Every year I try to paddle to Wild Horse Island in May. I do this to honor my mother who died this month sixteen years ago. Some people have ideal mothers. My brother and I were not so fortunate, thanks to a surgery when she was in her 20s. Medical mistakes set her up for a life of pain, chronic illnesses and multiple addictions in response to physical and mental suffering. Despite these difficulties, and partly in reaction to them, I remain the recipient of so many things. In truth my mother gave me everything I needed—a wariness of intoxicants, desire for a conscious life, my love of language, and attentiveness to the world within and around me.
Because she gave me the gift of life I am able to paddle to the island, hike its ridges, explore its valleys, appreciate its wildflowers.
Almost certainly she would have noticed and called attention to the way Balsamroot turn toward the morning light,
the composition of stone and flower, hard and soft,
an owl feather still wet with dew,
a once-living tree suspended above the current of its journey and the storms that threw it there upon the stone.
Trained by her at the window of sunrise, I notice the way cumulus clouds form the central reflection in ovoids, see the kestrel, on its perch in a pine tree, step in a full circle as it surveys the world.
Given a perfect day for paddling and a chance at life, I am nothing but grateful. In response I offer her the the whole island’s bouquet.
Near the end of March it is still snowing, not in the fitful fashion of a spring squall but continuously, earnestly, as it usually snows in December. Once again the driveway is covered in snow and the back slope wears an armor of ice. We have been locked inside this winter for five solid months. Yet, the expansion of the light after the equinox has an effect on me in the same way that it normally affects the apple tree outside the south window. In a normal year, whatever that is, the buds would be swelling by now in response to the light if not the weather. Despite the weather, something in me is also awakening. Despite the snow and unseasonable cold, I am beginning to imagine paddling my kayak, negotiating wind and waves in a glassy vessel, exploring islands and coves, immersing myself in color, dissolving into the life of the lake.
This weather that keeps me indoors also leads me to reach toward my shelf of favorite books where I find The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, a slim, white paperback that stands in the company of hardbound Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane. The book tells the story of Shepherd’s first sight of the Cairngorn plateau in Scotland when she was a child and how it awakened a desire to explore its heights and depths. She recounts encounters with wild weather and hardy human beings. She traverses slopes, climbs peaks, notes birds, animals and insects, crosses streams confined by granite walls, traces their courses from uppermost springs to the valleys of the Spey, Avon or Dee.
First published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press, the book was written in the years during and soon after WWII. After Shepherd received a discouraging response to the manuscript she tucked it in a drawer where it sat untended for almost thirty years. Meanwhile she continued to climb and explore her living mountain, but also the mountain that had impressed itself on her mind and heart. In a disturbed and uncertain world the Cairngorns were her “secret place of ease.” Then as an old woman she began “tidying out my possessions,” as she says. Rereading the manuscript, she found it still valid and felt renewed energy to see it published. We are so much the richer for the second wind of this writer and her belief in what she had written.
In some ways the book resembles a kitchen pantry nearly bursting with sensory detail. As Shepherd opens the door on this pantry, she describes the taste, touch, smell, sights and sounds of the mountain in all seasons of the year, both night and day. With her description of the taste of a berry, the texture of a plant or stone, what it feels like to walk barefoot over heather, the sound of an owl landing on a tent pole or a storm crashing into the walls, canyons and corries, she practically places us inside the mountain. Then in the final chapter, acting as our mountain guide, she takes us beyond all the details of weather, the colors of leaves and feathers, the varieties of animals, the intricacies of trails and routes, human pleasures and fatalities. She leads us up and out, or down and in, until we break into the open to consider the deepest things of all, the mystery of what it means to be alive, to be aware of one’s own being in the company of Being itself. It is as if the fog and mist of sensory detail suddenly clear and in her company we see an open sky above the summit. Rereading the final chapter of The Living Mountain I realize that what Nan Shepherd says of her beloved range might easily be said of Flathead Lake. One only needs to change a few words from her closing paragraphs to experience the lake that, like her mountain, is its own living being. If she had lived in Montana instead of Scotland, when she crested the last moraine heading into Polson she might have written:
…So my journey into an experience began. It was a journey always for fun, with no motive beyond that I wanted it. But at first I was seeking only sensuous gratification—the sensation of height, the sensation of movement, the sensation of speed, the sensation of distance, the sensation of effort, the sensation of ease: a kind of lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, certainly the pride of life. I was not interested in the lake for itself, but for its effect upon me, as (a cat) caresses not the man but herself against the man’s pant leg. But as I grew older, and less self-sufficient, I began to discover the lake in itself. Everything became good to me, (its long shoreline, its islands, its rocky hillsides and forests, its shades of color, its crevice-held flowers, its birds). This process has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that the experience enlarges (the ramps and slabs of stone, deep, dark depths, turquoise shallows, great banks of gravel, deer and sheep drawn to the margins). The thing to be known grows with the knowing. I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain (lake). The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the (lake’s) life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour or two I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes a human like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the (lake).
I do not know when this storm will end, when the ground will thaw, when the water temperature will rise enough to make paddling seem safe. But as the light changes, whatever atmospheric rivers flow our way, I imagine what it will be like to be on and in the living lake. Like Shepherd the hiker and climber, walking herself “transparent” to every living thing in her world, I hope to paddle myself transparent, clear of fears and concerns, empty of self, open to every resonating thing in a still-living world. As Shepherd’s knowledge of the mountains evolved, so, too, has my motivation and knowledge of the lake evolved. I will return to the lake not for myself but to experience the lake being itself.
I sometimes ask myself, Why do I do this? Why drive 160 miles round trip to get wet, windblown or sunburned? Why burn about six gallons of gasoline at a time when we are warming the planet faster than it can absorb the carbon dioxide we produce? Why deal with the aggression on the highway of the big-truck crowd? Why do this when so many things demand attention at home, especially in October when we are trying to finish outdoor chores before winter slams the door on light and comfort?
Midway through my paddle out to and around Wild Horse Island I realized a couple of possible answers to my questions. On September 15, I tested positive for the Omicron variant of the Covid 19 virus. My case was relatively mild compared to others whose coughs linger for weeks, who lose taste and smell, who suffer lasting fatigue, or even die. Paddling against a north wind reminded me that I have recovered, that my body has restored itself to health. In the two-hour beat against the wind, without distraction and in the company only of my thoughts, I remembered something else. On a recent visit to see my youngest son and his family I told Kyle that getting older does not necessarily mean things get easier. He looked at me squarely as we hugged one last time at the airport and said, “Stay strong, Dad.” I think he was telling me, “Dad, I need you in the world. Stay active. Don’t leave too soon.” Perhaps I drove north and paddled north for these reasons—to celebrate the recovery of health and as part of the process of staying strong for those who need me in the world.
In my circumnavigation of the island I looked to Osprey Cove as a refuge where I hoped to rest and eat lunch, but the landing did not feel safe; waves had pushed the gravel into a steep and sliding slope. I backed out of the cove and headed south where I hoped to find a more protected place to land. I found such a spot at the East Shore access to the island. I got out of Bluebird without spilling and wedged the boat between two drift logs. Thanks to my beloved I enjoyed a massive and spicy Beach Boy sandwich from Tagliare and Smyrna figs. After lunch I wandered the shoreline, climbed into the dry grasses and yarrow. Along the way I discovered a Big Horn sheep skeleton, bleached and barren. I took time, too, to marvel at the clear water of October, all the sediments and pollen settled out. At this point in the season the water seemed like a pure distillation. Once back in my boat I continued south, avoiding the ramps of stone along the shore because the reflected energy of waves created rougher conditions a few yards off shore. When I saw sheep resting in the shade of a pine tree, however, I could not resist approaching for a photo. I rarely see these animals in the open. This was their time to build reserves before winter makes life more difficult.
At the south end of the island I turned west and enjoyed several miles of assisted paddling as wind and waves nudged me from behind. In the face of things I felt I should do, I left home, but returned feeling as though my body had been washed clean as October gravel near shore. The lake offered an image to the imagination. This is something to celebrate.
I have lived in Montana for nearly 40 years. Even before arriving I tried to learn about my state. The people who invited me here hoped, even expected, that I would learn something about the state’s history; read the books they put in front of me; learn to close gates behind me every time I had permission to traverse private land; come to appreciate the long tenure of Montana’s Native peoples and cultures; and take a few back roads far from the interstate. In heart and soul I became a Montanan.
In the last two or three years living in Montana has become more difficult, and not just because of a pandemic. I can’t get a campsite where I used to drive up, find an empty spot and throw down my pad and bag. It takes thirty minutes to drive north through town where it used to take me fifteen. In some cases a dinner reservation must be made a week in advance. The median home price in Missoula recently hit $534,000. Sometimes there are more out-of-state license plates in parking lots than in-state plates with county numbers. When going fishing I have had to learn to dodge trailers and rafts.
With all this in mind I particularly admired the spirit of Tom Dickson’s Sketchbook essay in the May-June issue of Montana Outdoors (https://issuu.com/montanaoutdoors/docs/momj21). Like me he feels the pinch of change, but he found it in his heart to say, “Howdy, new neighbors.” To be sure, he had some recommendations for people from Utah, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida and California, things like not building a trophy home too close to a river or stream because of the impact of septic systems, or plopping one on a hilltop. But he even went so far as to propose that we give newcomers a welcome basket that contained a few things like a can of bear spray and a copy of the stream access law.
On a Wednesday in late June I pulled into a fishing access point along the shore of Flathead Lake. There were boat trailers and a car from another state. Under its open hatch a couple of women showered in a mist of bug spray. They launched an inflatable tandem kayak just ahead of me and began their own exploration along the shore. Meanwhile, I prepared to paddle out to Wild Horse Island, trying to remember every thing I might need, especially if predicted winds forced me to stay on the island until dusk when the wind usually drops.
Anticipating windy conditions I chose to bring my Werner Camano paddle because the blade gives me a little more bracing power in waves. But almost immediately I felt the absence of my Greenland-style paddle. More than I realized I have grown accustomed to being able to slide my hands up and down the loom for different kinds of strokes. I missed the faster cadence and the way the paddle is gentler on my joints. Adjusting myself to the unexpected, I crossed the strait to the island, made my way north to Skeeko Bay and pulled Bluebird ashore over a mass of floating driftwood. Even though Sélîs Kasanka Q’lispe dam is releasing over 50,000 cubic feet per second, the lake currently sits 5 inches above full pool as rain-swollen rivers pour into the basin.
Once ashore, I found a big log where I could sit, eat a peanut butter sandwich and change clothes for a hike. Even on a Wednesday several pontoon boats had already run up onto the gravel shore and disgorged a pile of passengers while more of these vessels approached from Big Arm and Dayton: I would not have the island to myself.
After loading a fanny pack with water, my first aid kit, and an already-peeled orange, I started up the trail. At the saddle where an old cabin still stands in the wind I turned left and took the Overlook Trail. Along the way I passed several families with young children. A toddler fell in front of me and scraped his left knee. I offered a band aid but his mother assured me that they had what they needed to comfort their crying child. I caught up to a couple heading toward the ridge, and as I passed, greeted them and asked if they were going to see the bitterroots. When they seemed mystified, I explained that bitterroots are the state flower and that they grow in the most inhospitable places like the rocky ridge ahead of us. They seemed interested but were not in good enough condition to continue up the steep trail.
During the day I saw lots of other people, talked with some whose accents I could not place. People asked, “Did you see a horse? A sheep? A bear?” I was tempted to say, “Only a lion,” but out of respect, held my tongue. On my way up to the top of the island I kept wondering, how do we do this? How do we welcome the people who are coming despite the changes they bring to a place we love and want to protect? How do we teach them that an animal is not an object to be counted but a particular expression and member of an incredibly complex community? How do we show them that a black-backed woodpecker is evidence of a combination of fire and insect populations; that a bald-eagle kiting in the wind is not something you see every day; that fire can be a friend to the land; that cheat grass is a problem? As I sat under a ponderosa clinging to its rocky footing I reminded myself of how Shoshone peoples must have felt seeing Lewis and Clark approach.
From the top of the island I looked in all directions, marveled at how the lake looked purple under shadows cast by cumulus clouds and a sunny turquoise where sediments in suspension from upstream rivers colored the water. I found several scrapes where animals had bedded down, but saw no deer or sheep. Near the top of the island I found sago lilies in a shady spot.
Watching gusts of wind race across the surface of the lake, I began to feel anxious about crossing back to the mainland, so I headed down the mountain. Along the way I found an Inuksuk, a reminder to act responsibly as a human being. Back at my kayak I changed clothes again and launched as two more boats sought to come ashore in front of me. They focused only on a place to land, not my vulnerability in a kayak.
Despite headwinds and the gusts that tore at my hat, I made it safely back to shore, though I did have to avoid flying hooks and worms cast from the dock. The changes we face won’t be easy to integrate. Yet, I hope to find a way to be friendly, knowing I, too, was once a newcomer, never quite native to this place I love.
I have been thinking about the importance of rest. Like most paddlers I take my boat to the water when I can, when I create a gap between responsibilities at home or time with family. This year especially, the weather in these gaps has been unstable, unpredictable and wildly dynamic. I think, for example of an afternoon when I paddled from Canal Bay, near Rollins, Montana out around the south ends of Shelter and Cedar Islands and back. The waves caused me to hesitate before launch and required extreme care when broadside to their wind-driven and rolling energy. After I landed I learned that a sailboat from the Lutheran Church camp had requested permission to anchor in the swimming area of the United Methodist church camp, so tired and fearful was the crew.
I also remember a recent paddle from Finley Point campground to Bird Island. Conditions were unsettled and the waves so chaotic that I only saw one other boat on the water—a powerful inboard towing a tuber and creating endless contradictory waves in addition to those generated by wind across a 20-mile fetch. By the time I reached the island I was so concerned about turning broadside and beginning my drift south that I did not even glance into my favorite cove and did not dare to take a photograph. I could not figure out a way to use my camera and brace against the waves at the same time.
As I coasted south I knew it would be wise to find a place to rest and eat lunch. I remembered a gravel bar on the south end of the island where boats often ground themselves and get out of the fray. I left this spot to a merganser family and found a slip behind an ancient grounded pine tree covered now with a community of mosses and other small plants. I felt a profound sense of relief to be in the lee of the island’s mass and to glide in behind the log.
Paddling, almost always by myself, gives me ample time for reflection. So, contemplating my own need for rest, and the relief that accompanies it, I could not help but think about other people whose need for rest is far more consequential. I thought about all the people along our southern border looking for escape from gangs, border patrol agents, militias, and others who exploit their vulnerability. These people need places to rest, shade under a bush, and the shelter of human kindness.
I feel fortunate that I can enter into difficulty by choice and that I know where to find places to rest. Paddling gives me ample time to fly in my imagination toward those who are forced into flight and who search desperately for a little pool in the lee of events.
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.
On the summer solstice my wife and I camped at the lake, finding one of the few sites open for tents next to parking lot full of trailers and RVs. Our “overnight” allowed me to make a long afternoon paddle the first day and a morning paddle on the second day to some of my favorite islands and bays. Both days windy conditions kept other boats off the lake, but I ventured out anyway, my desire to paddle stronger than my fear.
Both days I faced strong headwinds, quartering winds, and less often, a downwind ride, paddle held aloft like a pair of sails, all conditions that made it difficult to relax. One particularly strong gust of wind stripped the paddle from my hands. I immediately plunged my hands into the cold water to arrest my forward movement. Then, I hand-paddled backwards to intercept the drifting paddle before continuing my entrance into a new bay I wanted to visit. After losing and regaining my paddle I decided to pull a leash from my vest. Never before had I felt the need for this precaution.
Naturally, windy conditions produce waves, waves that vary depending on lots of factors—the length of the fetch, the deflecting effect of islands, the influence of shoals, the temporary flattening effect of gusts, and so on. Some waves on Flathead Lake are powerful or turbulent enough to overturn a kayak. On both days around the solstice, however, I experienced something I have wanted to describe. When I am in the trough between waves the approaching wave seems like it will swamp the boat or overturn me. While these waves sometimes broke over the boat and sent spray into my face, to my amazement I know that waves also lift. Because boats are buoyant waves slide under and suddenly elevate the trusting paddler.
I have never been able to photograph this phenomenon while paddling. Windy conditions demand my whole attention. Nevertheless, I have come to trust this process and believe it has implications for other aspects of our lives. The forces that potentially threaten us—an unexpected set of demands, a danger or fearful encounter, all these things also have power to lift us. Experience tells me, if we keep breathing (our own form of buoyancy), the energy of waves rolls under us. The waves have power to lift us above the troughs, the trough of fear, tension, or lack of perspective. Nevertheless, I have found it necessary to let this happen. We cannot stop the advancing wave, but we can allow it to roll under us and lift us above the turbulence.
On the morning of a day predicted to reach the mid-nineties I load Bluebird and follow The Blackfoot River east and then a chain of lakes north to Lindbergh Lake, on the other side of the range from where I usually paddle. I plan to paddle to the end of the lake,
hike the trail to Crystal Lake,
go for a short swim and return to camp for a late supper. Then I hope to watch a full moon rise over the Swan range.
As I sit at the picnic table before and after my paddle I make a list of riches:
my wife’s soft kiss as I depart
yesterday’s massage that left me almost pain free
an old tent that still provides shelter depending on how hard it rains
a multi-grain bagel, a can of sardines and an apple
a water filtration pump in a campground without a spigot
a place to sleep, even if on the ground, in a sleeping bag that feels perfect
memories that tell me how to get to this place and where to find the trailhead at the end of the lake
memories of having been here with dear deceased friend John and my friend Lee who is still more than alive
a Werner graphite paddle
an eight-year-old kayak that is almost good as new despite scores of paddles
a clan of warblers in the chokecherries
clothes that are comfortable and safe in a variety of conditions
a tube of sunscreen I can tolerate
two mini-monster cookies now, and three later
a butterfly on my right shoulder
sunlight in the leaves
not needing several people to help me park or diesel fuel for a generator that runs all night
an extra tea bag
an Optimus Svea stove that is almost as old as I am
a hot moist washcloth in the morning
a visiting rabbit that pads soundlessly through camp
a larch tree the sawyers missed or recognized should stand five more centuries
geese that swim past my stillness
a hawk on the path as I go for a walk at dusk
a female American Redstart who allows me to watch her while she forages on the ground.
After making my list of riches I pack up my tent, other equipment, and cinch down my boat. Ready to drive home, I suddenly remember a warm conversation the day before with a man who was new to the campground and lake. I decide to walk over to his site and say goodbye. I see that the man and his wife are packing up, but clearly they are eager for more conversation. Maurice and Polly ask me for more local knowledge, intending to return. Then the conversation drifts toward discoveries of things we have in common—years of teaching, friends in common, the sense that the earth is rapidly changing. This year rain in February washed all the mid-level snow out of the mountains and left many of the lowland streams de-watered or dry, a bitter foretaste of things to come. Walking along the trail around the lake, and then along the trail up to Crystal lake, I could not find a single huckleberry where there would normally be buckets of berries. The three of us are able to talk freely and openly about the evidence of change and the consequences, especially for wildlife, our children and grandchildren. This conversation feels like a drink of fresh water on a day that is already hot.
I could count my riches in objects or experiences in the natural world. But as I turn away from the red van Maurice and Polly have outfitted for camping, I also feel deeply grateful for human interaction and talk about things that matter. We discover shared concerns and values on both sides of a dry stream bed. This, too, is part of what makes us wealthy on either side of the range that rises above the lake.
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;
my dear friend John who, like Rilke’s swan, slipped quietly into deeper water;
Professor Clem Work who brought his camera and artist’s eye to the lake and allowed me to see the world through his lens;
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;
Jeff who joined me for a bronco ride across Finley Bay and a downwind race in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse islands;
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.
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.