Church

“It’s like everything is wrapped in gold,” Marypat said, when we set our two solo canoes into the lower reaches of the East Gallatin on Sunday morning. It was supposed to rain later. The winds out of the west were going to pick up, so we got to the water early, around the time church-going people cinch their ties and shine the scuffs from their shoes.

For the first hour it was all serenity, beauty and awe. The valley glowed with fall. Three sandhill cranes climbed up the bank and soared off over the fields, calling. White-tailed deer watched us swing past. An owl lifted from a pile of logs on the outside of a bend. A beaver swam under my hull. The river tugged us along, sweet and clear and low.

Then, the sermon of the wind kicked in. Fitful gusts built into full-on headwinds. The river pushed forward, waves kicked up, whitecaps. We both reverted to kayak paddles to keep up momentum, leaned into the weather, found wind eddies to rest in. Near the end, on a long westward reach, the wind became a wall. Marypat, in her light canoe, was finally driven to shore and had to line her boat along. I paddled back up to her, hitched on, and we managed the last mile or two in tow, shoulders aching, trees flailing against the sky.

Off the river by noon, out of church. A dose of beauty, a little fire and brimstone, the pew of canoe seat, a hymnal of air and leaves and bird call. Amen.

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Rambling, as in Homeless

I just finished a book featuring a cast of gypsy characters in the British Isles. There is something romantically appealing about gypsies. The stubborn pride in their homeless status, for one. Their lack of interest in being rooted or having a bricks and mortar home, the roaming culture – insular, invisible, on the edges. And there is also something tragic and dark about gypsies – their history, how they are treated, the things they are driven to, why they live as they do.

Because, essentially, they are not tied to any kind of home place, nationality, country, state. They have carved out a way to survive, a way to maintain pride and identity, in a fraught world. And it got me thinking about all the homeless in the world. Millions and millions of people, awash on the seas of war and politics and strife, surviving to the next day. Or, like the gypsies, people who have staked their identity on the very condition of homelessness.

There are others, like the gypsies, who for different reasons find themselves with a culture but no nation. Many Armenians, for example. Kurds, Hmong, the hundreds of tribes within the African continent, thrown into nations at the whim of colonizers.

Always there are the homeless who have been exiled or terrorized by war, by genocide, by religious campaigns . . . never more than now. The hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking places, streaming from Somalia, from Syria, from Libya, from Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the heartbreak, the angst, the tortured discussions – to leave home, to head, carrying what you can, into the unknown. To clamber onto uncertain boats, to walk through the night, to leave children and spouses behind, to endure crowded camps, because home had become untenable.

And I think of the homeless I see, and that I know exist, all around me. Families living in cars because rent has become too dear. People camped along a creek on the edge of town, or sheltering under a highway overpass, or making camp in a thicket of woods where no one goes. I see them. Not long ago, walking our dog, I came across a man sleeping under the skirts of a conifer tree in the park across the street. Good spot, I thought. Outside, under a tree, but absolutely protected from the weather by the canopy of branches. I noticed that he had an electric skillet and had found an outlet near what is a skating rink in the winter. Smart, I thought. And I imagined myself, occupied with the urgency to find a place each night – a place with privacy, with protection, warm enough, away enough. An electrical outlet would be an unexpected gift, a treasure to hoard and enjoy, because, somehow, you also know it wouldn’t last.

I see the homeless at the public library, where they find warmth, reading material, shelter from the weather, a bathroom. There was an unshaven man I saw for a time on my walks around town. Every time I saw him he was buried in a paperback book. Always reading. Once I asked what he was reading. He could barely find his voice. He was so used to being invisible. “Just a mystery,” he finally whispered. And there’s the guy who rides a bicycle around town and watches birds. He has even found occasional work with some local environmental outfits, documenting species and habitat. When I see him, we invariably get into a conversation about sandhill crane hatchlings, or the nest of a Cooper’s hawk behind the library, or the sharp-shinned hawk he’s been watching in some conifers across from the bench he likes to sit on. Where he sleeps, I have no idea. And all of them, eventually, disappear, move on, find other places, get sick, die, or, perhaps, find a home.

Sometimes it seems like freedom, being homeless. And it is. As well as lonely hardship, exposure, illness, early death. Whatever it is, it is a common state, now. A state worth pondering.

 

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East Gallatin Renewal

Well, this year it took a while. I watched the gauge rise, saw the muddy water hurrying under bridges, itched to re-ignite my yearly spring affair with my favorite local creek, the East Gallatin. Things got in the way. April seems to have been the month of visitors this year – cousin Drake from Friday Harbor, friends from Kenya, sister Noel from Massachusetts. The weather has been unpredictable, unruly – typically springlike, in other words – so that the few times a window presented itself, it happened to be snowing or blowing like stink. And there’s work, and sloth, and whatever else keeps me from getting out the door.

But yesterday afternoon, after my last class of the semester, Sawyer showed up. It had been sleety and cold earlier in the day, and was still windy and chilly, but improving. We loaded up, drove to the edge of town and dropped in the silty, cold, rising flow. That current I have adopted over the years, that mix of hidden ambush and hairball maneuver, lovely bends, white-tail, golfers, homeless camps, scraps of old cars, beaver dams, sandhills, geese. That chance to reawaken the paddling moves, see what’s happened over the winter, when I glided past some of these same bends on cross-country skis.

For an hour or two we dissolved through the portal, left the world full of Facebook checking, SnapChatting, Instagramming, Netflix bingeing, emailing, texting, device-charging bullshit. Never mind the escape from the more existentially disturbing world of hospital bombings, kidnapped children suicide bombers, banking mischief, earthquake rubble, mass shootings, and Trump rallies. Never mind. Never mind.

No, for two hours we let our arms and paddles remember. We met and communicated through the hull of that old Dagger Legend canoe. Swinging around tight corners. Ducking underbrush. Hearing the complaints of geese, the scream of red-tail, the splash of mallard. The wind held off. Three or four times we had to scramble to shore, pull out, haul over a log jam or past an overhanging bush. We diverted down a golf course irrigation canal but decided against the culvert move – how embarrassing to endure an obituary featuring culvert decapitation.

We talked all the way. About the end of Sawyer’s college era, the angst over what’s next. About his brother and sister. About summer plans, life plans, friends, his hopes, my memories. Then there was the not-talking, just swooping around bends, skirting logs, pointing at nests, shooting through new gaps, listening to the talk of river and bank, bird and wind. Feeling the teamwork, the dance that tastes so good. Once we got out the saw and cut some overhanging branches, an inch of freeboard on our rubber boots.

What a simple thing, right? Settle into a boat on a river where no one goes and disappear into what is so real and profound and always right there at our fingertips, but that we so easily forget in the noise of life. And now, memory still brimming with it, a mile away, the East Gallatin rushes under roads, through subdivisions, past golf greens, impartial to our ‘improvements’, and my old red boat sits next to the garage, ready, always ready, whenever I am.

 

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That Old Kingfisher Rattle!

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Okay, I’m calling it. The paddling season is on. Sure, we’ve been out before this, even in January and Febuary, dodging ice floes, and then over spring break on the San Juan in Utah, but this, today, felt like the real start.

Marypat went for a ski this morning, and invited me along. I was nice about declining, but are you kidding? 65 degrees, the water coming up, bluebird spring day – you want to go ski?

She went, had fun, but I ran out to the lower Gallatin R. with a solo canoe and a bike, rode the shuttle between the Missouri Headwaters Park and Manhattan, MT, even had a bit of a tailwind, and was on the water before noon.

From there it was that sweet, rising current, some nice dancing down narrow side channels. It was kingfishers rattling over the water, geese calling, a fat marmot dodging into a burrow on the bank, all the mergansers and mallards and goldeneye paired up. It was new logs in the river, bald eagles in the cottonwoods, fresh buds on willows.

I stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, just me and the sliding river, and thought about how nice, and how rare, to be quiet – no cell phones, no earbuds, no conversation – only the wind gusting through the still bare branches across the way, and the river rippling past, and the ringing call of a flicker in the cottonwood grove.

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Farflung

This past weekend was one of those interludes where I thought of my family scattered in a crazy constellation. Marypat and I were driving to Hayward, Wisconsin so MP could take part in the annual 50K Birkie ski race with 10,000 of her closest friends. Eli was the only one holding down the Montana fort, slogging away with school and work in Billings. Sawyer was nordic racing on the college circuit in Red River, NM. Ruby was in Toronto giving a speech at a wilderness canoe symposium.

Nearly to Hayward, our phone rings. It’s Ruby in the Toronto airport. She had borrowed a phone from a stranger because her phone refused to function in Canada. Her debit card wouldn’t work. She had to make her way to an unfamiliar address in downtown Toronto and had no cash. We gave her the bank number to see if she could get her card working. She hung up and we didn’t hear from her again for 3 days. No news is good news, right? Right. My 20-year-0ld daughter in a strange city with no money and no communication and human trafficking rings lurking around every corner.

The Birkie absolutely overwhelms the small town of Hayward. A sea of lycra folk jostling through registration lines at the high school, every motel and bar and ski shop overflowing. All to ski a 30-mile course through the woods with waves of competitors, in conditions that, 3 out of 5 years, are crappy. We pay good money to participate, take on a 30-hour round trip drive, lose sleep to race anxiety, navigate the maze of traffic and bus drop-offs. Call me a dud, but I’m not feeling it. Marypat, on the other hand, is all over being 60 and joining a new age class, and damned if she doesn’t come in 4th in her category with a time of 3:32, despite drizzle, slush, and a few, butt-bruising mishaps.

Me, what I’m feeling is seeing old friends and colleagues from that northern Wisconsin era in my life. Staying with Hayward friends who once took my writing workshop, and who know the reservation cafe with light, fluffy pancakes and only four people at tables, who are full of canoe stories and know just when and where to intersect the race on a back road and cheer for our favorite skiers.

And I’m feeling the Sunday breakfast in Ashland with two of my best and oldest friends, catching up on life’s poignant and resonant roll toward old age over scrambled eggs and english muffins with classical music in the background and Lake Superior out there, down the street, rolling off against the winter sky. Yeah, I’m feeling that.

Somewhere in the middle of that plate of breakfast, we get an email from Ruby, relating the “shit-show” of getting into Toronto, giving her talk to a “bunch of old people who I made cry” and threading her way back through thin air to Arizona.

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That Moment

IMG_0649A couple of weekends ago we needed to get out and test a boat. Almost November, our chances were dwindling. We put the word out, but everyone was hunting, or recovering from knee surgery, or on to another season. So we went, the two of us and Beans. Nothing heroic, just popped over the pass to the Yellowstone, put in on the edge of Livingston, paddled 40-some miles down to Big Timber.

You know the scene. Driftwood fires, hot drinks held close, geese overhead through the nights, deer taking refuge on the islands, ice in the jug at dawn, the cottonwoods browning and brittle. Not dawdling, really, but not pushing either. The pace of the river, the short days, the lining up of our strokes. Strolling around on gravel bars, heads down, looking for agate. That.

But then, on the second night, camped on the inside of a gravel bar along a narrow side channel, evening coming on, Marypat stoking the fire, I wandered down to the edge of the flow with a pot to fill. I stood there in the wet sand. The current swung into the narrows at the tip of the island, funneled down to a deep, green ribbon. On the far side water chattered over a shallow gravel bar, joining the flow. And how the river was, there, with the small roar of water dropping into the main flow, and the line of current curving and bending, the sense of joining and going on, and how I pictured our boat being carried along by that thin power, the small joy of it. Jesus, it made me salivate. That sliver of beauty with me standing nearby.

And now, weeks later, that’s what stays clear. That one moment, on the way for water, when the slick of river ran pure and heedless in front of me, and knowing that it is still running there, while the ice starts to form and the days shorten toward winter and the eagles shift in the snags, thinking of food.

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Half a Day

IMG_0445It wasn’t much. I didn’t even leave the house last Saturday before noon. A 45-minute bike shuttle, a couple of hours alone in a canoe on the lower Gallatin. Nothing much, except the music of water, the sleek heads of mergansers, the croak of raven, the sweep of river pushing against bank, leaves beginning to yellow, the rattle of kingfisher, a side channel I’d never tried before, a floating lunch at the pace of current, at rest in the late fall warmth. And, near the end, a sheath of glass-clean river pouring molten over a step of ledge, small beauty enough to make the heart yearn.

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Awards and Film Clip – Breaking News!!

Yes, I know, I can’t be accused of overdoing my blog posts. Life gets in the way, and that’s mostly a good thing. Occasionally, though, something happens that deserves a post.

First, a couple of awards I’m proud of. I won a first place and a third place award at the annual Society of Professional Journalists competition for 2014. Third place for my story about the tiny school in Bynum, Montana where every kid knows how to dance and how to play an instrument. In fact, every school day begins with an hour of dancing to old-time tunes. The story was titled, “No Child Not Dancing”. First place for my story about Kari Swenson and the sport of biathlon in Montana. Both stories appeared in issues of the Montana Quarterly.

Second, a film clip that just went live. Marypat and I were invited to take part in a Seasons film project, highlighting different outdoor activities in a seasonal format. We were Spring – Paddling, and the short clip is as much philosophy as season, but it’s quite beautiful (in spite of us). Have a look, enjoy and pass it on if you see fit.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo5W9_LkAdpGVSDD7JEl1nA

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Mid-Winter Update

The dilemma for a blogger – if you are busy blogging, you aren’t busy living.

And yes, this is my excuse for not posting since late summer . . .

The threads of life keep weaving through the days and months.

Fall was a lingering and lovely season that went on into mid-November, both a blessing and an ominous portent. Blessing in that we were able to get out and enjoy mountain biking along the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota for a long weekend in late October, and a paddling jaunt to Bighorn Canyon on the Montana/Wyoming border two weeks into November.

Winter arrived on our way home from Bighorn Canyon. We went from the take-out boat ramp at 60 degrees, to snow and zero late that same night. That afternoon, while winter was dropping in, we scooted up high in the Bighorn Mountains to visit the Medicine Wheel there, and then, on the way home, also drove over to visit Plenty Coups State Park, south of Billings. Both were sweet, sacred spots and worthy visits. I’ve inserted a piece I wrote about the Medicine Wheel, and which was published by the news syndicate, Writers on the Range. Read below for my take on that remarkable spot.

———–

The riddle of the circle of ancient power

Walk left, the sign says, at the entrance to the roped-off site.

It’s a place that hammers me in the chest. The world spills away, down into the Bighorn Basin, across Wyoming and north into Montana, a huge gallop of space. Brown miles stretch out veined with river courses, serrated with ridges and mountain ranges. Gray clouds bulk up on the horizon.

The Medicine Wheel is made of stones and rests close to 10,000 feet on the exposed northern end of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. It is mid-November, the end of a lingering fall, but it feels like storm. Wind tugs across the bare ridge through tufts of brittle grass. A skiff of snow sticks to the ground, blowing in hard pellets.  I fight the urge to return to safety, to lower ground, to pavement and the warm car.

I’ve been instructed to walk left. So I do.

I edge around the roped circle, looking in, wondering how to be here. Hundreds of offerings flap in the wind: Knotted scraps of red fabric, intricate bows, medicine bags, beaded necklaces, a pottery bowl, a buffalo skull, a hawk feather, a jaw bone. They are the artifacts of prayers and stories, gratitude and pleas, all gathered to this airy perch so starkly moving yet mysterious.

The wheel is nearly 100 feet across, a ring of stones seamed with 28 spokes, which some think might represent the lunar cycle. Stone markers sit at the four directions; including the points where the sun rises and sets on summer solstice. All laid out in this most remote, most wind-bitten, most grand perch. What it means, no one knows, or is saying, any more than anyone knows what Stonehenge in England means. What the Forest Service says is that circles like this one reflect the 7,000-year-old occupancy of Native Americans on the continent.

The Crow Tribe has a legend of a young man with a burned face who traveled here on a vision quest, and who first laid out this wheel. It has been noted that this site forms one point of an equidistant triangle, the other points being Devil’s Tower and Hell’s Half Acre, near Casper, Wyoming.

There are a great many stone sites scattered across the Great Plains – sacred hoops, altars, animal designs – some added to over many generations. Few are preserved. Most are unrecognized. Many have been plowed up or paved over or otherwise destroyed — another part of the legacy of oppression. Some are kept secret. The Medicine Wheel has been recognized and made a National Historic Landmark, for better or worse.

I walk left all the way around, looking in, then out across the sweep of distance, and close up, into the mountain valleys. The wind hammers my face, and then my back. I contemplate the offerings, imagine the people and lives they signify. I pull out my bandana and knot it around the rope, thinking about Mother Earth. It flaps in the wind. I imagine it fraying and fading along with the rest of these tattered prayer flags. It is inadequate, I know, not properly considered. It is also an impulse I can’t deny.

We lap once more, lingering, our faces cold, the wind rising. It had been an effort to come here, up the winding miles of 10 percent grade, out the snow-crusted dirt road and slippery track to the ridge. I think of the ancients walking up the long river valleys, climbing past the last tongues of trees, emerging into the exposed high country.

To do what? To sit? To fast? To dream? To sing? To pray? To dance and celebrate? To be grateful? To find solace? To understand?

It isn’t the impulse to be of that culture that I feel, standing here in this raw wind. Nor is it the voyeuristic urge to peek at forbidden sanctuary. It’s more the sense of emptiness and yearning in the cradle of the earth, the lack of ease or context as I walk around the ancient ring perched against sky. And also the ignorance about what to do with it, what ceremony to bring, how to act, what tradition to uphold.

All I have is the abrupt command to walk left, and to make what I might of this lonely circle of stone humming with power on the lip of the earth.

———————-

Since that weekend in November, winter has been capricious and odd. I’ve been bike riding in January and February. There is really no snow on the ground, and in the backcountry, even high up, things are thin. Marypat and I skied on crust into a Forest Service cabin in early Feb., a place usually buried under snow, and we saw bear tracks in the snow – bears out of hibernation in February! Strange stuff.

And family circumstances have become a looming factor, with Dad’s health sliding. He is now in Denver at a hospital, where he’s had a toe amputated and blood vessel blockages removed in his legs. Ann Noel is with him this week, but his prognosis, now, seems pretty dire.

So yes, blogging seems a strange and surreal luxury, and who knows when I’ll post next.

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Trip Reports!

Far-flung, epic, road-tested, calamity, hardship, triumph, break-through, satisfaction, disappointment – all of it applies to this summer and its slate of journeys. Of course, it went by in a flash and already we’re back into another school year. Already it seems like a fading memory, but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of the experiences, both for the kids’ expedition and for ours.

First, the kids . . .

47a4d622b3127cce98548a5a9d070000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rgIMG_5467From left to right – Ruby, Sawyer, Kelly and Quinn. And below, the parental unit posed by the venerable Honda Odyssey (333,000 miles and still ticking), adorned with swallow stencils applied 20 minutes before departure – a vintage Marypat touch.

The kids pulled off a truly gargantuan northern expedition from Yellowknife to Baker Lake in the Far North, following a trail across Great Slave Lake, Artillery Lake, the Hanbury River and the Thelon River. Their journey covered 1,000 miles in 41 days, a pretty stout pace, especially considering the conditions.

They ran into persistent ice on Great Slave Lake, which delayed them by nearly a week. The Northwest Territories experienced the worst fire season in history, and they encountered smoke so thick they couldn’t see more than 1/4 mile and several spots of open fire. Headwinds battered them for 15 consecutive days. At one point they considered turning back, given the circumstances, but chose to push on, driving themselves to paddle day or night, whenever windows of opportunity presented themselves.

The pace was exhausting, the conditions daunting, but they managed the expedition in great style, loving the tundra, seeing wildlife from musk ox to grizzly, baking cinnamon rolls, and continuing the family tradition of northern expeditions. As parents, it was a breakthrough moment when we welcomed the crew back home after their first self-reliant deep wilderness expedition.

47a4d622b3127cce98548ae29dbf0000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rgSecond, our “empty-nest (canoe)” expedition:

We set off from Old Forge, NY to paddle the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in a beautiful new boat provided by Wenonah (the Spirit II). It was a back-to-the-future feel – back to the way it used to be, when the two of us occupied a boat hull and carried on across miles of watery backcountry, and to a future of trips together again without the kids.

All went well for more than 100 miles. We were cruising, averaging 25 miles a day despite frequent portages, using portage wheels when possible, handling lake crossings, rapids, locks and falls, navigating across “wild” country, New England style, which is a very different wild than the Far North – think ostentatious houses on lakeshores, motors of every stripe, Adirondack chairs on lawns, flags flapping from porches. Still, we were making great time and finding our tandem rhythm.

IMG_5523All that came to a screeching halt part way down the Saranac River, when we wrapped that pretty canoe around a rock in a heart-breaking accident. How did it happen? Kind of a long story, but it was a combination of unusual water, a less than complete route description, and some inaccurate expectations on our part.

We ran several sets of Class II-III rapids upstream without problem, carried around Teft Falls, and proceeded down to a set of ledges we hoped to line past. Only the river at that level was unlineable and we were forced to bushwhack a rough portage through nearly a mile of dense woods and swamp to avoid a long section of ledges and heavy water. At the end of that, we assumed we were past the worst of it, and loaded up again. Only the rapids continued, unabated. We ran the lines we wanted but kept taking on water in the drops. Several times we eddied behind boulders to bail and assess, until we went over a bigger drop, took on a big dose of water, and started to wallow. We tried to ferry to shore, but the boat was unwieldy and slow. In a terrible, slow-motion moment, we rode up on a rock and the boat folded into a hairpin around it, leaving us chest-deep in the eddy below.

For the next several hours we set up a handline and ferried everything to shore, including the wrecked craft. No amount of duct tape would fix that canoe. Both gunwales were snapped, there was a 4-foot tear in the hull, and a side-to-side crease folded the boat in half. As I say, heart-breaking. Nothing like that had ever happened to us on a trip. Very emotional, very lonely moment.

We camped there on the riverbank. That night we sat up late in the tent, going over maps, trying to decide on a Plan B. In the morning we bushwhacked with everything through the woods to the nearest road and hitched a ride to a phone. In one very long day full of wonderful people, we were able to get ourselves shuttled back to our Honda and make our way to my sister’s house in western Mass., and her offer of a loaner canoe to pick up our journey.

We decided to rejoin the canoe trail again in northern Maine. A week later, following some wonderful visits with friends and family, we launched again on Flagstaff Lake. For the next three weeks, we paddled the waters of northern Maine – upstream, downstream, connecting drainages, seeing moose, meeting people, navigating epic portages, getting our mojo back in a canoe together.

IMG_5642In the end, we spent a month on the waters of northern New England, paddled roughly 350 miles, hiked up to Avery Peak along the Appalachian Trail, navigated the Allagash Waterway, coasted past camps once occupied by Thoreau, to finish up at Ft. Kent, Maine on the St. John River along the border with New Brunswick.

As an unexpected benefit, our changed itinerary allowed us to indulge visits to old friends, college roommates, family, new acquaintances and to take care of our New England visitation obligations for the next decade!

So, not exactly according to plan, but when does life cooperate with our schemes? Back home with more than 6,000 summer miles on the old Honda, rich with family and fueled with a new batch of memories, new country, and plans to come.

This weekend – an overnight paddle on the lower Madison River. Next weekend – Marypat is part of a Dragon Boat crew competing on Flathead Lake. The week after that, two jaunts on the Yellowstone River with out-of-town visitors. Oh yeah, some work in there, some writing deadlines, some house projects . . . Life is good!

03-5-8-30

 

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