I unload Bluebird on a gray, windy morning at Wayfarer Park near Bigfork. While I stow a dry bag stuffed with emergency gear a fisherman backs his boat down the concrete ramp and nearly runs over me. By the look on his face I sense that he may be embarrassed, but he is in such a hurry to launch his boat that he doesn’t say a word. I step over my boat so that I am not caught between the man’s desperation and my own deliberations. I decide to wait for him to race off to the ledges and troughs where he pictures fish he wants to catch.
Knowing that conditions will be rough and the water cold, I choose a modest paddle: Wayfarer to Wood’s Bay, about six miles south, and then return. As soon as I am in the water wind and waves strike the right stern quarter. The waves slide under me diagonally and create a disconcerting rolling motion. It is rough enough that I hear the waves combing cobbles on the beach, a kind of mountain surf. I paddle south parallel to shore where vacant cabins await their summer visitors and most boats hang suspended above the rising lake level. Off to my left I spot first one and then a second giant boulder, “erratics” in the language of geologists, deposited by receding glaciers and large enough to be unmoved even by the torrents of Glacial Lake Missoula. On the hillsides above the lake larch trees turn a color that Winsor Newton calls “sap green.” This color is so intense it almost seems charged with electric current.
After about four miles of this rolling motion, and as it begins to rain, I rethink my goal for the day. If the conditions worsen, I will have a hard time making the return paddle. If I go over into water only a few degrees above snowmelt, I could become hypothermic very quickly, even in a dry suit. I remind myself that I am not obligated to round Yenne point and head into Wood’s Bay. I decide to execute a left turn I learned from watching Leon Somme. Turning back, heading now into a quartering wind and a corresponding chop, raises a question: what is the goal of a paddle? I often try to complete a circuit, reach an island or point, draw a triangle with my boat or fully explore a distant bay; but sometimes my goal is deeper than a destination. Today it seems right only to venture out with as little as possible between me and the forces around me—the wind, the waves, the rain, the white wall of a spring storm about to descend on me from Jewel Basin. In a kayak we scale back the layers of protection between ourselves and these great forces. We maximize exposure while preserving the ability to make a safe passage. Today I am like a climber who turns back twenty feet short of the peak because it is enough to have time on the mountain. It is enough to feel these forces painting the slopes green, driving the waves toward shore, equipping the body with a kind of neurological beauty that makes countless adjustments to pitch, roll, and yaw. At the turn I see my actual goal.