I did not factor the seasons into my arrival back at the lake this evening.
It's heading toward winter, which means that it is getting dark at night, something I haven't had to deal with yet traveling back and forth across, the lake. The legendary Alaskan summer days are indeed endless, and I have gotten lazy with my planning.
I am not new to Alaska, but I am new here at the lake, new to open water and boats in general. I am, at best, a timid passenger trying to muster courage and be useful, despite being a strong swimmer. At 41, I am just now learning to drive a boat for the first time.
My partner, a very patient and willing instructor, has done a good job preparing me. He works through both my technical skills and my fears. Of the two, my fears are by far the bigger job.
He taught me to drive a skiff that has an outboard motor and is full of quirks and things to remember. She likes things just a certain way this sweet, old girl. Choke and throttle just so, motor up in shallow water, fuel tank open, a few squeezes of fuel to wake her up.
I am, by my very nature, fearful. There are days I am embarrassed about just how many things frighten me. Usually I can plow through, but some days they give me a real run for my money. Some disagree with this description of me because of the things I do. Perhaps I hide it well.
In actuality, I'm scared of all sorts of the most ridiculous things, especially tonight: sea monsters, frogs, open water, sea monsters, weeds in the water, swamps, bogs, things that jump, things that make me jump, the dark...sea monsters. Mostly things that don’t exist or aren’t inherently harmful. Those who know me well, know this about me and love me in spite of it, or for it, I’m not sure which.
So on this evening after a meeting and some shopping, I realize as I sit in traffic waiting for an accident to be cleared that I am going to have to drive the skiff across the lake in the dark. As I sit in the dark, I realize it is not just dark. It is the pitch-black, cloudy, rainy, first-dark-of-the-season dark that my eyes have not yet adjusted to.
I consider driving to the house up north, but my husky is inside at the lake house alone, and I can't leave him there without risking his curious and quick mind figuring out how to open the freezers and pantry doors, full of meat and fish from this season.
I try to think of any other way out of this. No dice. I have to go to the lake. I have to figure this out alone. I need to figure out alone.
When I had left the boat earlier in the day, I had parked it in the bushes and trees in a shallow grassy area to be out of the way. It was lovely during the afternoon, but as night fell, the trees and bushes woke up and invited the underworld to play.
How much I wish I had taken the time to move boats and park closer. I have groceries with me, which means several trips over the small, uneven, and now- creepy trail, back and forth from car to skiff.
I park, hold my breath, and force myself to unload just what is perishable, leaving the rest for the morning. The channel that usually feels warm and homey now feels sinister and dangerous. What if something or someone is waiting to jump out and get me?
I put on my extra-bright headlamp, gather my bags and walk the short distance to the boat. It feels like an incredibly long, treacherous trail in clogs, not exactly my footwear of choice when I need to feel fearless.
I push aside the branches and leaves grabbing at my arms and legs and untie the boat in the slowest panic I've ever felt. My entire body is rigid. Breathing is non-existent as my mind is running around everywhere sounding alarms. Every sound makes me jump and every jump moves the boat, feeding the panic like gas feeds a fire.
As I push off, my headlamp points straight down to the lake bottom. I freeze. Murky rocks, slimy weeds, an old tire, pieces of rotting wood, and other unidentifiable objects litter the lake floor. Clearly this is the breeding ground of sea monsters. They are here and they know I am terrified of them.
Some part of me pushes off the shore and paddles out to a point where I can lean over the menacing water and let down the motor. Mysteriously, my mind remembers to open the fuel tank release, squeeze the bulb to prime the engine, put the choke just so, and gently start the engine at just the right idle.
As terrified as I am, I know that I want her to start right away, so I arrange things just as she likes them. Just so. A turn of the key to the left and her gentle purr rings in my ears. I am at once relieved and turn the boat around to head toward the house.
It is at this moment I realize how dark a lake can be at night. The headlamp isn't any help, except for illuminating the water and creating frightening and eerie patterns that are clearly sea monsters. I turn it off.
I know the buoy that marks the shallow spot wasn't there this morning, so I have to stay close to shore, but not close enough to hit anything or irritate anyone. It also means I have to be that much closer to the shallow, grassy weeds I fear so much. I decide I will apologize for being too close to shore if it comes up tomorrow.
There are a few faint lights, but they are blurry and hard to see. I mixed up my contacts this morning and put them in the wrong eyes, which creates a fuzzy halo effect that isn't helping me navigate the night. I have a moment of complete panic.
Every fear I have is in this boat with me.
It is dark. I am on the open water. It is night. The predatory fish that I believe live in this lake will devour me. I am sure that at any moment, a huge sea monster is going to fly up out of the water, wrap around my neck and yank me under the black water. Yes, I am a 41-year-old woman having a terrifyingly vivid, 5-year-old-girl sea monster nightmare. My primal mind is in full control, and it is running wild.
All at once, something inside me stops and is quiet.
This is nonsense. This is just my cavegirl mind spinning the tale of a wildly dangerous and heroic journey across a monster-infested lake, where I am in danger of death at every moment.
I take humbling stock of the situation. What is really happening? Really?
All I'm doing is driving the skiff at night. That's it.
In fact, I am driving the same skiff across the same lake that I have driven many times. It's just dark. The only thing that has changed is the light saturation...and my mind.
I take a deep breath and relax into reality. I just drive the boat, and I am peaceful. Just like that. I know exactly where I am. I know where I need to go. I'm not far from home; this is only an eight-minute trip.
I realize that the neighbor's light was left on serving as a beacon, or gift from heaven, depending on your leaning. It is the most beautiful light I have seen in a long time.
Soon, the dock of the house appears and I clumsily land the boat. I am exhausted, weary from adrenaline and fighting against my wild imagination.
If I am willing to drop my story, I can drop my suffering.
It isn't until I recount my tale to my ever patient but concerned partner that I comprehend how wild my primal mind had gone into stories of monster fish with giant teeth, predatory grasses, and violent sea monsters.
He's concerned that he hadn't been out with me at night to help me understand the pattern of lights and show me how to navigate the boat the dark. He worried about me running into a dock and hurting myself, or getting stranded with a dead motor. He was concerned about … reality.
I flippantly scoff at such ridiculous notions.
Driving the boat wasn't scary. It was all of the things that could jump out and eat me that were scary.
I hung up the phone and laughed at myself, a grown woman who wasn't afraid, or even particularly concerned, about the real dangers of the situation, but terrified by the stories my mind had woven.
Facts and circumstance I cannot change. It is fall and it’s dark at night. But the stories my mind weaves, I can. They're just thoughts.
I can drop my beliefs, my stories, my melodrama, my primal fears, and just do what reality asks me to do. It is a less exciting story, but a lot more peaceful.
That night I could have just followed what needed to happen. Driven the boat home at night, in the dark, which is all that did really happen. There was nothing heroic about it. I could have provided warm shelter for myself from a night of fear and terror had I simply not believed my thoughts.
When I'm willing to drop my wild story, I can drop my suffering.
Next time; I'll see if I can just drive the boat.
I hope you'll join me.