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Paddling Lake Missoula

| Paul Lindholdt

Where the road dead-ends, a man and boy are casting lines. “Any luck?” I ask, my elbow out the car window as if to test the breeze. The creek is cloudy, the day overcast. “Just a few squaws.” The father frowns and turns back to casting.

“He means squawfish,” I explain to my son Carl. We bump across the gravel lot to the boat-launch. Feds renamed the squawfish a pikeminnow years ago, but change comes slow in these far parts. Pikeminnows are still trash fish. The state pays bounties for their heads. Everyone wants to catch and devour more trout.

Carl and I have traveled far to paddle Lake Missoula, though no one may see that glacial water body now. It has held no liquid for more than 10,000 years. The dire wolves and wooly mammoths have all plunged into the long night of extinction. Folsom Creek will discharge us to the Clark Fork River, whose delta spreads in spidery webs and laces its way to the Aqua Incognita of Pleistocene time.

It is early June, the water high, white with rock flour. Carl fidgets. He yearns to hurl a lure to the murky current of the creek. Fishing is a kind of magic. Fling a gaudy replica of a bug and you never know what kind of being might bite.

A recent car crash tore Carl’s forehead and caused a brain-bleed. The healing brow gouge looks like Harry Potter’s. Headaches beset him and fret his mother and me. So do fears of more concussions. Time spent outdoors can dampen trauma, though, can thwart its formidable force. Meditative mindfulness can even alter the makeup of the brain, scientists say. We aim to test the waters of that hopeful notion.

Carl couples the halves of his rod and threads the fine line through each eye. He clips on a feathered lure, creeps to the stream, casts his bright enticement just shy of the far bank. Slowly then he reels back in. The water mutters and breathes up steam. An osprey soars above the line of trees, followed by another. For such big fish hawks, they peep like barnyard chicks.

Many millennia ago a lobe of the continental ice sheet dammed Lake Missoula. The lakeshore iced up dozens of times, grew buoyant, inflated and collapsed. Those collapses triggered catastrophic floods that swept the downstream region clean.

No one knew about the lake till Harlan Bretz in the 1920s and then Joseph Pardee in the 1940s discovered the forensic evidence. Bretz believed a single flood had channeled the Columbia Plateau and Basin. Pardee found giant ripple marks; he saw scoured and plucked rock walls that only coursing waters could have made; he documented strand lines high above Missoula that lined out the lake’s historic shores.

Bretz floated his theory at a conference in 1927. His peers sneered. They thought he was giving comfort to literal readers of the Bible, that he was suggesting Noah’s Flood might have had some basis in fact. Worse for Bretz, he could offer no certain source for the catastrophic floods whose tracks he traced like a bloodhound might. For 50 years after he went public, scientists pored over that landscape that had borne the largest drenching ever to worry Earth. At last they agreed to congratulate Bretz. They commended him in a telegram that read, “We are all now catastrophists.”

No fish are biting for my son. No trout or bass. We cross the gravel lot to see the neighbors’ catch. In a pail the captive pikeminnows huddle like lobsters in a restaurant tank. Soon they will be fileted in slabs, slathered in egg, coated in cornmeal and fried. They do not tempt our jaded tastes. Steel stringers from memories of childhood still clank against the hulls of rowboats, still thrash with living brook trout strung through the gills and out the mouth.

We zip and buckle our flotation vests. We lash dry bags to the boat’s webbed decks. I steady the tandem kayak and Carl crawls in crabwise. With a wobble I shove us off and leap. A lurch of current overtakes the kayak, spins it and propels it toward the union of the Clark Fork River and the lake.

Carl has paddled with me often as he’s come of age. He is 14, slender as a calf giraffe, broad of shoulder, more than a fathom tall in his bare feet. In the boat he sets up tempos I labor to maintain. He is avant de bateau, the bowsman, while I am gouvernail de bateau, the steersman. He propels the craft atop the flow, slaloms it to dodge rocks, stumps, limbs, and strainer trees that have fallen from the flooded shore.

Our feeder creek merges with the Clark Fork River – its milky water insistent, high with snowmelt, surging. The burly current seizes us like a fist.

Three ravens lean from a cottonwood as we pass beneath them. They give themselves over to full-throated cries and strain to haze us. The wings widen, necks flatten like adders, the tongues twitch, beak-parts ajar. In unison then they bound downstream, flight feathers as eloquent as grunts squeezed from wet lungs. Far to the north they ratchet out the news of our arrival, down a chute of trees where the maw of Lake Missoula yawns. The branches they have launched from throb.

In the late ice age, the lake became a sort of blister bulb, its ice dam a crust that toughened over a stubborn wound. The blister burst and poured out secretions. Those fluids carved the channeled scablands into wounds and scars. Our region still is healing, striving still to rebuild the skin the floods sloughed off.

It is late afternoon when Carl and I enter the ancient lake. The waters widen, flatten and expand. Our kayak ushers us light as a feather on the same sky-water Henry Thoreau saw. The silver above and the blue below us smudge and blend. Carl spots them first, a raft of common mergansers. Fish ducks, a hen and eighteen chicks. The hen’s crown is cinnamon red. Feathers stream behind her head like strands of frowzy hair. The chicks scud after her, clamber on and off her back like pups. Game agents used to name them varmints and urge their destruction all year-round.

The hen dives and the chicks follow. Weaker of foot or lung, they surface first. When she comes up she bears in her beak a waterweed, muddy roots dangling, as if to plant it. She has become the earth-diver of origin stories, the immortal being meant to shape life for the First People. To accomplish her job, she must take human form now. Comfort us and wise us up. Teach us where we came from and why.

For my family’s sense of place and time, we are all catastrophists. No longer do we expect even keels on our journeys out. We have undergone rash cataclysms and survived them. We have endured the gouges and scours of primordial time.

Carl and I need to hunt up a campsite for the night. On a cape where epochs of river silt have settled out, a headland lying free of trees, we discover it. An unsung boon of the great outdoors is a mind entirely at rest. For those of us who loathe to be enclosed, this will be a good spot, a peaceable place to assuage old fears of being caged. From our patch of sand we’ll have a line of sight toward the northern lights.

Surrounded on three sides by water, we will meditate on the plucks and scars of Earth’s deep history. We will learn how best to chill. And should a wall of waves come hurtling down from Montana’s canyons, we will suffer no surprise, having idled down to planetary time. We will ditch our gear and surf that epic flow toward home.

Lead photo credit: