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.

Deeper Currents

Deeper Currents

As everyone in the Northwest knows, the summer of 2017 was difficult. From the first week of July through the first week of September our forests were on fire and more smoke than we had ever experienced piled up behind a ridge of high pressure. Smoke poured into our valleys, filled our lungs, left ash on every surface, and embers in our yards. For many this was also a summer of anxiety and hasty preparations for evacuation. Some of us returned home to the smell of wet charcoal, black fields of devastation, and worse. In response to the casual question, “How are you?” people often answered “Depressed.”

As a paddler I occasionally inserted a trip on Flathead Lake between the darkest days of smoke, encountered locked gates at state parks, and waited like everyone else for the air to clear and costs to mount.

On September 29, I finally found a bright and fresh day for a solo paddle out to Wild Horse Island and a clockwise trip around its perimeter. It felt healing to exercise in pure air, to be reminded that our world is indeed beautiful after weeks of finding it fouled, polluted and threatened. Late afternoon light backlit every snowberry, spider web, needle and turning leaf in the draw above Osprey Cove. A shift in the wind gave me five fast miles at the end of the day.

During this paddle I thought I might feel elevated by the knowledge that our world we love had finally been returned to us. But after this summer I felt more reflective than jubilant. All the evidence suggests that what happened this summer will happen again.

I have always been skeptical of the human inclination to use nature for our own purposes, reducing it to one more resource that we exploit for our own pleasure. I know, it is good to wash one’s mind in the bath of green and blue water. It is good to test one’s inner strength in the face of variable winds and distance. It restores balance to play on the waves. But time in a kayak, especially by oneself, gives a paddler occasion to ask, “What is all this for? What larger purpose does it serve?”

In my post of May 7, 2017, I proposed that we have a responsibility to attend to and behold the things we encounter. But on this Friday in September the currents took me deeper. After this summer it seems we have an inescapable responsibility to address the forces that are making our world increasingly uninhabitable. It is no accident that our forests are burning and coastal cities are awash in water that overwhelms the land and its inhabitants. We are doing this to ourselves and we must undo what we have done. Or, to shift the metaphor, we must change course because the one we are on leads to ruin, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

It is not for me to say what others should do. We must see this for ourselves. But I am clear that I have a responsibility to understand the impacts of what we are doing to the planet and take action in word and deed to promote choices that lead toward better ways of being in the world. A paddle in bright light makes this clear. It is time to do more than sigh with relief or toss up our hands. We have work to do, changes to make, a course to correct, while there is time.

 

Discoveries

In late August four of us left town for the lake. We wanted to escape the smoke in Missoula’s valley that made the simple act of breathing a health risk. Three of us wanted to go for a longer paddle. My wife preferred to read in camp and listen to lapping waves.

Joyce sometimes asks encouragingly, “Would you like to take a trip and paddle somewhere on the coast of British Columbia?” I know this is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world but I appreciate having access to the largest and cleanest body of fresh water in the western U.S. and feel as though I still have so much to learn, even after more than ten seasons of paddling Flathead Lake. I am content to keep exploring close to home because experience tells me, if I keep myself open and do not let my ability to perceive grow dull, I will make discoveries.

This trip confirmed that belief. Over the course of our two days we discovered how to have  fun while helping each other get ready to launch,

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

previously unseen panels of rock art and how prone they are to exfoliation and loss,

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

the beauty of black and blue ring waves during a hot morning but especially after sunset,

where eagles tend to roost and why it is extremely important not to set up a sleeping bag under those trees (I’m not providing a photograph of my mistake).

We also discovered a memorial to a young man. People who loved him wedged a painted tribute between opposing pieces of rock. Later, my friend Jeanne spotted a remnant from his tool collection. Walking between her tent site and the beach she saw an anomalous piece of rusted steel pushed level with the surface of dry moss and stone. Curious, she withdrew it from the ground and showed it to me. I explained that the object was a hollow chisel, a tool used to chop mortises so two pieces of wood can be joined with a tenon. Using gold-colored ink, someone painted messages of love and the man’s birth and death dates. Seeing this tribute, we speculated he might have been a woodworker. After we admired the tool and its subtle placement, we put it back exactly as we found it.

Passing through the gap between islands or crossing between island and mainland we also made discoveries about each other, learned things we did not know. We braided an invisible cord between and among us of understanding, memory and anticipation. For the rest of our lives we may tow each other along, connected by the stories we tell and create.

Though I am far-removed from childhood, the lake keeps teaching me to maintain the mind of a child, seeing the world as if for the first time, paying attention to it as if it might be the last.

Waves Lift

 

 

 

 

 

On the summer solstice my wife and I camped at the lake, finding one of the few sites open for tents next to parking lot full of trailers and RVs. Our “overnight” allowed me to make a long afternoon paddle the first day and a morning paddle on the second day to some of my favorite islands and bays. Both days windy conditions kept other boats off the lake, but I ventured out anyway, my desire to paddle stronger than my fear.

Both days I faced strong headwinds, quartering winds, and less often, a downwind ride, paddle held aloft like a pair of sails, all conditions that made it difficult to relax. One particularly strong gust of wind stripped the paddle from my hands. I immediately plunged my hands into the cold water to arrest my forward movement. Then, I hand-paddled backwards to intercept the drifting paddle before continuing my entrance into a new bay I wanted to visit. After losing and regaining my paddle I decided to pull a leash from my vest. Never before had I felt the need for this precaution.

Naturally, windy conditions produce waves, waves that vary depending on lots of factors—the length of the fetch, the deflecting effect of islands, the influence of shoals, the temporary flattening effect of gusts, and so on. Some waves on Flathead Lake are powerful or turbulent enough to overturn a kayak. On both days around the solstice, however, I experienced something I have wanted to describe. When I am in the trough between waves the approaching wave seems like it will swamp the boat or overturn me. While these waves sometimes broke over the boat and sent spray into my face, to my amazement I know that waves also lift. Because boats are buoyant waves slide under and suddenly elevate the trusting paddler.

I have never been able to photograph this phenomenon while paddling. Windy conditions demand my whole attention. Nevertheless, I have come to trust this process and believe it has implications for other aspects of our lives. The forces that potentially threaten us—an unexpected set of demands, a danger or fearful encounter, all these things also have power to lift us. Experience tells me, if we keep breathing (our own form of buoyancy), the energy of waves rolls under us. The waves have power to lift us above the troughs, the trough of fear, tension, or lack of perspective. Nevertheless, I have found it necessary to let this happen. We cannot stop the advancing wave, but we can allow it to roll under us and lift us above the turbulence.

 

Beholder and Beheld

May 5, 2017

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting…(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”)

The other day a friend and I drove up the highway along the Bitterroot River on the way to a little spring fishing. We spoke about a question that Jedediah Purdy asked in a recent lecture at the university: “What are people for?” This is an old question, older that Wendell Berry’s book of essays on the subject and at least as old as the opinions of people who wrote early catechisms.

My first paddle of the season points toward an answer to this question.

It was very difficult to leave town. So many things clawed for my attention—concerns about one of my sons, a former student who wanted to tell me about her Senior Project, arrangements with a contractor who will rebuild our falling-down deck, the dandelions, oh, the dandelions. And then I hit the going-to-school and work traffic early on Friday morning; and then the tour bus got a flat tire across from the light adjacent Costco. I thought I’d never get out of town.

But I persisted. The weather predictions offered an acceptable level of risk for a solo paddler in cool conditions. If I got off the water before 4 p.m., I might miss the lightning and the sudden gusts accompanying a cold front. After seven months away from the lake it felt good to step into 40-degree water, to drop into the boat, kick off and glide over the concrete boat ramp and into deep blue.

Trusting the cloudy and calm conditions, I paddled across the strait to Wild Horse Island, humbly remembering what the first few thousand strokes of the season feel like. I paddled up the west shore of the island and noticed what I thought was a single Bighorn sheep on a ledge below the highest red crag. I said to myself, You might be able to hike to the top for a closer look.

 I pulled into Skeeko Bay, the only boat in the bay, and hauled Bluebird above the rising level of the lake. I vented my dry suit to help me cool off and started up the trail, pausing to take photographs of big Ponderosa Pines whose cambium layers had been harvested by first peoples visiting the island. I had promised these photos to an archaeologist friend. A winter with ample moisture and now spring rains made the island soft and lush. I found shooting stars all across the forest floor while everything else seemed about to bloom—arrow-leaf balsamroot, some variety of mustard, death camas, lilies, and all the other flowers whose names I seem to forget from one season to the next.

I made my own switchbacks up the steep slope toward the red crag, trying to imagine where the Bighorn might be on the other side of the peak. When I was two strides short of the crest, she suddenly bolted, alarmed either by the vibrations of my soft footsteps through the ground or perhaps my scent. I could only get a glimpse of her back as she fled from me. I took the last two steps more slowly and began to scan the slopes and gullies below me. In only a few seconds she had descended a couple of hundred yards down the steep slope toward the lake. Now, though, I saw a newborn lamb velcroed to her side. The ewe had chosen an incredibly remote and almost inaccessible ledge to give birth to and then protect her lamb. Alarmed, she had retreated to another ledge beyond the range of my basic camera. I simply stood and watched. Besides, as I later discovered, a smudge of sunscreen on the lens compromised all my pictures: I would have to remember what I saw. A couple of wads of shed hair were the only sign of the sheep’s presence on the ledge.

Content with having found the sheep that I first spied from the water, I turned back toward the bay. Simultaneously, an eagle and a pair of geese crossed over the island’s saddle but from opposite directions, the geese just under the eagle. At my feet lay countless mosses and flowers still waiting for that perfect combination of light and warmth to unfold.

As the only person on a 2,100-acre island at least one answer to the old question seemed clear. I felt a duty to behold, to behold each creature in its struggle for existence, and to behold all the living systems that support the living while recycling the dead. We are here to notice the fire scar and the blooming flower, the shotgun shell case and a downy feather on the beach.

Continuing to trust the conditions, I returned to my boat and resumed my paddle. At first I thought I would only paddle to the northern-most tip of the island; but when it seemed I would be allowed more, I continued around the island, down the east side and through the gap past Melita Island. In Osprey cove I found a mature bald eagle in a snag, the brilliant white head and tail giving it away on a cloudy day. Watching the bird, and hoping not to startle it into flight, I realized that we are also the beheld, the rest of creation beholding us to see how we do on the land and water we share.

Gratitude and Anticipation

The verge of the New Year seems like a good time to both look back and look ahead. As I consult memories of the season past I am grateful for every opportunity I was given to paddle in 2016, whether threading the islands of Flathead Lake, making open-water crossings, paddling solo or as part of a pair. I feel thankful for my Cedar Island overnight, the dramatic storm I witnessed in September and the long, placid reach from Angel Point to Bigfork that followed the storm. But in reflection I am most grateful for something that had little to do with actual paddling.

dscf0183

On one occasion, described in my post “A Quandary,” a friend and I paddled on the more-protected waters of Lindbergh Lake while a thunder and lightning storm blasted away at the peaks of the Mission Range to the west. Safe below, we were merely soaked in rain. Then, in mid-August my friend Glenn and I paddled among the islands of The Narrows on Flathead Lake during a brief rainstorm. On this occasion we took refuge, appropriately, in Safety Bay. In our shelter from the storm and waves we lay our paddles across our laps and simply listened to rain patter our decks and mark the gray-green water all around us with millions of little crowns. On both of these occasions our kayaks carried us into intimate contact with the return of natural rhythms—a little rain in midsummer, something we no longer take for granted. At a time when we could have turned back or scuttled our trips altogether, we moved into the storm’s darkness and the potential for getting wet. For our modest efforts we were rewarded with exposure to the life-giving gift of rain, its power to recharge aquifers and streams, as well as renew the forest.

img_0890

I occasionally need a chance to test myself by means of a long, hard paddle, or simply paddle to somewhere private where I can dive off a rock; but looking back on the year now gone, I am most thankful for rain that assured me that Nature’s rhythms are not irrevocably broken or thrown so badly into disorder that we fear for our lives. The sound of rain and all that it restores climbs now to the top of my list of gratitudes. Believing, at least for now, that I can trust these rhythms, I begin to look forward to the next season. In fact, I go to sleep at night imagining my favorite paddle, the strength and patience to complete it, trusting I may have the chance.

The Gap

Two years in a row we have been fortunate to rent a place near Angel Point on the west shore of Flathead Lake. Staying in a single location for a few days, we can enjoy sunrise over The Missions and sunset in the forest, a waxing or waning moon, and the changing moods of the lake without having to sleep on the ground. Even before we made these arrangements I held an idea in a back pocket: for a few years I have wanted to paddle the gap between Angel Point and the village of Bigfork in the northeast corner of the lake.

When we arrived at the cabin we walked out on the deck to enjoy the view from elevation. In the distance we saw a dark storm system approaching from the north. It descended on the lake with a vengeance. Suddenly shore-side flags stretched taut as military sheets, trains of whitecaps and spray covered the lake, and within ten minutes six-foot waves began to crash onto the rocks and pour across the surface of docks. I did not have time to dig my camera out of luggage in the truck. We stood in awe of what the lake can become. Fortunately, my wife caught the aftermath with her iPad.

The Aftermath

The Aftermath and the Gap

Over the next few days we watched the energy from this autumn storm gradually dissipate and conditions improve. By timing my paddles to coincide with shifting wind directions, I was able to paddle to Somers in the north and Deep Bay in the south. On Thursday I finally saw my opportunity to paddle the gap, the six miles between the point and the far shore. I studied distant peaks above the Jewel Basin until I created a confident triangle between a single mountain, Bigfork, and my starting point. I packed a little food and two water bottles and lifted the boat off the dock and into the water.

The gap is more a mental challenge than a physical one. At first glance the gap seems impossible to cross, but I have paddled more than 12 miles in a single day on many occasions, and am well aware this trip is nothing compared to crossings made by Jon Turk and those who have circumnavigated Ireland or New Zealand. The challenge of the gap comes in the form of questions:

  • What if I am three miles from land and a storm arises like the one that we witnessed on Sunday?
  • What if a big pontoon boat passes too close and casts a wave that rolls the kayak?
  • What if an inattentive or inebriated speedboat driver does not see the flashes of light from my paddle?

I worked to control the noise of these questions by concentrating on other things—my alignment in relation to the far shore, evidence of intermediate progress in the form of a yellow cottonwood leaf that had drifted down the river, a cluster of pine needles, or feathers from ring-billed gulls slipping by. I concentrated on smooth, efficient strokes, ones in which I applied force at precisely the right moment after the blade entered the water. I focused on posture. I pondered ways to enjoy the gap, taking pleasure in the sun on one cheek and wind on the other, a visit from what I think were long-legged kittiwakes that hovered above me, and then out of curiosity, settled beside me before flying away. Distant fishing boats drifted past the curvature of the earth or disappeared into shore-side shade. Though I choose another way, I managed to enjoy the sounds of well-tuned engines and a small plane overhead. In a sense paddling the gap is a meditation on calling the mind back from its fears to the qualities of the present moment.

In good time I passed the river delta that extends about a mile and one half into the lake, saw details sharpen, and came ashore opposite a humble cabin made of recycled materials. The owners had created a large heart shape by piling round stones into a pattern that left the center full of water—a beating heart. I ate a snack, drank water and used my cell phone to reassure an anxious spouse. After creating another triangle between my eyes, a spot somewhere just north of Angel Point and a distant hill I settled into my return, committing myself to shorten the long hypotenuse.

The Landing

The Landing

Crossing the gap again I reflected on other gaps in our lives—the gap between loneliness and friendship, the gap between illness and recovery, the gap between a fossil fuel economy and one built on renewable forms of energy. I let my imagination consider the terrible gap between addiction and sobriety, indebtedness and solvency, conflict and reconciliation, complaint before the court and a long-awaited just decree. In truth we live in the gaps, somewhere between setting off in relative uncertainty and the suddenness of arrival. Entering a gap seems vastly different than paddling near shore. For a long time we see no evidence of progress. We have no passing cliff or boathouse or tree by which to measure our advance; we have only the distance to measure, miles in the gap that seem not to close. Paddling offers practice for the larger process and never seems like an end in itself. For the other gaps in my life I gain strength at binding the mind to the present, controlling anxiety, learning to enjoy something as seemingly small as a leaf floating on the surface or a bubble rising from the sediments below.

When I finally reached my original starting point I lifted my boat out of the water, pulled it up my thighs, then lifted it onto my right shoulder. I carried it up the steep steps leading to the driveway and set it in the cradle atop my wooden rack. I cinched down the straps realizing that it would be a long time before I paddled again. Other autumn commitments and then winter will stand between me and my boat. I felt sad knowing I had completed the last paddle of the year. Another gap has appeared. It seems difficult to cross the distance, but I remind myself I have had practice living in the gaps.

Not What I Expected

When I returned from my last paddle, a seventeen-mile solo and overnight from the south end of the lake to Cedar Island, I could not write what I had planned to write. Reminded once again by fires in The Bitterroot that the West is burning, I had intended to write about Cedar Island as a microcosm for the planet, our “fragile island home,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C. But unexpected things happened during the trip that made the original idea less compelling. I came home uninspired and wasn’t going to write anything after the boat came to rest in the rack, but something keeps knocking on the door.

I knew from the weather report and the graphical forecast I always consult that I might run into thunderstorms on this trip. Years ago I got caught out far from shore in such a storm and resolved to be more cautious in these conditions and to take lightning much more seriously. When I drained my shoes, tucked myself in, and secured my skirt clouds were building off to the west, but the conditions did not seem dangerous. I pushed against a hearty headwind on the way to Wild Horse Island. By the time I rounded the point that protects Skeeko Bay the wind gusts were intense. It was as difficult to swing the paddle forward through the air as it was to make a stroke through the water. I paused to check on a couple of people in open cockpit boats who went for a short paddle from their anchored sailboat. Not having far to travel, they assured me they could get back to their boats. I decided to cross the bay and haul out on a gravel beach.

DSCF0204

I pulled lunch out of my mid-ship hatch, found a log to sit on and decided to wait and watch. Waves continued to build and break in the open water to the north. Thunder boomed and cracked overhead and lightning lashed the hills to the west. No one was waiting for me on Cedar Island. I had made no promises, and knew better than to push willfully toward my destination, no matter how much I wanted to set up my old Sierra Designs “Starlight.” It was warm enough that if I got wet I would be fine. While waiting for the lake to go through its paroxysms I did other things, stalked the island’s mule deer bucks, almost as big as elk, watched a hairy woodpecker ladder its way up a dying cottonwood, found a vicarious joy in watching a fisherman haul in a fat yellow perch. I climbed a bluff so that I could peer into the big gap between islands. Those three miles almost always feel intimidating. I wandered down to the bottom of Skeeko Bay to sign the log so that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has more information on how people enjoy this area within their care.

After a couple of hours I returned to my boat, found the conditions acceptable and pushed off for Cedar. Not wanting to linger in the opening between islands, I paddled hard, found “the box” of strong, smooth strokes and made very good time despite the headwind that eventually petered out. I dragged Bluebird up over the top of this year’s gray logs and began to imagine how I would arrange my camp and set up a place to make tea the next morning. Almost immediately a bald-faced hornet bit me on my left forearm and then proceeded to wedge itself between my watchband and wrist where it nailed me hard. It took several tries to dislodge the hornet and figure out why I had offended the beast. I stood still and looked around. I had unknowingly crossed the incoming flight path of these critters. They had built a nest under a log and wanted nothing between them and their entryway and escape route. Again, I had to back off my intentions. Yielding to hornets, I moved the boat a few feet north and chose a different route to the wind shelter where I would set up my whisper light stove. Fortunately, I am not allergic to these bites, but it was a long time before I could shake the sting that made my hair stand on end.

During the evening I wandered around the island, found desiccated cherries on the trees of the old orchard, a spot where a falling tree crushed the fence around the old wildlife enclosure, visited with a friendly blended family that had come up the lake by powerboat from Whiskey Bay. Toward dusk I found the almost unknown public access at Zelezney Bay and followed a water snake making its way to shore. Yes, I thought about our fragile island home and this island, deeply in need of rain. But now I think about how we sometimes have to abandon our plans and intentions in order to live with the world as we find it. We are no match for the force of the weather, not even for a hornet determined to protect its approach to this season’s home. In both cases willfulness would have meant trouble. Probably a better observation than the sermon I had planned.

DSCF0224

 

 

People Are the Thing

I did not see my father very often during his later years. I lived in Montana and he lived on Cape Cod. Transportation logistics and schedules combined to keep us apart, but toward what would turn out to be the end of his life I made a couple of visits. With multiple arms of the family at his house one summer in East Harwich, he and I used “walk into town for donuts” as an excuse to have some time with each other. As we walked in the deep grass of the borrow pit he said, “People are the thing.”

I often wonder what he meant and continue to speculate about the timing of his remark. His observation came back to me yesterday, the day after Memorial Day, when I paddled out to Wild Horse Island alone. Wind out of the northeast generated small white caps in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse Islands. I made the crossing into a quartering head wind, felt relief in the lee between Cromwell and Wild Horse, and then rounded the corner into Skeeko Bay. I thought I would have it to myself but found a cabin cruiser, bow to the gravel.

I checked the box where Fish Wildlife and Parks keeps the trail roster and saw that the boat belonged to a family of four from South Dakota. Bless the person who put a working pen in the box. I headed up the trail to the saddle that overlooks the strait to the south and The Mission Range beyond. When I stopped to take a photograph of a tight, new, and passionately purple pinecone DSCF0160

I was startled by a boy who suddenly approached me from behind. He was very anxious and his Down’s-affected speech made it hard for me to understand him. I took time to learn that he was looking for his sister and did not know where she was. Together we found her kneeling in the fresh grass by the old homestead cabins. As she tried to soothe and quiet him I took off for the ridgeline topped by the two pine trees where I often find Bitterroot flowers blooming in the hard scrabble. Clad in neoprene booties and bib, I must have been an odd looking pilgrim as I made my way up the slope and found the flowers that grow, improbably, out of rock on a southwest-facing slope. I took time to admire them individually and in clusters, looked out toward The Missions that, thankfully, still wear some snow and then scanned the open slopes for Bighorn sheep. Because I wanted to circle the island during the rest of the day I did not take time to sneak up on the sheep for a closer look.

DSCF0164

 

DSCF0159I headed down the trail, satisfied that I had visited what feels like a sacred site, but also excited about the rest of my paddle. On the way down, stepping carefully so as not to bruise a heel, I spotted the boy, his sister, and now his parents perched on a rocky promontory at the bottom of the ridge. Assuming that they might be strangers to the island, and thinking I might be able to orient them, I left the trail and waded through the grass to their perch. Approaching from below, I noticed a water bottle at the base of the rock pile. I looked up and said to the sister/daughter, “Is this your water bottle?” She responded, “Yes, I was just climbing down to get it.” “Shall I toss it to you?” “Sure” she replied. I made a good toss and she made a good catch.

Having now had two brief encounters I decided to climb up to their lookout. On the way I noticed more Bitterroots and pointed out that this was our state flower. We had a brief discussion about how native peoples used the roots and where the family might find the Bighorn sheep, if they felt inclined to seek them out. All the while I felt for the appropriate interpersonal distance in this encounter. Looking at them with a minimum of eye contact, it seemed to me as if they were almost stunned by the spaciousness around them, the light in the air, the mountains in the distance, the flowers at their feet. After a few more words I wished them well and slipped away. Though people are the thing I did not take a photo of this family; I believe it would have felt like a violation. Instead, I picked up the trail again and descended to my boat in the piles of storm-driven driftwood.

DSCF0155

The rest of the day, paddling across the mouth of some of my favorite coves, taking time to explore the northernmost tip of the island, pausing to eat a plastic container full of rhubarb crisp, picking up speed in the subtle current along the east shore of the island, I thought about this encounter and my father’s assertion. What would the flowers be without our admiration? What would the sheep be without us as they ruminate on the slopes made lush by recent rain? What would the eagle be, nearly hidden inside a willow, without my quiet visual intrusion into its green roost? Of course the world would be fine without us, and in many cases would be much better without us. But potentially we are here as perceivers of what we find. The world offers itself to our imagination, as Oliver says, but first to our observation. It gives itself so that we take notice. It may even need us, the most transient of all, so that we will praise it, or so thought Rilke in his ninth Elegy. People are the thing because of our capacity to be aware, to recognize patterns, make connections, and see relationships between things.

So often paddling alone, at home by myself out in the wind and the waves, I find that these human encounters register on my consciousness with surprising force. I felt the boy’s desperation as he searched for his sister somewhere on the big and strange island. I felt for his sister as she became separated from her water bottle and struggled with ambivalence about her brother. I felt for their mother as she admired the Bitterroots and wondered at their place in native culture and history, a history that may have been her own. I felt for the father as he carried responsibility for conducting his family safely through this new world. And as we all do, we feel for the strands of connection and the right forms of distance, our capacity for this subtle awareness equally amazing.

On the way to donuts, craving our own quiet conversation, my father tells me that people are the thing. It falls to me to figure out what he meant. I get to finish the puzzle. A few pieces begin to fit together like bracts on the cone.

Remembering to Pause

I am probably not alone in feeling an inward pressure to keep moving, to stay productive, to make the most of my time. In late October, for some reason not clear to me, I remembered to pause rather than push.

Every year, if the weather allows, I try to make a paddle in late October or early November. Paddling at this time of the year allows me to honor the season in which my father died and his love for messing about in boats. I spotted a day between autumn storms and a few responsibilities. I loaded the boat the night before. In the morning both Bluebird and the windshield were coated in frost. I started the engine, and after the windshield cleared, drove north, pulling into the Finley Point Campground. The air was still cold, a hard wind blew out of the north, and waves, as predicted, rolled south. I paused in the truck to consider my options: drive back home; wait out of the wind to see if the waves would settle; or pause and observe before making a decision.

While sitting in the driver’s seat I struggled into my dry suit so that I could stay warm. I sat reflecting on my choices and watched the waves. Looking north, it was very clear that I could not take a direct route to Bird Island, one of my favorite places on the lake. Even from the parking lot I could see big waves crashing on the rocky shoal off the cliffs west of the peninsula that forms Finley Point. Looking west, I tried to imagine myself in the waves between the marina and Bull Island, an intermediate point of a large triangle that might eventually lead to the avian refuge of Bird Island. If I were cautious and patient, and took one wave at a time, it seemed possible to make the lee on the south side of the island. I launched but paused just outside the marina to get a feel for the swells. I did not need to commit myself to the island until I felt confident that the waves were manageable. Pausing gave me this clarity, so I proceeded.

When I reached the coves on the south shore of Bull Island I noticed that three fishing boats had also sought refuge out of the wind and waves. I slid between two of the boats and braced for balance. Like me the fisherman had grown tired of a rising and falling horizon. In addition, one boat needed patient attention with needle nose pliers after nylon fishing line had become wound around a drive train. We visited about the conditions and the prospect for a calmer afternoon. Eventually I backed away, found my own gravel bar and took time for lunch. All the while I listened to the wind in the trees behind me, telltale indicators of conditions to the north. I knew to wait.

While waiting on the island I wandered around, found little compositions of autumn color,

fallimage

eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

plume

and a pile of bear scat that proves hungry bears swim to the islands in a desperate search for food. After about an hour I sensed that the wind was beginning to subside and that gravity would eventually settle the waves. I paddled up the west shore of the island, but paused again before rounding it and heading into the fetch. I stayed out of reach of big waves crashing on the ramp of stone at the northern tip of the island and paused to study the more rounded waves in the open water. Trusting my boat and my experience, I advanced into the channel, taking each swell off the port quarter.

When I reached my favorite north-facing cove on Bird Island I took time to watch waves break and slide up the steep gravel. As the lake is being drawn down for winter, I could see that this beach was not a good place to land solo, so I swung right and rode the swells and wind down to the lee of Bare Belly Island. Though this is a small private island, I paused here to rest and eat my Honey Crisp Apple. I would not leave a trace of my presence. Now out of the wind and finished with the workout of crossing the channel, I shed my fleece hat, neoprene mittens, and opened up my dry suit. I waited long enough to come back to equilibrium and took time to look around. A few feet to my right I found a dog collar hanging in a cottonwood tree. Studying its position on the branch, the tag identifying Abby, and five phone numbers if she were ever lost, I realized that this was a memorial to a much-loved dog, a dog that probably liked to swim in the same shallows where I paused to rest. I could easily imagine the mutual affection between this animal and its owners.

Abbytag

In time I resumed my position in the boat and coasted back to the marina, finding that beautiful rhythm that times a paddler’s effort to the assistance provided by waves on a downwind run. About half way across Finley Bay I simply stopped, said to myself, This will be your last paddle of the season; take a moment to feel the lake under you. I lay the paddle across my skirt and felt the enormous pulse of the lake’s body. I took time to acknowledge how my boat supported me through another season of paddles. I paused to notice the larch trees, their color like spilled gold across the mountains, and felt grateful for people who had the foresight to insure that the public has a few places to gain access to this world. Remembering to pause revealed options, made for safe passages and helped me gain a deeper awareness of the lake and the forces that affect it. It felt good to pause before saying goodbye, at least until next spring.