A Day Paddle Boarding on Emigrant Lake and What is Underneath?

We drove a blue Subaru up the mountain across from Ashland where Emigrant Lake is indented like a tooth filling in the hills. Having been born in upstate New York I’m used to mountains like the Catskills with lush deciduous forests where the shape of mountains are obscured with layers of trees. But here the land alternates between crusted midsummer grass and rugged pines that darken portions of valleys and peaks. With a little concentration, it seems as though I could make out each blade of grass from across the valley. Georgia O’Keefe knew how old the hills seem, wrinkled, with their delicate crevices poised against the sky. Southern Ashland is the same. 

At the lake we were given life vests and paddles. Paddleboards are slightly raised surfboards. The paddle is measured to the elevated wrist, which allows for the paddle movement to begin at stomach’s core and swirl up the body like a gondelear. Getting on proved to be as wobbly as getting on a canoe at the beginning, but as I got my water legs I began with wide strokes. The movement was graceful to begin with. I picked up speed pretty quickly as I glided into the middle of the lake. But as the shore distanced I realized the wind had a stronger stake in where I was headed than I did. My paddling technique began to disintegrate as I barrelled into the center of the lake where the water had once appeared so placid. Through an awkward tacking technique I learned canoeing, I attempted to keep a straight line, though it buckled as the wind only seemed to strengthen. 

I had agreed to paddleboard with my partner and his mother earlier in the week. I had been canoeing, I had even been kayaking before and managed. I was a competitive swimmer back in the day and I am the type of person who would prefer to jump in any body of water that float over it. Unless I was headed for a narrow escape then might I would use a water vehicle, but even then, I would probably swim faster than I could paddle. Maybe I’m giving my swimming chops too much credit. But it’s just how I feel. My partner’s mother is a lawyer and a second degree black belt who has met Chuck Norris and absolutely loves paddleboarding. 

When we arrive at Emigrant Lake I was decidedly down on paddleboarding. I’ve seen too many yoga paddle boarding classes to take the sport seriously at all. All I think of is white upper middle class American women who want to feel centered swooping into downward dog position in a synchronized motion. I never want to identify myself with that. To stand on a board - not with short exhilarated surfing bursts like in Blue Crush, and not canoeing: a long form trip, that requires tenacity, planning, and strength, but, paddleboarding, an hour plus long foray of just standing. It seemed to me more of a show than a sport. People stand on the board, their form conspicuous above the water. They appear to be centered in the scenery, their figures unobstructed by anything, elevated above the placid water. The activity, if only aesthetically, seemed vain. And one can’t possibly do proper yoga on a paddleboard, it’s way too tippy. The entire activity is the equivalent of vaping, or tiny matrix sunglasses: the gemini of water sports. 

So there in the middle of the lake, the wind persisted, steadily, propelling me towards the opposite shore where I would keep company to a blow up unicorn that was pressed against the sandy rock shore.

“This lake is man-made.” My partner’s sister said as we walked down to the shore. She pointed to a swell of dirt and rock a quarter mile long, “that’s the dam.” The paddleboarding lady carried two paddleboards in each arm, which I assumed weighed about 10 pounds each, but were definitely closer to 40 when I picked them up later, and she may not have been human all along. 

I can’t describe it, but once you start seeing towns as colonies you can’t stop. Downtown Ashland is only an example of all of the towns nestled along the 215 mile long Rogue Valley and clusters of old wood houses of the Victorian inclination, but obviously windworn, smoke worn, tucked together in the Rogue Valley. Rogue was a slur for the native tribes that lived in the region. According the the Grant’s Pass government website it was, an othering term attempting to define the nature of the Native’s fight for freedom and representation: Rogues.

Oregon, the state which, for me as a child, took the form of one of the only computer games I played as a child in the mid 1990’s: The Oregon Trail, an educational game about people migrating west once the Pacific Coast was fully occupied by westerners. The trail began in Independence Missouri, where you had In a moment your wagon wheel could be broken in a river, holding you up for a vital week of the journey, as you are expressly traveling during the summer months. Or your daughter dies of smallpox, or your nephew was bit by a rattlesnake. I’m not sure I ever got to Oregon. I also cared so much that it made me sick to leave the computer and I ended up self sabotaging myself in the river for the passion of it. I never knew what to do with my competitive nature to begin with. 

Emigrant Lake is wishboned around the south Ashland hills. I took off my life jacket and slipped off the paddleboard into the water and thrust myself down as deep as I could. The water had a green murky quality and I found no bottom, with fuzzy underwater vision, I saw the paddle board waiting above me and my partner’s legs tread lightly. 

“It’s deep. There’s a town down there,” his sister said when I surfaced. “They moved the white graveyard and left the black one. The one with African American families. Or that’s what I’ve heard…” she said, as if introducing a ghost story that sounded all too familiar. 

In the middle side of the lake, a pocket where the wind was lower and I could lay my paddle down and swim was where I found the joy in the activity, processing what I had learned against the wind, feeling slightly stronger than the blow up unicorn. How many ways have people, houses, environments been covered over by cement or water or language? And the rented paddleboard skims above it. This country is not subtle in its domination, and though the land is long and bubbling with diversity, the clusters of houses remain.