20 years on

**I occasionally use this space to write about stuff that isn’t cricket, feel free to ignore.**


20 years ago next month. October 1999. Upper Michigan.

The Becker cottages. Two miles down Dukes Road from the tiny village of Moran, an hour north of the bridge. Down a narrow lane with forest on the right and cabins and lake on the left. Two cottages halfway down the lane. A red garage abutting the road. The cottages blue and near the lake. Small. Three rooms and a porch each, mirroring each other. A rocky shoreline leftover from a concrete boardwalk that existed when logging money made the lake a destination. All that money left in the 60s. Now it’s fishermen and middle class families and a choppy lake.

We were up there to hunt. My brother, my two uncles, and my older uncle’s two sons. We would walk through the woods for hours with cans of beer and loaded shotguns and look for birds with the dogs. Never seeing a single one. All the shooting we would do would be at our empty beer cans. I had been coming up to the cottages since I was tiny. But those trips were always during high summer. The lake warm and hot dogs over an open fire and mosquitos like clouds of smoke and s’mores and falling asleep with the windows open, the sound of the waves hitting the rocks lulling you to sleep.

But October was different. The sky was heavy with gray cloud, reflecting in the lake, taking away its blue, leaving it brown and dark. It would rain and the winds would whip  straight through you. Your hands raw on your gun. Thankful for your long underwear. The cabins warmed at night with space heaters and wool blankets.

The third afternoon it was too wet too hunt. It had rained all night with more in the forecast. And the wind was heavy out of the north. We would hang around the cottages with beer instead. And later head into town for more beer and to watch baseball and have dinner. It sounded, to me, far better than spending the afternoon with damp feet in the damp woods.

My older uncle had purchased kayaks earlier that fall. And on a whim my younger cousin and my younger uncle took them out of the garage and out onto the the lake. The shallows calm despite the wind. Whitecaps out past the drop off. They went out 50 yards. Then 100. My older uncle was worried. Out on the lake nearing the drop off in upper Michigan in October. The lake would be frozen over in a few short weeks. Rolling one of those kayaks would mean disaster. The cold lake would suck the life right out of you. But cockiness ruled the day. “We’re going to the dam, meet us there,” my cousin yelled to us back on the shoreline.

We got in a car and took it up the lane to the overgrown two track that weaved and bobbed through to the dam on the far side of the lake. It was a 30 minute drive. Potholed and mud stained. Watching for trappers coming out of the woods. We pulled up to the dam at the mouth of the Carp River where it emptied into the lake. It was flat and empty and there were cold damp fire pits and ancient beer cans. We walked to the edge overlooking the lake and there were my cousin and uncle, paddling up through the quiet waters in the shelter of the bay. We met them on the shoreline.

My younger cousin and my older cousin’s lifelong rivalry inspired my older cousin to want to kayak back from the dam to the cottages, despite my older uncle’s protests. And I was drafted to go a long with him. My brother couldn’t believe it. I never did anything like that. I always took the safe route. But there I was, in a kayak, my older cousin to my left, on the lake in October under a gray sky.

We go out into the lake and the wind picked up and with it came the chop. I had never been in a kayak before. The wind and the current pushed us off course, causing us to constantly re-correct, slowing us down. It was hard work. We were in the middle of the lake. Shore was 100s of yards off. Fighting the wind and the current, those two ancient enemies. The water was cold. In the spray from my cousin’s paddle I could feel just how cold it was. Fear crept in. We were working too hard. It was too difficult to stay on course. I didn’t have a life vest on. I wondered if I could swim to shore if I rolled the kayak. Or if I would freeze to death before reaching safety. My life felt on the edge. My hands were raw with cold and fear, numb against the paddle, catching crabs in the waves, slowing me down.

Home was still so far off. I thought about suggesting to my cousin that we head to the closest shore, to our right, thick with birch and pine, and find our way home via land. But I kept my mouth shut. My cousin was older and braver and would never let his younger brother best him at anything. He kept checking his watch, hoping we would beat their time across. I kept quiet. Kept paddling.

Then the cottages with their familiar sky blue paint, became visible. Two dots in the distance. We paddled toward them. The current becoming friendlier. It was going to be okay. And I thought to myself: what a thing I have done. What an accomplishment. I paddled across a freezing lake in upper Michigan in October. Effort and danger and overcoming. Things are going to be different for me now, I thought. I am going to be better. Everything is going to be better. I am going to figure it all out. I was a college drop out living in a filthy studio apartment overlooking an interstate and answering phones at a financial firm to pay the bills and buy beer. But now, things were going to be different. I had proven to myself that I could do better than I had.

We passed the drop off and moved into calmer waters. At a sandbar you could see the lakebed. My cousin hit the shore first, pulling his kayak up the narrow rocky boat landing in front of the cottages. He jumped out and grabbed the nose of my kayak and pulled me onto shore. My legs were aching. I couldn’t stand up. He hoisted me up and out of the boat by the armpits. He shook my hand. We were buoyant. We had done it. Beaten the wild. Things were going to be different.

Two weeks later I went to a Halloween party in uptown Minneapolis that I wasn’t supposed to go to. I was in line for the bathroom. A woman came out with a blue wig and leather pants and a mesh shirt. “Did you wash your hands?” I asked. Later she would give me her phone number written in marker on a hair ribbon. Our first date would be two days later.

And then things did get better. Things were different. It was years before I linked the two events. The kayak, the Halloween party. But I had been right. I had paddled across a lake and then met someone who made it better, less lonely, easier. It took me years to realize it because that’s how life changes. Slowly. Over time. Like a river eroding away its banks. It wasn’t a lightning bolt of change and better, which is what I was looking for, it was quieting down, realizing what’s important, finding joy in the small things. So often we mistakenly give ourselves all the credit for the changes in our lives, but more often than not it’s not us, it’s the kindness of those around us. That’s what that kayak across that lake gave me: someone who was kind to me. I had proven something to myself, and given myself the confidence to talk to the pretty girl in the blue wig at the party and allow her to make it all better.

Years later I would be back in a kayak on the same lake. But it would be high summer, and the kayaks the open kind for kids on beaches. My wife and I would take them out just past the drop off and play in the waves, our old dog watching impatiently from the shore. The sun warm. The water warm. The sky blue forever. Life can change so quickly. You meet someone and the world starts to spin in a different way. But somehow you don’t even notice. Even though you had just kayaked across a lake in October in upper Michigan and told yourself things were going to be different. We don’t see the change. We don’t see the good. We don’t link the kayak to the Halloween party until it’s far, far too late.

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