Clear At Last

Having put Bluebird away for the season I am already missing life on the water in this fine and fragile craft. It is time to feast on memories. On November 2, 2012, I wrote:

I sense both an opening in my teaching schedule and safe weather in which to paddle. To save a little time in the morning I leave the truck out overnight with the boat tied on the rack. In the morning I load up my duffel bag and some food and pull out of the driveway around 8:30. It is still fairly dark on the last Friday before the end of daylight savings time.
When I crest Evaro hill I leave valley fog behind. The back side of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, however, is shrouded in clouds. After I top the Ravalli hill and head north toward Arlee and St. Ignatius, I see rough-legged hawks on the outermost ends of the crossbeams of the telephone poles. Linemen have placed metal prongs on the arms of the poles to discourage hawks from perching on the middle section. Some of the birds sit atop the pole itself where it isn’t capped with an insulator. Their presence reminds me that winter is on its way. This will certainly be my last paddle of the year.
I return to Walstad to find public access and a place to park. I will always be grateful that John Walstad donated this property to the public in 1956. I find two cars in the lot and two trucks with boat trailers. The Mack Days fishing tournament concludes this weekend. Perhaps a few guys in the tournament have launched from here.

Almost as soon as I get out of the truck I am struck by the quiet, by everything I am not hearing. There is very little traffic on the road. I don’t hear guys chattering on the boat ramp or scouts playing in the lot as they wait their turn to head over to the island. I don’t hear chain saws or jet skis, ATVs or airplanes. Most of the cottonwood, elm, aspen, and willow leaves have fallen on the sidewalk and the beach. Just a few flags hang from the outermost twigs. In the distance larch trees stand out against the blue green background of pine and fir. October’s yellow green has become November’s light orange. I watch a leaf let go. The stem acts as ballast, the plane of the leaf as parachute. The leaf falls face up to the sky, swaying back and forth until it touches the ground.

In addition to the quiet I notice something else. The last time I was on the lake, forest fires had filled the basin with smoke, reducing visibility to less than a mile. I thought I might be able to see better today; but, in fact, I see much better, almost as if cataracts had been removed from my eyes. I am able to pick out details on Wild Horse Island, individual cabins on the south-facing shore, specific trees on the lower slope brought down by last week’s windstorm, even a few buildings in Elmo. Rain has washed the sky clear of smoke, dust, and pollen. I wonder, too, if the air has been cleansed of something less tangible–summer’s frenzy, the frantic quality of people driven to make the most of their weekends. I have never seen such a clear atmosphere. To see this well, to see the lake like this, seems like a good reason to paddle in November.

Today I want to paddle east to the major points on the south shore—White Swan, Matterhorn and Black Points, and down into the bottom of each of the fiords—White Swan, Indian, Whiskey, and Cat Bays. I paddle away from the dock at the fishing access and run parallel to LaBella Lane where Joyce and I got to spend a week three years ago. I remember dinner on a friends’ deck, the old boat sheds with their heavy overhead winches, some of the odd color schemes, the beautiful stone foundation supporting one of the older homes.

Along the way I see yellow, heart-shaped leaves that have been blown into the water from cottonwood trees. They drift in the subtle movements of water and will eventually settle and contribute to lake bottom sediments.

Under cloudy skies the patterns on the water alternate hypnotically between horizontal flashes of silver and a background of dark green or blue, depending on my distance from shore. In her Tinker Creek chapter on “Seeing” Annie Dillard cites Peter Freuchen who describes a kayak sickness that befalls Greenland Eskimos when they paddle in light like this (22). Hypnotic in quality, it can take possession of a paddler’s consciousness until he feels as though he is sinking into a bottomless void, almost as if the world has been inverted, with the sky below and the water overhead. Having recently read this passage, I try out this way of looking at the world. As I yield to this way of seeing, I feel pulled into falling and disorientation, what could become a kind of madness if one did not turn away. I feel it strongly enough that I focus my eyes on shore and a point in the distance. It is not hard to imagine what it would be like to wait too long to re-orient oneself.

I pass between Melita Island and the coast, stay outside Dream and Bootlegger Islands, then drop down into the bottom of White Swan Bay. I see a small beach and an old cabin hidden far back in the trees. I decide to land with the thought of taking a photo of myself in the boat. Paddling mostly alone, I have taken very few such photos. I let the bow touch the beach stones and hop out. I rig up my Gorilla Pod, spread the legs evenly and widely, and place it on the front hatch cover. The camera aims back toward the cockpit with the lake in the background. The arrangement seems top-heavy, so I know I am taking a risk with my camera. Nevertheless, I tell myself that if I move carefully back to the cockpit in the ten seconds I have, this might work. I set the time exposure button and press the trigger. I try to move smoothly back to the cockpit but as soon as I start to sit I cause the boat to lean ever so slightly. I watch the miniature tripod start to tip and the camera topple. I am on my feet in a flash and grab the camera out of an inch of water. I feel sick knowing that I may have ruined my camera and will not be able to take any photos this trip.

Letting the feelings move through me, I recall instructions I have read about wet electronics. Using the paper towel that surrounds my lunchtime apple, I wipe away all the moisture I can. It would be best to place the camera in a bag full of rice, not something I have on hand while kayaking. For now I place the camera back in its case and in the pelican box. When I get back to the truck I will open every compartment, remove the batteries and let the warming fan blow on the camera as I drive back home. If I can make myself wait through the night without trying the camera, maybe it will be all right the next morning. I try my best to waste as little time as possible in self-reproach. It is better simply to learn.

Resigned to the consequences of my mistake, I get back in the boat, secure the skirt, and head out of the bay for White Swan point. I round the point in the company of a line of fisherman hoping to hook the tagged lake trout worth several thousand dollars or the big prize for catching the highest total number of fish. I paddle along the east-facing shore of Indian Bay, remembering a satellite image that showed how the bay narrows almost to a channel at the end. With the water level about three feet lower than summer’s full pool, I see some long narrow fins of rock that stick above the surface. I imagine them as the ridged backs of humpback whales. At the very bottom of the bay I paddle in a few inches of water and hear the trickling sound of a small stream that enters the lake at this location. When I can proceed no further, I back out, turn around and follow the west-facing shore out to the mouth of the bay.

I head out in still-calm conditions to Matterhorn Point and spot the now-familiar red and green Texaco sign on the strong white stanchion bolted to the rock. The lake level is still about seven feet higher than it will be next spring. As a result, the fins of rock north of the point do not protrude above the water, but I sense their presence. Slabs of rock tip down toward the bottom of the lake, high on the west, low to the east. These great tilting slabs are a reminder of the weight of the glaciers that helped to form the lake basin.
Repeating the same pattern, I paddle down the east-facing shore of Cat Bay. This time I look carefully for hints of the presence of Safe Harbor Marsh, a Nature Conservancy Preserve just over the brow of one of the ridges along this shore. Twenty years ago I made a winter visit to the preserve. I remember looking over the ridge from the preserve side and seeing the lake. From the level of the lake, however, it is almost impossible to have a sense of the marsh’s location.

Near the bottom of the fiord I head back into open water, touch my paddle to the outermost rock of Black Point and begin the return journey. I feel tempted to paddle on to Bird Island or Finley Point, but know that this would add at least six miles to my total distance. I know my limits and decide to reverse course. This time I paddle down the west-facing shore and find a beautifully protected cove. It is utterly still. A sailboat, tied to its anchorage, seems as though it will be perfectly safe no matter what weather falls upon it this winter. I land on a small beach exposed now by the lower lake level. I find a place to sit in the silence and eat my lunch. Again I am amazed by everything I am not hearing. No hammer blows, no whining saws, no horseplay echoing from the docks, no deck parties carrying the sound of human voices. Occasionally a raven calls.

Still perfectly comfortable on a day of about 47 degrees, I settle back into my boat and push off from the beach. This time a slight breeze comes to me out of the south and helps me paddle across the open mouth of Cat Bay and quickly back to Matterhorn Point. I wave to fisherman and head for the point at White Swan. I head into a faint breeze blowing now out of the west. Paddling against a little wind the boat suddenly seems lighter, perhaps even faster, as if the little waves break some kind of surface tension that sticks to the boat. The water no longer feels heavy. I head now toward the south shore of Melita Island. I want to pass over the long gravel bar formed by the waves that normally sweep out of the northeast and cause gleaming stones to be deposited in this location. I touch down here, holding my position by sinking my hands in the gravel. I take a moment to catch my breath before the last passage to Walstad. I start to feel tired now and remind myself to use my best technique, not to slouch or let core muscles collapse. I reach for each stroke, let the crown of my shoulders rotate back right and then back left. Soon, the huge houseboat on blue steel pontoons comes into view. I pop the skirt, extract my legs, and coast into the ramp.
I have covered about seventeen or eighteen miles on a perfect November Day. In many ways paddling at this time of the year, provided that I am between weather systems, seems safer than paddling in April or early May. With the lake surface at 50 degrees, and the air at almost the same temperature, I am safer than when the air is warmer and the water at 38 degrees. I hope to paddle again during the quiet days when almost no one else is on the lake and the atmosphere has been washed by autumn’s first storms.

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