On Stillness

Last winter when we discovered that all the campsites were booked six months in advance we availed ourselves of historical connections to one of the church camps on Flathead Lake. For a reasonable price we rented an unused cabin during the middle school band camp. Day and night we listened to middle schoolers practicing their instruments or terrorizing a cabin full of sleepers before dawn. In the heat of the day we heard instructors practicing scales in a way that made this necessary discipline seem truly beautiful. The chapel was set up with arcs of chairs, metal stands, keyboards, trap sets, and a xylophone.

Over the course of two days I took advantage of calm weather to make a couple of shorter paddles. On the first day I wandered around Cedar and Shelter Islands but saw no sign of the modest improvements Fish, Wildlife and Parks has approved for visitors to Cedar. On the second day I made the open-water crossing to Wild Horse Island. For once I was not paddling in rain, wind, or hail. It was like paddling a different lake.

Cedar and Shelter Islands before dawn

As much as I love to paddle Bluebird, I also took time to be with the lake, to sit still and observe. Even the marginal comfort of a wooden bunk beat camping on the ground. The sun woke me, not pain in my hips. Taking time to be still I noticed things I miss when I’m in a hurry to get to the lake.

The margins of the lake are a part of the lake. They, like the water’s surface, are ever-changing, a palette for the shifting colors as one plant succeeds another, where Balsamroot gives way to lupine and then tall grasses, as green gives way to yellow and brown or the purple of asters. In addition to sounding brass we listened to little waves lap the shore. No longer trying to prove that I can cross the lake or paddle its length, I felt content being still on its edges.

At home I almost take for granted the value of stillness. When I am still, the Black-throated and Calliope hummingbirds show up on the deck to sip from potted plants or the red feeder. When still, I am more likely to see the warbler in the willows or notice how early morning shadows make mounds of lavender even more beautiful. When still, the moon’s sudden appearance seems like its own kind of brass instrument. For three mornings the same was true at the lake.

On the second morning I locked myself into the boat for the crossing to Wild Horse Island. Able to take a straight shot across the three-mile expanse in calm conditions, I landed at Eagle Cove, a public access point, shed skirt and pfd and began to walk into the forest. By 9 a.m. the sun was already too high for mostly nocturnal creatures to be active; but the air was filled with the calls of young osprey. Without binoculars I could not be certain, but the long, sharply defined feathers led to the tentative conclusion that I was seeing four young birds. They circled each other as they rode the rising and warming air above the island. When one landed on a rocky outcrop to rest, another approached from behind, dropped its legs like landing gear and swooped over the head of its sibling. This caused the resting bird to take to the air and give chase. My stillness among the trees gave me a vantage point on birds of prey at play.

On the third morning I took a bitter cup of instant coffee onto the cabin’s deck and sat in first light. Moving only to raise the cup I noticed a swallow asleep on a dead branch above a bird house someone had nailed to a tree. The silhouetted bird was little more than a swollen node, a knuckle on a branch, a tiny black shape, motionless. When the sun rose over the Missions and brushed the world with warm tones, including the breast of the bird, it sprung to life. It leaped from the branch and without warm-up began to cut arcs through the air. Seeing me it dropped from elevation in a descending curve and rose in front of me to confirm I was a quiet human.

Swallow a moment before flight with Wild Horse in the distance

When still, a better review of one’s choices becomes possible. When still, quiet things reveal themselves. When still, the edges of life become as interesting as the expanse of open weather and water.