This morning, the lake is mine. As I set off from the dock – a bit shaky so early in the morning – I see only one other boat on the water, an old aluminum boat like your uncle owned, scented with fish slime and rubber lures that never seem to catch anything but weeds and the trolling motor. I suppose the pilot is sleeping in his chair – I can’t see his face for the mist on the lake, but he slouches and his pole is almost in the water. I laugh out loud as I look out over the gunwales of my canoe to see a school of bluegill darting away from the fisherman – they know, instinctually, what that distant shadow portends. He sleeps on, oblivious to the panic he has created beneath the waves.
I round the curve of the lake, coming out of Squaw Bay and head into the channel known colloquially as the Yahara River. I suppose one could call it a river, though it flows through a chain of lakes for much of its course. In winter, you can see the liminal flow where moving water streams beneath thick ice sheets from one end of a lake to another, so yes, it must be a river. Around the bend from the dock where I put in to paddle, it truly becomes a river with houses on one bank, businesses on the other. The northernmost end of this little waterway is where all the action begins.
Yes, there are animals on and around the bay behind me – ducks and Canadian geese, mostly. An occasional seagull makes its way from who-knows-where to that part of the lake as well. I’ve even seen loons there -the biggest loon I’ve ever seen was right there in the middle of the bay, in fact, a fat tub of a bird, not the sleek black and white mystical creature we all know and love. This was the Jabba the Hutt of loons.
But no loons today. Besides, as I said, the best of the wildlife is ahead of me. It starts almost immediately. A blue heron flies out of the trees, wingtips tap-dancing on the water as it careens in front of my canoe. I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to a heron. I don’t think he cared for it much. He pushes himself a bit higher, up, over and away. I have to take off my paddling gloves (one gets warm quickly paddling on an autumn morning) so I drift for a moment, spying on the underwater activity as I float on the ever-so-slight current of the river. More bluegill, maybe a crappie – the light is difficult this time of the day and I catch several underwater shimmers out of the corner of my eye. Kelpies, perhaps. Or sirens. I’ll never know and don’t want to know. Some mysteries should remain just that.
I’m not the only one floating on something. Four painted box turtles slowly clamber up onto a half-sunken log, anticipating a sunbath. The mist is already dissipating from the lakes and will soon be cleared from the channel.
The next stretch is uneventful – the only animal, a dog in a neighbor’s back yard. Despite the echoes of its barks, I get a moment to think. Or not think. I realize, only briefly, what I haven’t been thinking about – inventories, invoices, the perpetually broken-down vans, the argument between two of my children earlier that morning – then I let even the recognition of those thoughts pass from me. I am here. Here. Me. The water. My paddle. My paddle in the water. A soft, sloshing stroke. The pull in my shoulders, the twist of my torso. Green water. Blue sky. I am. I simply am. This is what “it” is all about. This is “it”. This is. There is no more.
I’m startled from my reverie by a churning in the water. Tens of thousands of fingerlings have moiled up towards the surface of the water, more minnows than I could count in a day, even if they were dead still. They are not. They spin and fly through the water like a myriad of flexible silver darts. A pair of large bluegill have corralled the young ones between themselves and my boat. The bluegill jump, lunge, splash among their breakfast as the fingerlings continue to create turbulence, ever churning, but unable to break even the surface tension of the ripples that fan out from the hunting bluegill.
I’m laughing again about the sleeping fisherman I left back in the bay, then a snap from the bank of the river, right where it fans out into the next lake, stops my laughter. The fish are left behind now and up on the bank are four or five deer – it’s hard to tell in the brambles – eating their breakfast. The closest one has spotted me and holds stock still, ears forward, nose up, assessing the danger. I hold still and drift and watch. The deer behind the guardian onlooker don’t acknowledge me at all, though, as if the animal between them and me will absorb any danger that I might present. I watch for a while, then lift my paddle to take a stroke on my off side so that I can head in the right direction, towards work. And with that, the deer all snap their heads up, suddenly alert, as a group, to my every move. I feel uncomfortable, like I’ve walked into a stranger’s home at dinner (in essence, I have). I pry towards my desired line and the deer all lift a leg, almost in unison, ready to bolt. I let the boat drift a bit further down. Then, when I think I’m far enough away, I press on.
Another heron, a majestic white swan that warily keeps a distance, several seagulls, mallards and Canadian geese later, I spot something floating on the water. At a boat length away, I can see that it’s a beer can, encrusted with mud, like a buoy warning of all the bad aspects of a disposable society. I no longer just am, as I was before. I’m hurt, a touch angry, very disappointed. My fragile meditative bubble has been invaded. I don’t want this reminder. I feel sullied.
I pick up the can and put it in my boat, paddling posthaste towards work, hell-bent for the recycling bin. I am a machine, determined to put this little annoyance in its proper place. The harder I paddle, the more upset I become. Apocalyptic visions of exploding jet skis and beer-can shrapnel fill my thoughts and I have to catch myself in my anger – cool down, slow down. You’re on the water. Enjoy. Slow. In time, my anger melts.
I hit the channel behind the shop and head for the dock, quite relaxed, my knees a little sore, ready to get out of the boat and into work mode. A few draw-strokes are my last solace, then I’m up on the dock, my body more achy than I think it ought to be for someone my age. I sit and enjoy the sound of the breeze through the trees, then pick up my canoe and take it through the gate, setting it on the grass for a rest.
As I take my gear in and put it in my office, my work mates, my friends, greet me: “Hi Forrest, how was your paddle?” “Hey man, how are you?” “How long did it take you to get here?” “Dude, when do I get to paddle your boat?”
I drop the can in the recycling bin. A tiny warm something flicks on inside me. If only we could all be surrounded by such friends. If only everyone could have the same commute to work that I’ve had. Maybe everything – everything – would work out all right. Just maybe. And everyone could say, on a daily basis, amid all the flurry of busy-ness, “this is it.” This is. Peace.