Before summer and after summer, sometimes as late as October, I would
jump into the Atlantic off Cranes' Beach, a by-then deserted stretch of
sand, dunes, shrub land, and deer on the Massachusetts coast. I was twenty-two.
That's probably when it started for me, this obsession with cold water
swimming. Or maybe it was a few months earlier, during a winter storm,
when my younger brother, Peter, was pulled from the rocks off Halibut
Point into the sea. Then I didn't have time to remove my clothes and pile
them neatly on the sand.
Summers these days, I take ice cold showers, and in the fall, preparing
for our annual camping trip, I take cold baths and read about some heroic
swim, like across the Bering Straits. Before I walk into the water I remember
swims from years past, I push away present fears and I decide not to feel
the intense cold. Does all that help? Maybe not as much as body fat. Last
year, ten pounds heavier, I swam like a polar bear. I remember my oldest
friend Dan's incredulous looks, as I followed him from the water as he
moved about the campsite. This year, I shivered uncontrollably.
We always go in the water, just as the five of us always go to Maine when
the color is muted or gone, the hunters have arrived, and the sky is overcast.
Our one exception was the Allagash trip when snow covered our campsite,
changing the brown of dormant life to a fabric of white against the blue
I plunged in after my brother, off the same slippery boulder that tore
the skin from his fingertips. As soon as I went under I knew I couldn't
save his life; I wasn't sure I could save mine. Peter and I had grown
up excellent swimmers, but in Indiana. We had a deep backyard that bled
into a lake, one we skated on in the winter. We were accustomed to warm,
still water, not cold, crashing waves. Fighting those waves, I pulled
myself back onto the rocks, but Peter was farther out. I shouted and I
waved, trying to direct him, trying to help him. But he heard nothing;
he was in control of nothing. As was I. I sat numbly watching, my voice
gone, thinking over and over - I am watching my brother drown.
My yearly camping trips to Maine with my four friends leave me feeling
vulnerable and out of control. From that first canoe trip paddling endless
miles of flat black water winding through colorless woods, always hoping
the next bend in the river will reveal a different landscape, always disappointed
by the sameness. Where are those intense autumn days of blanketing blue
skies and warming yellow sun? We might see the sun for brief moments or
just as we are packing to head home, but mostly (or so it seems) gray
skies, low confining clouds.
Only last year, on our Lobster Pond trip, was I able to accept that if
our canoes flips over, I will be as helpless as I was at Halibut Point.
Eventually the ocean tossed my brother back into a shallow space between
two boulders, perhaps the only safe place, where I could reach down and
grab his shoulder. My grip, though, was as weak as his glassy stare was
frightening. He couldn't move and I couldn't move him.
When I was fifty I swam Walden Pond as if I were mowing my backyard in
Indiana. Back and forth and around the edges, I swam for over two hours.
After Halibut Point I swam miles in indoor pools, and when in the ocean
I'd test my limits over and over. I would swim out of sight, I'd swim
in high surf; I would prepare to save my brother, not wait helplessly
for the sea to spit him back.
We're not real outdoors guys. We're workaholics who spend a few days in
the woods together every fall asking ourselves why we're wherever it is
we are. This is how we remove ourselves from our worlds. This is how we
get together and pretend that we are not mere workers, bringing honey
back to someone else's hive. For me the memories of our trips, the stories
we tell, have an enthusiasm and embellishment far beyond the experience.
My brother remembers tumbling under the waves, eyes open, hope gone. Only
seventeen and already contemplating the beyond. My memory - helplessness.
Now, as I canoe with friends, I feel the same. I see the past and I fear
This year’s camping trip was different; this year we flew. We landed
within feet of our cabin, amidst the pallet of a New England fall at its
peak. In full sun I felt a complete sense of peace. With the door of our
modest cabin open, one could walk to the dock, float across the still,
clear water and into the luminous clouds hovering over the mountain that
sloped to the water's edge. Our float plane offered its own colorful silhouette.
Bright white with red and blue trim, easily moved by paddle from its landing
to the dock, where it birthed smiling faces.
The cabin sits on Henderson Pond, not far from Mt Katahdin . We slept
late, took day trips, and were warmed by each other as much as the three-panel
heater. We painted our own vistas, stories read from the cabin's log and
life's stories told to one another from our hearts. The inevitable whiteout
stormy day was not spent standing under a tarp lashing unfaithful corners,
but inside following each other's landscapes. We provided for one another,
as we always do. The earliest riser, I made coffee for all; back at work,
my lone cup would remind me how much we give.
Our first day's hike was along a groomed trail with easily approachable
overlooks. Dan, worried about our distance from home, and the approaching
darkness, but compared to years past we were as safe as at Symphony Hall,
except this philharmonic display was free and we could drink Scotch before
intermission. We walked the entire loop, from level ground, up hills,
down to still water shallow ponds and back up again. Granite ledges with
sheer drops to the trees below.
"We're walking on the tops of the tops of trees that
have just been topped," observed Adam. Because we couldn't accept
trails, we followed a familiar ritual , trying to plow through the nearly
impenetrable. We were working our way through the woods to a logging road,
then to the backside of Cooper Mountain hoping for a view of the surrounding
lakes. Now, as usual, we were off the trail, and following Adam's skillful
reading of our topographical map.
What was perplexing was the deep layer of pine branches Adam described,
that forced one to walk on and fall through, slowing our progress to a
crawl and a stumble. So to be semi-lost and struggling to stay atop fallen
dead trees and somewhat angry with myself for again choosing this hard
road, is a recurrent dream, not a nightmare. Legs wrapped by tree branches,
but with that half smile of recognition, I know we will do this again.
It doesn't take us long, just a detour from our plotted direction, to
get to the logging road where we will hush each other as we come upon
a moose and her calf. Years ago we would see only moose tracks, thousands
of them and usually in bogs, where we could stop our canoe and venture
forth looking for the owners. Most often we would come back frustrated
and wet from our fight with the undergrowth, the same land these overgrown
cows wander with hardly a sound. Lately, despite the advent of moose hunting,
we have been much luckier.
Here we were creeping ever closer for a suitable picture, tentative that
the protective mother might charge. Not only did she not charge, she,
all nine hundred pounds of her, would not move. For years we prayed for
this - twenty feet from moose – and here she was, oblivious, free
and protecting her calf.
After the moose ambled into the woods, we followed this logging road until
Dan made us stop. He was hungry, he found a rock to sit on, and he said
this is where we eat. His decision was arbitrary, but no more than many
of our decisions. Mark, the newest member of the group, ate with his boots
off, feet still in protective plastic bags. Dan and Adam prepared lunch,
and I wandered back down the road unable to give up the search for that
view. This is somethingI always do, I always wander. We can be in the
thickest woods, exhausted, and as soon as we all stop to prepare our meal,
I'll pace a bit and then wander off. Always.
We knew by the map there was a lake nearby, and I was determined to find
it. I thought about the effortless view from our cabin, our laughter as
we sat around the table, and how I had walked away from friends serving
a hot lunch to climb a tree.
That night, after dinner, Adam read to the three of us as we lay under
our sleeping bags. Most of the stories from the cabin’s log were
about fish and the trawler-loads everyone caught. Each successive entry
outdid the previous with stories not confined to the book, but like a
fly fisherman's cast, written on the front door (both sides), the wood
trim around it and onto the wooden bed frames. Adam read as the rain tapped
against the windows, the heater glowed a golden color, long after we had
all fallen asleep.
If I had dreamed that night, it would have been of a man with a clear
voice, whose words could be heard. A man who could see gray skies and
not turbulent seas. A man who could accept the gift of friendship without
retreating from the threat of loss. He wouldn't wander away from a hot
meal or a companion in a tent. He wouldn't sleep far from the campsite,
alone, blanketed by the stars and the cold north wind. He would see the
gifts he gives others and those given to him. This man would walk on the
tops of pine branches and know he was walking on Christmas trees.