Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Stormy Lake Adventure

I have an urgent need to tell you my Fourth of July weekend outdoor experience, my small-scale "hero story." Now this episode was not bold, instead mildly stupidly reckless, and yet a fine little adventure with some lasting satisfaction.

Sunday afternoon I felt a strong pull to take my little inflatable Sea Eagle kayak out for a paddle on nearby Jordan Lake. It had been too long, and the sun was shining. Never mind that thunderstorms were predicted.

Once out on the lake, I could see that there was a dark smudge along the treeline on the horizon, but it was only about a foot wide. Intellectually I know that things get larger as they get closer, but I was still sure that with my lightning paddling speed, I'd be able to dodge it. The lake is huge and many-armed; I'd just avoid the weather, if it even traveled in my direction.

I had a particular and exciting goal in mind, finding the mouth of a creek that I regularly drive across a few miles away on my way to work and back. I had a pretty good idea where it would enter the lake.

Well, I'd paddled hard for over an hour, found a beautiful little cove I'd never seen, scared seven great blue herons out of the trees there, cruised along at the edge of a tall thicket of water grass, and still not found the creek mouth, when the rain began to fall. And, in instant, the thunder and lightning were cracking overhead.

I wasn't going to dodge the weather after all, and I was a very long way from anything but heavily forested shore with bits of exposed sand at the edge here and there. Plus, I was using a metal paddle, in the state with the highest number of lightning deaths per year (or so I'm told.)

So I took the paddle apart and used only the plastic blades, one in each hand, and slowly scoop-scooped my way to one of those little strips of sand, just in time. Five seconds after I pulled up onto this sliver of beach, huge wind whipped up and flipped the boat over as a big pelting rain started, and suddenly the lake was all grey surf. The waves were big enough to break and roll, to force water several feet up the strand and under my feet where quickly I'd positioned myself, lying beneath my overturned my boat, holding it down against the force of the wind.

Within moments, I felt cozy under there, a little warmish cave, with hard rain beating down on airfilled compartments overhead and on the sand on either side of me. The sound was like that of a tin roof in a storm, but all within a foot of my face. I could see out from under the edge of the boat and watch the long waves break into white against dark sky.

I'm accustomed to water. I grew up at the beach, living in Wilmington and spending much of my time at Wrightsville, and I continued going along on some surf fishing and deep sea expeditions in my early twenties. And my eldest nephew tried to teach me to surf fairly recently. But it had been thirty years at least since I was so surrounded by the raw edge of the elements. And this time alone, and definitely not in a charter boat.

As soon as I got under the shelter of my dear little boat I found I was immediately deep in trance. I was comfortable in spite of being drenched, and lying half across a broken branch and having one shoulder hanging out in the rain and dealing with some aggressive ants. For most of the hour and a quarter I was under there, I had little sense of the passage of time. I had a feeling of gratitude, for both the shelter and the nature drama, that was almost tangible, like a shawl of warmer air.

I wasn't really worried. The worst likely to happen was that the storm wouldn't let up until late night, and a small embarrassing search for me would begin. Husband Bob wasn't likely to be worried prematurely though; he's not a worrier and has also decided I'm invincible. I hope never to dissuade him.

I didn't want to be rescued, but I did wonder briefly where the bullhorns were. Once, out on this same lake on a sunny afternoon, I was floating in what was essentially a toy boat, an $11 blow-up vessel with plastic paddles that I got at Best Buy. I probably looked pretty ridiculous because the paddles were tiny and the boat not much bigger than an innertube; my legs were stuck up in the air. A huge cruiser chugged up close by, with enough waves to swamp me. From up on the bridge of the boat, a man in some kind of government park service uniform called: "Ma'am, are you all right?" I was just fine. It was a gorgeous day. There was no threat in sight. But on the day when a storm hits and lifts my 30 pound kayak into the air, I saw no crisply nautically uniformed man cruising up alongside. No doubt, he has the sense to stay in on such afternoons.

The rain quit once for about five minutes, then started again, quiet and steady. The thunder gradually became a little more distant. The surf died down. I crept out. I regathered my metal belongings from where I'd tossed them: glasses, earrings, the pole of the double paddle.

I set out on the water again, again using only the blades, one in each hand, one on either side of the boat, to paddle. There was still too much thunder and lightning nearby for me to want to be flashing a metal rod over my head. I don't know that any of my safeguards actually make any difference--I'm going to learn about that before my next storm chase--but I was doing what I could.

It was one damn long dog-paddle before I could even see the paved ramp where I'd left my car. And by the time I got there it was too dark wearing my prescription sunglasses to see anything at all. But the water was deliciously warm, and I found myself talking to it, every few times I dug a blade in, almost as if it were a pet: "nice warm water, such nice water." It felt as delicious as the shawl of air. Good thing: because if I paused in my paddling for a second, I slid backwards fast. The wind was not going my way.

By the time I made it back to the put-in ramp and was onshore deflating The Boat, packing it in the trunk of my car, I was shivering all over, ready for towels and a hot shower and more towels. And I was enjoying a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, in spite of the basic dumbness of the escapade.

This morning, the day after my adventure, I drove across one of the lake bridges coming into town and thought: "My lake." I felt as if we'd spent a night together, this body of water and I. And we very nearly did.

I'd spent afternoons on or beside this lake before, but never so memorably, or to such effect. This trip melted me into the place, and brought back another location where I'd been so connected before.

When I was a kid, I had this kind of lying-in-the-wet-dirt intimacy with my whole neighborhood on Mimosa Place, knew how the grass grew under the drip line of the Lynch's roof, and could draw precise maps of the major branches of a lot of the trees. It's been a long time since I've had that cell-to-cell connection, even though I'm a gardener and love the plot I raggedly cultivate.

I'm glad to rediscover that deep earth-to-human infrastructure, to remember it exists. When it's active it feels like a combo of raw storm energy and puppy affection, born of nothing but intense prolonged close-up attention to the place and dependence on knowing those details. I didn't know I'd missed that feeling. A funny thing to rediscover on an Independence Day weekend.

What I did know, while I was out there, was that I was going to relish telling this story.

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mamie said...

Wonderful story. I love the way you adapted to every challenge and turned it all into a water bonding experience. My favorite line is, "What I did know, while I was out there, was that I was going to relish telling this story." And although you say it was not bold, I see boldness in everything you did.

billie said...

Wow, Peggy - what a wonderful experience! Thank you for sharing it with such relish - it really has made my day.

Peggy Payne said...

Thank you, Billie and Mamie. Ignoring storm warnings isn't the kind of boldness I favor, that I would suggest to anyone. But I did have a fine time, in the paddling and the writing.

Christina said...

Peggy, I loved this tale of adventure & msrveled at your presence of mind in casting off all things metal and sheltering under your kayak. Great stuff!

Peggy Payne said...

Glad you liked it, Christina. My husband has since told me that the paddle might not have been an electric conductor; must check on that before I undertake any more miles of boat-swimming.

Debra W said...


You live boldly! Very boldly, indeed! I admire your strength, my friend.

Glad that you shared this wonderful story with us!