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.