Accident Under the Mother Tree

Accident Under the Mother Tree

My mother died on May 26, 2007. At least we think that was the day. The nursing home lost track of her during the night. Grateful for her life, and the gift of my own, I try to go paddling each year around the time of her death day. I do this for several of reasons. Her generosity made it possible for me to buy my Current Designs Gulfstream, the kayak I use on Flathead Lake. The end of May is a nearly ideal time to paddle out to Wild Horse Island and explore its interior. Unless the weather has been unusually hot and dry many of the wildflowers are still blooming and I enjoy searching for the island’s wildlife. Paddling in May is also a way of giving thanks for my relatively good health and stamina, qualities my mother never enjoyed.

On May 29, I slipped through the morning’s commuter traffic, headed west on the interstate, and took the slow lane up the Evaro hill. To the east the meadows were full of snowmelt and wild iris. At Ninepipes the ponds were overflowing as the first truly warm days brought snow down off the Missions. To the west a heron stilted after fish in the grassy shallows. At the base of the Polson moraine I looked at the log decks at Hunt’s Timbers, bunks of material ready for sale, and thought about a friend’s request that I make her grave marker from pine purchased at Hunt’s. Near the bridge in Polson several boats of fishermen had lines in the water.  At the Walstad fishing access the parking lot was empty.

Trusting the Graphical Forecast of “variable winds and waves less than a foot,” I pushed the wind around the north side of Melita Island, rounded the southeast corner of Wild Horse and headed up to Osprey Cove, one of many places on the lake where osprey and bald eagles compete with one another for territory and fish. I spotted one of each, breasts to the morning sun. Knowing that the lake is filling toward full pool, I lifted Bluebird onto one of the gravel benches parallel to the beach, peeled off my dry suit, and dug out my lunch sack and water bottle. On a previous trip I had begun exploring the steep draw that empties into the cove. This time I had time to climb it to the top. In the lower elevations Arrowleaf Balsamroot had finished blooming, but Arnica still caught my eye, along with a few spent Shooting stars, Larkspur and Harebells. In the deep shade of the forest a trio of bucks in velvet yanked at Balsamroot leaves.

As I continued to climb I realized that the draw would not end in a valley but in the island’s true summit. At the top I could see south to the islands of The Narrows, the Mission crest in the distance, west to the northern Bitterroot range still under snow.

Looking around for a good lunch spot, I noticed a “mother tree,” a large Ponderosa Pine. Beneath the drip line of the low branches Balsamroot and Harebells grew in a concentrated ring.

I backed in, rested against the trunk and opened my lunch sack. A little thirsty, I drank some of my water and ate half an apple. On these solo trips I often carry a can of sardines and my favorite Dakota bread from Great Harvest Bakery. Using my left hand to secure the tin I pulled the ring. At first the lid would not yield and the top developed a crown. It would take a lot more force now to peel back the lid. So, I set my shoulder to the task and pulled hard. When the lid finally gave way the edge of the tin sliced my left hand between thumb and index finger. Blood pulsed out of the open gash, spotted my clothes, lunch sack, and pine duff at my feet.

I knew I was in trouble and would need to make good decisions. I took time to breathe and think. I poured some of my water into the open wound, knowing that the sardine can was not sterile. Having left my first aid kit in the kayak down below, I had to find an alternative to compress and tape. I looked around for solutions and saw the big Balsamroot leaves. I broke off three, pressed them against the wound and then used a stem to bind everything in place.

Knowing that I still had to paddle roughly seven miles back to Walstad, I decided I’d better eat. So, I used the fingers of my right hand to pull the sardines out of the can, dividing the fish onto the two pieces of bread. I also took time to eat a Cliff bar and to consider my limited options.

Often traveling alone, I have developed a practice of noticing my surroundings when I hike. On the way down from the summit I looked again for the fallen pine whose roots now held a limestone block in the air, the snag with a nesting cavity, the patch of bare ground, a particular erratic boulder, the cliff dividing one side of the draw from the other, the fencing of an old corral. I did not want to end up in the wrong cove or waste energy looking for my boat. Once on the beach I plopped down on the edge of the water, let go of my bloody leaves, did a better job washing the wound and pulled out my first aid kit. Though not trained in making a dressing, I used a sterile gauze pad and two long strips of tape torn free with my teeth. Then it occurred to me that I could use my paddling glove (tucked in the hatch for emergencies), to create more pressure. I worked the tight black glove over the dressing and into place. Now I knew I could paddle.

Before slipping the boat back in the water I drank most of the contents of my spare bottle containing electrolytes called “Skraitch,” a less sweet alternative to drinks commonly used by athletes. I knew I would have difficulty pulling on my dry suit with its latex gaskets and long diagonal zipper, so I stowed the dry suit. I would have to trust the weather and smooth strokes. I did not want to roll in 43-degree water. In calm conditions I reversed my route but chose to paddle between Melita and homes along Labella Lane in case I needed help. As I rounded Melita I skirted a flock of ring-billed gulls clustered together on the gravel bar. After they scattered I noticed an eagle wing feather waiting to be discovered by Boy Scouts who would soon arrive. A slight tail wind carried me back to my starting point.

More slowly this time, I carried all my gear back to the truck and made myself re-load and secure the kayak. Driving back into town I realized that I was having trouble concentrating. Intersections and crosswalks felt like a flood of data. I decided to ask for help. I vaguely remembered a sign pointing to a clinic at the top of the hill south of town. The Ridgecrest Clinic did not accept walk-in patients so they directed me back into town to the clinic near St. Joseph’s Hospital. As I walked back toward my truck someone tapped me on the shoulder. A kind woman said, “I heard you describe your injury. Don’t drive back into town. Walk across the street. Those people will take care of you.” Indeed they did. From the women at the front counter helping me with paper work to the woman who helped me pull off the bloody glove, from the physician who tested tendons to Karen Smith who stitched the severed artery and closed the wound I received the care I needed. The leathery leaves of Balsamroot were a temporary solution at best.

Driving home I turned off the radio so I could concentrate. Along the way I reflected on my day. Many would say I should not make these trips by myself; the risk is too great. But if I am going to paddle to the islands at this time of the year I will probably paddle alone. In the future, if I combine a paddle with a hike, I will stow a fanny pack containing my box of first aid supplies and will not leave the kayak without it. Having watched skilled hands dress a wound, I am going to add a few new supplies to my Pelican box.

I return astonished by how quickly a day can change. A fall on the ice, a snowboard accident, a car crash happens in an instant. I find this humbling. Accidents befall even those who are prepared. In the end I’m glad I stopped for lunch under the mother tree on a day I wanted to honor my own mother. More than flowers grow in a ring beneath its sheltering limbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mystery of Timing

The Mystery of Timing

August 29, 2018

From time to time I remind myself that an eagle feather will not fall out of the sky and land beside my tent every morning; that I will not find a polished antler every time I walk up the hill; that not every June will be moist, free of wind, and permit each green thing to flourish; and that not every conversation will wander happily from topic to topic and end in resolution, understanding, and warmth.

And yet, some days the door to disclosure and discovery seems wide open. Yesterday, for example, I joined two friends who had just married for a post-celebration paddle around Wild Horse Island. After forty-six days without measurable precipitation and with smoke in every valley it had finally rained and cleared. A brisk breeze blew out of the southwest, a rarity in late summer. After launch we let the wind and waves rock and roll us toward the south east corner of Wild Horse Island and then gentle us toward Osprey cove on the timbered east side, with only a distant sailboat on a downwind reach in open water before us. As we turned into the cove we saw the final act of aerial competition between a bald eagle and an osprey, the heavy bird driven into a ponderosa, the lighter more agile fish hawk in quick retreat after a final taloned dive. On shore we sat in the marvel of brightly colored stones and enjoyed hunks of cheese, a tuna sandwich, Greek olives and monster cookies, calories not a problem.

As quiet as butterflies, three fulsome bucks came to the water to drink and seemed completely undisturbed by the sound of our voices or scent. It was not easy to reconcile their horny hooves, hardening antlers, and the softness with which they tipped forward and sipped the clear water.

Later, after rounding the north point of the island and we began the southbound leg of our circle, we came upon three enormous Bighorn rams on the steep and rocky shore below the red cliffs. Intent on rooting out some tasty mineral, one ram turned its rear to us while the others faced us squarely, warning us not to take one more stroke toward them. I felt astonished by their mass, the age and size of their curling horns, and hoped they would not crash into the water in an effort to drive me away. Their red eyes and hard stare were unnerving.

Some days we circle our islands and see nothing worth remark. No matter our hopes, or even our openness, the doors seem closed and no feather falls in the night. But other times the curtain between us and discovery, between us and the Other, whether human or wild, seems parted, pulled back within the stage’s curved frame. Yesterday was such a day. If our arrivals had been different by even five minutes we would not have seen what we saw. After hauling out we drove home in a state of wonder, grateful for the good fortune of timing and everything we had been allowed to see.

To Excel or Enjoy

…Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,

As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,

And I stood outside myself,

Beyond becoming and perishing,

A something wholly other,

As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,

and yet was still.

And I rejoiced in being what I was…

Theodore Roethke “The Rose”

I went for a lovely paddle yesterday, beading a triangle through the islands with a strong paddler new to the lake. I had every reason to feel satisfied at day’s end. I chose a route appropriate for uncertain weather and discovered that my new friend is a more than capable kayaker with abundant experience in Mexico and the northwest. Strangely, however, I came home from yesterday’s paddle asking myself, somewhat cruelly, Is nine miles all you were good for? Why didn’t you incorporate at least one more island or slide through the tunnel into Queen’s Bay before heading to the north end of Bull Island? And can you even count the miles when the wind pushed from behind?

 A less self-critical part of me asks, Must one excel or is it enough to enjoy? Is the measure of excellence found only in a long paddle against the wind, the exposure of a long crossing and pushing one’s body up to the far edge of exhaustion?

Though both my paddling companion and I were capable of a longer paddle, I came home asking myself if I am growing content with less. To excel or enjoy is a false choice, but this day I took more pleasure in simple things than distance and adversity. I enjoyed conversation in the car, the chuckling of water-lapped stones in a wide-mouthed bay, the feel of relatively warmer water on my bare hands, the beautiful ovoid shapes in tones of gray on a cloudy day. I felt the eagle’s satisfaction in returning to its nest fish-in-talon, and the osprey, a superior angler, carrying a larger fish through a lane of air without having to fear a team of aquiline thieves. One part of me demands more and another part of me takes delight in the untouched feather on a beach, the taste of sardines wrapped in a big tortilla, shared Rainier cherries while sitting on a log, and my friend’s pleasure in finding stones in shades of red and green. One part still wants to feel the rise of adolescent ambition while another part sits in stillness and marvels at the effect of rain on a Wood’s rose.

Approaching my seventh decade I dare to hope that I will occasionally feel the drive to go farther faster, though I know the day will come when this kind of energy echoes out of the past. At the very least I hope to retain the capacity to enjoy each simple marvel, but as Roethke says, I also hope to rejoice in being what I was. This acceptance, this true ease will be a different kind of excellence.

This Vastness

It wasn’t morbidity that drew me to that dangerous place but rather the pleasure of abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control.

            Olivia Laing, To the River

 On June 6, 2018, between a late picnic and dinner, I paddled from Finley Point State Park to Yellow Bay State Park, about ten miles northeast as a kayak tracks. On the way I stopped briefly at Bird Island for a drink of water. When I left the island I suddenly felt the gap between the island behind me and the east shore of Flathead Lake about three miles to my right. Until then the peninsula and the island had been protecting me from this awareness. As I concentrated on smooth, rhythmic strokes, a phrase kept floating through my mind—this vastness. I felt the expanse between kayak and shore, the column of height and depth between lake level and the peaks of the Mission and Swan ranges above me, the distance between where I launched and where I hoped to arrive. In the process I kept picturing my kayak from above. This had happened once before, years ago, when I paddled from Finley to Wild Horse. From a vantage point outside myself the kayak seemed like little more than a pine needle on an infinite sea, a blade of grass afloat on a flood. Ever since this experience I’ve been pondering the mid-paddle mantra that came to me in the course of this trip.

It is sometimes a challenge to be where one is, however far from shore. Faced with vastness one can become anxious. It is easy to feel an internal pressure to shorten the gap and close the distance, while peaceful acceptance of vastness calms the mind. Trying to be where I was, far from shore, it occurred to me that in the West we are often given an opportunity to see ourselves in scale as we move through the vastness around us. The mind flies toward the heights and reaches out across the water or the plains. In the process we come to see ourselves as a tiny body of being surrounded by distances not frequently experienced in the confines of urban environments. Before the depths of sky and all the miles in view we see ourselves in perspective. Especially in a kayak there is little danger of overestimating one’s power and influence in the face of such landscapes. We are little more than a speck, even if a conscious one.

When I finally popped the skirt, extracted my legs, and pivoted over the combing for a soft landing on the rounded stones of shore, I felt grateful for the chance to move through the vastness that remains the context and measure of all human things.

 

Report from the Island, May 18-19

The forecast was not good—wind out of the northeast at 15 miles-per-hour with gusts to 30, rain, and waves 1-2 feet. Water temperature 39 degrees. I was tired of pulling dandelions so I went paddling. In a year of record snowfall and now epic flooding I knew the island would be green. It would be worth the effort to cross from Big Arm to Wild Horse.

 

When I pulled into my campsite conditions were dismal. I waited for a lull before setting up my tent. The only flat ground was next to the fire pit. It was a good thing I don’t make fires.

From time to time I checked my latest weather app until I had a sense of the pulse of the storms. In the diastole I pulled on my neoprene top and dry suit. I slid Bluebird into the gray water and pulled for the island. It felt good to sink into the headwinds. When gusts approached I ducked and made low angle strokes. In the lulls I returned to more efficient high angle strokes. Two hours later I pulled my kayak over some logs and secured it in the arms of driftwood. Arrow leaf balsamroot covered the hillsides. Walking through the clusters felt like wading through leather. In the interstices lupine, harebells, biscuit root and vetch reached for their share of the light. Climbing the first slope I came across patches of death camas, false asphodel and starflower. On the rocky crest I watched a pair of young eagles make intersecting gyres or hold positions in the wind with only the slightest movement of individual feathers. Knowing my interval would not last I waded back down the hill and let the rolling chop push me back to camp.

Joyce’s Yucatan soup, heated in my WhisperLite stove, and tortillas warmed on the lid of the pot never tasted so good. I was in my bag by 9 p.m.

The next morning was gray but not raining. The wind had not had time to build waves so I did it again, this time paddling around the corner of the island and into Skeeko Bay. After signing in at the register and seeing that I was only the second kayak to make it to the island this year, I walked the trail to the saddle with, as Andrew Marvell says, a green thought in a green shade. I continued up the east-west ridge and watched the bronze backs of retreating turkeys. They walk uphill faster than I do. Seeing the birds helped explain the broken feather I had found the day before. Peaking over the ridge I spotted four Bighorn rams lounging in the balsamroot. On a rocky nob where I know to look for bitterroot I found the flowers. This early in the season they were all promise and no bloom.

 

 

 

 

Satisfied that I had again made a deep connection to the island I started back down. On the way I heard a low growling off to my right. As I turned my head I caught a glimpse of a red fox in full plumage leaping between the flowers, unhappy that I had disturbed his proprietary rights to the island. Further down the trail I saw where the fox had excavated a vole, exposing the now-dry root and source of the flowers. Gliding down through the trees it seemed this island belongs to its non-human creatures first of all. They take as much pleasure as we do in all the life brought into the open by rain and light. They have first rights to the air and its breezes, the flowers and their variations.

Back on the beach and while climbing back into my yellow ziplock of a dry suit I noticed a group of paddlers crossing over to the island from Dayton. After they landed I walked over to greet them, a pair of guides with a new paddling business and two clients. They, too, had come to see the island in its green splendor. In Montana after a year of fire, snow and flood, this place felt like our Sistine ceiling, our Louvre, our MOMA. It was ours to visit but not remain.

 

 

Preparing to Meet This Wildness, May 2018


Before each season’s first paddle my eagerness to be on the water plays tug of war with the knowledge that I must prepare for it.

As part of this year’s preparation I decided to make a few small repairs to Bluebird. A couple of long scratches on the bottom of the hull needed attention. Years ago I was paddling between Bird Island and Skidoo Bay early in the season. Without realizing that an underwater spine of rock almost connects Finley Point and the island, I passed over the rocks at speed. I still remember the sound as rocks cut a pair of long lines down the bottom of the boat. Then last season I slipped between a friend’s boat and a log because I wanted to assist her with a stubborn spray skirt. When a big wave smacked her upwind side my boat was driven into a protruding branch that cracked the gel coat just above waterline. To solve these problems I bought a repair kit, read about the process, mixed gel and catalyst and filled the wounds. Using equipment from the woodworking shop I sanded with progressively finer grades of sandpaper before polishing the hull. In preparation for the season I also reviewed what I’ve stowed in my emergency dry bag and in my old Maine Guide bag, planning different layers of clothing for different types of weather. Before Thursday’s paddle I made myself take time to prepare a nutritious and calorie-rich lunch as well as two bottles of water, one with electrolytes.

These preparations to paddle put me in the mind of other forms of preparation. If we prepare before launching a kayak, we also prepare to teach, travel, or plant a garden. We prepare before building a home or designing a chair. We prepare for a job interview, a first date, a wedding, and before giving birth to a child. A move to another state requires extensive preparation as we try to meet the challenges of deep change. We prepare internally to hear someone else’s story, before surgery, or that life transition poorly named retirement. As we prepare for life, some people prepare for death. Our preparations put us in a better position to face potential difficulty. As we attempt to make ourselves ready, we lower the wave height of our anxiety.

On May 3, I drove up to Flathead Lake for the first paddle of the season. At the base of the Ravalli Hill I pulled off at the mandatory watercraft inspection station. In the age of aquatic invasive species, stopping for this inspection is a necessary and important part of preparing to paddle. In the deep shade of early morning the inspector’s smiles rose over me like sunrise. I thanked them for their work in keeping Flathead free of zebra and quagga mussels, as well as other imported creatures that would upset the ecology of the lake.

After the right-turn in Polson I learned that Finley Point State Park was closed for major reconstruction, so I continued north to Yellow Bay State Park where I would find access to the water. Here, under the cottonwoods shedding the sticky sheathes of their catkins, I rubbed talcum powder on the latex of my old-style dry suit so that I could slip the neck collar over my head and escape through the diagonal zipper at the end of the day. I spread various items on the bed of my truck so I would not forget something essential. I arranged protection for two cameras so they would not get wet. Then, after loading my boat I paused at the water’s edge. No matter how thorough I am with my other preparations, this is the one that seems most important. I pause to remember that the lake and its weather are infinitely more powerful than I am, that my slender boat makes its tentative and determined way at the mercy of these forces. I pause to remember some of the people I love. I stop at the threshold to give thanks for water so clean and pure that entering it feels sacramental.

I used to think of preparations as an obstacle between me and what I wanted to do—paddle my boat. All the little preparations, from tying down the boat to packing lunch seemed to stand between me and the goal of getting in the water to make beautiful strokes. More than a decade into the late-season life of a paddler I no longer see it this way. All these little acts and duties make paddling safer and free of agitation. In the process we make ready for meeting this wildness over which we glide.

Bones

This past summer was a difficult season to paddle in Montana. Beginning in July, smoke from fires in Idaho began to slip over the mountains and fill our valleys. As the jet stream avoided our latitude more fires in the region poured smoke into the Missoula, Mission and Flathead valleys. Almost all of August and September were lost to a choking and hazardous particulate pall. As a result, I did not paddle nearly as much as I normally do; it wasn’t safe or wise. Out of the haze and the odor of burned forest I see a surprising image from this past summer—an image of bones.

On a beach in a little cove on Cedar Island I found a beautiful, long, rib bone as well as a large vertebra. Knowing that no animals of this size live on the island, I suspect that some large ungulate washed down the Flathead River or rode the lake’s currents and washed ashore on this island. All the forces of nature worked on the remains and left these gleaming architectural elements of a once-living being.

Then, on one of my circumnavigations of Wild Horse Island, I spotted a skeleton in the driftwood, the bones and sun-bleached limbs of trees nearly indistinguishable. I paddled ashore, secured Bluebird, and investigated. This was almost certainly the skeleton of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Though the skeleton came to rest below one of the island’s cliffs, I have watched these sure-footed animals enough to know that it is extremely doubtful that an adult Bighorn fell in this location. The fact that the skeleton was headless confirmed my worst suspicions: someone probably poached a big ram and left the body to rot in the afternoon sun.

Maybe it is appropriate that one of my final memories of 2017 focuses on bones, the remnants of death. But at the time I discovered these bones, I felt astonished by their beauty. I ran my fingers along the flutes of the ribs, marveled at their ligature, could not begin to comprehend the complexity of a spinal column. Nothing about these remains was gruesome, except the possibility that someone poached a protected animal.

Bones seem important for another reason. The internal skeleton of an animal supports its whole structure, sets it up for life. These bones were something to admire not avoid. They revealed the essence of the animal. Ever since encountering these bones I have been reflecting on the problem of essence, the deepest, innermost aspect of life and its purpose. But this has been anything but an abstract philosophical project for me. I have been asking about the bones of my own life, not the once-broken radius in my right arm, the nodes in my spinal column that press on the nerves, but the essence of why I am here and what I must do. Trying to peer through the smoke and confusion at the turn of the year I am determined to pay attention to each encounter, to reckon with both the suffering and the glory, the heartbreak and the beauty.

Summer smoke and all its metaphorical expressions in the form of political speech and posturing, tempt us to contract our attention. It seems more than likely that some people may actually be trying to divert our attention. This summer, for the sake of sanity, it seemed important not to see, smell, or listen. But the bones on the beach remind me to keep paying attention, to search out the inwardmost structure of things and how it hangs together or comes apart. Last summer I touched the bones, ran my fingers across their polish and curves. As if speaking to me they said, Behold. Attend. Bear witness. I carry this mandate into the new year.