People Are the Thing

I did not see my father very often during his later years. I lived in Montana and he lived on Cape Cod. Transportation logistics and schedules combined to keep us apart, but toward what would turn out to be the end of his life I made a couple of visits. With multiple arms of the family at his house one summer in East Harwich, he and I used “walk into town for donuts” as an excuse to have some time with each other. As we walked in the deep grass of the borrow pit he said, “People are the thing.”

I often wonder what he meant and continue to speculate about the timing of his remark. His observation came back to me yesterday, the day after Memorial Day, when I paddled out to Wild Horse Island alone. Wind out of the northeast generated small white caps in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse Islands. I made the crossing into a quartering head wind, felt relief in the lee between Cromwell and Wild Horse, and then rounded the corner into Skeeko Bay. I thought I would have it to myself but found a cabin cruiser, bow to the gravel.

I checked the box where Fish Wildlife and Parks keeps the trail roster and saw that the boat belonged to a family of four from South Dakota. Bless the person who put a working pen in the box. I headed up the trail to the saddle that overlooks the strait to the south and The Mission Range beyond. When I stopped to take a photograph of a tight, new, and passionately purple pinecone DSCF0160

I was startled by a boy who suddenly approached me from behind. He was very anxious and his Down’s-affected speech made it hard for me to understand him. I took time to learn that he was looking for his sister and did not know where she was. Together we found her kneeling in the fresh grass by the old homestead cabins. As she tried to soothe and quiet him I took off for the ridgeline topped by the two pine trees where I often find Bitterroot flowers blooming in the hard scrabble. Clad in neoprene booties and bib, I must have been an odd looking pilgrim as I made my way up the slope and found the flowers that grow, improbably, out of rock on a southwest-facing slope. I took time to admire them individually and in clusters, looked out toward The Missions that, thankfully, still wear some snow and then scanned the open slopes for Bighorn sheep. Because I wanted to circle the island during the rest of the day I did not take time to sneak up on the sheep for a closer look.

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DSCF0159I headed down the trail, satisfied that I had visited what feels like a sacred site, but also excited about the rest of my paddle. On the way down, stepping carefully so as not to bruise a heel, I spotted the boy, his sister, and now his parents perched on a rocky promontory at the bottom of the ridge. Assuming that they might be strangers to the island, and thinking I might be able to orient them, I left the trail and waded through the grass to their perch. Approaching from below, I noticed a water bottle at the base of the rock pile. I looked up and said to the sister/daughter, “Is this your water bottle?” She responded, “Yes, I was just climbing down to get it.” “Shall I toss it to you?” “Sure” she replied. I made a good toss and she made a good catch.

Having now had two brief encounters I decided to climb up to their lookout. On the way I noticed more Bitterroots and pointed out that this was our state flower. We had a brief discussion about how native peoples used the roots and where the family might find the Bighorn sheep, if they felt inclined to seek them out. All the while I felt for the appropriate interpersonal distance in this encounter. Looking at them with a minimum of eye contact, it seemed to me as if they were almost stunned by the spaciousness around them, the light in the air, the mountains in the distance, the flowers at their feet. After a few more words I wished them well and slipped away. Though people are the thing I did not take a photo of this family; I believe it would have felt like a violation. Instead, I picked up the trail again and descended to my boat in the piles of storm-driven driftwood.

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The rest of the day, paddling across the mouth of some of my favorite coves, taking time to explore the northernmost tip of the island, pausing to eat a plastic container full of rhubarb crisp, picking up speed in the subtle current along the east shore of the island, I thought about this encounter and my father’s assertion. What would the flowers be without our admiration? What would the sheep be without us as they ruminate on the slopes made lush by recent rain? What would the eagle be, nearly hidden inside a willow, without my quiet visual intrusion into its green roost? Of course the world would be fine without us, and in many cases would be much better without us. But potentially we are here as perceivers of what we find. The world offers itself to our imagination, as Oliver says, but first to our observation. It gives itself so that we take notice. It may even need us, the most transient of all, so that we will praise it, or so thought Rilke in his ninth Elegy. People are the thing because of our capacity to be aware, to recognize patterns, make connections, and see relationships between things.

So often paddling alone, at home by myself out in the wind and the waves, I find that these human encounters register on my consciousness with surprising force. I felt the boy’s desperation as he searched for his sister somewhere on the big and strange island. I felt for his sister as she became separated from her water bottle and struggled with ambivalence about her brother. I felt for their mother as she admired the Bitterroots and wondered at their place in native culture and history, a history that may have been her own. I felt for the father as he carried responsibility for conducting his family safely through this new world. And as we all do, we feel for the strands of connection and the right forms of distance, our capacity for this subtle awareness equally amazing.

On the way to donuts, craving our own quiet conversation, my father tells me that people are the thing. It falls to me to figure out what he meant. I get to finish the puzzle. A few pieces begin to fit together like bracts on the cone.

A Better Reason to Lose Sleep

On the evening of February 29, 2016, everything I read caused me to fear for the fate of our world. In The New York Review of Books I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, a book about the Koch brothers, their father’s association with both Hitler and Stalin and their own contributions to toxic waste and the manipulation of democracy. In the latest issue of The Smithsonian I read about the destruction of tropical forests in Borneo and the replacement of these diverse human and natural communities with the monoculture of palm oil plantations. I could not bear to finish the article on snow leopards and could barely take the measure of the extent of antiquity destruction in Iraq, Syria and Africa. At least I knew not to turn on the radio where I would hear another obfuscation, denial of responsibility, or piece of pandering on the eve of “Super Tuesday.”

Too late in the evening, because of its impact on restful sleep, I turned to a documentary of the 1500 km circumnavigation of Ireland by John Hynes and Sean CahilI. Watching the Rapid Media production (https://www.rapidmedia.com/adventurekayak/categories/video/7123…), I felt their anticipation as John and Sean set off from Old Head of Kinsale. I felt the blisters, the stickiness of sunscreen, the need for a shower and the exercise-induced hunger that almost no amount of food could satisfy. I felt their exhilaration as they paddled through sea caves and between massive black cliffs covered with gannets. I heard the rain on the tent, the whine of the gale, the effect of headwinds and the relief of a tidal assist.

All that I lost in sleep I gained in spirit as I watched two men make good decisions in the face of lethal forces, as I watched them take pleasure in companionship, as they returned to their starting point and the arms of people who love them. Kilometer by kilometer they absorbed the sea and its gifts, gained an intimate connection with the colors of their land, the musical names of its coastal features, and the kindness of strangers who became friends.

Watching the record of this long paddle and sensing the pride two men feel for their own country and its history, I felt restored to myself. I regained a grip on those values that secure me on the cliff of an unsettling world. People do not paddle a kayak to make money, to gain power, except over themselves and their fears. We do not paddle in order to hear the cheers of a fawning crowd or to congratulate ourselves on gaining more control over parts of the earth that are better left alone. Nor do we paddle in order to take advantage of other people under the cover of legal darkness. I do not paddle to escape the world but to become clearer about what matters in it. Paddling a kayak helps me see a deck compass in the moral fog. It teaches me not to lose heart in the face of headwinds from every quarter.

What did it matter that I could not sleep after watching this documentary? I have lost enough sleep thinking about people and market forces that destroy the world. Why not lose sleep imagining the grace of a beautiful human-powered craft? Better to lose sleep over the sound of the waves and wind, the joy of realizing a vision that ties a Celtic knot of affection around the beating heart of the living world.

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Remembering to Pause

I am probably not alone in feeling an inward pressure to keep moving, to stay productive, to make the most of my time. In late October, for some reason not clear to me, I remembered to pause rather than push.

Every year, if the weather allows, I try to make a paddle in late October or early November. Paddling at this time of the year allows me to honor the season in which my father died and his love for messing about in boats. I spotted a day between autumn storms and a few responsibilities. I loaded the boat the night before. In the morning both Bluebird and the windshield were coated in frost. I started the engine, and after the windshield cleared, drove north, pulling into the Finley Point Campground. The air was still cold, a hard wind blew out of the north, and waves, as predicted, rolled south. I paused in the truck to consider my options: drive back home; wait out of the wind to see if the waves would settle; or pause and observe before making a decision.

While sitting in the driver’s seat I struggled into my dry suit so that I could stay warm. I sat reflecting on my choices and watched the waves. Looking north, it was very clear that I could not take a direct route to Bird Island, one of my favorite places on the lake. Even from the parking lot I could see big waves crashing on the rocky shoal off the cliffs west of the peninsula that forms Finley Point. Looking west, I tried to imagine myself in the waves between the marina and Bull Island, an intermediate point of a large triangle that might eventually lead to the avian refuge of Bird Island. If I were cautious and patient, and took one wave at a time, it seemed possible to make the lee on the south side of the island. I launched but paused just outside the marina to get a feel for the swells. I did not need to commit myself to the island until I felt confident that the waves were manageable. Pausing gave me this clarity, so I proceeded.

When I reached the coves on the south shore of Bull Island I noticed that three fishing boats had also sought refuge out of the wind and waves. I slid between two of the boats and braced for balance. Like me the fisherman had grown tired of a rising and falling horizon. In addition, one boat needed patient attention with needle nose pliers after nylon fishing line had become wound around a drive train. We visited about the conditions and the prospect for a calmer afternoon. Eventually I backed away, found my own gravel bar and took time for lunch. All the while I listened to the wind in the trees behind me, telltale indicators of conditions to the north. I knew to wait.

While waiting on the island I wandered around, found little compositions of autumn color,

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eagle plumes stuck in a chokecherry beneath a roosting tree,

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and a pile of bear scat that proves hungry bears swim to the islands in a desperate search for food. After about an hour I sensed that the wind was beginning to subside and that gravity would eventually settle the waves. I paddled up the west shore of the island, but paused again before rounding it and heading into the fetch. I stayed out of reach of big waves crashing on the ramp of stone at the northern tip of the island and paused to study the more rounded waves in the open water. Trusting my boat and my experience, I advanced into the channel, taking each swell off the port quarter.

When I reached my favorite north-facing cove on Bird Island I took time to watch waves break and slide up the steep gravel. As the lake is being drawn down for winter, I could see that this beach was not a good place to land solo, so I swung right and rode the swells and wind down to the lee of Bare Belly Island. Though this is a small private island, I paused here to rest and eat my Honey Crisp Apple. I would not leave a trace of my presence. Now out of the wind and finished with the workout of crossing the channel, I shed my fleece hat, neoprene mittens, and opened up my dry suit. I waited long enough to come back to equilibrium and took time to look around. A few feet to my right I found a dog collar hanging in a cottonwood tree. Studying its position on the branch, the tag identifying Abby, and five phone numbers if she were ever lost, I realized that this was a memorial to a much-loved dog, a dog that probably liked to swim in the same shallows where I paused to rest. I could easily imagine the mutual affection between this animal and its owners.

Abbytag

In time I resumed my position in the boat and coasted back to the marina, finding that beautiful rhythm that times a paddler’s effort to the assistance provided by waves on a downwind run. About half way across Finley Bay I simply stopped, said to myself, This will be your last paddle of the season; take a moment to feel the lake under you. I lay the paddle across my skirt and felt the enormous pulse of the lake’s body. I took time to acknowledge how my boat supported me through another season of paddles. I paused to notice the larch trees, their color like spilled gold across the mountains, and felt grateful for people who had the foresight to insure that the public has a few places to gain access to this world. Remembering to pause revealed options, made for safe passages and helped me gain a deeper awareness of the lake and the forces that affect it. It felt good to pause before saying goodbye, at least until next spring.

Clearings

Sometimes we wait a long time for things to clear up. Day after day of undifferentiated gray eventually gives way to more definition in the clouds, a kind of coagulation of vapors with patches of blue in the background.

A change in the weather may be metaphor for clearings in other aspects of our lives. We can wait a long time before we are clear about vocation, avocation, and the line in between. One day, after muddling around in the options, we wake up and say to ourselves, I am more a person of this region of the earth than this one, more a person of the forest than the desert, more urban than rural. Or, after some confusion in the realm of relationships, causing pain in someone else’s life, or on the receiving end of such pain, we realize that one particular person is the true companion of our lives. And sometimes these things never come into focus; they remain blurry, obscure, and without clear margins, as the surgeons say.

When things do become clear it feels like a gift, something that arrived in its own time from another world. Clearings lift the heart. The energy we spent feeling around in the dark suddenly becomes available for a deeper exploration of where we are and does not dissipate itself in all the half-hearted starts and stops of our confusion. Though such clearing came at the end of our stay near Lakeside, it did eventually arrive. The clouds congealed over The Missions and the way, even if only the way home, became clear.

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Sheltering Place: Return to Deep Bay

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In 2015, the plight of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq is on the mind of most people. Whatever our private thoughts or acts of charity, I cannot help but give thanks for various forms of shelter in my own life. In mid-September friends allow us to rent their cabin just south of Lakeside. From the deck we look north and see the flats of the Flathead River delta and Glacier Park’s peaks in the distance as well as waves breaking around Angel Point to the south. During a week of unremitting wind it never seems prudent to make the long, open-water crossing to Bigfork. Instead, I honor the pull toward Deep Bay in the south, a pull as sure as the one that causes cliff swallows to return each spring.

As I paddle south I let memories of Deep Bay come to me. For at least twenty years Deep Bay has seemed like a sheltering place. My wife led retreats here for organizations and small groups. When we were remodeling our home we came to Deep Bay to recover from the effects of sheet rock dust, hammer drills, and concrete saws. This cliff-side perch with a deep green bay below has always seemed like a place to restore the mind to stillness. Recognizing the difficulties of maintaining this place and its original vision, we understand that Deep Bay Center is no longer available to the public and may be up for sale. Nevertheless, I feel pulled toward this deep notch between the cliffs and the quiet I have always found here. Whoever owns the land and timber-frame structures, Deep Bay will always seem inviting, like a place of safety and rest. So, I continue south past Angel Point, Hockaday Bay and Hughes Bay. I pass the reef on the northeast corner of the refuge and make a right turn into the quiet. In the pocket of the bay I wander among drift logs.

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Continuing to wander, I find a perfect apple in the wild depth of the forest. There is no way to know if it sprung from a picnic’s tossed core or a bear’s secret deposit. Either way it shines bright against the gray light. Not equal to Augustine’s scruples, I reach up and pick the apple hoping to turn what might be considered theft into a present for someone else, my way of expiating the guilt and sharing a beautiful surprise.

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On the return paddle I slip the right blade under the bungee cord, lift the loop of my skirt and carefully extract my camera for a shot of the meditation center on the top of Angel Point, a structure I have always admired.

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After I come into the narrow slot between the dock and the cliff I think of lines I wrote long ago after my first encounter with Deep Bay.

Deep Bay Swallows

From the top of the cliff above the lake

swallows launch themselves into air,

never wondering if air will support them,

never doubting that air

will lift their pointed wings.

They seem not to need to rehearse

first lessons, nor do they hesitate,

hundreds of feet above the rocks

or the flat plate of the lake.

No, in the insubstantial medium of air

they draw their unselfconscious arcs.

They do not seem to have suffered a fall

that did not end in flight.

What wings have we with which to fly

except the trust

that for now someone or something

holds up all our falling,

intending for us to learn

to lean forward into apparent emptiness

and push off from where we cling

into all that waits to meet

our outstretched faith.

Finally, Close to Painted Rocks

Every time I go to the lake I am aware that I am passing through land that belongs to The Flathead Nation, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille peoples. This is not my land; it is theirs. Their roots in this landscape reach into the ground of at least 7,000 years of history and their stories reach back to a time before that. As I travel to the lake and pass over its waters, I wish I had a way of making a deeper connection with the people of this place. In an effort to make contact with the history of these people I have tried many times to approach Painted Rocks, a pictograph site on the west shore of the lake. Whether I am paddling north or south I often find that the waves in this area of the lake seem to be focused on the cliff where these red markings can be found. In these conditions waves bounce off the cliff at odd angles and create a complicated, chaotic sea. Or, even if the waves are calm, wakes from passing boats make this a somewhat hazardous place for a kayaker to slip the paddle under a deck line to pause and wonder.

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One Monday evening, however, when a friend and I had made arrangements to camp on Cedar Island, just south of the cliffs, the lake was so calm that we could safely approach the cliffs and their enigmatic markings. We were able to touch the wet dark rock under the limestone cliffs overhead and look as long as we pleased.

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To untrained eyes it appears as if the cliff bears depictions of bison, perhaps bison headdresses, and tick marks, possibly indicating kills or visits to this site. A book by Sally Thompson, the Kootenai Culture Committee and the Pikunni Traditional Association, People Before the Park, makes very clear that bison were “real food” to the Kootenai. Despite the risks, they made seasonal treks over the mountains into bison country east of the Divide to obtain the kind of protein that would sustain them through long winters west of the mountains. No wonder bison appear on these walls.

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Thanks again to Sally Thompson, an anthropologist and ethnographer, I was directed to Legends from the Northern Rockies by Ella Clark. The book contains stories related to this area and a Kootenai story about Painted Rocks in particular. For anyone curious about this area and the deep memories of its original inhabitants, this story may be meaningful. Amazingly, it recognizes a time before and after the geological cataclysm of what we call Glacial Lake Missoula. I especially enjoy the humor in the characterization of Rabbit. In Clark’s words:

This myth about them (Painted Rocks) was recorded from William Gingrass. His Kutenai name, given him by his great-grand-mother, means “Grizzly Bear War Paint.”

 After the great flood long ago, no human beings were left in this country. But the spirits were left. Some of them were in the form of animals. They gathered together on a bench of land above where Flathead Lake is now. At that time there was no lake—just a big river coming down from the north. It wound around and flowed down through where the Hot Springs are now. All that country was under water; you can see the water marks yet on the east side of the Lone Pine country. A little stream flowed at the south end of the present lake. A long time after this story, Yawonick, something that lives down below the water, came up from the bottom of the river and changed its course. Then the lake was formed.

When the great flood went down, the spirits held a council there on the shelf above the old river. They had heard that new people were coming, and they knew they should decide what to do when the Indians arrived. While they talked, one spirit kept watch.

“The people will come in canoes from the north,” said the chief of the spirits. “We must have everything decided when they come, as to how we can help them. Each of you will have to have a special song that will help people. You will sing it and then put your picture or your name on these big rocks.”

“But why should we put them up here?” asked on spirit. “They will be so high that they will be hard to get to or even to see.”

“That is what we want,” replied Nupeeka, the chief of the spirits. Nupeeka means “spirit”; in the old days he was a kind of teacher also. “We want the people to go to the high places when they seek spirit power. Seeking power will be too easy if they can find it in the low places. They will have to climb to get to the spirit pictures and the writing in the high places.”

So the spirits sang their songs and painted their names in pictures on the rocks. The first Dawn of the Morning sang the first song and put his sign highest up on the rock; that spirit gave the strongest power. The spirits of Grizzly Bear and Cougar and Eagle—they sang their songs and painted their pictures. Each of them gives strong power. All the other spirits sang their songs and put their writing on the rocks—all except Rabbit. He just hopped around.

At last the lookout called, “We must end our meeting. I see the new people coming around the bend.”

“But I haven’t made up my song yet!” exclaimed Rabbit. “I haven’t a song yet and I haven’t painted my picture.”

“It’s too late now,” the other spirits told him. “The people are landing below the Painted Rock.”

So Rabbit was left out entirely. He has no power song. He gives no power to people seeking spirit power. He can do nothing but hop around.

The new people landed below the Painted Rocks, near where Rollins is now, in the Big Lodge country. It is called the Big Lodge country because of a vision two men had many years ago. Each of them saw in a vision where he should put up a lodge for a Sun Dance, for a sacrifice to the spirits. When they followed their dream, they came to the same place; each had seen the same spot in his vision. So they put one big lodge there for the two groups of people.

The harder a person had to work to get to the place for the power quest, the higher the spirit power he obtained. The spirit who appeared to a person in a vision recorded on the rocks how many days and nights he had been there and what power had been given him (149-151).

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Like first peoples, I, too, have had to work to get close to Painted Rocks, to the deep history the site depicts and to the long, almost geological memory of the people or spirits who left their marks here, recording and celebrating a time even before the lake.

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,

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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.

 

 

Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

From two decades as a woodworker I have learned that sometimes I need to approach a problem in the shop as if I know almost nothing. I need to return to what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” To solve the problem at hand, like imagining a jig that allows me to perform a safe cut, I sometimes need to put aside habits that dull perception and assumptions that prevent me from thinking in new ways. A few days ago I had an opportunity to return to a version of beginner’s mind in relation to paddling a kayak.

Last October a local church held an auction to raise money so that girls in Myanmar could go to school. A friend who belongs to the church asked me to offer a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. Wanting to support the education of girls, I happily wrote up a description of a day-trip on the lake and submitted it to the church. After the auction, I heard who won the excursion and kept in touch with her over the winter. The night before the trip, this last Monday, I loaded Bluebird, my Current Designs Gulfstream, and Kestrel, my Perception Carolina, onto my wooden rack. I went through a long mental list of everything I might need, including some emergency gear if we got caught on an island during a thunderstorm or mid channel when the wind kicked up. The next morning I met the person who made the winning bid at her house. She was ready with red bag, sunscreen and water bottle in hand. We drove down to the local Italian deli and picked up sandwiches, drinks, cherries, and chocolate I ordered ahead of time.

On the way up to the lake I gently inquired to learn more about N’s interests and abilities, her motivation for submitting the winning bid, and the kind of experience she hoped to have. As I listened I held two paddles in mind, one to Wild Horse Island that would include a hike, and the other into The Narrows where the archipelago might offer shorter paddling distances and a little more shelter if monsoonal weather suddenly descended on us. When we crested the Polson moraine I got my first view of the lake and its conditions. Wind out of the south and a choppy surface led me to turn right at the light and go for the nearer islands, choosing safety over adventure.

As we began to unload the boats and all the gear I felt a little tension. I wanted to insure N’s safety and give her the best experience possible. I wanted to impart necessary information without loading a new paddler with anxiety. Knowing how fear blocks the integration of information, I decided on a very gradual approach. I placed both boats on the lawn, not on the shore. This way we could take our time getting ready. I tried to keep in mind how excitement and fear might vie with each other in the mind of a beginner. In response I tried to pare down instructions to the bare essentials that I gave her a little at a time: skirt first, pfd second; this side of the paddle blade faces forward, this side toward you; this is how you get into a kayak without tipping it over; I’ll adjust the foot peddles until the boat feels like it is part of you; attach the rear of the skirt, then the front, then the sides; if you happen to tip over, grab this loop, pull the skirt loose and you will roll out and float to the surface; try not to paddle with your arms, paddle with your core (a way not to get tired). While speaking I noticed N’s respiration rate go up and down. Whenever it rose I slowed down or became still.

After a few things made sense to N. on land, I decided that it was time to get near the water. We lifted Bluebird over the concrete curbing and gently placed it on the boat ramp, half in, half out. I helped N. settle herself in the keyhole, handed her the paddle and again paid attention to her breathing. I could tell that she had practice calming herself. When she seemed more at ease I returned to final assurances: the skirt will protect you from waves and drips from the paddle; the hatch gaskets will hold and the boat will not fill up with water if waves wash over the deck; we can’t prevent power boats from making waves but we can ride through and over them; its Monday, so few boats will be on the water.

Eventually I slid her in the water and encouraged her to simply hang out while I picked up Kestrel. N. sat in the shallows of the marina and waited for me. When we were side-by-side I said, Go ahead and rock side to side. Get a feel for how the boat moves. Now take a few strokes and see how it feels. When I could tell that N. sensed the initial stability of an already stable boat we paddled out of the marina and into the open water between the campground and Bull Island about 1.5 miles to the west. I rafted up with her, showed her how two boats together, paddles across each boat, felt even more stable. I said, let’s just sit here in these little waves and see how the boat responds; let the boat move a little; don’t try to freeze it; your safety is in the boat, not in being able to touch bottom.

When N’s breathing settled toward something like a resting rate I encouraged her to take a few more strokes. I tried to reassure her by saying, as we make the crossing I will stay very close to you. We are going to a beautiful bay where we will have our picnic. Let’s take one stroke and then the next.

Ever so slowly we began to advance into the channel. I slipped upwind and just ahead of her to break the effect of small waves and a little wind coming from the south. I kept N. in the corner of my right eye at all times. We paddled for several minutes in complete silence. I wanted her to find her own rhythm, to work the fear-born tension out of her body. After a long stretch of quiet I thought it might be helpful to provide a distraction. So I asked some questions about her previous adventures: When were you in Saudi Arabia? What took you there? How did you decide to become a diver? Have you ever traveled to Asia? We went back and forth, stroke after stroke.

The conversation worked like a tail wind. Before we knew it we glided over the foundation of the island and entered the green water of the first of two south-facing bays. With the sunny shore at hand I sped ahead, telling N. that I would land first and catch Bluebird as she came in.

As she stepped ashore I could tell that N. felt relief to be on land. I raised my right hand to congratulate her and got a palm slap in return. After securing both boats I laid out the picnic on a drift log. I was not surprised when she said, “I’m hungry.” She reached for half the roast beef sandwich known as The New Edition and half of the prosciutto and walnut chutney version known as Kiss. We ate the dark red cherries, tossing the seeds over our shoulders, hoping for an island orchard, and then topped things off with Blood Orange Sanpellegrino and chocolate.

We took time to digest our food and told a few more stories. Though the forecast had been good, I knew how fast weather can change and that the lake responds to the slightest change in wind velocity or direction. As soon as I could I laid out some options for extending the paddle, but trusted her own judgment when she said, “Let’s paddle back.” Again, I helped her feel settled and centered in the boat and gave her a gentle push off the beach. I turned to Kestrel, tucked myself in and sprinted to catch up. On the way back I could tell that N. felt renewed by lunch and much more comfortable in the boat, perhaps even enthusiastic about being on such intimate terms with the lake. The conditions were calmer than during the initial passage, almost glassy as we paddled east. Ring-billed gulls called overhead and an occasional ski boat passed in the distance.

I entered the marina first so that I could keep Bluebird from grounding on the course concrete ramp. I gave N. a hand as she got out and found her legs. This was a successful first paddle for her. My guest on the lake had covered the distance. She had done something new and felt proud of herself for overcoming her initial fears at being in a kayak on the largest lake west of the Mississippi, a lake that feels like an ocean.

We worked together to re-load the boats and all the gear. I kept an eye on clouds racing in from the west. The wind began to blow and within ten minutes a once- placid lake turned into a gray-green milkshake. With some apprehension we watched a paddle border stroke through the whitecaps and waves that crashed against the breakwater. N. got into the truck for shelter while I finished tying down the boats. We drove home grateful that we had gotten off the water when we did. The lake was no longer a safe place for a novice paddler.

On the way home we soaked up the beauty of the Mission Valley, the way hayfields abut the high peaks of the range. In the distance we saw lightning spear the clouds over St. Ignatius, so we turned west to take the back road through Moiese and avoided most of the storm. We drove the rest of the way talking about community theater and family, took a shortcut to her house and arrived safe and sound.

After dropping N. off I felt relief. I had not exposed a new paddler to anything like the dangers of paddling in a storm. I had not forgotten anything and been forced to improvise. I had not asked too much of her in relation to distance or time. Now I can return to my own adventures on the lake, trying not to let assumptions and habits dull my perceptions or shut the door on the unexpected. I will try to be as open as I was twenty-five years ago in Sitka, Alaska, when I took those first wondrous strokes. I feel glad that in October more girls will be at school in Myanmar.

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Lost in Geese

On Friday, May 15, 2015, I officially retired from The University of Montana. This decision gives me more time to wander around the world in a state of amazement. Going out the front door to retrieve the mail can lead to astonishment, but when the mid-week weather looked promising I drove up to Flathead Lake to paddle my kayak, sleep in a tent, and rise at May’s early dawn to paddle again.

I spent the first afternoon exploring The Narrows. I circled islands, entered and paddled to the backs of long, deep bays left by the glacier’s retreat, and passed through the tunnel leading to Stone Quarry Bay. The evening invited even more paddling. After days of wind the lake was finally calm. Remnants of clouds created the perfect conditions for a striking sunset, and I would have enjoyed paddling with my next-door neighbors in the campground who chose to paddle slowly through the waning light. In the end I decided to sit in my camp chair, read poems by Marge Piercy, and let the changing colors on the textured water remind me of Impressionist paintings.

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During the night I heard small waves collapsing on the shore. So when I crawled out of my tent at 5:45 I was not surprised to feel a steady breeze coming from the northeast. I have learned that waves on the lake grow not only in proportion to the wind, but according to how long the wind blows and over what distance. So, I drank from my blue water bottle, skipped breakfast and stepped into my skirt. I crossed Finley Bay easily as it is protected from most of the wind by the long peninsula of Finley Point. But as soon as I rounded the knob to the north I encountered the full force of the wind and waves. When I was in the trough between waves some of the approaching crests stood at eye-level. I pressed on toward Bird Island, my goal for the morning. As I paddled parallel to the island’s west-facing shore, passed the island’s northern tip, and made a 180 degree turn, the waves required my undivided attention; I did not even consider reaching for my camera or pulling into my favorite bay on the island. I feared getting trapped and pounded between the waves and the steep gravel shore. When it came time to make the turn, I waited for an interval between waves, made a hard fast sweep, turned south in the island’s lee and began to ride the backs of the waves toward home.

Even my silent approach set off alarms among the geese on the island. In relative privacy they nest, lay eggs, and hatch their goslings on this sanctuary. As I slipped by, geese stood erect on the black blocks of argillite, their breasts extended into the morning sun. In time pairs and small flocks of geese launched and flew in circles overhead. After the adults lifted off, younger birds, seemingly torn between their island home and their desire to be with their kin, called out in distress. When the distance between themselves and their family members felt intolerable they leapt from the rocks, beat their broad brown wings and slapped flat feet against the water until they were able to join their elders in a circle around my passing. A few family groups came together into an organized flock and flew, as a friend says, as a single organism. As thrilling as it was to paddle through the morning waves, taking water down my collar, I felt elevated, even lifted out of my boat, by everything happening in the air and light. I could feel the elastic bands of belonging between and among birds, their attachment to each other and the island. It was as if I had entered a web of light and flight. My ears filled with the sound of wind, breaking waves, and calling geese, my eyes with the strokes of these powerful birds. I sat for my morning feast of amazement.

Dandelion Day: First Paddle of 2015

I hope I’m wrong, but I have a sense that this summer may be hot and dry with all the consequences we’ve come to expect. The best paddling this season might be in May or June rather than later in the year. When the forecast for a Tuesday in late April predicted 75 degrees and waves less than a foot tall, I decided to ignore the laundry, dandelions in the front yard and my need for a haircut, as well as a few more serious responsibilities.

IMG_2482After winter, even a mild one by Montana standards, I need reassurance that life at 47 degrees latitude shows signs of rejuvenation. On a scale larger than my back yard or the slope leading down to the stream I want to see evidence of the generative and recuperative power of the earth. I want to see arrowleaf balsamroot in bud and bloom, a bee bathing in pollen, shooting stars in moist and shady locations, evidence that deer dropped the antlers they displayed last summer and fall. I want to see white syringa on the slopes, blooming stems on orchard trees, lambs and calves in the pastures on the way to the lake. I want to sea bald eagles where I have found them before, osprey cutting out territory in the sky, meadowlarks among the meadows and pileated woodpeckers hacking out cavities in old pines. I want to see signs of life where I remember them. I count on this confirmation.

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I decide to paddle to Wild Horse Island and circumnavigate it counterclockwise. I make my first stop at Eagle cove, and then hike into the interior of the island from Osprey Cove, eating a lunch of anchovies in lemon-flavored olive oil on sourdough bread. I see the things I am looking for, earlier than normal in this warm dry year. They rise out of the ground, make the most of the light, the little moisture that has fallen, and honor their one opportunity to reproduce.

IMG_2481 It felt good to slip into the water like Rilke’s swan, to feel the boat glide in response to each stroke, and to come home as thoroughly and satisfyingly tired as the first paddle of the season leaves me. I can report that the world is vividly alive.

Because things are deeply and inescapably connected for me, something else is true. On the same day I left home to paddle a pristine lake, people in Nepal were still trying to dig family members and friends out of the ruins. People in the neighborhood of burned out buildings in Baltimore were sweeping the streets and hiding or discarding weapons used to express outrage and frustration with a system that kills unarmed men of African American descent. Wherever we are, in the Himalayas, or Baltimore, we want to see signs of life and some people do their part to establish the conditions for it to re-emerge. The least I can do with my privilege of being able to paddle toward an Island in bloom is to remember other lives.