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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

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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.

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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.

Clearings

Sometimes we wait a long time for things to clear up. Day after day of undifferentiated gray eventually gives way to more definition in the clouds, a kind of coagulation of vapors with patches of blue in the background.

A change in the weather may be metaphor for clearings in other aspects of our lives. We can wait a long time before we are clear about vocation, avocation, and the line in between. One day, after muddling around in the options, we wake up and say to ourselves, I am more a person of this region of the earth than this one, more a person of the forest than the desert, more urban than rural. Or, after some confusion in the realm of relationships, causing pain in someone else’s life, or on the receiving end of such pain, we realize that one particular person is the true companion of our lives. And sometimes these things never come into focus; they remain blurry, obscure, and without clear margins, as the surgeons say.

When things do become clear it feels like a gift, something that arrived in its own time from another world. Clearings lift the heart. The energy we spent feeling around in the dark suddenly becomes available for a deeper exploration of where we are and does not dissipate itself in all the half-hearted starts and stops of our confusion. Though such clearing came at the end of our stay near Lakeside, it did eventually arrive. The clouds congealed over The Missions and the way, even if only the way home, became clear.

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Sheltering Place: Return to Deep Bay

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In 2015, the plight of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq is on the mind of most people. Whatever our private thoughts or acts of charity, I cannot help but give thanks for various forms of shelter in my own life. In mid-September friends allow us to rent their cabin just south of Lakeside. From the deck we look north and see the flats of the Flathead River delta and Glacier Park’s peaks in the distance as well as waves breaking around Angel Point to the south. During a week of unremitting wind it never seems prudent to make the long, open-water crossing to Bigfork. Instead, I honor the pull toward Deep Bay in the south, a pull as sure as the one that causes cliff swallows to return each spring.

As I paddle south I let memories of Deep Bay come to me. For at least twenty years Deep Bay has seemed like a sheltering place. My wife led retreats here for organizations and small groups. When we were remodeling our home we came to Deep Bay to recover from the effects of sheet rock dust, hammer drills, and concrete saws. This cliff-side perch with a deep green bay below has always seemed like a place to restore the mind to stillness. Recognizing the difficulties of maintaining this place and its original vision, we understand that Deep Bay Center is no longer available to the public and may be up for sale. Nevertheless, I feel pulled toward this deep notch between the cliffs and the quiet I have always found here. Whoever owns the land and timber-frame structures, Deep Bay will always seem inviting, like a place of safety and rest. So, I continue south past Angel Point, Hockaday Bay and Hughes Bay. I pass the reef on the northeast corner of the refuge and make a right turn into the quiet. In the pocket of the bay I wander among drift logs.

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Continuing to wander, I find a perfect apple in the wild depth of the forest. There is no way to know if it sprung from a picnic’s tossed core or a bear’s secret deposit. Either way it shines bright against the gray light. Not equal to Augustine’s scruples, I reach up and pick the apple hoping to turn what might be considered theft into a present for someone else, my way of expiating the guilt and sharing a beautiful surprise.

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On the return paddle I slip the right blade under the bungee cord, lift the loop of my skirt and carefully extract my camera for a shot of the meditation center on the top of Angel Point, a structure I have always admired.

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After I come into the narrow slot between the dock and the cliff I think of lines I wrote long ago after my first encounter with Deep Bay.

Deep Bay Swallows

From the top of the cliff above the lake

swallows launch themselves into air,

never wondering if air will support them,

never doubting that air

will lift their pointed wings.

They seem not to need to rehearse

first lessons, nor do they hesitate,

hundreds of feet above the rocks

or the flat plate of the lake.

No, in the insubstantial medium of air

they draw their unselfconscious arcs.

They do not seem to have suffered a fall

that did not end in flight.

What wings have we with which to fly

except the trust

that for now someone or something

holds up all our falling,

intending for us to learn

to lean forward into apparent emptiness

and push off from where we cling

into all that waits to meet

our outstretched faith.

Finally, Close to Painted Rocks

Every time I go to the lake I am aware that I am passing through land that belongs to The Flathead Nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille peoples. This is not my land; it is theirs. Their roots in this landscape reach into the ground of at least 7,000 years of history and their stories reach back to a time before that. As I travel to the lake and pass over its waters, I wish I had a way of making a deeper connection with the people of this place. In an effort to make contact with the history of these people I have tried many times to approach Painted Rocks, a pictograph site on the west shore of the lake. Whether I am paddling north or south I often find that the waves in this area of the lake seem to be focused on the cliff where these red markings can be found. In these conditions waves bounce off the cliff at odd angles and create a complicated, chaotic sea. Or, even if the waves are calm, wakes from passing boats make this a somewhat hazardous place for a kayaker to slip the paddle under a deck line to pause and wonder.

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One Monday evening, however, when a friend and I had made arrangements to camp on Cedar Island, just south of the cliffs, the lake was so calm that we could safely approach the cliffs and their enigmatic markings. We were able to touch the wet dark rock under the limestone cliffs overhead and look as long as we pleased.

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To untrained eyes it appears as if the cliff bears depictions of bison, perhaps bison headdresses, and tick marks, possibly indicating kills or visits to this site. A book by Sally Thompson, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, People Before the Park, makes very clear that bison were “real food” to the Kootenai. Despite the risks, they made seasonal treks over the mountains into bison country east of the Divide to obtain the kind of protein that would sustain them through long winters west of the mountains. No wonder bison appear on these walls.

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Thanks again to Sally Thompson, an anthropologist and ethnographer, I was directed to Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella Clark. The book contains stories related to this area and a Kootenai story about Painted Rocks in particular. For anyone curious about this area and the deep memories of its original inhabitants, this story may be meaningful. Amazingly, it recognizes a time before and after the geological cataclysm of what we call Glacial Lake Missoula. I especially enjoy the humor in the characterization of Rabbit. In Clark’s words:

This myth about them (Painted Rocks) was recorded from William Gingrass. His Kutenai name, given him by his great-grand-mother, means “Grizzly Bear War Paint.”

 After the great flood long ago, no human beings were left in this country. But the spirits were left. Some of them were in the form of animals. They gathered together on a bench of land above where Flathead Lake is now. At that time there was no lake—just a big river coming down from the north. It wound around and flowed down through where the Hot Springs are now. All that country was under water; you can see the water marks yet on the east side of the Lone Pine country. A little stream flowed at the south end of the present lake. A long time after this story, Yawonick, something that lives down below the water, came up from the bottom of the river and changed its course. Then the lake was formed.

When the great flood went down, the spirits held a council there on the shelf above the old river. They had heard that new people were coming, and they knew they should decide what to do when the Indians arrived. While they talked, one spirit kept watch.

“The people will come in canoes from the north,” said the chief of the spirits. “We must have everything decided when they come, as to how we can help them. Each of you will have to have a special song that will help people. You will sing it and then put your picture or your name on these big rocks.”

“But why should we put them up here?” asked on spirit. “They will be so high that they will be hard to get to or even to see.”

“That is what we want,” replied Nupeeka, the chief of the spirits. Nupeeka means “spirit”; in the old days he was a kind of teacher also. “We want the people to go to the high places when they seek spirit power. Seeking power will be too easy if they can find it in the low places. They will have to climb to get to the spirit pictures and the writing in the high places.”

So the spirits sang their songs and painted their names in pictures on the rocks. The first Dawn of the Morning sang the first song and put his sign highest up on the rock; that spirit gave the strongest power. The spirits of Grizzly Bear and Cougar and Eagle—they sang their songs and painted their pictures. Each of them gives strong power. All the other spirits sang their songs and put their writing on the rocks—all except Rabbit. He just hopped around.

At last the lookout called, “We must end our meeting. I see the new people coming around the bend.”

“But I haven’t made up my song yet!” exclaimed Rabbit. “I haven’t a song yet and I haven’t painted my picture.”

“It’s too late now,” the other spirits told him. “The people are landing below the Painted Rock.”

So Rabbit was left out entirely. He has no power song. He gives no power to people seeking spirit power. He can do nothing but hop around.

The new people landed below the Painted Rocks, near where Rollins is now, in the Big Lodge country. It is called the Big Lodge country because of a vision two men had many years ago. Each of them saw in a vision where he should put up a lodge for a Sun Dance, for a sacrifice to the spirits. When they followed their dream, they came to the same place; each had seen the same spot in his vision. So they put one big lodge there for the two groups of people.

The harder a person had to work to get to the place for the power quest, the higher the spirit power he obtained. The spirit who appeared to a person in a vision recorded on the rocks how many days and nights he had been there and what power had been given him (149-151).

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Like first peoples, I, too, have had to work to get close to Painted Rocks, to the deep history the site depicts and to the long, almost geological memory of the people or spirits who left their marks here, recording and celebrating a time even before the lake.

The Return

The Return

On August 16-17, a friend and I made one of my favorite mid-summer paddles. We put in at the Walstad Fishing Access point near Big Arm and paddled north against waves and wind past Wildhorse Island and then on to Cedar Island.

IMG_2713Before setting up camp we decided to walk around the island. I showed my friend the remnants of a craftsman style home and the cold cellar where geese now build nests, the meadow, untended orchard and derelict corral, the cistern now filled with garbage instead of cool, clear water. We found goose eggs lying open on the now brown moss covering the deep forest floor. But we also found trash—a margarita bottle balanced on a drift log, aluminum cans that never burn in fire pits, lots of toilet paper, a few diapers, an empty potato chip bag, bottle caps and plastic on the beaches. In this exceptionally dry year, with 86 fires burning around us, the sere conditions help to preserve garbage as if it had been sealed in a desert tomb.

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On our walk I complained about what we were seeing. I felt the disjunction between this island outpost in the largest lake west of the Mississippi and the effects of human visitation. Internally I asked, how can someone not care about this place? I could acknowledge pure accident, the way a gust of wind whips an object out of an upraised hand; but my judgments about the carelessness that follows the consumption of too much alcohol and the thoughtlessness of the privileged piled up like logs on the beach. As I walked along I felt unprepared to pick up the garbage I found. I needed gloves and nose plugs; I needed a garbage bag with a tie; I needed an empty boat, not one full of camping gear.

In the same way that one should not pray for the hungry without being willing to feed them, I do not want to complain about garbage on Cedar Island without being willing to do something about it. I need to return to the island, leave Bluebird’s chambers empty so that I have room to pick up what I find. This island has given me a vantage point on sunrise, a high perch to watch the sun go down and cast its red glow on the Mission Range. This island sails like a ship through the night sky. On one level I feel as though I have a debt that I want to find a way to repay. I can work off this debt to beauty by making time to return to the island and come prepared to transport its garbage to a proper depository. I cannot do anything about Syria or help immigrants on Greece’s shores, but I can do something about the condition of Cedar Island. I must return.

Early on Monday, August 24, I headed back to the lake. My boat was empty except for emergency gear. I slipped Bluebird into choppy conditions around the Westshore campground and sped south, timing my strokes to coincide with the push of the lake on my port stern quarter. I covered four miles in 45 minutes, lifted my boat into the drift logs, and took gloves and bags out of the stern hatch.

I circled the island counterclockwise, alternating between the forest interior and the beaches where people had burned their fires and left their trash. Predictably, I picked up glass, plastic and Styrofoam, but also managed to free a rope tied around a tree, and steeled myself to pick up the paper trails; but I drew the line on corrugated steel and plywood. On one beach I saw how a beach fire radiated outward, its flames following the flammable roots of cottonwoods, then climbing the trunks and killing the grove.

When I reached the east side of the island I heard the voices of a young man and woman. They had spelled a name by laying little stones on the bleached back of a drift log, their cell phones nearby as they swam in the coves. I eventually completed my circle and returned to the beach where I had left Bluebird and saw that the young couple had crossed to the island in a small open kayak and a stand-up paddleboard. They eventually joined me on the beach as I paused to eat a snack before heading north. They had figured out what I was doing and were willing to take a photo of my trash before I tucked it in the wide mouth of my stern hatch. The young man kindly inquired about the shin I barked on a broken limb from a fallen fir. As they left the beach for nearby Zelezny Bay, I felt happy watching them play on the stage of their mutual affection.

Using a kayak as a garbage barge is a strange thing to do. Drawing the moral lines sharply, one might even argue that it was wasteful to drive the distance from Missoula to clean up the island. Further, the garbage on Cedar Island does not compare to plastic in the Pacific or on Caribbean beaches. But I have learned how important it is for me not to suppress the empathic or moral response. With every suppression the impulse to respond to the world grows weaker. As often as I can I try not to let this happen. I don’t want the sympathetic response to the world within my reach to die out. Ultimately, this is why I returned to the island.

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Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

From two decades as a woodworker I have learned that sometimes I need to approach a problem in the shop as if I know almost nothing. I need to return to what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” To solve the problem at hand, like imagining a jig that allows me to perform a safe cut, I sometimes need to put aside habits that dull perception and assumptions that prevent me from thinking in new ways. A few days ago I had an opportunity to return to a version of beginner’s mind in relation to paddling a kayak.

Last October a local church held an auction to raise money so that girls in Myanmar could go to school. A friend who belongs to the church asked me to offer a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. Wanting to support the education of girls, I happily wrote up a description of a day-trip on the lake and submitted it to the church. After the auction, I heard who won the excursion and kept in touch with her over the winter. The night before the trip, this last Monday, I loaded Bluebird, my Current Designs Gulfstream, and Kestrel, my Perception Carolina, onto my wooden rack. I went through a long mental list of everything I might need, including some emergency gear if we got caught on an island during a thunderstorm or mid channel when the wind kicked up. The next morning I met the person who made the winning bid at her house. She was ready with red bag, sunscreen and water bottle in hand. We drove down to the local Italian deli and picked up sandwiches, drinks, cherries, and chocolate I ordered ahead of time.

On the way up to the lake I gently inquired to learn more about N’s interests and abilities, her motivation for submitting the winning bid, and the kind of experience she hoped to have. As I listened I held two paddles in mind, one to Wild Horse Island that would include a hike, and the other into The Narrows where the archipelago might offer shorter paddling distances and a little more shelter if monsoonal weather suddenly descended on us. When we crested the Polson moraine I got my first view of the lake and its conditions. Wind out of the south and a choppy surface led me to turn right at the light and go for the nearer islands, choosing safety over adventure.

As we began to unload the boats and all the gear I felt a little tension. I wanted to insure N’s safety and give her the best experience possible. I wanted to impart necessary information without loading a new paddler with anxiety. Knowing how fear blocks the integration of information, I decided on a very gradual approach. I placed both boats on the lawn, not on the shore. This way we could take our time getting ready. I tried to keep in mind how excitement and fear might vie with each other in the mind of a beginner. In response I tried to pare down instructions to the bare essentials that I gave her a little at a time: skirt first, pfd second; this side of the paddle blade faces forward, this side toward you; this is how you get into a kayak without tipping it over; I’ll adjust the foot peddles until the boat feels like it is part of you; attach the rear of the skirt, then the front, then the sides; if you happen to tip over, grab this loop, pull the skirt loose and you will roll out and float to the surface; try not to paddle with your arms, paddle with your core (a way not to get tired). While speaking I noticed N’s respiration rate go up and down. Whenever it rose I slowed down or became still.

After a few things made sense to N. on land, I decided that it was time to get near the water. We lifted Bluebird over the concrete curbing and gently placed it on the boat ramp, half in, half out. I helped N. settle herself in the keyhole, handed her the paddle and again paid attention to her breathing. I could tell that she had practice calming herself. When she seemed more at ease I returned to final assurances: the skirt will protect you from waves and drips from the paddle; the hatch gaskets will hold and the boat will not fill up with water if waves wash over the deck; we can’t prevent power boats from making waves but we can ride through and over them; its Monday, so few boats will be on the water.

Eventually I slid her in the water and encouraged her to simply hang out while I picked up Kestrel. N. sat in the shallows of the marina and waited for me. When we were side-by-side I said, Go ahead and rock side to side. Get a feel for how the boat moves. Now take a few strokes and see how it feels. When I could tell that N. sensed the initial stability of an already stable boat we paddled out of the marina and into the open water between the campground and Bull Island about 1.5 miles to the west. I rafted up with her, showed her how two boats together, paddles across each boat, felt even more stable. I said, let’s just sit here in these little waves and see how the boat responds; let the boat move a little; don’t try to freeze it; your safety is in the boat, not in being able to touch bottom.

When N’s breathing settled toward something like a resting rate I encouraged her to take a few more strokes. I tried to reassure her by saying, as we make the crossing I will stay very close to you. We are going to a beautiful bay where we will have our picnic. Let’s take one stroke and then the next.

Ever so slowly we began to advance into the channel. I slipped upwind and just ahead of her to break the effect of small waves and a little wind coming from the south. I kept N. in the corner of my right eye at all times. We paddled for several minutes in complete silence. I wanted her to find her own rhythm, to work the fear-born tension out of her body. After a long stretch of quiet I thought it might be helpful to provide a distraction. So I asked some questions about her previous adventures: When were you in Saudi Arabia? What took you there? How did you decide to become a diver? Have you ever traveled to Asia? We went back and forth, stroke after stroke.

The conversation worked like a tail wind. Before we knew it we glided over the foundation of the island and entered the green water of the first of two south-facing bays. With the sunny shore at hand I sped ahead, telling N. that I would land first and catch Bluebird as she came in.

As she stepped ashore I could tell that N. felt relief to be on land. I raised my right hand to congratulate her and got a palm slap in return. After securing both boats I laid out the picnic on a drift log. I was not surprised when she said, “I’m hungry.” She reached for half the roast beef sandwich known as The New Edition and half of the prosciutto and walnut chutney version known as Kiss. We ate the dark red cherries, tossing the seeds over our shoulders, hoping for an island orchard, and then topped things off with Blood Orange Sanpellegrino and chocolate.

We took time to digest our food and told a few more stories. Though the forecast had been good, I knew how fast weather can change and that the lake responds to the slightest change in wind velocity or direction. As soon as I could I laid out some options for extending the paddle, but trusted her own judgment when she said, “Let’s paddle back.” Again, I helped her feel settled and centered in the boat and gave her a gentle push off the beach. I turned to Kestrel, tucked myself in and sprinted to catch up. On the way back I could tell that N. felt renewed by lunch and much more comfortable in the boat, perhaps even enthusiastic about being on such intimate terms with the lake. The conditions were calmer than during the initial passage, almost glassy as we paddled east. Ring-billed gulls called overhead and an occasional ski boat passed in the distance.

I entered the marina first so that I could keep Bluebird from grounding on the course concrete ramp. I gave N. a hand as she got out and found her legs. This was a successful first paddle for her. My guest on the lake had covered the distance. She had done something new and felt proud of herself for overcoming her initial fears at being in a kayak on the largest lake west of the Mississippi, a lake that feels like an ocean.

We worked together to re-load the boats and all the gear. I kept an eye on clouds racing in from the west. The wind began to blow and within ten minutes a once- placid lake turned into a gray-green milkshake. With some apprehension we watched a paddle border stroke through the whitecaps and waves that crashed against the breakwater. N. got into the truck for shelter while I finished tying down the boats. We drove home grateful that we had gotten off the water when we did. The lake was no longer a safe place for a novice paddler.

On the way home we soaked up the beauty of the Mission Valley, the way hayfields abut the high peaks of the range. In the distance we saw lightning spear the clouds over St. Ignatius, so we turned west to take the back road through Moiese and avoided most of the storm. We drove the rest of the way talking about community theater and family, took a shortcut to her house and arrived safe and sound.

After dropping N. off I felt relief. I had not exposed a new paddler to anything like the dangers of paddling in a storm. I had not forgotten anything and been forced to improvise. I had not asked too much of her in relation to distance or time. Now I can return to my own adventures on the lake, trying not to let assumptions and habits dull my perceptions or shut the door on the unexpected. I will try to be as open as I was twenty-five years ago in Sitka, Alaska, when I took those first wondrous strokes. I feel glad that in October more girls will be at school in Myanmar.

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