May Miniatures

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…And these Things,

which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,

they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all..

(Rilke, The Ninth Elegy)

If one is prepared for the paradox of cold water and warming air temperatures, paddling in May can be a joy. Though the lake level is rising as the rivers pour runoff into the basin, some of the public boat ramps and access points don’t provide enough clearance for powerboats to launch safely. As a result, far fewer boats churn the lake surface, especially before Memorial Day. If a paddler catches an interval of high atmospheric pressure between spring’s wind events, one can paddle great distances in relative calm. At such times the lake feels open for exploration.

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I recently took advantage of one of these opportunities and paddled through The Narrows and up to Wild Horse Island. Starting from the campground at Finley Point I landed at Osprey Cove. As I approached the cove I heard calls of distress from the osprey in the snag at the north end of the cove. Wanting to cause as little upset as possible, I hugged the rocks at the south end of the cove and hauled Bluebird up the steps of the adjacent gravel ramp then opened up my dry suit to cool off. Curiosity soon got the better of me and I began to explore the cracks in the big blocks of stone that armor the edge of the cove. Even these unlikely places host blooming plants and mosses. Soon I began to hike up the steeply wooded slope above the cove. Thanks to spring rains the ground was soft underfoot. Gaining a little elevation, I took in the broad view—Cedar Island and The Missions beyond. Mountains still held snow from late season storms, but the near-at-hand held my attention. On the body of a fallen tree I found a miniature garden of mushrooms, mosses, a fir seedling and silky phacelia. On more open slopes I found harebells at the end of their long fine stalks, shooting stars beginning to fade, arnica and balsamroot in full flush.

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This early season paddle reminds me that there is more to see on the island than Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep and big bucks in velvet. Deep in the forest a palette of colors and diverse forms express themselves in miniature. A kayak offers access to these micro-worlds before tour boats motor by scouring the slopes for “game” and before jet skis cut high-speed turns in the liquid blue. Sometimes the world at our feet calls out for our attention. As the prophet reminds us, the grass withers, the flower fades.

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Sunset, Moonrise, Dawn

(July 2013)

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The moon this July has been extraordinary. At home it rises over Mount Dean Stone like a plate of ivory, climbs through the branches of a black ponderosa, and throws a wave of light against the south-facing shop where I build my furniture. For a couple of years I have wanted to do another night paddle, perhaps in moonlight. Before driving to Colorado to see family, Joyce and I quickly pack up the camping gear, secure a sloping site at Big Arm and eat a dinner we prepared at home. I sit facing the lake so that I can judge the conditions. Under high atmospheric pressure the lake basin receives a breeze out of the north that sweeps around Wild Horse Island and aims its energies toward the bottom of Big Arm bay. I watch as white caps lose their crests and the wind gradually lessens, leaving waves about a foot high.

I launch from the beach where Fish, Wildlife and Parks docks its big aluminum-hulled boat with the 200 horsepower Honda outboard. The contrast in vessels strikes me as humorous. If I were ever to need a rescue I might see all that power differently. Once in the water I enjoy releasing the energy of anticipation as I face the waves and wind. Bluebird splashes onward toward Wild Horse Island in progressively calmer conditions. In the lee of the island the water is much quieter. As I begin the paddle around the island, I notice a few landowners leaving the shade of their cabins after a day in the mid-90s. They come down to the beaches and docks for a swim. At Driftwood Point I pull into the snags of dead junipers and pines and read a FWP sign saying that a bear has been seen recently on the island. Perhaps the bear, too, wanted to cool off with a swim.

As the sun disappears over the horizon I paddle up the eastern shore of the island. In the distance The Missions have turned a pale violet, rocks near shore the black of silhouette. One crescent south of Osprey cove I hear a commotion over head. I see the middle act of the eternal drama between osprey and bald eagles. I look up in time to see the eagle bear down on the osprey from above. The osprey rolls onto its back. The birds lock talons and lose altitude. Then I see the eagle pumping toward me, fish in its grasp.  I can’t tell for certain who caught the fish first—probably the osprey. Next,  a second eagle pursue the osprey while the first eagle rises to its roost. Again, the osprey is the loser, beaten by size and weight. In Darwin’s terms, this is the struggle of existence.

In the growing darkness I continue paddling north, close to the rocky shoreline and at a slow pace. I would love to see bighorn sheep or the island’s mule deer, or something as secretive as an otter near shore, but the island does not reveal these inhabitants. Travelling along what is now the back of the fish-shaped island, I begin to look for a place to rest and wait for the moon. I find a deep cove with a beach of small pebbles and pull ashore. It feels good to get out of the boat, to step into the coolness, to feel rock under my feet. After the windy crossing and the paddle north I go for a swim in the darkness. I am refreshed by immersion.

I change into dry clothes, eat one of my two cinnamon raisin bagels, drink a quart of water and guess where the late-arriving moon will rise. If I had come a few days earlier, the rising of the moon and the setting of the sun would have occurred simultaneously. Tonight, I must wait for the moon. Around 11 p.m. it rises over the tops of the island trees to my right. Two or three days past full, it fills the forest around me with white corridors and long shadows and takes over where the sun left off. Trusting the light and the dark, I nestle into the stones beside a long straight cottonwood that has fallen parallel to shore. I sleep for a few hours and wait for the approach of dawn.

The sun rises like a trumpet blaring over The Missions. Feeling the heat of the day the moment the sun appears over the range I gather my gear, eat a duck egg, an apple and my last bagel. I launch in the early light to complete the paddle and have morning tea with Joyce. I head out of the cove into gently flowing air and calm water. After rounding a couple of points, I see the moon again, four fingers above a ridge. I am surprised by how glad I feel to see it again. It seems like a friend departing for another land. Something in me wants to wave goodbye. In the quiet of early morning I paddle past six sailboats tucked into Skeeko bay, two of them tied head to toe, silence suggesting that everyone is still asleep. I continue slowly along the west shore of the island, hoping to see the animals I could not spot last night. At the tail of the island I look southwest and try to locate the campground three miles away.

In the strengthening light I begin the crossing. About a half hour into the process I see jet skiers, camped along the shore, begin to cast their wakes into the air as they take advantage of the calm conditions. Though I do not enjoy the whine of their engines, they help me locate my landing. I paddle on, spot Joyce’s wave, step on shore. I feel happy to have paddled through sunset, moonrise, and dawn and all the subtle variations of light. I put down paddle, pfd and skirt, and come to the table for tea.

Summer light can seem almost garish in quality as it glances off the water. Convection raises wind and waves that fill the shore with noise. All the people, desperate for the cooling effects of water, and needing distance from the heat of home, add to the activity along the lake’s perimeter. All of this helped me feel drawn to the afterglow of sunset, the quiet of the night, the subtleties of moonlight’s shadows, the first hints of morning light before the sun claims the day. I timed my exploration of this other world well. Everything has been gentle, even in July. I have lived into the Celtic Blessing:

 Deep peace of the running wave to you,

Deep peace of the flowing air to you,

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace of the gentle night to you,

Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.

Deep peace to you.

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Through New Eyes

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People occasionally ask me to introduce them to paddling on Flathead Lake. They want the benefit of my experience before they venture out on their own. At a chili feed for a local nonprofit my friend C.W. bid several times during the silent auction on a guided paddle on Flathead Lake. When the opportunity went to someone else, I turned to him and said, “Would you like to go with me some time for free?” His eyes brightened. He said, “Sure.” Two years later, after his retirement and several other major events in our lives, we finally found an opportunity to make good on our plan.

Before C.W. arrives I check the graphical forecast and a satellite image (http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/flatheadlake/. A big yellow comma full of rain hangs over the lake but will pass to the east later in the day. After C.W. pulls into the driveway we load his extra clothes, lunch, and camera gear into my truck and take off. On the way up the valley we see clouds clinging to The Missions. Elsewhere, the ceiling is flat and gray. When we crest the Polson moraine we see a calm lake, sections of black water that are perfectly breathless. It has stopped raining. When we pull into the Walstad access, with the thought of crossing to Wildhorse, I say, “I have never seen it so calm here in mid-June. We’ll have a great day.”

As we pull away from the dock we stay close together until I can see that C.W. is comfortable in the boat. When I see him pull the skirt while we are in mid-channel and reach into his lap where he stowed his camera, I know he will be fine. He takes photographs throughout the day, evidence perhaps of his habits as a journalist. He had been a reporter for Rocky Mountain News before coming to the University of Montana where he had a distinguished career as a professor in the School of Journalism. As I keep watching, I realize that he is as much an artist as a reporter recording a story.

When we reach the island C.W. feels drawn to the margins where trees have fallen into the lake and left long ghostly bodies angling down toward darkness. Later, when I see his photographs, I discover that he was also drawn to the abstract forms on shore, tree branches sticking out of the trunk of a tree in parallel curves that reminded him of ribs, gnarled root balls that revealed a tree’s contortions around impermeable stone. As a photographer he recognizes the moment when an angle of sunlight allows him to see objects underwater but near shore, blocks of stone dusted with spring sediment or gravels scrubbed by shore waves. He keeps seeing and recording the interface between things: the line between shadow and light, the comparatively hard or sharp forms of things on shore—dead tree branch, or leaf edge, and the soft forms of pebbles beneath the surface. Using his telephoto, he finds a trio of adult geese introducing eighteen goslings to what must have been their first open-water paddle. We pass them going opposite directions far from shore. When we slip beneath an eagle on its overhanging perch he frames it from below. When we are on the island and find a band of rams, he selects a trio of particularly big boys out of the whole group, their massively thick horns protruding above the island’s long and, for now, still-green grass.

Later in the day, after we climb to a rocky promontory with a ledge full of bitterroots, the blooms tightly folded under gray skies, we search for the island’s horses. By not hurrying, and consulting my memories of where I had seen them in the past, we spot the foal, now a full-grown horse, startling red and white among black mares. Again, with an artist’s eye, C.W. looks for the patterns in their arrangement with each other. When we find the skeleton of the horse that died this past winter he asks me to hold a femur that I extracted from the grasses beginning to conceal it. He takes a photo of me holding the massive bone. Afterwards I think of Georgia O’Keefe painting found objects in New Mexico. Keeping an eye on the muted sun I suggest that we head back down to the bay. Because the water is still calm I suggest that we put a bend in the route of our return and circle Melita Island before heading back to the dock.

Kayaking on Flathead Lake is about crossing from mainland to island, the beautiful rhythm of strokes, countless adjustments to wind and waves–all the things that bring me a sense of exhilaration. But on this paddle I learned that paddling the lake is also about seeing in new ways, taking time to see patterns I usually ignore or fail to recognize, seeing the interaction between water and shore, object and reflection, even the beauty in death. This morning I pulled out of the driveway hoping to introduce a friend to a new subject. I returned as a student learning to see in a new way. By trying to view the world through my friend’s eyes every time he raised his camera, I learned that I had been passing by some of the marvels of form, color, and relationship as I sped from point to point. On this day the teacher became a student. I learned another reason to paddle with other people. As I helped my friend load gear back into his car he said, “Thanks, this opens up a whole new world.” I felt the same way.

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In spring the day may begin clear as a button-down pinpoint fresh off the iron. In the morning geese call to one another overhead as first light ignites their wingtips. But as the day warms the engine of the sun seems to lift moisture out of the lake and into the air. It reaches for little wisps, gathers them, kneads this moisture into clouds, packs them tighter until they begin to have weight, until they begin to tumble and rumble. Then the wind blows or it rains, and the waves on the water begin to build. And after all this energy is spent and night comes on, the heaviness in the sky breaks up and blows away. Pearly clouds pick up sunset’s fire like opals as the sun touches the horizon. If the last of the gray clouds in the foreground move off and dissipate in a lighter atmosphere, we see a light blue line at the horizon, a line sometimes tinged with green. In springtime a paddler needs to look for intervals, the openings between storms and windy conditions. This interval might come soon after sunrise or in the space between sunset and starlight. We especially need these openings when far from shore.

In mid-May we experience record-breaking heat for this date, the kind of heat that already makes us think about fire season. I head for the lake. Trying to get the maximum number of paddles per drive, I set up camp around 4 p.m. The weather seems dependable so I don’t bother with the rain fly. Around 5 p.m. I begin to paddle toward Matterhorn Point. The whole surface of the lake is like my blue silk shirt—smooth with a few soft wrinkles. I experience none of the noise and chafe of rough conditions, nor the anxiety that goes with having to respond to the odd, large wave.

When I get to the point I see Wild Horse Island about three miles away. Even though it is dinnertime and I had planned to turn back, the water is completely calm and irresistible. Many times I have looked from this point to the island and felt that the intervening space seems almost impassable, but not this evening. As I ponder the decision to turn back or go on, it feels as though the lake is offering me a series of open gates. Almost any paddle feels possible. I am amazed that no one else is on the lake experiencing these conditions. Seizing the opportunity, and knowing it is rare, I enter the opening. Dinner can wait. I leave the point behind and cover the intervening distance quickly, the sun still high in the sky. I feel almost no resistance to anything I might like to try.

I find a place to land between cabin sites, no one in sight, and lift my boat above the water line. I slip my water bottle out of its special spot next to the right side of my seat, rummage through emergency gear for an energy bar and dried apricots. I hike up a steep slope and find a downed tree where I can sit and marvel at calm water in May. The island is lush, the Palouse prairie grasses long and drooping. Everything smells of balsamroot and warm sap. Like the plants at my feet I soak up water and light, look south to the mountains still mantled in snow. The lake registers no more than a whisper.

Having paddled farther than I planned, I finish up my snack, drink all but a sip of my water that I will save for later, descend the slope and slip Bluebird back in the water. I am alone on the lake in the most perfect conditions I have ever seen. If I had the strength, this would be an ideal evening to add a circumnavigation of the island to this long crossing. Though nearly intoxicated by the conditions, I have enough experience to resist the temptation. I know how fatigue can fall on a paddler like a sudden weight. So, in a state of joy I paddle the 8 miles back to camp and arrive just after sunset. I carry Bluebird up to my campsite and think now I can eat. I get the cooler out of the truck. Simple but rich fair again— leftover Columbia River steelhead on multi-grain bread, fresh fruit, more water, and two big cookies. It is all I can do not to eat the cookies first. In light that seems reluctant to leave the sky I sit for a while on the concrete breakwater and savor both my food and this paddle, valuing the memories as much as the food. I have seen geese on all the islands, a mated pair of eagles in a snag on the south shore of the island due east of Bull Island. They sat on a huge nest made of driftwood from the beach. I wonder when the downy nestlings will begin to peer over the lip of the tangle that protects them.

After almost all the light has been swallowed by darkness I settle into my sleeping bag. A final image appears in my imagination. As if from the vantage point of a small airplane, I see a lone paddler on a still lake. A long faint trail dissipates behind his boat. The lake is a sea of blue, purple, and pink. Venus blazes away just above the horizon to the west. The evening ends with gratitude for this image. I drop myself into it and fall sleep.Image