Peter Shelton


Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on September 9, 2019

The water underneath the paddleboard was so clear I couldn’t tell how deep it was. Were those lava boulders close enough to snag my fiberglass fin, stop the board dead, and send me flailing off the bow? Was that sandy bottom five feet down? Ten? Twenty? I learned after a while, paddling along the eastern shore of Crescent Lake – water surface like old, rippled window glass – that sunlight refracting off that sand bottom made a golden chain-link pattern. And the deeper the water, the bigger the shimmying links.

It was so clear Crescent Lake leapt immediately onto my clear-water Top Ten list. Heading that list has to be the appropriately named Clear Lake, on the McKenzie River just west of the Cascade Divide. That one is spooky clear. You can see the bottom 60 feet down, clear as gin. It’s disorienting, as if there is nothing of substance floating you; I have to put the paddle blade in the water, like a third leg, for balance.

There’s a 3,000-year-old forest still standing on the bottom there, preserved these millennia following the sudden volcanic flow that dammed the river and created the lake. The last time I paddled Clear Lake scuba divers were making a movie (maybe it was an ad crew up from Portland?) weaving among the submerged fir trunks in the 42-degree spring water. At one point a diver surfaced and moaned to his support boat, “I can’t feel my feet!”

Hydrologists call these clear lakes oligotrophic. Lakes with higher concentrations of chlorophyll and phosphorus, higher levels of biological productivity, are mesoeutrophic. And lakes with the most plant and animal life, including algae blooms, are eutrophic or hypereutrophic. My most frequent destinations, Lava and Little Lava Lakes, high in the shadow of Mt. Bachelor, have trended from oligotrophic to mesoeutrophic. There’s a ton of life: marshes rich with insect life, bird life, emergent macrophytes like water lilies and bulrushes. And there have been thick algae blooms that restricted visibility at times to a Secchi disk depth of just 4-5 feet. (Named in 1865 for Angelo Secchi, who lowered an 8-inch diameter white disk into lake water until it disappeared from view.)

Lake Tahoe was once considered the clearest lake in the world with a Secchi disk depth of over 100 feet. When Mark Twain visited in the 1880s, estimates pegged it at 120 feet. Now visibility is down to half that, thanks to pollution from shoreline development and the misguided introduction, in the 1960s, of a voracious shrimp.

As a kid snorkeling in the clear green waters off Catalina Island, I never thought about these things. Of course not. The world was what it was, what it always had been and, presumably, always would be. Dad and I anchored the boat fore and aft close in to Hen Rock. With little turbidity – and on the lee side of the island, there wasn’t much swell – I could lean over the rail and dangle a baited hook right on the noses of calico bass 20 feet down. Out on the point I swam through kelp forests as clear as an aquarium. Abalone and starfish clung to the rock. Lobsters waved their feelers from hidey-holes.

We didn’t have onboard tanks for wastewater then. Nobody did. I thought it was funny, at age 11, to pump the contents of the head through the seacock valve straight into those emerald waters and watch the button-back perch nibble at it. We also dumped our garbage in the middle of the Catalina Channel, on the Sunday afternoon trip home, riding a following sea. Gulls wheeled and dove for scraps.

What were we thinking?! Clearly, we weren’t. But then, in the early 1960s, few were. In the Navy during the war Dad had sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii, through the Coral Sea to the Philippines, on to occupied Japan, and back. The ocean was just too vast, too devouring to be affected by our puny insults. The Northwest forests would go on delivering board feet forever. The air, the infinite, perpetual air… And so on.

That kind of clarity is much harder to come by these days. We know now about microplastics and plummeting fish stocks and bleached corals. We know we are changing the climate, fouling the nest. The 60s seem like ancient history.

Moral clarity, too, seems muddied to the point of hypereutrophia, as if by a massive algae bloom. Religion isn’t helping. Societal norms are daily blown out of the water. Leaders punt. Journalism founders.

You pay attention. You march. You vote. And still you get a malignant narcissist in the White House who uses “alternative” facts and the fog of chaos to… to what? To whose benefit? Toward what end?

You go to the supermarket, you inevitably buy plastic. You drive your car, you take your hot showers. You try to live lightly. You search the Web for wise voices, hopeful direction. Some days it’s impossible to see anything through the murk.

On Crescent Lake I was drawn onward, happily lost in the purity of the board’s movement across the water, the sudden trout darting below me for a deeper blue. I’d paddled about five miles when the light morning breeze turned quickly from riffles to whitecaps. I wasn’t going to make it all the way around. I’d have to head back directly north, with the wind off my port quarter, along the lake’s centerline.

The wind chop soon brought me to my knees. And directly the chop grew into serious waves, with sets that broke overtop the deck. I shortened my paddle and dug in, riding the bigger swells, angling into the troughs where possible and trying to keep the nose from pearling when the board cut back on its own, shoved into the hollows.

This was more adventure than I would normally choose. The kind of adventure Yvon Chouinard has defined as requiring the uncontrollable – being lost, or in real, unexpected danger. I ping-ponged between two mental states. In one, I was the intrepid Polynesian voyager, navigating by feel, confident in an island destination. In the other, I couldn’t not remember that Chouinard’s friend Doug Tompkins (The North Face founder) had been blown out of his kayak on a Patagonian lake by a sudden williwaw and died hours later of hypothermia.

By the time I made it, finally, to the boat ramp I was exhausted and exhilarated, mind wiped clean by a different kind of clarity – the binary option to keep going, stay upright, and survive. Or… not.