In the middle of last summer, during our family vacation in New York’s Adirondacks, we went on a lake tour and narrowly avoided the dangers of my imagination.
A bustling cross-country ski center in the winter, Lapland Lake is a quiet retreat the rest of the year, shared only by those staying in the ten cozy and remarkably clean tupas. (“Tupa” is Finnish for cottage.) Every Saturday night, there is a bonfire at the small beach on the shore of the lake, where children and adults roast marshmallows for s’mores and trade stories on a provided theme, such as “why reindeer shed their antlers.”
Our summer evening’s storytelling “competition” was over. Everyone else had headed back down the 1/2 mile trail to the tupas. The 5-tier log-cabin stack of quarter-split logs was down to twinkling embers. The sun was low in the light-blue sky, but still well above the horizon of trees. Or so I thought.
My son (a.k.a. Gster) and my partner Susan wanted to show me the beaver lodge that was “just around the corner.” If we were quiet, we might even see the beavers as they set off to rebuild the small dam Olavi had to tear apart every morning. We gathered oars and life jackets from the small boathouse, Gster waded in and pushed the rowboat into the water, and we all clambered in. Since my back was hurting, I took the stern. As lookout, Gster took the bow. Stealth-rower Susan sat facing me, set the oarlocks into place, began rowing at an unhurried pace, and we were off. Tug: your body is pulled forward. Glide: you relax back. Tug. Glide. Tug. Glide. Tug. Glide.
The air was dead calm. We heard nothing but our voices over the squeal of the oars — so much for sneaking up on any wildlife. When Susan occasionally paused, holding the dripping oars out of the water, we could hear a few isolated birds, deep in the woods that surrounded the lake. Tiny dragonflies flew above our heads. There were thousands of bugs just a few inches off the water. Eerily, there were no fish jumping, no birds flying.
Then I realized that the water was pitch black. I couldn’t see into it at all! I grew up swimming in muddy human-made Nebraska lakes where I couldn’t see my own hand a few inches below the surface. We were warned not to swim beyond the buoys so as to avoid the reeds that caught people’s feet, sometimes drowning them. I’d been scarred for life: dark water causes me trepidation. In the rowboat, I fastened my life vest.
We rounded the bend and approached the lodge. We looked for the beavers. I thought about how cute baby animals look. I thought about parent beavers paddling along with them. That turned my mind to parents, which in the wild kingdom almost always go to great lengths to protect their young. I wondered how angry beavers would behave, what warnings sounds they might make.
Admittedly thinking of myself more than protecting my own young, I urged Susan: “Don’t get any closer.”
“Mom and I got nearer in the canoe,” Gster helpfully chirped with excitement, countering my desire to pull back.
“Puulleease Susan,” I whispered, not wanting to infect Gster with my apprehension. “Just stop!”
Across the lake behind us, the sun was now just above the trees. I pulled the camera out of my watertight bag and took a few blurry pictures of the lodge. Next out of the bag came two pairs of binoculars. We took turns scanning the water but saw no nervous beaver parents. Perhaps they were on shore, peering at us.
“Let’s go back,” I said.
Not reading my clear signal that I believed we were in danger, Susan responded “why?”
Gster stood up and started moving about, jostling the boat.
“Sit down, Gster!” I said.
But it turned out that their agreement was he’d row us back. They rocked the boat some more as they traded places. I thought about the dark water and reassured myself that it takes an awful lot to capsize a rowboat. Pulling the oars unevenly and barely taking them out of the water, Gster unintentionally spun us in slow motion–like the gentle Tea Cup ride at Story Land–in the direction of the lodge . . . in the direction of the scheming beavers!
Supressing my growing panic, I tried to give him a hand by pushing one oar as he pulled the other. Although the spin continued, we managed to reverse course toward the opposite side of the lake, 90 degrees away from the beach. I looked up and noticed the sun had vanished. The indigo sky above and the soft sunset-pinks were quickly turning dusk.
“Susan, will you please row us back?” I asked quietly.
Seeing more than a bit of worry showing on my face, she took over. Powerfully, at least in comparison, she drove us toward the beach.
“Two strokes to your left,” Gster called out. “No, your other left.”
Seconds later he counseled: “one stroke to your right. Uh, two. Make that three.”
We might have traversed the whole lake on a tight tack of zigzags, but for Susan’s interruption. “You know, I can get more speed if I just row without constantly changing direction.”
“Yikes,” I thought; we needed speed! “Gster–cut it out, would ya?!” I called sharply, directing him to leave Susan alone.
At long last, the beach drew near, and my worry about being stranded, in the middle of a lake, in the dark, directionless, being stalked by angry beaver parents, subsided.
“Could you stop rowing so I can hear the quiet?!,” I exclaimed, suddenly countermanding my relentless drive toward shore.
Gladly, Susan stopped. The entire time I’d been pushing us to dry land, she had wanted to drift along so that we could enjoy the calm lake and open sky. We sat peacefully. For perhaps a minute.
I felt the boat rock and thought Gster was adjusting his seat. But it rocked again. And again. Simultaneously Susan and I asked, “what are you doing??”
“I’m keeping us on course!” he replied.
“Well stop it, sit still, and enjoy the lake!”
Cowed — ok not really — he sat patiently.
A few moments later, Susan resumed rowing and brought us in. Gster hopped out and pulled the boat close so we wouldn’t get our feet wet. Hurrah, we’d survived!!! A half-mile and we’d be back inside.
But wait, what about the bears? And the lions and tigers? And the enormous monster about to rise out of the lake and gobble us up?? Ahhhhh!
“How about we jog home?”