birds nested as possible. After eating I stretched briefly. Meanwhile, the geese paddled back and forth across the cove, anxious for me to leave. After a few minutes on shore I returned to Bluebird and passed the geese without making direct eye contact. About a hundred yards out I braced, turned around and saw that they had moved back into the cove behind me.

In the clear, cold air I could see my reverse destination and stroked for Yellow Bay. I pulled into the bay a couple of hours later, avoiding a fisherman lobbing lead and bait into the water. After landing I carried a few pieces of gear up to the truck. In the shade, maintained by the shadow of the truck, I saw that frost had still not melted.

On the drive home I reflected on the risks and rewards of early-season paddling. The danger of the cold had been obvious to me. But in paddling on such a day I had been drawn to two great wonders—the beautiful rhythm of paddling, the reach, pull and sweep, and the way the body’s core traces an invisible infinity symbol with each stroke. But I had also craved the expanse of the lake and evidence that life was beginning to emerge after a winter indoors. On reflection I realized that I should have left the island to the birds. This early in the season I should have stayed closer to shore; it would have been enough to play on the line between mountain shadows cast over the water and the great fields of light.

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Between Invisible Shores

(September 14, 2012)

In an earlier post (Clear at Last) I describe conditions on the lake that I could barely imagine in September, two months earlier. Smoke from the Sawtooth Fire in the Bitterroots to the south and smoke from the Mustang complex of fires spreading from Idaho, plus smoke from 140 square miles of fire in Washington State have poured into Montana and filled every valley. These conditions awaken a primal desire to be near water. With several years of history leading retreats at Deep Bay, we receive permission to rent a timber-frame house at the retreat center. This visit will give me an opportunity to paddle from Deep Bay to Woods Bay, a direct route across the lake, west to east.

When I pull out of the deep pocket of the bay I lose sight of the bottom almost as soon as I pass between the black teeth that protrude out of the lake at the northeast corner of the bay. I don’t see the lake’s foundations again until I approach the armored point on the north side of Wood’s Bay. I am not only unable to see the lake bottom, I am unable to see the opposite shore. I was not alive in 1910 to see for myself, but I have read that the firestorm of 1910 filled the lake basin with so much smoke that some boats could not find their docks or ran aground, so poor was the visibility.

As I begin the crossing I can hear a few boats on the lake but cannot see them. This feels disconcerting, if not dangerous. Almost an hour later, when I finally see a boat, it appears suspended in the air. There is almost no distinction between water that looks like liquid solder and air saturated with gray smoke. After more than an hour of blind paddling I detect a faint finger where the forested peninsula just north of Wood’s Bay seems to be drawn along the water line.

I press on through the dense air, using dead-reckoning to help me navigate. I have almost no visible sense of progress. I paddle a thousand strokes but everything around me seems the same. This must be how it feels to a cancer patient trying to recover from the enervating effects of chemotherapy; how it feels to people trying to revitalize an institution in need of radical transformation; or, how anxious parents feel when young adult children flounder from part-time job to part-time job, looking for a footing on the continent of a more stable future. Today I paddle in faith that all these strokes will eventually lead to the opposite shore.

I remind myself not to hurry the process. I need to save a certain amount of strength for the return trip and the possibility of a shift in the wind and weather. I let images from the morning and the night that preceded it flow through my mind. I try not to latch onto anything in particular. I drift on the surface of thought. Stroke, thought, stroke…

Not being able to see into the distance, I focus on the near-at-hand. As I paddle I notice something I have never seen before: a series of narrow parallel lines peels off the bow of my boat and spreads in a widening “V.” As a boy I saw lines like these along the lower jaw of the blue whale in the Museum of Natural History where my father used to take me on my birthday. I wonder if there is a connection between these little lines streaming off the prow and the anatomy of the lower jaw of the great whales. Are the lines more than the pleats of a great expanding mouth, perhaps even an efficient way to channel the flow of water around a form that propels itself through water?

In time I spot what looks like either a buoy or a small sailboat a half mile to the north of my course. The smoke makes it very difficult to identify anything with confidence. I shift my course slightly to the north so I can approach and see this object more clearly. I approach close enough to see that this is one of the two instruments that the Biological Station has anchored in the lake. Having made the identification, I readjust my course slightly back to the south. I am beginning to pick up details on the far shore–a roofline, a water tower on the hill, a glinting window. Stroke, thought, stroke.

By now I want to get out of the boat, stretch my legs, eat the cookie I keep thinking about, get a drink of water. I find a tight little spot, a grove of cottonwoods, some drift logs, a shallow landing, and pull out. With my feet and part of Bluebird still in the water, I settle my rear end into the gravel, pull out my water bottle, take a long drink, and open the plastic bag protecting my now-late lunch. It feels good to settle myself into the red, tan, gray, and green stones, to feel the earth after making my way through water and opaque light. I pick up stones, examine their colors and shapes, look for fissures and lines, then put them back. Nearby, little white feathers from the ring-billed gulls drift in the bay. I drink in the water’s clarity, a clarity that seems strange when everything else is obscure.

I stow my few items of gear, slide my boat back into the water, and look back over my shoulder. A vague depression, a footprint, is the only evidence of my presence. I paddle out of the bay, slide past the breakwater, take one last look at the green cobbles on the bottom, knowing I won’t see the lake bottom for nearly two hours, and head into open water. This time I aim for the barely visible buoy to the northwest. In the smoky air it is again hard to have a sense of progress. I look away from the buoy so as to not feel discouraged. I have no landmarks to the left or right against which to gauge my advance. Finally, I see the anemometer on the top of the device, the yellow ring of the float, three solar panels, and a sign warning about potential shock hazard for those who disturb the equipment. I drift in and take a few photos.

This instrument, one of two anchored in the lake and coupled with land-based meteorological stations, comprise the Virtual Observatory and Ecological Informatics System (VOIES). According to the Flathead Journal this system measures air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, light and other meteorological parameters. The instrument, anchored above a deep water trench, also profiles temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, water clarity and algal pigments up and down the water column. All the data is relayed back to the Flathead Lake Biological Station. The summer 2012 edition of the Journal describes what scientists have already learned from this new system. The instruments accumulate enough data to be able to predict weather and changes in water quality. In addition, Dr. Mark Lorang uses the data to develop models of water circulation and wave patterns. Dr. Bonnie Ellis uses the information to enhance her studies of the food web of Flathead Lake. The most immediately useful information is available to the public at http://www2.umt.edu/flbs/. Today, however, the instrument seems like a phantom floating on the water. It is strangely virtual.

Buoy Pleased to have seen one of the two instruments anchored in the lake up close, I turn away and resume my paddle. I adjust my course a few degrees south, having come north to the buoy. But almost everything is guesswork. I know there is a far shore, but I see no indication of Angel Point, the meditation structure on top of the rock, no sign of the points marking the entrance to Hockaday or Hughes Bays. Every now and then I catch the faintest hint of what may be the few protruding rocks and trees of Goose Island. One moment I see the shape and the next I lose it. Trying to see this island is like looking at a star: look at it directly and it is gone; look to the side and it reappears. Far to the south I see the round gray-green shape of Cedar Island. I imagine my destination and stroke for it. Given the angle of the light, I once again feel as if I am stroking into radiance.

On the return trip I settle into a slightly slower rhythm. I am not especially tired. I simply have more confidence that this labor, despite the lack of visible progress, will return me to my starting place. I trust the cumulative effect of all these strokes, that infinite gray will resolve into green and blue, red and yellow, the black of water-licked stone. After an hour or so of paddling I discern the mass of the peninsula that protects Griswold Bay, the roofline on Cummins Point, the second mass of rock that protects Hughes Bay. Stroke after stroke I become clearer that the shape I first saw faintly is indeed Goose Island, that the entrance to Deep Bay lies just north of the orange landslide barely visible through the smoke.

I try not to focus on closing the distance between the dock and me. It is enough to keep Bluebird in motion and on course. Eventually I slide past a stone house I admire, snake through the teeth at the entrance to the bay, make the few last strokes across the still bay and pop the skirt. I lift Bluebird to safety for the night, change out of my booties and gather a few things I want to take up to Earth House. I have paddled through miles of uncertainty, leagues of guesswork, creating a triangle of about 15 miles.

Hardly anything is more satisfying than paddling in the crystal clarity of late May or in October after the first few frosts. In September I fear that paddles through a smoke-filled basin will become more common as global climate change becomes more severe, as more frequent droughts and attendant fires radically change our perception of “normal.” The effects of these changes fill even the most pristine places. I hike up the trail pondering our impact on the planet. At the same time I look forward to seeing people who have waited for my return.

smokybasin

Through New Eyes

Image(June 2013)

People occasionally ask me to introduce them to paddling on Flathead Lake. They want the benefit of my experience before they venture out on their own. At a chili feed for a local nonprofit my friend C.W. bid several times during the silent auction on a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. When the opportunity went to someone else, I turned to him and said, “Would you like to go with me some time for free?” His eyes brightened. He said, “Sure.” Two years later, after his retirement and several other major events in our lives, we finally found an opportunity to make good on our plan.

Before C.W. arrives I check the graphical forecast and a satellite image (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/flatheadlake/. A big yellow comma full of rain hangs over the lake but will pass to the east later in the day. After C.W. pulls into the driveway we load his extra clothes, lunch, and camera gear into my truck and take off. On the way up the valley we see clouds clinging to The Missions. Elsewhere, the ceiling is flat and gray. When we crest the Polson moraine we see a calm lake, sections of black water that are perfectly breathless. It has stopped raining. When we pull into the Walstad access, with the thought of crossing to Wildhorse, I say, “I have never seen it so calm here in mid-June. We’ll have a great day.”

As we pull away from the dock we stay close together until I can see that C.W. is comfortable in the boat. When I see him pull the skirt while we are in mid-channel and reach into his lap where he stowed his camera, I know he will be fine. He takes photographs throughout the day, evidence perhaps of his habits as a journalist. He had been a reporter for Rocky Mountain News before coming to the University of Montana where he had a distinguished career as a professor in the School of Journalism. As I keep watching, I realize that he is as much an artist as a reporter recording a story.

When we reach the island C.W. feels drawn to the margins where trees have fallen into the lake and left long ghostly bodies angling down toward darkness. Later, when I see his photographs, I discover that he was also drawn to the abstract forms on shore, tree branches sticking out of the trunk of a tree in parallel curves that reminded him of ribs, gnarled root balls that revealed a tree’s contortions around impermeable stone. As a photographer he recognizes the moment when an angle of sunlight allows him to see objects underwater but near shore, blocks of stone dusted with spring sediment or gravels scrubbed by shore waves. He keeps seeing and recording the interface between things: the line between shadow and light, the comparatively hard or sharp forms of things on shore—dead tree branch, or leaf edge, and the soft forms of pebbles beneath the surface. Using his telephoto, he finds a trio of adult geese introducing eighteen goslings to what must have been their first open-water paddle. We pass them going opposite directions far from shore. When we slip beneath an eagle on its overhanging perch he frames it from below. When we are on the island and find a band of rams, he selects a trio of particularly big boys out of the whole group, their massively thick horns protruding above the island’s long and, for now, still-green grass.

Later in the day, after we climb to a rocky promontory with a ledge full of bitterroots, the blooms tightly folded under gray skies, we search for the island’s horses. By not hurrying, and consulting my memories of where I had seen them in the past, we spot the foal, now a full-grown horse, startling red and white among black mares. Again, with an artist’s eye, C.W. looks for the patterns in their arrangement with each other. When we find the skeleton of the horse that died this past winter he asks me to hold a femur that I extracted from the grasses beginning to conceal it. He takes a photo of me holding the massive bone. Afterwards I think of Georgia O’Keefe painting found objects in New Mexico. Keeping an eye on the muted sun I suggest that we head back down to the bay. Because the water is still calm I suggest that we put a bend in the route of our return and circle Melita Island before heading back to the dock.

Kayaking on Flathead Lake is about crossing from mainland to island, the beautiful rhythm of strokes, countless adjustments to wind and waves–all the things that bring me a sense of exhilaration. But on this paddle I learned that paddling the lake is also about seeing in new ways, taking time to see patterns I usually ignore or fail to recognize, seeing the interaction between water and shore, object and reflection, even the beauty in death. This morning I pulled out of the driveway hoping to introduce a friend to a new subject. I returned as a student learning to see in a new way. By trying to view the world through my friend’s eyes every time he raised his camera, I learned that I had been passing by some of the marvels of form, color, and relationship as I sped from point to point. On this day the teacher became a student. I learned another reason to paddle with other people. As I helped my friend load gear back into his car he said, “Thanks, this opens up a whole new world.” I felt the same way.