Stranded on Wild Horse Island


Wild Horse Island in the distance

We rented our tandem kayak and headed out in to the clear waters of Flathead Lake. Our apps and the locals said the weather looked great and should be a marvelous day on the water. They lied. Ok well, not entirely. 

The sun sat high and painted stars on the water as we paddled away from shore. The anxiety water gives me set in. This comes from not being a strong swimmer, having been dumped several times into cold, strong water, and a lack of time in the paddle saddle. But as we went, my brain calmed and became reasonable again, reminding myself that lots of people do this without injury and if worse came to worst my wife could swim me to shore. 

After an hour or so in our clunky kayak we came close to the first island on our trip. The deep blue of the crystal liquid faded turquoise as we approached the shore. This window-like water showed us the mosaic of red, purple, yellow, grey, and green pebbles that line the lake bed and formed the beach. "This is why we came," I thought, “to be here, seeing and feeling this.”

We disembarked and disrobed. The brisk water shocked us, made us feel alive as it cleaned away our sweat and swirled through our hair. The moment felt perfect. 

Our bathing concluded, we readied our supplies and muscles and headed towards Wild Horse Island, with hopes of seeing, yep you guessed it, wild horses. The sun smiled our way and our paddle rhythm felt pretty in sync at this point, every stroke taking us closer to our goal. 

The wind picked up. Blew right in our faces and pushed against our non-kayaking arms. “It’s going to be so nice to paddle with this wind at our backs on the return trip,” we both said several times.

Land ho! We beached our boat at Wild Horse Island. We didn't see any horses but we ate a delicious lunch we had packed, lounged on the beach, and had a marvelous time as predicted. And then, almost the moment we decide to head back, the winds changed and kept changing. Our tired arms couldn’t believe it. The wind we hoped would propel us home had reversed and blew hard at us. So hard in fact we decided to wait and see if it would die down.

It didn’t. It got worse and worse until it dawned on us that we might not be able to paddle back if this keeps up. We waited 30 minutes, then an hour, then another 30. The unforecast, fierce wind kept pushing against us, pinning us to the beach. 

We decided for an attempt at being brave and strong. It took about 3 seconds to realize this was a bad idea. The moment we put the boat in the water waves smacked over it and slammed us back to shore. 

We gave up and called the rental place for rescue. To our surprise they said that the wind beat so bad they couldn’t come get us till it died down. So this made it official, we were stranded on an island. 

Our would-be rescuers asked if we could hike about a mile with the kayak to a better pick up place. We thought this odd but with little else to do so we started our trek with the big, blue, plastic kazoo. 

Now, I should mention that the state of Montana owns Wild Horse Island. But before that it had a private owner and the few cabins built during that time lined the shore close to our location. And this is how we met the Queen of Wild Horse Island.

Ok she would never call herself that but that’s what we call her when telling this story. You see, as we slowly portaged our way along the banks, a woman came out of her cabin and took pity on us. She said we could stay with her till help came. Hallelujah!

We soon learned we were with no ordinary person. We had met the daughter of the man who used to own the island and were standing in the second oldest cabin on the island. She told us how in 1962 her father bought the island for $250,000. She showed us the pamphlets her father made explaining the island's history and tourist attractions. She spoke of the grand plans people once had for the island including a golf course and airport but how eventually the island ended up back in the state’s hands. 

For two hours we visited with her getting to know her and the island better. We saw photos of the wild horses that in fact live there. We learned bears and cougars will even swim out to the island for food some seasons; and after our kayaking experience that seemed even more incredible. She showed us the tree considered sacred to the Native Americans where they once hung their dead. And she told us how her own father died from a blood clot on the island while representatives from Disney were there scouting it for a film. 

I thought, "how lucky are we." Not just because we had someone who gave us water to drink, jackets to wear, and a comfortable place to wait till our rescuers came but also because we got to know Wild Horse Island like I never imagined. That place now has faces, memories, and meaning that I will carry with me always. And it makes me wonder how many more cool experiences await me if I take the time to get “stranded” more often. 

A post script: When our rescuers finally arrived they told our host what an honor it was to meet her. They also said the freak storm that rolled in was rare. Seemed like the theme of the day to me. 

View from Wild Horse Island as the wind started to pick up. 

View from Wild Horse Island as the wind started to pick up. 

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