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.

 

 

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Waves Lift

 

 

 

 

 

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 Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

On the Other Side of the Range: A List of Riches

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,

logged outhike the trail to Crystal Lake,

Crystal

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.

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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

Big Larch

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.

 

 

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.