Not What I Expected

When I returned from my last paddle, a seventeen-mile solo and overnight from the south end of the lake to Cedar Island, I could not write what I had planned to write. Reminded once again by fires in The Bitterroot that the West is burning, I had intended to write about Cedar Island as a microcosm for the planet, our “fragile island home,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C. But unexpected things happened during the trip that made the original idea less compelling. I came home uninspired and wasn’t going to write anything after the boat came to rest in the rack, but something keeps knocking on the door.

I knew from the weather report and the graphical forecast I always consult that I might run into thunderstorms on this trip. Years ago I got caught out far from shore in such a storm and resolved to be more cautious in these conditions and to take lightning much more seriously. When I drained my shoes, tucked myself in, and secured my skirt clouds were building off to the west, but the conditions did not seem dangerous. I pushed against a hearty headwind on the way to Wild Horse Island. By the time I rounded the point that protects Skeeko Bay the wind gusts were intense. It was as difficult to swing the paddle forward through the air as it was to make a stroke through the water. I paused to check on a couple of people in open cockpit boats who went for a short paddle from their anchored sailboat. Not having far to travel, they assured me they could get back to their boats. I decided to cross the bay and haul out on a gravel beach.

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I pulled lunch out of my mid-ship hatch, found a log to sit on and decided to wait and watch. Waves continued to build and break in the open water to the north. Thunder boomed and cracked overhead and lightning lashed the hills to the west. No one was waiting for me on Cedar Island. I had made no promises, and knew better than to push willfully toward my destination, no matter how much I wanted to set up my old Sierra Designs “Starlight.” It was warm enough that if I got wet I would be fine. While waiting for the lake to go through its paroxysms I did other things, stalked the island’s mule deer bucks, almost as big as elk, watched a hairy woodpecker ladder its way up a dying cottonwood, found a vicarious joy in watching a fisherman haul in a fat yellow perch. I climbed a bluff so that I could peer into the big gap between islands. Those three miles almost always feel intimidating. I wandered down to the bottom of Skeeko Bay to sign the log so that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has more information on how people enjoy this area within their care.

After a couple of hours I returned to my boat, found the conditions acceptable and pushed off for Cedar. Not wanting to linger in the opening between islands, I paddled hard, found “the box” of strong, smooth strokes and made very good time despite the headwind that eventually petered out. I dragged Bluebird up over the top of this year’s gray logs and began to imagine how I would arrange my camp and set up a place to make tea the next morning. Almost immediately a bald-faced hornet bit me on my left forearm and then proceeded to wedge itself between my watchband and wrist where it nailed me hard. It took several tries to dislodge the hornet and figure out why I had offended the beast. I stood still and looked around. I had unknowingly crossed the incoming flight path of these critters. They had built a nest under a log and wanted nothing between them and their entryway and escape route. Again, I had to back off my intentions. Yielding to hornets, I moved the boat a few feet north and chose a different route to the wind shelter where I would set up my whisper light stove. Fortunately, I am not allergic to these bites, but it was a long time before I could shake the sting that made my hair stand on end.

During the evening I wandered around the island, found desiccated cherries on the trees of the old orchard, a spot where a falling tree crushed the fence around the old wildlife enclosure, visited with a friendly blended family that had come up the lake by powerboat from Whiskey Bay. Toward dusk I found the almost unknown public access at Zelezney Bay and followed a water snake making its way to shore. Yes, I thought about our fragile island home and this island, deeply in need of rain. But now I think about how we sometimes have to abandon our plans and intentions in order to live with the world as we find it. We are no match for the force of the weather, not even for a hornet determined to protect its approach to this season’s home. In both cases willfulness would have meant trouble. Probably a better observation than the sermon I had planned.

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One Reason

With another round of snow expected this weekend and temperatures in the twenties it is no time to paddle. It is a good time to reflect. In the interior space of winter I ponder my motivations for paddling Bluebird on Flathead Lake.

Over the years I have certainly gone to the lake to test myself, to lay out a course and press through whatever conditions I find to cover the distance, set off for a bay or island, even spend myself in an effort to reach a destination in the fewest possible hours. I have gone to the lake to introduce the experience to friends, taking as much delight in their encounter with the lake as when a companion catches a fine fish upstream of where I cast. I have gone to the lake when I have grown tired of the focused work of preparing for class or reading student essays. I have gone to the lake to be broken open by the distances, snow-covered ridge lines, the effect of moon and starlight on the dark field of night. I have often gone to the lake to bathe in the colors, passing in and out of variations on green and blue. Especially in springtime I love to go to the lake to brush by the flight of geese, to pass under their wing beats and imagine their migrations. Though I paddle for all these reasons it is also true that I have gone to the lake to work through loss. Sometimes I relate to the world physically in search of a different state of mind.

I grew up sailing with my father. We spent many hours learning the idiosyncrasies of a heavy wooden but beautiful Swedish sloop. We raced and we dawdled, sanded, varnished and scrubbed. We poked around in a little sabot or entered it in short races launched from a beach; for some unknown reason it seemed to win every race we entered. We came home smelling of salt. When he died the remnants of his life helped me realize that boats had been a central part of his identity, one of the many ways he brought joy into his life. In his absence I took up the paddle, partly as a way of honoring this part of our life together.

Dad&G Looking back on the last several years I see that I occasionally sought out the lake to paddle through grief at losing a man I loved. This must be one of the reasons that I only mildly complain about a headwind. It gives me an opportunity to work through the resistance we feel at having to accept a loss. As each wave slides down the length of the hull I have an opportunity to let go of things I have lost. Endless strokes become practice in making contact, laying hold, and letting go, in admitting something into awareness and allowing it to slip by.

In trying to describe the experience of grief, and remembering Europe’s mountain tunnels, Rilke uses the image of drilling through stone. The work of grief can be this hard, whether we have lost a father or friend, a spouse, child, or position we thought we deserved to receive or retain. If I blend the images, I realize that I have often drilled through waves and wind, through fatigue and fear in the hope of arriving at a distant shore, not necessarily the shore of an island but the shore of a lighter state of being. I have pressed through the weight of water and let it pass in order to stand more available to the present and less anchored to the past. This is one of the reasons I carry Bluebird down to the margins of water and stone.

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