Already

Already

Surprisingly I am already beginning to think about paddling in the spring. We are ten days short of the winter solstice. Two hours before morning light I feel cold seep through the south wall of the back bedroom. I save chicken skin for magpies; it freezes almost the moment I put it on the cedar plank for their discovery. Even so, I am already thinking about the feel of sliding the boat down my bent thighs and slipping it stern first into the all-receiving water of spring.

It is also true that in this cold, dark time of the year I live somewhere between memory and anticipation.

Something of the past lives inside me, particles of its presence floating around in my brain or limbs. I remember the warm morning three of us stuffed overnight gear into our hatches, shoved off from the warm shallows of Big Arm Bay, and headed for Cedar Island.

I remember another morning when, despite our best effort to time departure and weather, we encountered difficult conditions that required a smart decision. Considering all the possibilities, I decided we should ride rough water to the big island and not oppose the waves and wind. We used the island as a windbreak for much of our northward leg. Fortunately, this decision did not set us up for trouble on the southward return of our trip. And I remember a late September day when I had the lake to myself. I found the energy to go wherever I wanted, to link near shore to distant point, island and strait, open water and sheltering bay. Limits seemed remote; whatever I imagined seemed possible as the boat played a melody over the bass notes of the lake. All these memories float around inside me, bubble up into awareness.

At the same time I imagine paddles to come. Almost five months from being able to fulfill any of the things I imagine, I feel particles of anticipation in motion. I very much want to make another night paddle, to stroke away at sunset and be on the water after jet skis drain dry on their lifts and fast boats have pulled into their slips after covering the length of the lake for the fun of speed. I want to paddle into moonlight or turn my back to the modest lights of Polson and see stars over Glacier’s peaks. I want to feel what there is of my own strength apply itself in the face of the wind. I want to see if I can find that petroglyph hiding under overhanging rock. I want to thread my way through the island chain to see how a friend fared over the winter and if he built another wooden boat. I want to be out when the weather changes, not because I court disaster, but because I love the energy of the weather and how deep blue can change to green and white.

Over the winter I will keep the things I anticipate in my pocket, reach in once in a while to rub the coins of possibility together. I will try to maintain enough tone so the first paddle will not feel like something to fear. I will let imagination grow strong as a deep current carrying me back to this thing I love to do. Despite everything, the lake is still free of invasive mussels and good people are keeping an eye on nitrates. Despite everything the water will accept the prow and the blade. Despite everything the axis will tilt and the light will return.

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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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One Reason

With another round of snow expected this weekend and temperatures in the twenties it is no time to paddle. It is a good time to reflect. In the interior space of winter I ponder my motivations for paddling Bluebird on Flathead Lake.

Over the years I have certainly gone to the lake to test myself, to lay out a course and press through whatever conditions I find to cover the distance, set off for a bay or island, even spend myself in an effort to reach a destination in the fewest possible hours. I have gone to the lake to introduce the experience to friends, taking as much delight in their encounter with the lake as when a companion catches a fine fish upstream of where I cast. I have gone to the lake when I have grown tired of the focused work of preparing for class or reading student essays. I have gone to the lake to be broken open by the distances, snow-covered ridge lines, the effect of moon and starlight on the dark field of night. I have often gone to the lake to bathe in the colors, passing in and out of variations on green and blue. Especially in springtime I love to go to the lake to brush by the flight of geese, to pass under their wing beats and imagine their migrations. Though I paddle for all these reasons it is also true that I have gone to the lake to work through loss. Sometimes I relate to the world physically in search of a different state of mind.

I grew up sailing with my father. We spent many hours learning the idiosyncrasies of a heavy wooden but beautiful Swedish sloop. We raced and we dawdled, sanded, varnished and scrubbed. We poked around in a little sabot or entered it in short races launched from a beach; for some unknown reason it seemed to win every race we entered. We came home smelling of salt. When he died the remnants of his life helped me realize that boats had been a central part of his identity, one of the many ways he brought joy into his life. In his absence I took up the paddle, partly as a way of honoring this part of our life together.

Dad&G Looking back on the last several years I see that I occasionally sought out the lake to paddle through grief at losing a man I loved. This must be one of the reasons that I only mildly complain about a headwind. It gives me an opportunity to work through the resistance we feel at having to accept a loss. As each wave slides down the length of the hull I have an opportunity to let go of things I have lost. Endless strokes become practice in making contact, laying hold, and letting go, in admitting something into awareness and allowing it to slip by.

In trying to describe the experience of grief, and remembering Europe’s mountain tunnels, Rilke uses the image of drilling through stone. The work of grief can be this hard, whether we have lost a father or friend, a spouse, child, or position we thought we deserved to receive or retain. If I blend the images, I realize that I have often drilled through waves and wind, through fatigue and fear in the hope of arriving at a distant shore, not necessarily the shore of an island but the shore of a lighter state of being. I have pressed through the weight of water and let it pass in order to stand more available to the present and less anchored to the past. This is one of the reasons I carry Bluebird down to the margins of water and stone.

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Gratitude

As anyone knows who reads this blog, more often than not I paddle alone. I love the freedom this gives me, paddling where and how I choose, setting my own pace, paying my own form of focused attention to the liminal space between water, light, and human consciousness. But as I look back on the year now behind us I feel extremely grateful to those people who have paddled with me. Standing on the edge between one year and the next, I feel particularly grateful to the following people:

my beloved who prefers to stay close to shore;

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my dear friend John who, like Rilke’s swan, slipped quietly into deeper water;

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Professor Clem Work who brought his camera and artist’s eye to the lake and allowed me to see the world through his lens;

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Jeanne and Glenn who followed me to the island and carried a picnic into the cove where we ate and talked as Bighorn rams and ewes traveled the trail to the isthmus;

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Jeff who joined me for a bronco ride across Finley Bay and a downwind race in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse islands;

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my brother, also named Jeff. Here the debt is larger as I remember how he taught me to use my camera more skillfully, began to teach me about the physics of waves, and is in the process of forgiving me for taking him nearly three miles past our haul-out because I completely forgot myself (and him) in the joy of meeting an approaching headwind and the waves it generated north of White Swan Point.

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We can count our riches in coins and objects or we can count them in the form of gratitude for time spent with other people who expanded the island of our awareness. With these people I have braided wakes left by every stroke.