(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”