Accident Under the Mother Tree

Accident Under the Mother Tree

My mother died on May 26, 2007. At least we think that was the day. The nursing home lost track of her during the night. Grateful for her life, and the gift of my own, I try to go paddling each year around the time of her death day. I do this for several of reasons. Her generosity made it possible for me to buy my Current Designs Gulfstream, the kayak I use on Flathead Lake. The end of May is a nearly ideal time to paddle out to Wild Horse Island and explore its interior. Unless the weather has been unusually hot and dry many of the wildflowers are still blooming and I enjoy searching for the island’s wildlife. Paddling in May is also a way of giving thanks for my relatively good health and stamina, qualities my mother never enjoyed.

On May 29, I slipped through the morning’s commuter traffic, headed west on the interstate, and took the slow lane up the Evaro hill. To the east the meadows were full of snowmelt and wild iris. At Ninepipes the ponds were overflowing as the first truly warm days brought snow down off the Missions. To the west a heron stilted after fish in the grassy shallows. At the base of the Polson moraine I looked at the log decks at Hunt’s Timbers, bunks of material ready for sale, and thought about a friend’s request that I make her grave marker from pine purchased at Hunt’s. Near the bridge in Polson several boats of fishermen had lines in the water.  At the Walstad fishing access the parking lot was empty.

Trusting the Graphical Forecast of “variable winds and waves less than a foot,” I pushed the wind around the north side of Melita Island, rounded the southeast corner of Wild Horse and headed up to Osprey Cove, one of many places on the lake where osprey and bald eagles compete with one another for territory and fish. I spotted one of each, breasts to the morning sun. Knowing that the lake is filling toward full pool, I lifted Bluebird onto one of the gravel benches parallel to the beach, peeled off my dry suit, and dug out my lunch sack and water bottle. On a previous trip I had begun exploring the steep draw that empties into the cove. This time I had time to climb it to the top. In the lower elevations Arrowleaf Balsamroot had finished blooming, but Arnica still caught my eye, along with a few spent Shooting stars, Larkspur and Harebells. In the deep shade of the forest a trio of bucks in velvet yanked at Balsamroot leaves.

As I continued to climb I realized that the draw would not end in a valley but in the island’s true summit. At the top I could see south to the islands of The Narrows, the Mission crest in the distance, west to the northern Bitterroot range still under snow.

Looking around for a good lunch spot, I noticed a “mother tree,” a large Ponderosa Pine. Beneath the drip line of the low branches Balsamroot and Harebells grew in a concentrated ring.

I backed in, rested against the trunk and opened my lunch sack. A little thirsty, I drank some of my water and ate half an apple. On these solo trips I often carry a can of sardines and my favorite Dakota bread from Great Harvest Bakery. Using my left hand to secure the tin I pulled the ring. At first the lid would not yield and the top developed a crown. It would take a lot more force now to peel back the lid. So, I set my shoulder to the task and pulled hard. When the lid finally gave way the edge of the tin sliced my left hand between thumb and index finger. Blood pulsed out of the open gash, spotted my clothes, lunch sack, and pine duff at my feet.

I knew I was in trouble and would need to make good decisions. I took time to breathe and think. I poured some of my water into the open wound, knowing that the sardine can was not sterile. Having left my first aid kit in the kayak down below, I had to find an alternative to compress and tape. I looked around for solutions and saw the big Balsamroot leaves. I broke off three, pressed them against the wound and then used a stem to bind everything in place.

Knowing that I still had to paddle roughly seven miles back to Walstad, I decided I’d better eat. So, I used the fingers of my right hand to pull the sardines out of the can, dividing the fish onto the two pieces of bread. I also took time to eat a Cliff bar and to consider my limited options.

Often traveling alone, I have developed a practice of noticing my surroundings when I hike. On the way down from the summit I looked again for the fallen pine whose roots now held a limestone block in the air, the snag with a nesting cavity, the patch of bare ground, a particular erratic boulder, the cliff dividing one side of the draw from the other, the fencing of an old corral. I did not want to end up in the wrong cove or waste energy looking for my boat. Once on the beach I plopped down on the edge of the water, let go of my bloody leaves, did a better job washing the wound and pulled out my first aid kit. Though not trained in making a dressing, I used a sterile gauze pad and two long strips of tape torn free with my teeth. Then it occurred to me that I could use my paddling glove (tucked in the hatch for emergencies), to create more pressure. I worked the tight black glove over the dressing and into place. Now I knew I could paddle.

Before slipping the boat back in the water I drank most of the contents of my spare bottle containing electrolytes called “Skraitch,” a less sweet alternative to drinks commonly used by athletes. I knew I would have difficulty pulling on my dry suit with its latex gaskets and long diagonal zipper, so I stowed the dry suit. I would have to trust the weather and smooth strokes. I did not want to roll in 43-degree water. In calm conditions I reversed my route but chose to paddle between Melita and homes along Labella Lane in case I needed help. As I rounded Melita I skirted a flock of ring-billed gulls clustered together on the gravel bar. After they scattered I noticed an eagle wing feather waiting to be discovered by Boy Scouts who would soon arrive. A slight tail wind carried me back to my starting point.

More slowly this time, I carried all my gear back to the truck and made myself re-load and secure the kayak. Driving back into town I realized that I was having trouble concentrating. Intersections and crosswalks felt like a flood of data. I decided to ask for help. I vaguely remembered a sign pointing to a clinic at the top of the hill south of town. The Ridgecrest Clinic did not accept walk-in patients so they directed me back into town to the clinic near St. Joseph’s Hospital. As I walked back toward my truck someone tapped me on the shoulder. A kind woman said, “I heard you describe your injury. Don’t drive back into town. Walk across the street. Those people will take care of you.” Indeed they did. From the women at the front counter helping me with paper work to the woman who helped me pull off the bloody glove, from the physician who tested tendons to Karen Smith who stitched the severed artery and closed the wound I received the care I needed. The leathery leaves of Balsamroot were a temporary solution at best.

Driving home I turned off the radio so I could concentrate. Along the way I reflected on my day. Many would say I should not make these trips by myself; the risk is too great. But if I am going to paddle to the islands at this time of the year I will probably paddle alone. In the future, if I combine a paddle with a hike, I will stow a fanny pack containing my box of first aid supplies and will not leave the kayak without it. Having watched skilled hands dress a wound, I am going to add a few new supplies to my Pelican box.

I return astonished by how quickly a day can change. A fall on the ice, a snowboard accident, a car crash happens in an instant. I find this humbling. Accidents befall even those who are prepared. In the end I’m glad I stopped for lunch under the mother tree on a day I wanted to honor my own mother. More than flowers grow in a ring beneath its sheltering limbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Already

Already

Surprisingly I am already beginning to think about paddling in the spring. We are ten days short of the winter solstice. Two hours before morning light I feel cold seep through the south wall of the back bedroom. I save chicken skin for magpies; it freezes almost the moment I put it on the cedar plank for their discovery. Even so, I am already thinking about the feel of sliding the boat down my bent thighs and slipping it stern first into the all-receiving water of spring.

It is also true that in this cold, dark time of the year I live somewhere between memory and anticipation.

Something of the past lives inside me, particles of its presence floating around in my brain or limbs. I remember the warm morning three of us stuffed overnight gear into our hatches, shoved off from the warm shallows of Big Arm Bay, and headed for Cedar Island.

I remember another morning when, despite our best effort to time departure and weather, we encountered difficult conditions that required a smart decision. Considering all the possibilities, I decided we should ride rough water to the big island and not oppose the waves and wind. We used the island as a windbreak for much of our northward leg. Fortunately, this decision did not set us up for trouble on the southward return of our trip. And I remember a late September day when I had the lake to myself. I found the energy to go wherever I wanted, to link near shore to distant point, island and strait, open water and sheltering bay. Limits seemed remote; whatever I imagined seemed possible as the boat played a melody over the bass notes of the lake. All these memories float around inside me, bubble up into awareness.

At the same time I imagine paddles to come. Almost five months from being able to fulfill any of the things I imagine, I feel particles of anticipation in motion. I very much want to make another night paddle, to stroke away at sunset and be on the water after jet skis drain dry on their lifts and fast boats have pulled into their slips after covering the length of the lake for the fun of speed. I want to paddle into moonlight or turn my back to the modest lights of Polson and see stars over Glacier’s peaks. I want to feel what there is of my own strength apply itself in the face of the wind. I want to see if I can find that petroglyph hiding under overhanging rock. I want to thread my way through the island chain to see how a friend fared over the winter and if he built another wooden boat. I want to be out when the weather changes, not because I court disaster, but because I love the energy of the weather and how deep blue can change to green and white.

Over the winter I will keep the things I anticipate in my pocket, reach in once in a while to rub the coins of possibility together. I will try to maintain enough tone so the first paddle will not feel like something to fear. I will let imagination grow strong as a deep current carrying me back to this thing I love to do. Despite everything, the lake is still free of invasive mussels and good people are keeping an eye on nitrates. Despite everything the water will accept the prow and the blade. Despite everything the axis will tilt and the light will return.

The Mystery of Timing

The Mystery of Timing

August 29, 2018

From time to time I remind myself that an eagle feather will not fall out of the sky and land beside my tent every morning; that I will not find a polished antler every time I walk up the hill; that not every June will be moist, free of wind, and permit each green thing to flourish; and that not every conversation will wander happily from topic to topic and end in resolution, understanding, and warmth.

And yet, some days the door to disclosure and discovery seems wide open. Yesterday, for example, I joined two friends who had just married for a post-celebration paddle around Wild Horse Island. After forty-six days without measurable precipitation and with smoke in every valley it had finally rained and cleared. A brisk breeze blew out of the southwest, a rarity in late summer. After launch we let the wind and waves rock and roll us toward the south east corner of Wild Horse Island and then gentle us toward Osprey cove on the timbered east side, with only a distant sailboat on a downwind reach in open water before us. As we turned into the cove we saw the final act of aerial competition between a bald eagle and an osprey, the heavy bird driven into a ponderosa, the lighter more agile fish hawk in quick retreat after a final taloned dive. On shore we sat in the marvel of brightly colored stones and enjoyed hunks of cheese, a tuna sandwich, Greek olives and monster cookies, calories not a problem.

As quiet as butterflies, three fulsome bucks came to the water to drink and seemed completely undisturbed by the sound of our voices or scent. It was not easy to reconcile their horny hooves, hardening antlers, and the softness with which they tipped forward and sipped the clear water.

Later, after rounding the north point of the island and we began the southbound leg of our circle, we came upon three enormous Bighorn rams on the steep and rocky shore below the red cliffs. Intent on rooting out some tasty mineral, one ram turned its rear to us while the others faced us squarely, warning us not to take one more stroke toward them. I felt astonished by their mass, the age and size of their curling horns, and hoped they would not crash into the water in an effort to drive me away. Their red eyes and hard stare were unnerving.

Some days we circle our islands and see nothing worth remark. No matter our hopes, or even our openness, the doors seem closed and no feather falls in the night. But other times the curtain between us and discovery, between us and the Other, whether human or wild, seems parted, pulled back within the stage’s curved frame. Yesterday was such a day. If our arrivals had been different by even five minutes we would not have seen what we saw. After hauling out we drove home in a state of wonder, grateful for the good fortune of timing and everything we had been allowed to see.

To Excel or Enjoy

…Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,

As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,

And I stood outside myself,

Beyond becoming and perishing,

A something wholly other,

As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,

and yet was still.

And I rejoiced in being what I was…

Theodore Roethke “The Rose”

I went for a lovely paddle yesterday, beading a triangle through the islands with a strong paddler new to the lake. I had every reason to feel satisfied at day’s end. I chose a route appropriate for uncertain weather and discovered that my new friend is a more than capable kayaker with abundant experience in Mexico and the northwest. Strangely, however, I came home from yesterday’s paddle asking myself, somewhat cruelly, Is nine miles all you were good for? Why didn’t you incorporate at least one more island or slide through the tunnel into Queen’s Bay before heading to the north end of Bull Island? And can you even count the miles when the wind pushed from behind?

 A less self-critical part of me asks, Must one excel or is it enough to enjoy? Is the measure of excellence found only in a long paddle against the wind, the exposure of a long crossing and pushing one’s body up to the far edge of exhaustion?

Though both my paddling companion and I were capable of a longer paddle, I came home asking myself if I am growing content with less. To excel or enjoy is a false choice, but this day I took more pleasure in simple things than distance and adversity. I enjoyed conversation in the car, the chuckling of water-lapped stones in a wide-mouthed bay, the feel of relatively warmer water on my bare hands, the beautiful ovoid shapes in tones of gray on a cloudy day. I felt the eagle’s satisfaction in returning to its nest fish-in-talon, and the osprey, a superior angler, carrying a larger fish through a lane of air without having to fear a team of aquiline thieves. One part of me demands more and another part of me takes delight in the untouched feather on a beach, the taste of sardines wrapped in a big tortilla, shared Rainier cherries while sitting on a log, and my friend’s pleasure in finding stones in shades of red and green. One part still wants to feel the rise of adolescent ambition while another part sits in stillness and marvels at the effect of rain on a Wood’s rose.

Approaching my seventh decade I dare to hope that I will occasionally feel the drive to go farther faster, though I know the day will come when this kind of energy echoes out of the past. At the very least I hope to retain the capacity to enjoy each simple marvel, but as Roethke says, I also hope to rejoice in being what I was. This acceptance, this true ease will be a different kind of excellence.

Bones

This past summer was a difficult season to paddle in Montana. Beginning in July, smoke from fires in Idaho began to slip over the mountains and fill our valleys. As the jet stream avoided our latitude more fires in the region poured smoke into the Missoula, Mission and Flathead valleys. Almost all of August and September were lost to a choking and hazardous particulate pall. As a result, I did not paddle nearly as much as I normally do; it wasn’t safe or wise. Out of the haze and the odor of burned forest I see a surprising image from this past summer—an image of bones.

On a beach in a little cove on Cedar Island I found a beautiful, long, rib bone as well as a large vertebra. Knowing that no animals of this size live on the island, I suspect that some large ungulate washed down the Flathead River or rode the lake’s currents and washed ashore on this island. All the forces of nature worked on the remains and left these gleaming architectural elements of a once-living being.

Then, on one of my circumnavigations of Wild Horse Island, I spotted a skeleton in the driftwood, the bones and sun-bleached limbs of trees nearly indistinguishable. I paddled ashore, secured Bluebird, and investigated. This was almost certainly the skeleton of a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. Though the skeleton came to rest below one of the island’s cliffs, I have watched these sure-footed animals enough to know that it is extremely doubtful that an adult Bighorn fell in this location. The fact that the skeleton was headless confirmed my worst suspicions: someone probably poached a big ram and left the body to rot in the afternoon sun.

Maybe it is appropriate that one of my final memories of 2017 focuses on bones, the remnants of death. But at the time I discovered these bones, I felt astonished by their beauty. I ran my fingers along the flutes of the ribs, marveled at their ligature, could not begin to comprehend the complexity of a spinal column. Nothing about these remains was gruesome, except the possibility that someone poached a protected animal.

Bones seem important for another reason. The internal skeleton of an animal supports its whole structure, sets it up for life. These bones were something to admire not avoid. They revealed the essence of the animal. Ever since encountering these bones I have been reflecting on the problem of essence, the deepest, innermost aspect of life and its purpose. But this has been anything but an abstract philosophical project for me. I have been asking about the bones of my own life, not the once-broken radius in my right arm, the nodes in my spinal column that press on the nerves, but the essence of why I am here and what I must do. Trying to peer through the smoke and confusion at the turn of the year I am determined to pay attention to each encounter, to reckon with both the suffering and the glory, the heartbreak and the beauty.

Summer smoke and all its metaphorical expressions in the form of political speech and posturing, tempt us to contract our attention. It seems more than likely that some people may actually be trying to divert our attention. This summer, for the sake of sanity, it seemed important not to see, smell, or listen. But the bones on the beach remind me to keep paying attention, to search out the inwardmost structure of things and how it hangs together or comes apart. Last summer I touched the bones, ran my fingers across their polish and curves. As if speaking to me they said, Behold. Attend. Bear witness. I carry this mandate into the new year.

Deeper Currents

Deeper Currents

As everyone in the Northwest knows, the summer of 2017 was difficult. From the first week of July through the first week of September our forests were on fire and more smoke than we had ever experienced piled up behind a ridge of high pressure. Smoke poured into our valleys, filled our lungs, left ash on every surface, and embers in our yards. For many this was also a summer of anxiety and hasty preparations for evacuation. Some of us returned home to the smell of wet charcoal, black fields of devastation, and worse. In response to the casual question, “How are you?” people often answered “Depressed.”

As a paddler I occasionally inserted a trip on Flathead Lake between the darkest days of smoke, encountered locked gates at state parks, and waited like everyone else for the air to clear and costs to mount.

On September 29, I finally found a bright and fresh day for a solo paddle out to Wild Horse Island and a clockwise trip around its perimeter. It felt healing to exercise in pure air, to be reminded that our world is indeed beautiful after weeks of finding it fouled, polluted and threatened. Late afternoon light backlit every snowberry, spider web, needle and turning leaf in the draw above Osprey Cove. A shift in the wind gave me five fast miles at the end of the day.

During this paddle I thought I might feel elevated by the knowledge that our world we love had finally been returned to us. But after this summer I felt more reflective than jubilant. All the evidence suggests that what happened this summer will happen again.

I have always been skeptical of the human inclination to use nature for our own purposes, reducing it to one more resource that we exploit for our own pleasure. I know, it is good to wash one’s mind in the bath of green and blue water. It is good to test one’s inner strength in the face of variable winds and distance. It restores balance to play on the waves. But time in a kayak, especially by oneself, gives a paddler occasion to ask, “What is all this for? What larger purpose does it serve?”

In my post of May 7, 2017, I proposed that we have a responsibility to attend to and behold the things we encounter. But on this Friday in September the currents took me deeper. After this summer it seems we have an inescapable responsibility to address the forces that are making our world increasingly uninhabitable. It is no accident that our forests are burning and coastal cities are awash in water that overwhelms the land and its inhabitants. We are doing this to ourselves and we must undo what we have done. Or, to shift the metaphor, we must change course because the one we are on leads to ruin, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

It is not for me to say what others should do. We must see this for ourselves. But I am clear that I have a responsibility to understand the impacts of what we are doing to the planet and take action in word and deed to promote choices that lead toward better ways of being in the world. A paddle in bright light makes this clear. It is time to do more than sigh with relief or toss up our hands. We have work to do, changes to make, a course to correct, while there is time.

 

Discoveries

In late August four of us left town for the lake. We wanted to escape the smoke in Missoula’s valley that made the simple act of breathing a health risk. Three of us wanted to go for a longer paddle. My wife preferred to read in camp and listen to lapping waves.

Joyce sometimes asks encouragingly, “Would you like to take a trip and paddle somewhere on the coast of British Columbia?” I know this is one of the most beautiful coasts in the world but I appreciate having access to the largest and cleanest body of fresh water in the western U.S. and feel as though I still have so much to learn, even after more than ten seasons of paddling Flathead Lake. I am content to keep exploring close to home because experience tells me, if I keep myself open and do not let my ability to perceive grow dull, I will make discoveries.

This trip confirmed that belief. Over the course of our two days we discovered how to have  fun while helping each other get ready to launch,

 

a rocky point for viewing the eclipse of 2017,

 

previously unseen panels of rock art and how prone they are to exfoliation and loss,

how to turn a knothole into a spyglass,

the beauty of black and blue ring waves during a hot morning but especially after sunset,

where eagles tend to roost and why it is extremely important not to set up a sleeping bag under those trees (I’m not providing a photograph of my mistake).

We also discovered a memorial to a young man. People who loved him wedged a painted tribute between opposing pieces of rock. Later, my friend Jeanne spotted a remnant from his tool collection. Walking between her tent site and the beach she saw an anomalous piece of rusted steel pushed level with the surface of dry moss and stone. Curious, she withdrew it from the ground and showed it to me. I explained that the object was a hollow chisel, a tool used to chop mortises so two pieces of wood can be joined with a tenon. Using gold-colored ink, someone painted messages of love and the man’s birth and death dates. Seeing this tribute, we speculated he might have been a woodworker. After we admired the tool and its subtle placement, we put it back exactly as we found it.

Passing through the gap between islands or crossing between island and mainland we also made discoveries about each other, learned things we did not know. We braided an invisible cord between and among us of understanding, memory and anticipation. For the rest of our lives we may tow each other along, connected by the stories we tell and create.

Though I am far-removed from childhood, the lake keeps teaching me to maintain the mind of a child, seeing the world as if for the first time, paying attention to it as if it might be the last.