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At the start of my forty-seventh trip around the sun, not long ago, I decided to book a few days for myself at a one-room cottage on a lake a couple hours north of home. I needed the time away. It’s been a hard season for all of us, given things like pandemics and politics and just the general messiness of life. For some of us, the pain is raw, right at the surface, ready to crack open and bleed at a moment’s notice.

What I really wanted for my birthday, and for my life, was a few days with no school lunches to pack or math homework to check, no schedules to juggle, no expectations or needs beyond my own. I wanted just to go somewhere quiet, by myself, where I could rest, breathe, read, think. Someplace where I could dream a little, hash some things out with myself, get some things straight in my head and my heart. I needed to settle deeply, for a time, into my own skin and bones. To see beauty and savor it.

So I left for a few days.

Turns out, my place came with its own kayak. I wasn’t sure that I’d use it, given that I’m not what you might call a natural-born “lake person.” Deep water gives me the heebie-jeebies. Always has. I mean, you just don’t know what’s down there. And when you’re close to the shore, great, but then you’ve got all that muck and weedy junk to have to wade through, and that’s almost worse than whatever might be hiding out in the dark depths.

And sure, I can swim, but not confidently, and definitely not for very long. I grew up in Indiana, where lakes are fairly few and far between, and often of questionable quality, at least in my experience. I’d always been more comfortable in my aunt’s chlorine-shocked pool than I was in my great aunt’s icky little fish-infested pond-lake (and besides, no offense to Great Aunt Betty, but her house smelled like a million moth balls).

But here I was, with my own kayak, on a lake. And not by accident. I’d intentionally searched for a place just like this because I love being near natural bodies of water. I love water’s beauty, its stillness (and sometimes its storminess), its luminescent ways of reflecting the world around, the way it makes a home for a host of creatures—feathered and furry and fleshed. I love water almost romantically. I just don’t want to be in a committed, intimate relationship with it.

That kayak, though, on my first full day at the cottage, called my name. And I couldn’t ignore it. The conditions were perfect. A velvety warm late-September afternoon was slowly unfolding toward evening. I’d done everything I “needed” to do for the day. Nothing was holding me back—no obligations, no meetings, no soccer practice, no laundry or dishes. Only my silly water-fears.

Surely I hadn’t come all this way, I reasoned, to remain content along the shore, safely tucked into a chair on my deck, admiring the water’s beauty but never entering into it?

Ugh. Fine then.

I pep-talked myself into it.

But first: how to get that blasted (loud-mouthed, nosy, self-interested) kayak into the water? The drop-off from the dock down to water level looked to be no less than four feet, I surmised, as my brain jumped back to an email from the cottage’s owner in which she’d mentioned that water levels were especially low this year. Yup, they sure were. Yet what I did not and could not surmise in that moment was a simple way to get the kayak, and myself, into the water. My best plan was to (simply?) let gravity do its work.

So I dragged/shoved/heaved the hulking plastic beast right up to the edge of the dock, nose pointed out to sea, and then nudged it till it plunged down to its natural home, where it landed with only a slight wobble of offense at my sheer ignorance but then shrugged and settled in, totally at ease.

Meanwhile, I held it by a tiny rope and stood above, perplexed, wondering how I’d get my not-at-ease self into its gaping mouth without first having to jump down into the murky brown soup in which the boat floated. And preferably, how to do this without causing a scene that might make any secretly-watching neighbors feel obligated to come out and offer help—or worse: launch an emergency rescue.

I had no other options.

With my hind quarters firmly planted at the edge of the dock, feet dangling as far down as my five-foot-two frame could extend, I gingerly scooted forward, stretching one leg toward my waiting vessel. I could just barely use my pointed foot to grab the kayak’s top rim and slowly pull the whole thing into position below my quivering body. Holding on to the dock with my arms behind me, I began ever so slightly to let the rest of my weight shift down into the boat—which, I now noticed, was drifting slowly but decisively underneath the dock and away from where I needed it to be.

Lord, help me. (Surely the neighbors . . . ?)

To be clear: I am not strong or athletic. But I’ve got my dad’s solid legs—none of this dainty, willowy business for us. No sir. Lots of VanDam sturdiness here. Something that could come in handy in a scenario such as, say, finding yourself hanging precariously above a drifting kayak that has its mind set on sliding away and leaving you face-planted at the edge of a mucky lake, with silent faces peeking out from behind drawn curtains. Snickering, no doubt.

Legs, don’t fail me now.

With what could almost have been mistaken for grace, I managed to summon my ancestral leg power and right the boat back into launch position whilst still dangling almost vertically atop the seat before finally, for a second time, letting gravity do its work, pulling me down squarely into the boat’s cradle in a heap of deep breaths and pounding heartbeats. The unseen neighbors would have to get their laughs at my expense another day, perhaps. But not today, neighbors. Not today.

Out on the water, the glow of success still fresh on my face, I paddled around one end of the lake, mostly hugging close to the shore—to avoid any unexpected deep-water lake monsters. Instead of monsters, I saw a pair of cranes flying high overhead, then watched them dip down and skim across the water’s glassy surface. I saw bugs dancing in unison, making synchronized rings and tiny plops as they jumped, or flew, or whatever it was they seemed to be joyfully doing together. I felt the sun’s glinting rays as they began to melt toward dusk. I breathed in the watery air smells and felt my body relax into itself.

Then, when my arms told me that it was time to head back, I started to ponder how on earth I’d manage to scale that dreaded height without gravity working in my favor this time. How indeed? The best I could come up with was: I’ll figure something out. I usually do.

So I paddled back toward my place. And as I slipped into view of it, something caught my eye, plain as day: a ramp.

Unassuming and almost hidden among the weeds, but perfectly placed just a little beyond the dock of my near demise, there was an unmistakable earthen clearing through the shore grass, with a brightly colored rope strung up along the edge to helpfully mark its presence.

Well I’ll be darned. There it is.

I pointed my kayak toward the opening, gave one or two hard pushes with my paddle, and felt my vessel run aground soundly at exactly the spot where it was meant to land.

And I knew then that I would be okay.

Arika Theule-VanDam

Arika Theule-VanDam lives in Holland, Michigan, where she works as a freelance editor and prefers helping other people with their writing over slogging through her own, most days. Although she is not a lake person, she does like to dip her toes into the clear, sandy waters of Lake Michigan with her family from time to time, when the conditions are just right.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “Velvety.” Strange that this word should so accurately describe such an afternoon. And true, best spent on a quiet lake.

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