Reflections Near Season’s End

Late September is a good time to reflect on this year’s season of paddling. I do not know if my jury summons, final yard chores, and the need to prepare for a brief teaching gig will allow me to get back to the lake for a final paddle. Not knowing if I will be able to return, now seems like a good time to write down my impressions since the paddle blade leaves no evidence of its sweep.

I first made contact with the lake in March. The water was covered with such a hard shell of ice that one could have walked from Dewey Pt. to Cedar Island, perhaps even the four miles to Wild Horse Island. Everyone was saying, “Will this winter ever end?” But by May I was paddling again, dressing for 40-degree water and wind delivering a smack of cold.

As I look back on my fourteenth year on the water I am left with the sense that the my experiences are still with me in the way that a long day on the water leaves a person’s inner ear adjusting to the rhythmic motion of waves.

I see clearly that paddling, like meditation, is not an end in itself. Yes, I love the pleasure of plowing into the wind on a hot summer day, receiving the splash of spray, or paddling on a calm evening, even one under the stars. And yes, I love the exhilaration of a downwind run and enough competence in the boat to let the waves roll me at odd angles without fear. But I am thinking about impressions and memories of a different sort.

Though I mostly paddle alone, I remember a particular day with friends. They wanted to gain more experience in their new Swift boats and enjoy the process of becoming more familiar with the long shores and crossings of Flathead Lake. After a lovely meal in evening light we trusted the next day’s forecast of “variable winds up to ten miles an hour with waves less than a foot.”

 

The next morning we launched from the United Methodist Church Camp, paddled past the pictographs left on a limestone wall, and cruised the shore up to Deep Bay where I could not resist a dive into clear water. After lunch we headed into a freshening wind. I knew we had our work cut out for us. As we paddled in rough but manageable conditions, I would say to them, “We could pull out here and call for a ride” or “We could rest in the lee of that island,” or simply, “How are you doing?” I loved hearing, “This is hard, but let’s keep going.” I loved the process of making good decisions with other people rather than carrying the burden alone, turning my ear to signs of distress or enthusiasm, my own or those of another. Making good decisions with other people feels like a lasting joy. In the end, rounding the last corner we were given the relief of a downwind run.

Looking back I see clearly that not every paddle needs to be an epic adventure. Just as it is possible to stroll along a river trail or wander through an old neighborhood, it is possible to paddle in a desultory way. For example, I remember an afternoon on Lake Alva. The membrane of consciousness registers the skittering of ducklings, the ruffled surface of baitfish trying to escape a predator, the stillness of a heron in the slow water below a beaver dam. After paddling across the lake and into one of its coves I remember sitting still in my kayak and marveling at fireweed growing out of fallen log. A slant of light fell through the forest and raised the flowers into a purple torch. After exploring the outlet of the lake, I returned to my wife’s fancy picnic of smoked salmon, Struan bread, fresh cherries from local trees, and Gorgonzola cheese. Sometimes paddling is less about working toward a destination and more about gaining a greater appreciation for the quietness at hand, the sound of a little girl speaking to her attentive grandfather and listening to him gently respond as he sat sunning himself on the beach.

 

As I look back I also sense how an aspect of paddling has implications for life beyond the water. When making a long crossing from point to point or shore to island and back the progress seems so incremental as to be barely discernible. Yet, with patience things come into focus. If I continue to paddle from where I am, rather than toward where I want to be, I eventually recognize a landmark, a white buoy or a leaning tree. The shape of an island becomes sharper; the memory of red barn on the hillside is confirmed. Such clarity is not given to us in the beginning; it comes to us over time. I count on this impression from a season in the kayak as I work to make sense of what is happening to our country, as I consider the impact of a Swedish teenager on our burning of the world.

Not all impressions are positive. In late August I joined five friends for a paddle down the Flathead River, a way of celebrating all that the Flathead basin carries to the world west of the continental divide. Leaving better campsites to families with children, we slid ashore after paddling five miles the first day. Almost immediately we were assaulted with the sound of ATV traffic, blowing dust and hours of random gunfire. Though I had camped in this spot before, a lot changes in fourteen years. A dusty and rutted road had been pushed into the river from who knows where. Now in the multiplying fire rings I found a failed engine starter, shell casings, an abandoned sponge too wet to burn, lots of plastic and aluminum. The next day at the takeout, dog excrement covered the beach and an empty Coors can, driven by a merciless wind, bounced down the parking lot. I asked myself, should we withdraw from places of violence and violation and search only for places not yet destroyed? Though I feel the temptation to withdraw, I also wonder, should I return to this place with equipment that might allow me to improve on the desecration? Or, do we need to go back to the sources of what cause people to treat the river and the earth in this way? I do not know the answers to my questions, but they stay with me.

As my last tomatoes ripen and bucks begin to chase does across the back yard I am left with another question: can we store beauty? I have seen so much of it this season—ovoids on the water while paddling in a September rain,

the flashing colors of a kestrel landing in the top of a Ponderosa, faces of smiling friends at the end of the day, an Arctic loon that allowed me to slip by while it was fishing before it continued its journey south, and always the variations on blue and green. Can we store such beauty like oats in a glass jar, like frozen plums in a bag that will see us through the winter to come? I’m not sure as each new experience seems to trespass on those that came before. The beauty we see seems to linger but not endure. It may last only as long as a musical note left in the concert hall. Yet, enough of what we experience lasts long enough to leave us with the motivation to return to the water. The lake calls us back because of all that it has given in response to our efforts to slide across its ever-changing face. Memories may lead me to next year.

 

 

 

 

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.

Memories

We lose everything, but make harvest

of the consequences it was to us. Memory

builds this kingdom from the fragments

and approximation. We are gleaners who fill

the barn for the winter that comes on.

 –Jack Gilbert, “Moreover”

This is the time of year when ranchers in Montana pull stored sunlight out of their barns and spread it on frozen fields for hungry animals. This is the time of year when Blackfeet, Salish and Crow pull stories out of ancient storehouses and remind each other who they are and where they came from. Memories are the feast of the season.

At this time of the year a paddler builds a kingdom out of remembered fragments and approximations of the season past. In many cases the memories are composed only of images—a wave that caught my brother on the upwind side of a dock, lifted him on its crest and almost set him down on its deck; a wall of stone where water flowed out of cracks and created a bank that overflowed with green and living things; an encounter with an eagle where the air flowing over its feathers was felt on my skin; a vast space of open water with the paddler a mere speck in the blue distance. And sometimes the memories take the form of a story. Like a tool in a cabinet, we keep pulling it out of the drawer where it is stored, handle it, turn it, reflect on its significance and use to us.

stones

Though I could pull open any of several drawers of stored memories, this winter I feel drawn to return to a day in September a few years ago. Having begun the semester but not yet burdened with the first batch of student essays, I drove up to Finley Point. Drawing on the strength of a full season of paddles, I wanted to depart from the state campground and stroke my way to Wild Horse Island on as direct a line as possible. But I hesitated as I stood on the concrete abutment that helps to form the marina. Breaking waves flowed down the fetch from north to south. Would it be foolish to paddle alone on such a day, on a day when no one else was on the lake and available to render aid if I got in trouble? Was I willing to take the risk?

Trying to quiet these questions in my mind, I slid Bluebird into the channel between the bobbing docks. The moment I passed the mouth of the marina I felt the full force of the waves running down the lake and striking the starboard quarter of my boat. I committed myself to the process of meeting each wave as an individual, rose in the crests, dropped into the troughs, and adjusted to each push and slap with more or less forceful strokes. I maintained this focused attention for about two hours before I began to realize the true danger of my situation. If my attention faltered or wandered even slightly, as fatigue began to pervade my body, I might lose my balance in the waves and find myself in grave danger. This realization tapped the last measure of my strength and allowed me to reach the island safely. I hauled Bluebird out of the waves on the backs of some drift logs, climbed the bluff and drank all my water. I rested, waited, watched. I needed time to recover.

I wandered around the island’s east shore, grateful for the stability of rock and earth beneath my feet. When I eventually returned to my overlook I realized that the wind was beginning to drop. The waves no longer broke, though swells swept the surface of the lake. These were safe enough conditions for me to paddle back across the lake to another island and then the last three miles home.

I continue to reflect on this day. At times I think I was willful in relation to far greater powers and that my safe arrival and return were less a matter of skill and strength and more a matter of luck. Other times I feel the exhilaration that this day brought me, recalling, as Mihaly Csikszentymihayi said of happiness:

 Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives are not passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.

As near as I can tell, we live somewhere between the stone, feather, or spring that we happen upon and the happiness we “make happen.” If this is true, then I strive for consciousness not only of the wave as it surges toward me and the exhilaration of meeting it, but of the space between forcing my will upon the world and simply receiving its inexplicable gifts. I want to be aware of the edge of each, the things we make happen and the things we receptively receive. In this consciousness we make a way in the world.

I know I will lose the ability to make such paddles as I lean into the middle of my late decades. But between now and then I want to glean my experiences from the field of the lake and its islands; I want to harvest the consequences of memories, and fill the barn as long as I can. On a winter day I open the drawer where they are stored, pull them into the light and turn them in my hands.

into the wind