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.

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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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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.

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.

Paddling Lessons, Part IV: Pinesmoke

This post is the last in a four-part series. In these posts I remind myself and other Flathead Lake paddlers about some of the risks and rewards of early season paddling.

In early June of 2010, on a cool but clear morning, I drove up to the Walstad fishing access with the thought of paddling to Wild Horse Island to see what flowers were in bloom. On this day I saw something I had never seen before. The memory of this experience reminds me to keep venturing into the world of early season paddling.

Again from the logbook:

This early in the season there are only a few trucks and boat trailers in the parking lot. I take a minute to walk out on the dock and assess conditions on the lake before setting Bluebird in the water. The jet stream flows in a straight line from the southwest—unlike the mid-summer norm. Wind from this direction means I’ll have a quartering tail wind and corresponding waves as I cross to Wild Horse Island. I adjust myself mentally to what it will feel like to be pushed from the stern quarter. I slip Bluebird into the water and settle myself, feeling for a low center of gravity before advancing into the waves that create an awkward rolling motion. Assisted, even if awkwardly by waves I cannot see, I make the crossing quickly and soon slide above the tumbled ramp of island shallows. I round the island’s tail and drop into Skeeko bay.

I love to hike on the island at this time of the year, so I haul Bluebird out of the water and roll the boat over in the shade of one of the big pines. I tuck my wetsuit, pfd, and booties in the cave of the cockpit and switch to more comfortable clothes and footgear for the hike. Before starting up the trail to the isthmus I check the State Park log. I discover, somewhat to my surprise, that no one has recorded an earlier visit to the island this year. Looking forward to whatever I may discover, I hike up the ridge, down into the canyon between peaks and then back up to the top of the middle peak. As memories are attached to places, I recall that this saddle between peaks was important to friends who died in a January crossing of the strait. I come to pay my respects to other people who loved this island.

I move quickly and fairly quietly through the soft bunch grasses and the windblown pine needles. It feels good to walk on the moist, almost spongy ground, so unlike the conditions in August or September. Below me to the right I spot five big deer and a red-tail hawk. From this high vantage point I take time to look at everything around me, searching for movement and anomalies. Taking time to look before moving, I find Bighorn sheep in the distance. They are bedded down in the trees. On a scabby, west-facing slope I find dozens of Bitterroot, blazing out of the windblown gravel like pink stars. It feels as if springtime is rising out of the ground and into my legs.

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Pleased with everything I see, I drop back into the canyon then pant up to the west peak. Before skipping down to the bay I take time to look south. From this last high point I see something that startles me. It looks as though the forest is on fire. Thick clouds of smoke rise up out of the trees and billow away in the wind. The smoke is thick enough to cast running shadows over the forest and grasslands below. Remembering the Mann Gulch fire and the fifteen men who got caught in an upslope conflagration, I don’t want to be caught in a similar situation. Needing a good decision, I study the scene below. It eventually dawns on me that the smoke is the wrong color—yellow not brown or gray. I suddenly realize that the wind is blowing pollen from the pine trees not smoke. Pollen streams from the trees in enormous yellow plumes that look like smoke. This explains why I saw so much pollen on the water while in mid channel. All is well. From an ecological perspective the timing of the wind and the release of powdery pollen have met each other perfectly. Astonished by the conjunction of such things, I continue my descent more amazed than afraid.

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Back at the beach I change clothes again, tuck myself back into Bluebird and slide into the bay. During the hike I consumed all the water I brought. I sweep away a fan of pollen beside me and dip my blue bottle into the lake. I raise it and take a big, long drink, leaving just a little for when I land again at Walstad. Refreshed, even if on my way to gastric distress that shows up later (I should have filtered the water), I turn out of the shelter of the bay and paddle down the west shore of the island. Now I face into the same quartering headwind that helped me fly to the island earlier in the day. I settle into an even pace, having learned not to hurry the process in an attempt to get out of the wind. It is enough to take one strong firm stroke and then the next, to let my body roll slightly with the boat’s roll rather than fight the motion. I try to let the energy pass through me rather than oppose it as if it were an enemy. I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s approach to resistance. In Mitchell’s translation of Chapter #30 the old man says:

For every force there is a counterforce.

Violence, even well intentioned

Always rebounds upon itself (#30).

Trying not to rely on force, I paddle on, accept rather than resist the quartering seas off the starboard side.

As near as I can tell, I was the only person on Wild Horse Island today, the only person to see billows of pollen so dense that they cast shadows over the undulating slopes. Though the weather at this time of the year is volatile and the water still cold, I am grateful for a chance encounter with the perfect timing of the living world.

A Perfect Summer Day

(August 18, 2014)

The syllabus needs to be revised. A Moodle shell needs to be created to contain all the readings for the course set to begin in one week. And the window trim needs to be scraped and painted yet again; but the weather is perfect. I decide not to waste the gift.

I load everything in my truck on Sunday night, hoping for an early start on Monday morning. I load Bluebird and stretch the cover over the cockpit to keep out the dew and spiders. I go to bed early with a keen sense of anticipation about the next day at the lake.

IMG_2222 When I arrive at the Walstad access site the lake is calm. I take time to load the boat thoughtfully so I know where everything is and so I can reach my camera relatively easily.

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Though I had planned a different circuit in my mind before stepping into the water, something calls me to paddle into the morning light, to head out to Melita Island and the gravel bar where birds gather and preen, then to touch each of the points along the Rocky Point peninsula—White Swan, Matterhorn, and Block before dropping into the bottom of Cat Bay to see a friend’s place where she has erected a bright tipi on a platform. I pick a pace I can sustain all day, recognizing however, that I am paddling over the top of a layer of physical pain that is a daily feature of my life, one I refuse to let rule my days. Along the way I see several people in bathrobes or, in one case much less, having coffee on their decks, reveling in the light and warmth, not taking for granted the comfort of summer at this latitude where winters are cold and dark.

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Paddling into the light everything before me is backlit, including the paddler who suddenly emerges from behind White Swan point. I feel pleased to see another paddler even in silhouette. I greet her, but unskirted and in deep water, she seems disinclined to have a conversation; she simply waves and heads into the sheltering bay, perhaps to join friends for breakfast. After my own visit to these sculpted points and bays I head out toward Wild Horse Island. I face a modest headwind that has not yet raised sets of waves. When I finally reach the big island I see boats tucked in almost all the little pockets of gravel that accumulate between the ledges and ridges of fractured rock. They have waited all summer for the water to warm and so now they swim, mess around on a paddle board, lounge in deck chairs set in the stones.

I find a spot of my own to rest, eat, and recover from a morning of paddling. I tuck myself behind a juniper brought down when an upwind Ponderosa crashed in a windstorm. I lay back in the shade and let the cool stones soothe my lower back. I close my eyes under the shadows of osprey that pass back and forth in search of fish.

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When a large boat loaded with parents and grandchildren pulls ashore on the other side of the juniper and plays a radio while handing out hotdogs and potato chips, I decide to cut short my respite and paddle on. I slip away almost silently, but they follow me, making no effort to trim their boat. They leave a big wake to rock me. I love this exposed north shore of the island and decide to focus on my own pleasures at seeing the wild edges of water and stone and the way life roots itself in the most unlikely places.

IMG_2246 I round the north end of the island, pass the crescent coves, and slide toward Skeeko Bay. Now that we are past July 15, it is legal to walk into the Special Resource Zone on the island set aside to protect the wild horses and the deer and sheep that give birth here in the spring. So I look for and find another small beach between parties that have also stopped here to soak up afternoon light and warmth. I find and take the shore-side trail and walk a mile or so to the saddle that overlooks the strait between Wild Horse and Melita Islands. Along the way I see people reading in their canvas chairs, gathering interesting pieces of driftwood, enjoying their beer, and desperate parents contending with a two-year-old who is content with nothing they offer.

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Back at my little spot I dive into the lake, as comfortable as it will ever be, but refreshing after a hike. It is time now to paddle on. First though, I finish the apple I have saved for this phase of the paddle, tuck everything away, and slip back into my boat for the paddle home. About half way between the south shore of the island and my landing point I see a sailboat moving at what seems to me an astonishing speed. I pick up my pace and alter my course a hair so that I can see them more closely as they fly by. Three men are hiked out over the upwind side of an extremely slick boat that cuts through the water like a blade. I shout “Beautiful.” They shout, “If you had been a jet ski, we would have sunk you with our torpedoes,” and summing up the conditions, “A perfect summer day.” I would have taken a photo of this magnificent boat with a circled “V” on the mainsail, but then I would have missed the encounter, so quickly did they pass.

Like the sailors I often feel a dark current of judgment toward other people who move about the lake differently than I do—team testosterone that throws wakes and noise all over the surface, tubers that burn through enormous quantities of precious fuel, party boats that bring their social clamor ashore or into the most quiet bays. But today I feel less of this. Everyone is enjoying the lake in the ways they know how to enjoy it. I want to relate to the lake on the most intimate terms. For me the kayak, my slim little shell, is the way to do it; but other people choose to and can afford to relate to the lake differently. They do not know my satisfactions; perhaps I do not know theirs.

After I come to shore and load everything back in my truck I turn on the radio for the drive home. I hear the day’s headlines: an eight-year–old girl fell off the cliffside trail on the way to the falls in Yellowstone Park; Ferguson, Missouri is still in turmoil after the shooting of another unarmed black man by a white policeman; the conflict with ISIS in Iraq has entered another stage in this long, costly contest; the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has again broken down. I sometimes feel guilty when I slip out of the envelope of the news and into the beauty of the lake. Some deep part of me says that I should stay for what is difficult, grief-stricken, and full of rage or anguish. At the same time the lake offers itself to our thirst for beauty. To refuse the gift seems like another betrayal of life. I take in both, the heartbreaking news and the music of water and light playing on stone. As the sailors said, “A perfect summer day.”

Overnight Solo

(June 9, 2014)

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I had almost forgotten. Packing for an overnight paddle is a lot of work. Even though I take the simplest approach possible, especially with respect to food, I have to make a list of essential items. I cannot afford to forget anything. I begin to wonder whether such a trip is worth the effort. It would be easy to succumb to inertia. The lawn needs mowing. Weeds grow faster than I can pull them. I haven’t finished all the preparations for my fall course at the university. Several projects wait for my attention in the shop. I can think of dozens of reasons to stay at home. Yet, something calls to me.

I drive north through the light traffic of a Monday afternoon in early June and park at the Walstad access point, deciding to enter the lake via the little bay south of the parking lot and boat ramp. I want this area’s soft ground under my boat when I load it with gear. On the beach protected by a screen of willows I change into my dry suit. The lake is rough and the water is still too cold for a spill. I then reverse the morning’s process of packing the truck by taking everything out and loading it in suitable hatches, saving the day hatch for my camera, keys, cell phone for emergencies, an extra water bottle and a rescue rope.

On the way to the island I ride the back of the green dragon. It is not often that I have a tail wind, but this time wind and waves push the stern port quarter. I make the yaw of the boat less disconcerting by deploying the skeg and enjoy the rush and hiss of waves passing under me. I quickly reach the strait between Wild Horse and Cromwell Islands, advance through the channel, then set my sights on Cedar Island to the northeast. I cover the nine miles in relatively short order, round the island’s south tip and begin to paddle slowly up the east side searching for a place to land. Several spots seem promising but many are barred by fallen logs driven ashore by winter storms. I select one with a gradual slope and good access to the forest.

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I haul out, choosing to skid Bluebird over the backs of two large pieces of polished driftwood rather than lift the loaded boat. I unpack everything I stowed and set up camp. I choose not to erect the tent, relatively confident about the weather and wanting to sleep in the open. (I will later regret this decision when carpenter ants come to visit and force me to erect the tent after midnight). In the course of the evening I explore the island and gradually make sense of some of the island’s history. Intact sections of a wire fence remind me that in years past the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks used the island’s interior to corral bighorn sheep brought over from Wild Horse. The once grand bungalow on the north end of the island has become an easel for painted graffiti. Where cedar shingles have not been ripped off to start fires people have written their philosophies, proclaimed their love, declaimed themselves, cited scripture, sprayed wild mages. On the south side of the house tall lilacs, a symbol for domestic life, still bloom. In the shady forest interior behind the house the limestone root cellar recently provided shelter for nesting geese. Down covers the floor just inside the entrance, the door ripped from its hinges when the lock would not yield to someone’s curiosity or inclination to steal. In the course of the evening I play hide and seek with a doe that must have swum over from the mainland. On the edge of the meadow I spot a buck in velvet without him spotting me.

Cedargoose Back at camp I watch the effects of sunset to the west on the Mission Mountains and Swan Range to the east. Near dark I let myself down into my own down and begin to let sleep take me like a wave. I am suddenly roused, however, by an advancing sound. I look up just in time to see a bald eagle pass low over me. I do not so much hear the big pumping wings as feel the effect of the airflow. I have never been so close to an eagle as to feel the movement of the air it displaces.

I fall asleep to the image of the eagle passing over me but wake several times to sweep ants away. I don’t sleep well until after I erect the tent. Dawn arrives like a cymbal crash and I wake with a start. Before the atmosphere warms little puffs of clouds pass over the ranges to the east and disappear into the light. I make hot water for tea on my almost fifty-year-old Primus stove, amazed by its simplicity and efficiency; this must be the least technical stove still in use. After granola and raisins I repack my simple camp, re-stow the gear and circle the island counterclockwise. I pass into the cool shadow cast by the island over the strait between Cedar Island and Shelter Island with its incongruous castle. As I pass the imposing structure I think, at least the builder had sense enough to place the breakfast table in the morning light.

Crossing the open water again I set my sights on a small cove on the north side of Wild Horse. I am alone on the lake, stroking my way through distance and time.

I eventually come into the shelter of this shallow arc of land, one of my favorite places on earth. As I pull the boat out of waves’ reach I see that someone before me erected a simple marker by placing a large feather upright in the gravel: a fitting way to honor the bird and the beach.

As I explore this part of the island I am pleased that unusually dry conditions for May and early June have not kept flowers from blooming and lush grass from growing in the swales. I take a moment to study the complex interior of a sago lily,

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the intensely pink blooms of bitterroot flowers sprawled improbably over a rocky spine,

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and some kind of ceremonial site set in a circle of stones and cones. Curious, I lift the central stone for clues. Only a little mold remains to commemorate a life or whatever led someone to create this modest circle of remembrance. After climbing the first ridge I drop into deep forest and hear a whinny: the wild horses are nearby and have detected my scent. I stand behind a large Ponderosa and wait. I see the lead mare come into the open. When she sees the lush grass she breaks into a gallop and her four companions, including the now-full-grown horse born on the island, race after her. They bend to the grass, switching their tails in what must be a sign of pleasure. I do not cross into the Special Resource Zone, obeying the sign that asks people to leave the area as a sanctuary for island animals until at least July 15. I am content to stand on the boundary watching the horses.

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I retrace my steps through the timber, over the ridge, and down to the beach. I tuck myself in and paddle the last miles home.

On the drive back to Missoula I review my decision to make this trip. If I had not left some things unfinished; if I had let inertia or a nagging sense of responsibility stop me in my tracks; if I had pulled back from the thoughtful packing of gear I would have missed the pulse of eagle wings at dusk. On the second morning I would have missed the calliope hummingbird attracted to my bright red paddle jacket, mistaking me for the largest hibiscus on record. I would have missed the architecture of the sago, the scent of spent balsamroot, the ghost of a goose in the broken shell it left behind, and the way morning shadows flowed over the island like a watercolor brush loaded with water and pigment.

Sometimes it is worth the effort to leave home, to take a few essentials on the way to experiences one might be able to imagine but not receive without pulling away from the gravity of responsibility and the drag of routine. It was good to let the islands and the lake pull at me and to respond with my consent.