Accident Under the Mother Tree

Accident Under the Mother Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This Vastness

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

            Olivia Laing, To the River

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

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

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

 

Report from the Island, May 18-19

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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.

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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.

A Quandary

DSCF0184 Sometimes I paddle alone and sometimes with other people. When alone I like being able to focus my attention on the inner and outer worlds without concern for other people and their experience. When I paddle with friends I take pleasure in helping them discover a new bay or cove, or having the comfort of their presence when making a long crossing. But the two truths create a quandary.

I recently paddled twice in one week, once alone, once with a friend. The juxtaposition clarifies the quandary. In the first case I had a few hours at the end of a day to dash up to a small, nearby lake. Launching from a state campground, I pushed off while most people were settling into lawn chairs, beginning to prepare the evening meal, or as young people, told to entertain themselves, carried their hopes out to a dock to cast a line. I left the crowd and quickly found my way to the corner of an estuary where a mated pair of loons escorted their single offspring beyond the reach of predators and ski boats. The long necks of trumpeter swans stood above the reeds like goal posts, and by averting my eyes and laying down my paddle, I was able to put them at ease until they slipped off the bank and glided into the water. Then, beyond the mouth of the river and past willows full of warblers and flycatchers I was able to catch site of a doe leading her fawn into the lake for an evening’s dessert of water lilies. Alone, I was able to quietly approach wild creatures and slip past their wariness.

Later in the week I traveled with a friend to a different lake. Somewhat practiced at the ritual, and grateful for it, we helped each other with the loading and unloading of the boats, reminded each other about car keys and paddle floats. It was a pleasure to show him a hidden trailhead, an overgrown campsite, the way into a river mouth. Early in the paddle he pointed out a beaver lodge I might have missed, and together, we laughed at how the beavers saw fit to decorate their lodge with a crowning piece of green slate. Late in the paddle we approached a bald eagle and enjoyed watching it bend its bright white head around a branch so as to keep us in view. On the way home we pulled into a ramshackle ice cream station and enjoyed sweet treats at a picnic table. At the same time, drawn to conversation, I missed being able to pause and adequately consider the way rain drops, after they splash to the surface of the lake, create a bubble on the black surface, a metaphoric reminder that each of us is little more than a short-lived and bright bubble of awareness on a dark sea. Wanting to stay present to my friend’s experience I risked losing aspects of my own. Hence, the quandary.

At this stage of my life I know better than to resolve the tension too easily. I want neither to abandon the artist’s solitary way, nor will I cut myself off from the necessary stimulation and benefit of learning from others. People who are artistically inclined are often radically open to the world and how it registers in consciousness while at the same time being sensitive to others. It is not easy to maintain awareness of both simultaneously. Therefore, artists must continually navigate the tension. We strive to experience all we can and render it in words or paint or pixels, moving alone through the world where the perceptions are sharp, clear and undivided; at other times we carry on this practice the best we can in the company of other people without whom we would miss some of what the world calls to us to see. I know no other way than to paddle somewhere between the near point of solitude and the distant point of community.

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