Before summer and after summer, sometimes as late as October, I would jump into the Atlantic off Crane Beach, a by-then deserted stretch of sand, dunes, shrubland, 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 a few months earlier, during a winter storm, 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 swims, like across the Bering Straits. Before I walk into the water, I remember swimming from years past, pushing past present fears, and deciding 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 dormant life's brown to a white fabric against the blue sky.
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 thought I was gone too. 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 repeatedly - I am watching my brother drown.
My yearly camping trips to Maine with my four friends leave me 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 would reveal a different landscape, always disappointed by the sameness. Where are those intense autumn days of blanketing blue skies and warm yellow sun? We might see the sun briefly 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 flipped over, I would 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 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 repeatedly. I would swim out of sight in high surf, prepare to save my brother, and not wait helplessly for the sea to spit him back.
We're not 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. Camping is how we remove ourselves from our worlds. This is how we get together and pretend 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 the present.
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 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 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 at my computer desk, my lone cup would remind me how much we give.
Our first day's hike looped 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 distance, 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.
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, struggling to stay atop fallen dead trees, and somewhat angry with myself for choosing this hard road again 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 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, accessible, and protecting her calf.
After the moose ambled into the woods, we followed this logging road until Dan made us stop. He was hungry, found a rock to sit on, and said this is where we eat. His decision was arbitrary but no more than many of our choices. 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. Then, something I 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 away. 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.